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Mike Rowbottom: England, whose England?

At the end of his 1941 essay entitled "England Your England", George Orwell concludes that, though the Stock Exchange may be pulled down, and the horse plough may give way to the tractor, and the country houses may be turned into children’s holiday camps, and the Eton and Harrow match forgotten, "England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition, and yet remain the same."


Now that the majority of his suppositions have come to pass, how true is his contention, I wonder? Is there such a thing as essential Englishness?

I only mention it because it is clearly of pressing importance to the people now striving to re-energise England’s sense of national identity in relation to the team which will contest next year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi. "Englishness", and the need to assert it as confidently as, say, "Scottishness", is one of the rallying cries. 

This week an impressive gathering of the faithful, graded like those grains of flour we have heard about for so long, held the first meeting of Commonwealth Games England’s new Board. Among those on board are Lawrence Dallaglio, one of England’s rugby winners in the 2003 World Cup final, and Peter King, the dogged, inspirational force responsible for so much of British cycling’s rise from 17th to first place in the world rankings over the past decade.

King made what was probably the most pertinent point of an interesting press conference when he maintained that the general British – English? – public got just as excited about an English victory on, say, the track, or the court, as they did about a British one.

I agree. Having covered a fair selection of events involving either Britain or England in the past 15 years or so, I am honestly pushed to remember a greater buzz than that created within the City of Manchester Stadium for the Commonwealth Games seven years ago, when home athletes collected gold after gold amid a St George’s flag-waving atmosphere that resembled the last night of the Proms.

Then again, I may be biased. After all, I’m English.



But what does that mean? 

Perhaps I could try to answer that by considering when I feel most closely identified to that old red cross on white.

I feel English, for instance, when I eat toast and marmalade. Maybe that’s something to do with my grandpa. He was very English. 

I feel English when I indicate to a fellow customer that they are due to be served before me.
 
Or when I watch England’s football team fail to win the World Cup. Or  the European Championship.

How are we doing? Any closer?

In his casting around for essentially English characteristics, Orwell came up with two straight away. They were, firstly, a tendency towards "‘privateness", as evidenced by a prediliction for hobbies and pastimes such as stamp collecting and comforting things like the fireside and the "nice cup of tea".

And secondly, a love of flowers.

For stamp collecting, read surfing the net. For "nice cup of tea" read "nice can of lager". Certainly his analysis is unpromising as far as the Commonwealth re-energisers are concerned.

But you have to take your hat off to them for their ingenuity and enthusiasm. Among the new Board members in evidence at the Commonwealth Club this week was Angus Kinnear. For one of the new English ultras, he sounds, on the face of things, a bit Scottish. But he is right on message.

“I think there’s a fantastic opportunity here to establish England’s multi-sports team as a brand,” he told me. “My expertise is in engaging the public at large with the possibilities of that new brand, and to monetise it.”

Kinnear’s position as head of marketing for Arsenal FC, a post he took up after an impressive stint within Coca Cola, puts him in a slightly peculiar position, as he sportingly acknowledges.

The irony of a man from Arsenal, whose teams are famously scarce of English talent, committing himself to promote England’s sporting cause is not lost on him. "Arsene has always maintained his teams are put together on the basis of ability, not nationality," he said with a grin. "But I accept that, in the circumstances, my role will be a new challenge.”

The quest for essential Englishness will never, I suspect, find an answer. In the meantime, Kinnear and his new colleagues are setting about espousing and - monetising - something in which they firmly believe.
 
When the first English competitor claims a gold medal in India next year, to what extent will the cheers be for them personally, and to what extent for the country they represent? It's never entirely clear.

But for all the doubts and contradictions about establishing what Englishness is, it still is. Fifteen minutes ago, truly, and entirely by coincidence, I heard my middle daughter announce in the next room: "I love England, I’ll never move away from England. I don't know why, I just love it."

Case rests.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames

 


Tom Degun: Federer is already the best, now he can concentrate on Olympic gold

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altWhether he is the greatest or not is no longer up for dispute and, despite his thrilling five-set loss to Argentinean hotshot Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open final on Monday, Roger Federer remains peerless in the game of tennis. 

He has surpassed legends of the sport like Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras by stacking up majors – a record 15 in total - with the ease in which the rest of consume hot dinners. He has brought to the court so much finesse, grace and majesty that it is a surprise that he is not a Vincent Van Gogh painting bought to life.

Yet there is just one task Federer is yet to accomplish in the game; one itch that the Swiss must scratch in order to hang up his racquet having won every major individual title a man can win in tennis. He must win a singles Olympic gold medal.

He has - the more astute tennis fans among you will note - already won an Olympic gold but this was in the doubles rather than the singles and therefore cannot - for obvious reason - be classified as individual victory.

There is also an argument that Federer needs to win the Davis Cup to achieve the ultimate grand slam in the game but for me; that is not a necessity for the world number one. In the Davis Cup, great players – through no fault of their own - can be thoroughly let down by their teammates. Just look at the Great Britain team.

 Andy Murray usually destroys his opponent without breaking a sweat and then watches on as trusty - or not - Alex Bogdanovic manages to somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against an opponent usually ranked about 9,782nd in the world. 

No, the Davis Cup aside, Federer has just one more jewel to add to his crown which already sparkles brightly with his multiple triumphs at the four annual majors.

altTime though, is not on the great man's side and he missed a great opportunity in Beijing last year when he was knocked out in the quarter-finals of the Olympic tournament by the American James Blake. 

Federer (pictured) is already 28-years-old and consequently rather old for a man in his profession. He will therefore be 31 by the time we reach 2012 and surely cannot hope to mount a realistic challenge at the Olympics in 2016 where he will be ancient at ripe old age of 35. 

Joking aside, it is clear that Federer has just one more realistic shot to win the only piece of precious metal that his detector is yet to locate. 

However, if there is one location on earth that Federer would want mount his assault for Olympic gold on, it would be the hallowed turf of Wimbledon. On grass, Federer is near indestructible and on route to taking six of the last seven Wimbledon titles, Federer has won an astonishing 47 of his last 48 matches at the All England Club. 

Federer therefore, is right to feel confident when his fortress Wimbledon hosts the tennis event at the London 2012 Olympics as his only loss in the last seven Wimbledon championships came at the hands of the muscleman from Majorca, Rafael Nadal. And it is Federer’s great Spanish rival who could in fact beat Federer to achieving the fifth Grand Slam

After all, Nadal has already claimed Olympic gold in Beijing to add to the major titles he has won in Australia, Wimbledon and France. The world number two therefore has only to win the US Open to achieve that fifth Grand Slam. But with the Spaniards “dodgy” knees and with his failure to have ever reached a final at Flushing Meadows, logic suggests it is Federer who has the best chance of getting the “full house” on grass in London in 2012.

The feat would make Federer only the man second after America's Andre Agassi to win all four Grand Slams and the Olympic gold medal. Should Federer not manage to achieve his lofty goal, it would perhaps not haunt him in the way the way not winning the French Open would have done.

