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What sportsmen with Messiah complexes can learn from Iniesta’s espresso run

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

The ability to get what he wants with unerring consistency is the hallmark of a great sportsman. And yet believing that you always get what you want is the mark of an immature human being. That tension faces every professional sportsman. Life tugs in two opposite directions: your day job demands honing the delusion of total control. Grown-up “civilian” life depends on accommodating and often subordinating your own wishes to the needs of people around you. So the well-adjusted elite sportsman must nurture both a child and an adult, each growing apart from the other, within one personality. It’s hard – which is why many sportsmen just don’t bother. They settle for the child.

Sportsmen turn wish-fulfilment into a profession. This serve is 100 per cent certain to be an ace. I am hitting the next ball for six. This putt is heading straight into the back of the cup. No what-ifs, no doubts: it will happen, it has to happen, simply because I have decided that it will. From visualisation to instant gratification: that is the journey they seek to master. Within the narrow domain of sport, there is nothing wrong with honing this attitude. The problem comes when it bleeds over the boundary rope.

This point is usually completely ignored. Instead, it is assumed that the sporting mindset, far from being essentially childish and regressive, is ideally adapted to grownup living. That is the foundation of the motivational books and speeches that put millions of dollars in Lance Armstrong’s pockets. If only we could all be a bit more like champions, then everything would be fine.

The willpower delusion is not always founded on fraud; naivety can be enough. When he was a footballer, Kevin Keegan explained his interest in going into politics. “All that power they’ve got,” he exclaimed (I’m paraphrasing slightly). “Politicians . . . businessmen . . . If only we could do something positive with it!” It was as though the economy could be turned around by a charging run into the penalty box, political life reformed by some good marking at a corner.

We should remember these illogical leaps when considering sport’s alleged crisis. Sport, we hear, is in moral collapse, its icons in disgrace. First came the fall of Tiger Woods, whose father wanted him to be the new Gandhi. Then followed Lance Armstrong, who was doped to the gills while lecturing us to beat cancer through iron willpower. And now Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee and Paralympic medallist, faces charges of premeditated murder.

These three stories, apparently, have shaken our collective faith in sport. Not mine. Perhaps I was just lucky. I was never drawn to any of them in the first place. The demise is long overdue: the delusion that being good at sport makes you good at life, the fantasy that someone who overcomes incredibly long odds in sport is necessarily an honourable and inspirational human being.

Pistorius’s defenders have deepened the error by arguing that his firing four bullets into his beautiful girlfriend should be seen within the broader context of his achievements as a role model. What is this small matter, the implication follows, compared with overcoming disability?

They also object to the scrutiny of Pistorius’s behaviour inside sport. The South African reacted furiously to losing the 200m (T44 category) Paralympic final, accusing the winner, the Brazilian Alan Oliveira, of gaining an unfair advantage. Pistorius alleged that his rival’s long prosthetic blades afforded him an improperly extended stride pattern. Unfortunately, his own argument invalidated the case Pistorius has used to pursue acceptance in able-bodied competition: that he gains no advantage in terms of stride pattern.

Pistorius wasn’t even correct about his facts. Oliveira took 98 steps (2m per stride) compared to Pistorius’s 92. In fact, Oliveira was simply outdoing Pistorius at his own game – the lightness of his blades allowed him to take more frequent strides than any able-bodied sprinter could ever achieve.

That Pistorius is a bad loser with a deep sense of entitlement does not make him a murderer. Nor is he incriminated by being an angry man who loves guns. But the fall of Saint Oscar? You must be joking.

The sportsmen I most admire belong to a very different tradition from Woods, Armstrong and Pistorius. They resist the Messiah- complex that so often afflicts spectacularly good sportsmen.

I am thinking of athletes such as Roger Federer, Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta, and the former Indian batsmen Rahul Dravid. If you think my list is skewed towards elegant sophisticates, add Paul Scholes, whose understated brilliance for Manchester United was rarely accompanied by delusions of grandeur.

All of them, I suspect, are able to distinguish sport from life, to retain a measure of normality alongside exceptional talent. A stranger in a Barcelona café once mistook the unassuming Iniesta for a waiter. Far from being affronted, the midfielder took the order and returned from the kitchen with an espresso.

When I played cricket with Dravid, his most striking gift was combining deep cricketing confidence alongside genuine humility in other areas of life. The same applies to Federer. He has noticed, not surprisingly, that he is unusually good at tennis. He has also noticed that tennis is not the same thing as life. He believes he is normal in most areas of life, while being very special in a very few areas. These sportsmen protect an island of specialness within a sea of normality.

So does sport really build character, as the old cliché holds? Not if you believe that the self-certainty and sense of destiny that you take onto the pitch translates perfectly into life. I want, I get; I want, I get; over and over; more and more.

That is only good training for life if the role you aspire to is that of a perpetually enraged three-year-old.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.