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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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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