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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.