An athlete is lucky to have more than two shots at an Olympic medal in contrast to a tennis Grand Slam which is an annual rather than four-yearly event. Even so, a man with Federer’s sublime talent should not need more than two attempts to achieve success when he has a racquet gripped in his hand a best result of semi-final - at the Olympics at the Sydney 2000 Games - is a modest showing for the Swiss. 

An individual Olympic gold medal is after all, the greatest prize in sport and it is now Federer’s Holy Grail and the one object he will focus his full attention on. I mean, after being the world number one for a record period and having won three Australian Open, six Wimbledon, five US Opens and now a French Open title, what more can possibly motivate Federer in the next two years?

He has seen, done and achieved almost everything in the sport of tennis and when it is all over, Federer may not only be the greatest tennis player ever, he may be one of the greatest sportsman of all time. He has won every great accolade available to a man in his sport save but one. So for Federer, there is just a single golden goal left to achieve but it will doubtless take an Olympian effort for him to do so.

Tom Degun is a reporter and the Paralympics Correspondent for insidethegames 

David Owen: Filling the seats at London 2012 will be a big job but it can be done

 


With London 2012 now well on the way to hitting domestic sponsorship targets, notwithstanding the global recession, attention is set to move increasingly to the other sources of revenue that will help foot the bill for the Games: merchandising and ticketing.
 

Organising committee chief executive Paul Deighton told me more than three years ago that he was “quite excited about doing better than anyone has done before” in general merchandising and licensing sales. 

That will mean raising more than $100 million (£60 million).


Meanwhile, a discussion earlier this summer with Deighton’s colleague Sebastian Coe, the LOCOG chairman - that took place a few days before the announcement that Ticketmaster had been appointed official ticketing services provider - alerted me to how much thought is already going into London 2012’s ticketing strategy.
 

This is even though tickets for the Games will not actually go on sale until 2011.
 

The report of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Evaluation Commission, released in 2005 in the closing stages of the race to secure the right to host the 2012 Games, noted that London’s ticketing revenue estimates amounted to $473 million (£286 million) for the Olympic Games and a further $23 million (£14 million) for the Paralympics.
 

Coe, though, says that the ticket strategy “accounts for a good 24-25 percent really” of LOCOG’s revenue. 

Since this is expected to reach £2 billion, it looks like the actual amount raised from the 7.9 million Olympic and 1.2 million Paralympic tickets will be substantially higher than that 2005 estimate, at least at current exchange rates.


The first point of interest is Coe’s emphasis that a “strong central thrust of our ticket strategy is to make sure that we have full venues - that’s what we are working towards”.


This will be music to the IOC’s ears, but might prove easier said than done - even in a country like Great Britain which has a longstanding tradition of attendance at live sporting events.




Empty seats have been an issue at each of the last two summer Games, in Athens and Beijing.


Yet in the Chinese capital, according to the IOC’s Beijing 2008 marketing report, “Incredibly, over 99 per cent of the tickets were sold for Olympic events held within Beijing, far exceeding the previous record of 92.4 percent that had been set at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games for events held within Sydney”.


The IOC Evaluation Commission report said that London 2012’s ticketing revenue estimates were based on sales rates of 82 per cent for the Olympic Games and 63 per cent for the Paralympics.


What Coe’s remarks also suggest, though, is that a great deal of ingenuity will go towards trying to fulfil that full-venue objective.


Most obviously, he talks about making sure that the “spectator experience is a really good one” and making the Olympic Park “a very buzzy place to be”.


Second, while allowing that, for example, “we have never sold a commercial handball ticket in this country”, he adds: “I see that as a massive opportunity”.


This is both because, “if we are smart”, London 2012 ought to be able to use the Olympics to “introduce kids to sports that they certainly have never played before, probably haven’t ever watched before” and because a continent of avid handball aficionados is on the UK capital’s doorstep.


Says Coe: “There are 80 million Europeans who are within Eurostar reach of London for a day’s session at the Games…[This] does need to be factored into some of our ticket strategies as well because those 80 million Europeans remember are in some cases very much more familiar with some of the sports that we are going to be presenting than our domestic [audience].”


£480 million divided by 9.1 million implies an average ticket price of more than £50, so I am guessing that plum seats for the final of the men’s 100m will not come cheap.


For the less obvious attractions, it is clear that great pains are going to be taken to ensure tickets are pitched at the right price – and offered to the right people.


“We are taking a very holistic view about ticketing,” Coe says.


“The question you always get is, ‘What are the prices going to be?’ We are looking not just event by event; we are looking session by session.


“The work we are doing is also about the psychology of ticket sales: to pluck any example, if I’m into judo, but I can’t get judo tickets, where do I next go? Do I go taekwondo? Do I go wrestling? Do I go track and field?


“So, properly understanding the psychology of tickets…We really need to know before we go into this what those preferences are.”


By way of comparison, the average ticket price for a sporting event in Beijing was $23 (£14), but the spread was enormous, with prices ranging all the way from just 75 US cents (45p) to $150 (£91).

Coe also seems determined to do all that he can to make a day at the Olympics a feasible proposition for all inhabitants of the UK wherever they happen to live.


“The price of the ticket is only one part of the accessibility story,” he says.


“If you are a husband and wife with two or three children, you are based in Sheffield or Leeds and you want to come to the Games…the price of the ticket is only one of the issues that are going to determine your commitment.


“It’s also about sitting down with train operators and making sure that there are Supersavers in place and that…where we can make it just more likely we are going to get people from outside London, we will.”

David Owen is a specialist sports journalist who worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering last year's Beijing Olympics. An archive of Owen’s material may be found by Twitter users at www.twitter.com/dodo938


Fran Nicholls: Walking tall in the land of the giants


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It’s almost two years since I successfully applied to UK Sport’s Sporting Giants programme. The scheme was looking for tall sporting amateurs with potential to challenge for major competitions in a selection of sports. I was given one of 20 places in the rowing category and, within a whirlwind three weeks, I had relocated to the South East from Leeds and suddenly found myself focusing ahead to London 2012! 

At that point, the Olympic Park was just rubble – it’s amazing how much has happened since. I’d not long left a university when I found myself waking up at dawn, undertaking two training sessions before lunch and then working the rest of the day in my flexi-time job with BT, before collapsing in bed at 8pm. I had only recently started with BT but luckily they were able to accommodate me and my relocation. 

There have been so many new things to consider, like eating the right amounts and making sure I allow my body to recover from training.  I find myself always thinking about rowing – even sat in the car or at my desk I’ll be making sure my posture is good. 

It can be mentally tough and I have to be very disciplined about my social life.  There’s always the occasional day where I’d just like to hide under the covers rather than get up at 6am but I know if I reach a major competition it will all seem like a small sacrifice.

Competing at the Games in 2012 is a dream that I look towards, but I try to treat it more as a hope and aspiration and certainly not as a definite. I know that, at 24 years old, I’m still young enough to potentially compete for another Olympics in 2016 so I’m careful not to burden myself with too much pressure. 

There’s so much more hard work to come if I’m going to be in with a shout of competing in 2012, but I’ve been pleased with my progress. Making the qualifying time for the National Trials last year was a fantastic achievement as it made me realise that I’d made real strides after only a year of full-time training. I was in the boat, including Olympians Debbie Flood and Louisa Reeve, that finished second overall at the eight’s Head of the River this year. Debbie and I also rowed to gold in a double at the 2009 National Championships in Nottingham.

My next goals are to perform well in the National Trials, running from October to April, in order to get my ranking inside the top 20. I’ll be pushing to compete at the European Championships in 2010 and, in an ideal world, I’d progress to the World Championships in 2011 and then the Olympics in 2012, but who knows? From December, an extra training session will be added to four of our weekdays so that presents a new challenge in itself, although it’s surprising how quickly you can adapt to these changes.

All the girls that I train with have rowed for GB at some level and talking to them really brought home the importance of the Olympics being on home turf in 2012 - those girls that have competed abroad say they’re always really jealous of the support from the home crowd as it can really help push a team to the finishing line.

One of the great benefits of the position I’m in is that, even though I’m fairly new to my sport, initially being brought into GB Rowing’s World Class Start Programme and now rowing for Leander has meant that I’ve been surrounded by top rowers. Rowing with Debbie Flood, who achieved silver medals in Beijing and Athens, and drawing from her experience is a money-can’t-buy opportunity.

It’s not just through GB Rowing that I’ve been lucky enough to learn from elite athletes. I was honoured to be asked by BT to become one of its Ambassadors for London 2012 and only recently I met with a fellow Ambassador, Dame Kelly Holmes. I was able to quiz her on all aspects of her life and it really helped me gain an insight into what it takes to become a top competitor and how to look after yourself in the process. 
It’s invaluable to meet with people who have been through all the highs and lows and who can not only impart advice but also validate some of what I’ve already been doing.

For everyone working towards the Games, be it workers, athletes or volunteers, it’s clear that there are a lot more challenges ahead. With the passion that this country seems to have for the event, you can’t stop yourself getting excited at the potential for success and global recognition for London in 2012. There’s still so much for so many people to achieve before we get there, but I know I’ll certainly keep giving it my all...

Fran Nicholls is a BT employee and a member of its Ambassador programme. BT has arranged flexible working for Fran so she can train for London 2012 and be the best that she can be. BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  

Mike Rowbottom: Alistair Brownlee is an antidote to overpaid footballers, dodgy F1 drivers and cheating rugby players


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Last October, as the credit crunch was gathering force, I spoke to Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation about the effect the economic situation would have upon spectators.
 
As I expected, he instanced examples of fans who could no longer afford to travel to every away game as they had in the past. But he also mentioned another factor which was coming into play – a “sense of discomfort” among supporters at the level of wages being paid to those at the top end of the sport against a background where many were losing their jobs or seeing their houses repossessed.
 
Clarke likened the phenomenon to the debate over bonuses for City bankers, and offered the example of one of his neighbours, a mad keen Manchester United fan, who had not renewed his season ticket.
 
“Five years ago you would have thought hell would freeze over before he stopped going to see them,” Clarke added. “It’s not so much that he can’t afford it, but he is saying ‘why should I pay all this so that Wayne Rooney can spend £10,000 on a stag party?’”

For all the rising optimism engendered by England’s efficient qualification for the World Cup finals in South Africa, the "discomfort" factor still looms large in the game, as the furore over Eduardo’s recent ‘simulation’ of being brought down by the Celtic goalkeeper indicated. 
 
While UEFA's punitive action against the Arsenal player did indeed beg the question of just how often the authorities now intend to overrule their referees, it at least registered a sensible concern for the corrosion that such actions have on the necessary trust of those who follow and support football.
 
It comes down to the basic question – if we can’t believe what we see, what’s the point in watching?
 
That is a question which Formula One fans will now be asking in the light of the latest allegations of race fixing that have been made against the Renault team.
 
Following the shameful blood capsule subterfuge at Harlequins, it’s a question which rugby union followers will be asking every time they see a player leave the pitch with an apparent injury.
 
The debate over Caster Semenya’s sexual status, now reaching intense levels within international athletics, is uncomfortable in a very personal sense – however the biological details turn out, the way in which this case has been handled has been humiliating to the South African who is still in possession of the gold medal for the women’s 800 metres event at the recent World Championships.
 
But beyond the particular circumstances, the incident has created further uncertainty in a sport which has suffered more than its fair share of bad publicity in the course of the last 20 years.
 
Not that many sports appear beyond reproach these days. Tennis? Well, those match-fixing allegations keep surfacing, don’t they? Snooker? Ditto. Swimming? No waves there at least. Other than those set in motion by performance-enhancing, all-in-one swimsuits which have slid their occupants to a host of world records.
 
Well what about modern pentathlon – surely you can’t get more Corinthian than this sport?
 
Broadly true. But there was the uncomfortable – that word again – aberration at last month’s World Championships at Crystal Palace where two Italians were penalised for wearing one swimsuit over another in order to streamline their swimming performance, and one of them was subsequently disqualified for booting a flower display across the tartan track in protest.

So where can sports followers turn in order to find a spectacle without blemish, stain or blot?
 
Just a suggestion, but how about catching up with triathlon? Britain’s Hollie Avil has just become the new Dextro ITU world under-23 champion as this year’s series has staged its Grand Finals on Australia’s Gold Coast at the weekend, with team-mate Jodie Stimpson taking silver. That double success was followed by another landmark achievement in the men’s event, where Britain’s – or should we say Yorkshire’s – 21-year-old, Alistair Brownlee (pictured) has secured the title.
 
Here, surely, is a sporting spectacle to be embraced with a clear conscience.

From a British point of view, it would also be nice to think that Brownlee. Avil and Stimpson could be among the home performers who will give spectators something to cheer about without any sense of reservation when the Olympics arrive in Stratford slightly less than three years from now.
 
How good it would be to see them on the rostrum in the stadium that is already a recognisable bowl and which, after the Games, according to the most solemn pledge, will be reduced in seating capacity from 80,000 to 25,000 in order to serve as a world class facility for athletics.
 
Unless, of course, it doesn’t – remaining instead at its Olympic capacity in order to provide a commercially viable venue for a football team. That is something the Shadow Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, has just espoused with air of a man who expects to be well out of the Shadows by the time the Games begin.

 But commercially viable football teams in this country don’t want to be separated from spectators by the width of a running track. Which means, unless athletics is to have a world class facility for long jumping, high jumping and hammer throwing, something has got to give.

It comes down to another of those basic questions, I suppose – if we can’t believe what we hear, what’s the point in listening?

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now freelancing and wrties regularly for insidethegames

 

 


Tom Degun: The Windy City gets my vote

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I have few doubts that Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo will all host fantastic Olympiads in seven years time should International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge dramatically call any of their names out in Copenhagen on October 2. But for me, the 2016 Games must go to Chicago.

I did not however, think I would find myself praising the “Windy City” when I first arrived just five days ago.

My journey to Chicago involved an eight hour flight from London’s Heathrow Airport and while I thoroughly enjoyed the on-board film entertainment - I would recommend “The Hangover” to anyone with a immature sense of humour like mine -  I was rather tired when I arrived at the Chicago O’Hare Airport.

It had just gone 6pm local time but as I was still running on English time, my watch - which I had forgotten to adjust - showed it had gone midnight. Staggering off the plane while yearning for my bed, I hoped that I would be able to quickly reclaim my suitcase and get the first taxi to my hotel room.

I did not realise though, that quickly reclaiming baggage at the Chicago O’Hare Airport was more of a challenge than running the 100 metres in under 9.59sec, if your name is not Usain Bolt. After a two-and-a-half-hour queue through immigration, I eventually picked up my bag while cursing Chicago under my breath.

Once I climbed into my taxi however, my dislike for the city began to fade. The taxi driver was an extremely friendly man with a huge interest in English “soccer”. After a heated discussion over the merits of David Beckham’s playing career and his distinct lack of popularity in America, the taxi diver was kind enough to give me a small tour - at no extra charge - of where the proposed Olympic venues in the city will be should Chicago win the 2016 bid.

Having had the pre-conceived idea that Chicago would be a highly commercialised, dusty city with a McDonald's or Coca-Cola sign every two steps, I was pleasantly surprised this did not appear to be the case. Among the tall, clean and futuristic looking skyscrapers, there is green green grass to be seen throughout Chicago.

It is clear that the city is extremely passionate about hosting the Games and one cannot get more than two blocks with seeing the Chicago 2016 logo hung proudly out of an office block window. Chicago is a highly metropolitan city and from the window of my taxi, I could clearly make out a variety of people from all different cultural backgrounds.

As I reached my hotel at 9:30pm, which was 3:30 am from where I was from, I decided to head straight to bed and reserve judgement on the city that appeared to have a hidden charm I had not expected to encounter.

When I ventured out of my hotel the next day, still a little jet-lagged,  I came to learn that my friendly taxi driver was no exception to the average Chicagoan. On the contrary, everyone I bumped into - not literally, of course - seemed to be extremely friendly. In fact, I began to find Chicagoans so ridiculously friendly and helpful that they became slightly annoying. It sounds a little vindictive of me to refer to a group of people as annoyingly friendly but I shall give you an example to illustrate my point.

If you are a little lost in London and asked a stranger for directions, they would often point you in the right direction with minimal fuss. If you are a little lost in Chicago and asked a stranger for directions, they would firstly be delighted to be talking to someone outside Chicago and engage you in a chat about the “English accent”, which is not as posh as Americans seem to think.

They would then insist upon walking you to your destination regardless of the fact that they may not know where exactly it is while talking to you about how great an Olympic Games would be for the unique city. When they have got you even more lost than you were before you had asked them for directions, they will summon a pen and a piece of paper from thin air to draw you a map complete with their telephone number at the bottom.

You may think that I am exaggerating, but this exact scenario happened to me on my visit. Twice! It is like I say, rather annoying and makes one think twice about asking for directions. But it is an endearing quality none the less. 

As I did for its people, I began to develop a great liking for Chicago as a place.
If you look up at the never-ending skyscrapers, you get the feeling that they are so impossibly tall that they are flirting with the few clouds in the bright blue sky.

So big is everything in the city, you feel extremely small and insignificant as you walk around it. However, this brings out child-like wonder and amazement in you that cannot help but put a smile on your face.

There is also an abundance of iconic yellow taxis in Chicago flying about the roads between the hustle and bustle of people.

As I again ventured around the city at night and saw the buildings lit up as beautifully as a Van Gogh painting, I realised that the streets remained very busy well into the night. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Chicago barely gets a wink.

Also, if you are on a diet, I suggest you do not eat out in Chicago, delicious though the food is. When I ordered a medium/rare steak at the delightful but humorously named Hugo’s Frog Bar, I didn’t that I would receive something resembling the size of whole cow on my plate. It was perhaps the best dish I had ever eaten but I will be taking a few pounds extra back to England with me and that is not including the souvenirs I picked up!

By my final day in the city, Chicago had finally won me over and I was truly in love with it. Yes it was still very busy, the taxis still “beeped their hooters” incessantly and the people were still far too friendly but one learns to accept this as an essential feature of the “Windy City” - and for the record, I did not find Chicago windy at all, on the contrary, it was very warm and pleasant with a very light breeze though I am informed this is not the case in winter.

If a vibrant, exciting city that is buzzing 24/7 is not the place for you, you will probably not like Chicago. If so, you will fall in love with the city that would do the Olympic Games proud.

I came to Chicago not particularly fussed about who won the right to host the 2016 Olympic bid but now I feel differently. I don’t really know quite how or why, but the “Windy City” has truly swayed my vote and come Copenhagen on October 2 I know which tional city I’ll be hoping Jacques Rogge declares the winner of the 2016 bid.


Tom Degun is a reporter and the Paralympics Correspondent on insidethegames


Keith Bingham: An Olympic cycling road race round Windsor would be historic but is it practical?

Keith_BinghamThe UCI’s call for more iconic London landmarks to be included on the course of the 2012 Olympic road race has set the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) a conundrum.The UCI would prefer the race started in Central London and take in Buckingham Palace and the House of Parliament before heading into the boring suburbs west to Windsor and Eton College, where the toffs are.

But they also want the course toughened up! Fat chance if they go out west!

The UCI want to rival Beijing’s presentation, where the races started in Tiananmen Square, passed the Temple of Heaven, the Yonghegong Palace, the Temple of Earth Park, then headed for a spectacular mountain circuit alongside the Great Wall of China.

Well, there is certainly historic significance in going to Windsor because that’s where the 1948 Olympic road race was held.

But to get there means passing unlovely Heathrow Airport and the Hounslow suburbs. The roads are pan flat. Great TV shots! That’s if you can put a TV helicopter up near the largest airport in Europe.

Jos_BeyaertThe Windsor Great Park course used for the 1948 Games road race included aptly named Breakheart Hill, which did just that after 17 laps and 190 kilometres. José Beyaert of France (pictured) was the brilliant winner after a superbly timed attack in the last kilometre. Britain’s best was Bob Maitland, sixth.

So maybe London 2012 should just relocate to Windsor?  The Duke of Edinburgh followed the men’s race in a royal limo and presented the medals in 1948. Perhaps he’d like to do so again.

But no, the 2012 road race isn’t meant to linger at Windsor, but come back to the Capital via the Surrey Hills, the North Downs.

That’s another no-brainer, because the Downs are at least another 15km south. Besides, if they are to cause the pros any leg ache they’d have to spend the day going up and down them.

And then any gains made will probably be wiped out on the dead flat 40km run  back to the capital where the only decent climb to sort them out is Highgate, on the original course.

The women’s race is 126km, the men, 245km. So, take away the 80km run - at least -  out and back, that leaves 46km to do on the finishing circuit for the women and leaves the men with 165km to do.

Perhaps they will stick with what they’ve got, a London course taking in the steep Highgate West Hill – the highest point in the Capital 134 metres above sea level  - as suggested to them by none other than Bradley Wiggins a few years ago, and given a dry run by the 2006 Tour of Britain. This course is based on a start and finish in Regent’s Park, then Primrose Hill, Kentish Town, Highgate West Hill and Hampstead.

Perhaps they could compromise with a start and finish on The Mall, with Buckingham Palace as the backdrop. This was good enough for the 2007 Tour de France prologue and the Tour of Britain which finished there in 2006.

Keith Bingham is the chief reporter at Cycling Weekly and can be read every day here


Michele Verroken: Is social drug use in sport undermining the anti-doping message?

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High profile doping cases involving illicit and recreational drugs provoke strong reactions in the media. 

Observers query the logic of detecting social drugs in sport, penalising the athlete as if the perpetrator had committed the ultimate doping offence, cheating using a performance enhancing drug. Questions are raised about whether the testing programme is appropriately targeted and whether those who are caught using illicit and recreational drugs deserve sympathy and treatment for their addiction illness rather than severe sanctions for their misdemeanour. This is a difficult issue for the sports world which could be managed better. 
 

Firstly what drugs are we talking about? The Prohibited List published by the World Anti-Doping Agency includes several substances for which athletes might argue social drug use rather than any intent to enhance performance.  Among those substances are stimulants - amphetamines, including ecstasy, and cocaine, as well as the hallucinogenic, marijuana.  For some sports a restriction is placed on alcohol.  To be included on the prohibited list a substance should meet two of three stated criteria:
 

• Potential or actual performance enhancement

• Potential or actual risk to health

• Violation of the spirit of sport.


How do the illicit and recreational drugs measure up?  Most are obvious violations of the spirit of sport, drugs controlled by legislation, illegal to supply and possess; clearly against the spirit of sport.  There may be associated health risks - depending on specific circumstances - and the key question, whether they actually enhance performance depends upon individual circumstances.  Stimulant drugs do what they say, stimulate the body. 

Sufficient to improve performance?  Difficult to say. Did the player move faster, react more quickly or just keep running for longer, or was the performance actually below that expected? These subjective judgments follow the doping revelation as if to rationalize the offence. The player wasn’t playing that well, a reduction in sanction would be justified. Does that mean if the player is found to be an addict the offence should be increased, after all they could have been competing on several occasions under the influence and just not caught?
 

Secondly, social drug use may not be identified by out of competition testing which focuses on hormone and steroids substances, EPO in relevant endurance sports, and perhaps an occasional look for growth hormone.  Traditionally out of competition testing has targeted drugs used to enhance training, like anabolics. However athletes should not be complacent about testing around a competition. Athletes withdrawing late from an event may be screened for the full prohibited list as testers anticipate an association between doping and the withdrawal. But the fact that there will be ‘negative’ tests even though a prohibited substance has been used doesn’t help the drug-free message. As many of the illicit and recreational drugs are also addictive, it is like a ticking time bomb.


A third point worth making is that not all illicit and recreational drugs can be considered in the same way. Detection of cannabis may refer to earlier use as it can remain in the body for up to three months after consumption, stored in fat cells and gradually released in the body. 

This raises question about athletes being allowed a day off from sport – apparently not!  Arguing secondary inhalation is a non-starter, as Britain's Olympic relay gold medallist Mark Lewis (pictured) once did, the reporting level of marijuana takes this into account.
 

Stimulant drugs have a short life in the body and can be undetectable in a matter of 36 hours, particularly if assisted by large quantities of water. For athletes, cocaine could become a drug of choice, compared to alcohol; at least there is no hangover. Athletes have tried to explain the presence of cocaine in their system by referring to the amount that could be absorbed from handling banknotes. Apart from the visual image of athletes counting their cash, a lot of time would need to be spent to absorb a significant quantity.


At least an athlete’s reputation is in part salvaged by the emphasis on no intention to improve performance, but is it?  But in providing an explanation to justify why the finding should be considered a "specified substance" worth much less in the sanctions tariff, the athlete has to establish how the substance came to be in their body and that it was not intended to enhance performance. 

This interesting dilemma can lose friends quickly. Supply is a criminal offence in most countries, who will take the fall for a top athlete? And as for no intention to enhance performance, well that depends. Amphetamine used on the day of competition, yet somehow not detected out of competition the following day, is a lucky break for some. Sponsors, conscious of brand reputation, are not always impressed by athletes who seek to justify a lower level of drug use.
 

Perhaps the biggest trip wire is the impact on the ability to train with the team. Individual athletes can usually continue to train alone during the period of suspension, but what about the team player? Possibly banned from training as well as playing, now that is beginning to sound like a deterrent.

Michele Verroken is an international expert on anti-doping and integrity matters in sport. She has over 20 years experience of developing anti-doping policies and procedures for professional, Olympic and Paralympic sports. She developed the UK's national anti-doping policy, designed the Drug Information Database and now advises (among others) professional golf on its anti-doping policy. She is the founder of Sporting Integrity. More details on www.sportingintegrity.com


Cassie Smith: is women's football coming home?

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Today at 5pm sees yet another nerve-wracking England versus Germany clash in a major football championship. But this time, it’s the women’s turn. For coach Hope Powell, it is the culmination of many years hard work nurturing a squad of talented players, whilst working against a backdrop of uncertain financial support and broken promises.
 

Reaching the European Championship final is an incredible achievement, not matched for 25 years, yet it comes at the end of a season which has seen turmoil in the women’s game. Just last April, word came from the Football Association at Soho Square that promises of a Super League were deferred for at least a year, because of "financial pressures".

England’s success in Finland recently prompted new FA chief executive Ian Watmore to restate the governing body’s ambitions, but it came too late to prevent an exodus of some of our most talented players to Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), a new league in the USA.  Alex Scott, Kelly Smith and Eniola Aluko made a huge success of their first season and were all named in the WPS all-star team.

Women’s football is far from the minority sport people might expect. In fact, it is estimated that more women now play football then men play rugby, and it continues to be the fastest growing sport amongst young girls. But until women’s football can provide its young players with role models to aspire to and household names to imitate in the playground, many will still fall by the wayside before reaching their potential.

Here at the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), we’re hoping that the WPS league can continue to be a commercial and popular success, paving the way for future models in other women’s team sports, and eventually a professional Super League here on home soil. We’ll welcome the day when our most talented women athletes don’t have to go abroad to be properly compensated for their talents, and world famous clubs like Doncaster Belles don’t have to beg and borrow just to buy training kits.


The FA did at least stick to its promise to finally provide a number of England players with central contracts that enables them to make football their career. Not quite the eye-watering salaries of Man City’s new signings, but for those women who tried to combine top level football with a full-time job, it’s an absolute lifeline. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) offered similar contracts to its players, and saw almost immediate success as the team became world champions in both forms of the game.


As the tournament has progressed and the England team played its way through to the final, interest levels have been rising. But the groundswell of support could be significantly wider if the media had awarded as much space to this women’s championship as it routinely does to the men’s game. During the early group games, Jacqui Oatley’s excellent tweets - aided by the excited twittering of Karen Carney and Alex Scott - provided pretty much the only build up and comment on the England matches and although we’re delighted to see the BBC has agreed to televise the final live, we are disappointed it’s taken the last leg of the journey to get there.

A terrestrial showing, albeit with a teatime kick-off, should provide the next generation with an opportunity to dream of pulling on the three lions and lifting a major trophy.


Finland 2009 has already provided many moments to treasure, including Kelly Smith scoring from inside the centre circle and Eniola Aluko’s mazy dribble in the quarter-finals, but I’ve a feeling that 5pm today will bring many more. Come on England! But please, no penalties…


Cassie Smith is the Head of Insight and Innovation at the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation


Eleanor Simmonds: I want to be a role-model for all kids

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One of the best things about last year’s Paralympic Games was the incredible support from the British public. They really like their sport!
 
It’s over a year now since Beijing and yet I still get stopped by strangers. This morning, for example, after training, I was shopping in Swansea, where I’ve moved to from Walsall, when a lady came up to me and said, "Are you the girl who got those two medals?"
 

Just knowing how much people support me and other Paralympians makes me want to try harder.
 

Recently training has been increased because we’ve been getting ready for the European Championships in Reykjavik, Iceland, next month.
 

It won’t be my first race since Beijing. I’ve already had quite a few including the BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, in May, where I set a new world record in the 100 metres freestyle.


It was really good to swim in front of such a huge home crowd and it made me realise what the atmosphere will be like in London in three years time. When I was in Beijing seeing so many British fans cheering all of us on made me want to swim fast for them.


Although training’s been hard I did take a short break a few weeks ago to make a special visit to the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London so I could see how much progress has been made on the Aquatics Centre.  It also reminded me that it’s now less than three years to go to the start of the Paralympic Games.


I really was amazed at how big the framework for the Centre is and at how cool the wave like roof is which is nearly finished. I took lots of pictures to show my friends back in Swansea and to motivate me in the years ahead.

If the last year is anything to go by, the next three will pass very quickly. I hope the new Aquatics Centre is going to be the place where I might get a few more Paralympic medals.


I was so excited to see it and now I can imagine what it will be like to swim in and the noise the home crowd are going to make.
 

I know I’ve got a lot of competitions to do between now and London 2012 but I really can’t wait.
I’ll be working really hard to qualify for the Paralympic Games and then I’ll decide on my goals nearer the time.
 

In the mean time I’d like to be a role model, not just for future Paralympians but for all kids. I know that when I watched the Athens Paralympics on TV in 2004 it really inspired me. And now I want to do that for others.
 

They don’t necessarily have to become Paralympians it would just be good if they got into playing sport and had fun at the same time. If they did become Paralympians that would be great but if they didn’t it’s just important they enjoy doing sport.


I know I do. And it’s only going to get better as we get nearer to 2012. There are going to be more and more people I meet in the street who really are behind the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and proud they are going to take place here at home.

Eleanor Simmonds won gold medals in the 100 and 400 metres freestyle  S6 category at the Paralympics in Beijing despite being at 13 the youngest member of Britain's team. She was awarded an MBE in the Queen's New Years Honours List, at 14 the youngest-ever recipient of the Honour, and was voted the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year. She is now training for the London 2012 Paralympics.


Duncan Mackay: Here's a cunning plan for England 2018 - concentrate on winning votes

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altAs someone closely involved in Manchester's bid to host the 2000 Olympics when bidding had become a byword for excess, Graham Stringer is better qualified than most to pass judgment on when something has been polluted by greed, self-interest and chicanery.

So when the MP for Manchester Blackley claims that the current beauty parade the Football Association is forcing 16 cities and towns across England who want to be involved in the 2018 World Cup campaign take part in is a "ludicrous waste of public money" then he should be listened too closely.

Stringer's argument is that it is ridiculous that a city like Manchester, steeped in the tradition of the sport and which in Old Trafford and the City of Manchester Stadium is home to two of the finest stadiums in Europe, is being made to have to undergo the same process as Milton Keynes, where its connection with professional football stretches back barely five years, to be considered as fit and proper candidate to be involved in 2018.

The former Leader of Manchester City Council quite rightly claims that a World Cup in England would need Old Trafford, which, with a capacity of 76,212, the largest in the country outside Wembley, would stage one of the two semi-finals, far more than it needs the World Cup. The City of Manchester Stadium, with a capacity of 47,726 and which was judged good enough to have hosted the UEFA Cup final last year, would, at the very least, stage group matches, surely.

So why has Manchester City Council been forced to set-up a special bid committee at the cost of £150,000 to the local taxpayer to try to persuade a series of visiting delegations from the FA that they should be chosen as a host city? It is complete madness and no-one anywhere in football would take seriously an England bid that did not include in its plans Old Trafford, the home of three-time European champions Manchester United and who have produced players such as Bobby Charlton, George Best and David Beckham, superstars with instant name recognition around the globe.

There is, after all, a reason why the Nou Camp and the Santiago Bernabeau are already confirmed as part of the joint bid for 2018 from Spain and Portugal.

The whole idea of asking cities and towns to audition to become part of the campaign was originally devised as an X-Factor style competition to try to help build support for England's World Cup bid and make the whole country feel part of it. Instead, it seems to me, it has led to the campaign becoming distracted and focused to an unhealthy extent on local issues rather than on the bigger picture, which is persuading the 24 members of FIFA's Executive Committee to vote for England.

If you read the local newspapers up and down the country frantically lobbying for their respective cities and towns you might be under the impression that England have already been awarded the 2018 World Cup. Not that it is still very much in the balance, up against as it is against incredibly strong rivals, like the Spain and Portugal, and Australia and Russia, which offers the football world the exciting prospect of emerging markets, and the United States, with the possibility of lucrative multi-billion dollar marketing and television deals.

In the last couple of days alone the following have landed in my in-box from cities who are trying to impress the FA enough to be included in the bid:

Sunderland have launched a "high-profile poster campaign....as local businesses throw their weight behind Wearside's bid to host matches at the 2018 World Cup"

"Mersey football managers Rafa Benitez and David Moyes [have] rallied behind Liverpool’s bid to become a host city for the 2018 World Cup" [If sure he were asked in his native Madrid who would want to stage the tournament, I am sure Benitez would tell the press there he is backing the Spanish bid]

"Nothing quite marks a special occasion like a piece of fine bone china....That is why Royal Crown Derby has said it would be delighted to create a decorative piece for the 2018 football World Cup - should matches be played in Derby"

●  "Following her gold medal win in Berlin, Jessica Ennis - Britain’s newly crowned world heptathlon champion, has pledged to support her home city of Sheffield and its bid to host World Cup games in 2018"

altAnd finally, my personal favourite, "There is nothing cunning about Bristol's plan to host World Cup football in 2018; just bold ambition from a heartland of football, according to Blackadder and Time Team's Tony Robinson. Robinson said: 'Let's hope that in 100 years time, when archaeologists dig Bristol, they will find the long-discarded programmes from some of the legendary 2018 World Cup matches'." Not very environmentally friendly, I would suggest, but I get Baldrick's point.

There is nothing wrong with any of these campaigns - some of which are amusingly novel and designed to appeal to an audience not in love with the beautiful game [there are some, I am told] - and it is encouraging that there is clearly so much enthusiasm for the idea of England hosting the World Cup for the first time since 1966. Indeed, there appears to be far more appetite for a World Cup at this stage of the campaign than there was for London's 2012 Olympic bid at a similar stage six years ago.

