Ghareeb Alisper, 25, sits in the room he shares with over 10 other Syrian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon. Alispre fled the city of Homs with his family two months ago and desperately wants a wheelchair but his family is unable to afford one. Photo: Getty.
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Lebanon: the country that can't keep out of Syria's war

As the conflict drags on in Syria the tensions are felt strongly in Lebanon, which is hosting almost one million refugees.

Lebanon’s 70th-birthday celebrations on 22 November were overshadowed by fears that national unity and sovereignty were cracking under pressure. This small country is not only feeling the strain of the influx of Syrian refugees – the fastest-growing refugee population in the world, soon to be the largest. It is also being dragged into regional and sectarian tensions that are increasingly played out on its soil, as testified by the twin explosions carried out by al-Qaeda-affiliated suicide bombers against the Iranian embassy in Beirut three days before Independence Day.

There are almost a million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon. Many others are not registered, and with 3,000 new refugees entering the country daily, unofficial estimates indicate that there will be two million by next year. Lebanon has a population of just over four million, so the strain on its economy, schools and health services is immense.

Lebanese internal conflict over Syria falls along the lines of the main political blocs. Hezbollah, the dominant party and militant Shia group supported by Iran and Syria, has sent fighters into Syria to defend the Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The pro-west “March 14” alliance – made up of Sunnis and Christians, together with centrists – opposes this involvement. Lebanon has had a caretaker government for the past eight months thanks to widening rifts between the two blocs. The former prime minister Najib Mikati resigned after Hezbollah’s “March 8” alliance opposed his attempt to renew the term of a senior security official. Since then, a stalemate over allocation of cabinet seats has prevented politicians from forming a new government.

Considering the government’s weakness and the historical resentment that many Lebanese feel about Syria’s influence over Lebanon’s politics, their country has been remarkably hospitable towards the refugees. When the Syrians first started arriving in north and east Lebanon, families even in these deprived areas offered them free shelter and food. But social tensions are rising. The presence of the Syrians is increasing competition for jobs, and they are undercutting Lebanese workers because they provide ever cheaper labour.

Even more pressing is the humanitarian crisis. This year has brought the proliferation of “informal tented communities” along the Beqaa Valley, in the area north of Tripoli and in the south. Many lack basic sanitation, weatherproofing, clean water, food, clothes, blankets and fuel for heating. There are also medical shortages; as winter approaches, the consequences could be dire. Ninette Kelley, the resident representative for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has described the situation as a “human catastrophe”.

Political considerations initially made the Lebanese government slow to react. Unable to forget the influx of Palestinians fleeing Israel in 1948, and fearing that the predominantly Sunni Syrians would bring about greater demographic and sectarian change, the government prohibited the construction of formal refugee camps or semi-permanent structures. As a result of this policy, Syrian refugees have settled throughout Lebanon rather than in designated areas and organised refugee camps, as is the case with refugees in Jordan and Turkey. They live in terrible conditions in sheds, underground garages and unfinished structures.

Lebanon has been praised for keeping its borders open to Syrian refugees, yet the international community has not offered sufficient assistance. The rich Sunni governments of the Gulf have avoided funding the Lebanese government directly, as a way of punishing it for Hezbollah’s influential role in the state. Instead, they fund local (often religious, Sunni) charities. Some of these could be using the aid to buy arms for training Syrian opposition fighters, or even to carry out attacks inside Lebanon.

Western aid agencies suspicious of corruption have also bypassed the government. But consequently the assistance available is short term. It completely neglects strategies to develop infrastructure in ways that could help Lebanon cope with the refugees and ease tensions between refugee and host communities.

Belatedly, Beirut and the World Bank have come up with a secure trust fund through which to channel aid. Even so, the government must reform its structural weaknesses if it is to gain control of the situation, and it needs international support to do so. The Lebanese don’t want to return to the fragmentation of 1975-90 and the civil war, but on Independence Day this year, a unified Lebanon was more challenged than celebrated, as changes in the population and regional Sunni-Shia tensions threaten a country that relies on sectarian power-sharing.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

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 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood