2012 in review: The New Statesman . . . on sport

From the Olympics to facing Shane Warne, the best NS reporting on all things sportive.

Welcome to the second instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up of foreign reporting, is here.)

Today we're looking back at incredible year for sport, dominated by the highs of the London Olympics - but also host to the low of Lance Armstrong's disgrace. Here are a selection of the best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

What it's like to face Shane Warne

This year, cricketer-turned-author Ed Smith joined the NS as a columnist, writing the weekly "Left Field" page at the back of the magazine. Ed brought a unique perspective to top-level sport, having played for England himself. Here, he writes about what it is like to play against Shane Warne:

Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket. Sport was the medium but the substance was drama. He turned cricket into a show and appointed himself the leading man. It went deeper: he projected an aura of certainty that he was also writing the scripts. He united three forms of psychological dominance: one part circus master, one part chess wizard, one part Hollywood star. That left you, the batsman, to choose between being a clown, a pawn or a walk-on part. Many – most – acquiesced.

The Olympics changed what it means to be a winner

As the Olympic afterglow receded, as many wondered if the Olympics had given us a new way of looking at Britishness, Ed Smith argued that they had also given us a new template for being a winner:

These Games have shown how the image of “a sporting champion” has changed. Twenty-five years ago, in line with the worst strands of Thatcherism, the image of being a winner was aggressive individualism. It was assumed that John McEnroe-style outbursts would become the norm, because “nice guys finish last”. Not so long ago, a leading sportswriter chastised Colin Jackson for congratulating his friend and rival Mark McCoy for winning a gold medal.

That is absurd. These Games have proved that sportsmen do not gain any competitive advantage by losing their dignity or forgetting their friendships. Usain Bolt talks about Yohan Blake, his fellow Jamaican who won a silver medal behind Bolt in the 100 metres, like a younger brother, thanking him for pushing him hard. Farah was thrilled that his training partner, the American Galen Rupp, won silver. As we have learned from the rivalry of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the greatest rivalries are underpinned by respect.

Plus, Ralph Steadman drew us this cartoon of Danny Boyle:

Roger Federer: Why must our sporting idols be nice?

Not everyone was on board with the new collaborative spirit. In a piece which angered a thousands fanboys, Cameron Sharpe asked whether putting Federer on a pedestal was constraining him.

Closer to home, the freedom afforded football figures like Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez after being written off as morally bankrupt at various stages of their careers, has actually been beneficial. After all, it is hard enough being a world class sportsman without having to be everyone’s favourite personality too.

Lance Armstrong's fall from grace

After many years of denials, Lance Armstrong this year gave up trying to contest doping charges against him. The Secret Race, by Tyler Hamilton (reviewed here by Gary Imlach) may have helped changed his mind. As Imlach writes, the fellow cyclist recounts:

... a cloak-and-dagger, syringe-and-cellphone existence. Coded text messages lead to hotel room appointments for blood transfusions. Drugs are handed out to favoured riders on the US Postal Service team in paper lunch bags. Soy milk cartons in the fridge hide blood bags. Armstrong’s handyman allegedly follows the Tour de France by motorbike, delivering the blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO) on demand.

Hunter Davies: My TV is possessed by silly possession stats

Davies writes "The Fan", a backpages column devoted to the joys and tribulations of following football. In one of his funniest columns of the year, he fixes his telly - only to find he can now see the possession statistics - the most useless of all sporting numbers.

England 90 per cent possession, San Marino 10 per cent – yet the half time score is 0-0. How can that be, if England have dominated? Because they are useless bastards. Our tortoise could lead the line better. (I have just made that stat up. As I write, that game hasn’t happened, but I bet it will be roughly that.)

Football's dark side

First mention here must go to Simon Kuper, the FT's sportswriter, who reviewed Raymond Domenech's memoir. He found the former French manager unusually indiscreet:

His bizarre new memoir, Tout seul (“all alone”), is his attempt to explain how things got so bad. It’s unlike any other football memoir, often unintentionally hilarious and filled with character assassinations of almost every major French player of his era, from Anelka to Zinedine Zidane.

Domenech claims he could only have written it with two years’ distance; one hardly dares imagine what he would have written in the heat of the moment. It’s a story of modern France and modern football. Above all, it works as a business book in reverse: a study in how not to manage people.

Here on the website, NS blogger Juliet Jacques looked at another largely unspoken issue in football: depression. Her interview with Darren Eadie was insightful and poignant:

“I’m not looking for sympathy, but there’s this media-led perception that footballers are all egotistical meatheads,” says Eadie. “There are some bad eggs, but we’re mostly down to earth people who care about our families.” He hopes that the retreat, which will allow people to keep “one foot in football, and one outside” will help loved ones to cope as much as the players themselves – and that it can be the start of a significant cultural change.

Finally, here is football approached from two other unusual angles: a contemplation of the impact Jewish players have had on the game and a blog on the rise and fall of the great British football comic

The Olympics. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.