But perhaps that was because London 2012, under the astute guidance of Sebastian Coe and Keith Mills [he was just a plain old Mr back then], were concentrating more of their efforts on the global campaign, winning the hearts and minds of the overseas voters who ultimately made the decision, rather than just making the bid look good to a local audience.

England's last bid to host the World Cup ended in acrimony and embarrassment in 2000 when they were eliminated in the second FIFA ballot with only two votes as bitter rivals Germany went on to be awarded the tournament. The banners proclaiming "Football's Coming Home" were hanging decidedly limp after that.

That slogan has mercifully been dropped and the FA have tried to do much more since then to improve relations with other foreign FA's, including investing heavily in development courses in the Third World as they have attempted to shake off their reputation for arrogance and complacency.

But, like London's 2012 Olympic bid, the FA have to create a reason for people to vote for them: Find a story, stick to it and sell it with conviction. England need to find an angle, probably focused on the excellence of the facilities and the passion of the fans. They have certainly ignited that passion but, as Stringer has quite rightly identified, let's not lose sight of what this is about, which should be bringing the World Cup back to these shores for the first time in more than half-a-century - not wasting taxpayers money on useless PR exercises.

Duncan Mackay is the publisher and editor of insidethegames.biz. He was the 2004 British Sports Journalist of the Year and was the athletics correspondent of The Guardian for 11 years, being the only British daily newspaper writer to correctly predict in 2005 that London's Olympic bid would be successful.

David Owen: Barack Obama needs to launch a major charm offensive for Chicago to win 2016

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alt Now Barack Obama has got his work cut out.

 

That, in essence, was my reaction this week on first reading the report of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Evaluation Commission for the 2016 Summer Games (available here).
 

The IOC’s inspectors highlighted a number of issues with the bid from Obama’s home city of Chicago that together add up to a pretty substantial litany.
 

Borrowing mainly from the report’s summary, the Commission stated that: the “emphasis on major temporary or scaled down venues increases the element of risk to the OCOG [organising committee] in regard to the planning, costing and delivery of the venues”; “transport efficiency…would depend on…a significant increase in the capacity and use of public transport and the success of other plans to reduce traffic”; “a clearer delineation of roles and responsibilities between the City and the OCOG would be required to ensure that the OCOG would not be overburdened operationally and financially”; and, perhaps most importantly, “Chicago 2016 has not provided a full guarantee covering a potential economic shortfall of the OCOG, as requested by the IOC”. 
 

The Windy City’s prospects now appear to hinge more than ever on a Tony Blair-style charm offensive by the popular US President if, as expected, he travels to Copenhagen ahead of the October 2 vote by IOC members.
 

I don’t think the game is yet up for Chicago, however.
 

One shouldn’t underestimate the prospect of individual IOC members being swayed by blandishments from the most powerful human on the planet.
 

Many within the Movement, in any case, can be expected to think very carefully before burning more bridges with the world’s only superpower.
 

And, let’s not forget, the critically important US TV deal for the 2013-16 period has yet to be negotiated.
 

I think we can now discount the possibility of a Tokyo victory.
 

By my reading, the Japanese capital would have required a near-perfect report to put it up in the mix with its rivals – and it didn’t get it.
 

To highlight just two perceived shortcomings, the Commission “expressed concern about the size of the land area available for the construction of the Olympic Village”, furthermore “during the venue visits, it became apparent…that a number of venues listed as existing would in fact need to be built”.
 

I remain of the view that the city is potentially a much stronger candidate for 2020 or 2024, when the case for returning to Asia should be that much more compelling.
 

As for Madrid, I was genuinely surprised by some of the Evaluation Commission’s observations.

If there was one candidate I would have expected to organise matters in just the way the IOC wanted, it would have been Madrid.
 

And yet we read: “the Candidature File and supporting documentation, as well as the administrative structure proposed for a Madrid 2016 Games, did not demonstrate a full understanding of the need for clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, including financial, between different stakeholders to ensure an efficient and timely transition to the OCOG, or of the management of operations required to implement the Games vision, concept and plans”.
 

Still more surprisingly, “documentation and presentations provided to the Commission by the key organisations involved in the bid varied in quality”.
 

Compare this with four years ago, when presentations given by Madrid’s 2012 bid were said to have been of “high quality”.
 

The Spanish capital can be expected to mount a canny lobbying effort in the days remaining to it, but it sounds as if, this time around, it has not always put its best foot forward, after coming so close to springing a surprise last time.
 

As for Rio de Janeiro, the city which I think it is now fair to describe as the front-runner, I was left a little puzzled by the structure of the Commission’s report.
 

From the section focusing on the city, I thought it had got pretty much a clean bill of health.

The summary, though, makes plain that there are potential issues regarding transport and accommodation in the Brazilian city that are by no means negligible.
 

It is worth spelling these out in detail.
 

The report states:
 

“The topography of Rio, as well as the legacy vision, involving the development of four key zones in the city, would impact on travel distances for some athletes and other client groups.
 

“Efficient implementation of the Games-time transport operations plan, including the Olympic lane system and delivery of extensive plans for new transport infrastructure, would be critical.”
 

It also says:
 

“To meet Games requirements and given the insufficient number of hotel rooms [my italics], Rio 2016 has put forward a tailored accommodation plan incorporating hotel rooms, four villages and six cruise ships…
 

“This project, including managing the 20,000 room media village…, would require particular attention in both the planning and delivery phases.
 

“The difficulty to obtain guarantees for cruise ships seven years before the Games places extra pressure on Rio 2016 to meet Games demands.”
 

So there you have it – rounding the home turn, by my estimation, three cities are still, just about, in the race.
 

It is important too to underline that, with margins sometimes as small as a single vote differentiating success from failure, the last four weeks of the contest could yet change everything.
 

Paris received a near flawless assessment from the inspectors four years ago, but still it didn’t win.
 

● Like Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, and his Cabinet, I have recently been privileged to visit London 2012’s fast-materialising Olympic Park.
 

There is something awe-inspiring about it – especially when I think back to the motley assortment of industrial workshops and breakers yards that covered much of the territory on my first expedition.
 

The sheer quantity of construction equipment is impressive enough, plus the way in which scarcely a metre of earth over a very considerable area seems to have been left undisturbed. 
 

I was, though, saddened to note as we drove near the edge of the site that it has been deemed necessary to electrify a portion of the perimeter fence.
 

The Olympic Delivery Authority explained that the top 1 metre of the 4 metre high barrier had been electrified and said it would deter me but not harm me in any way.
 

altIt is already clear that the Aquatics Centre, perched at present like a Meccano armadillo, is going to be a landmark building, at least as eye-catching as Beijing’s Water Cube.
 

What I am still not convinced by is the white ring of the Olympic Stadium itself.
 

Of course London, with its matchless heritage sites, has plenty of other attractions both for Olympic TV producers and lesser life forms.
 

We have also entered a comparatively austere age in which, it could be argued, less is more and a stadium that utilises 11,000 tonnes of steel, as opposed to the more than 40,000 tonnes in the skeleton of the breathtaking Bird’s Nest, is in tune with the mood.
 

I do hope though that the perennial wrangling over costs – and legacy use - does not end up with London hosting a party with a humdrum centre-piece.
 

Having gone to great lengths to win the Olympics, it would be a big mistake to provide a theatre that was anything less than stunning.
 

David Owen is a specialist sports journalist who worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering last year's Beijing Olympics. An archive of Owen’s material may be found by Twitter users at www.twitter.com/dodo938


Mike Moran: Lot riding on Olympic vote for Chicago and US sport

altBy Mike Moran

High anxiety is the theme for the next 30 days in Chicago and Colorado Springs as Chicago 2016 and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) count down the hours and minutes until October 2, the announcement of the 2016 Olympic Games host city from Copenhagen during the 121st Session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).


Prior to the final vote, Chicago will go first with its one-hour, formal presentation to the IOC, followed by Tokyo, Rio and Madrid. The official announcement follows a two-and-one-half hour session to vote, eliminating cities by rounds until the winner is named. This is big-time drama, trust me and there is a huge amount of critical things on the line for each city.

I sat through these white-knuckle moments that led to the selection of Atlanta and Salt Lake City as hosts for the Games, and watched the massive roar from thousands gathered in each downtown of the cities as the decision was announced on a big-screen, and the ensuing, joyous celebrations.

But the one I will remember most vividly is the July 6, 2005, announcement from Singapore that London had upset Paris to win the 2012 Olympic Games, while America’s candidate, New York City, went out in the second round. I was in my third year of employment with NYC2012, the Olympic bid group in New York as its chief communications counselor while our leadership and Mayor Mike Bloomberg were in Singapore for the vote, I had chosen to stay in Manhattan to help produce our community activity and deal with the New York media.

We had created a sort of Olympic “stadium” at Rockefeller Center above the famous  ice rink, with bleachers, a giant big screen, stage, and a artificial turf infield. We had space for maybe 7,000 people in the venue, plus standing room in the plaza for another 3,000 or so. On the evening of July 5, we trotted out celebrities, Olympians, Broadway performers and others to entertain a crowd that had gathered to watch the live TV feed of each of the candidate cities’ presentations (Moscow, Madrid, London, Paris and New York). That wrapped up about 1:30 a.m., and I headed back to the Regency Hotel to get some sleep. I recall the feeling I had as I stood in the empty plaza that early morning, with the stars out, the skyscrapers around me, and the sense of anticipation for the next morning. I think I said to myself, “This is as good as my job will ever get."

The morning of July 6 dawned with a light rain and stifling humidity and heat as the crowd gathered again at Rockefeller Center to watch the live feed of the final IOC vote around 7:00am. There were 15-20 TV crews and 60 reporters on hand in the media stand. Governor George Pataki was in his car near the venue and then it got very quiet. The first announcement was that Moscow was eliminated in the first round, which was expected. Within minutes, the image of IOC President Rogge appeared again with the terse announcement that “New York will not advance” to the third round. It was over, and the Governor’s car roared away to Albany, the crowd left quickly and without much more than an initial groan, and then came the news media.

I stood for the next hour on the turf, going from camera crew to camera crew, from scrum to scrum of reporters and photographers, all asking the obvious question. "What happened and why?” As I had done scores of times while with the USOC over 25 years, I spoke from the heart, no notes or script, and did my best to tell the story of why it was not New York, and why issues like the contentious West Side stadium fiasco, anti-American sentiment abroad, and other things had done in what was a magnificent bid in the end.

And it was a wonderful bid and plan. All of New York, its Boroughs and its ethnic communities and rich tapestry of citizens had come together for this effort. We imagined a 2012 opening ceremony in the new Olympic Stadium, with boats and ferries delivering the athletes to the pier by the venue, and fireworks across the city, and all that goes with what this amazing American city can offer. And sports at iconic venues like the Armory in Harlem, Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden and others

I departed by car to spend the rest of the day going from TV studio to radio studio, to newspaper offices and live remotes, ending at midnight with a bizarre final live piece from the ESPN Zone at Times Square. I slept the sleep of the dead that evening. Bid chief Dan Doctoroff had sent a message from Singapore to us that he would host a party on Monday evening for our staff and leaders at his home for the  young men and women, fresh-faced, vibrant, ever hopeful and optimistic, now crushed and in tears, many of them having given up good jobs to come on board with us to win the Games, for the volunteers from several nations, and for others who had given so much over the time since the USOC picked New York over San Francisco in Colorado Springs in November of 2002. I was not up to that, and I had no idea then what I would do next for a living, and I slipped out of the city the next afternoon and back to Colorado Springs. It was finally over for me.

On the flight home, I thought of the incredible events we had staged in New York as part of our effort, the announcement that we  had made the IOC’s final list of five early one morning at Bryant Park with Olympians and Paralympians on stage surrounding the Mayor, the announcement of the five finalists for the Olympic athlete village design project at historic Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal, the send-off of our official Bid Book from the Brooklyn Bridge on a wintry afternoon with the structure jammed with thousands of fans and that view of the city and the view from the 36th floor of our offices at One Liberty Plaza, that looked directly down at hallowed Ground Zero of our 9/11 national tragedy where the Twin Towers had stood.

Now, on October 2, it will be time for thousands in Chicago to face that moment when the announcement comes, when dreams and commitment are rewarded or dashed, when joy reigns or sadness crushes the city’s spirit.

altWhat are Chicago’s chances? Who can say? The small band of astute American journalists who cover the Olympic movement consistently writes after the IOC Evaluation report, that Rio de Janeiro might now appear to have momentum that is gaining steam. There appears to be IOC angst over the complete financial guarantee by the city against a shortfall, though the Mayor of Chicago says he will produce that.

A sobering Chicago Tribune/WGN poll out last week says that now, only 47 per cent of Chicagoans favor the bid, down from a reported 61 per cent in February, South America has never hosted the Olympic Games. Will President Obama go to Copenhagen to stump for his hometown and work the magic that UK Prime Minister Tony Blair produced in Singapore over 48 hours in 2005 that led the London upset of favored Paris?

One prominent IOC member said that, “normally, you would hope public sentiment would be building as a candidate city approaches the final competition”. Chicago has the best of the four bids, I think it satisfies all the IOC requirements other than the financial guarantee, and that may be solved soon. It has a passionate and savvy Mayor, a dignified and eloquent bid leader in Pat Ryan, the support of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, a solid financial plan and it should be America’s turn.

But you can never guess where the IOC is concerned. I sense that the minds of its members are mostly already made up, and that Chicago must get past the first round. My gut tells me it will be Chicago and Rio in the last round.

A triumph by Chicago means countless blessings for the USOC and its programmes, and sports in our nation in general. The rewards are huge, but a loss would be a tremendous setback for the USOC and America’s impact on international sport. It all comes to us in less than a month, the perfect storm.

Mike Moran was the chief communications officer of the USOC for nearly 25 years before retiring in 2003. In 2002 he was awarded with the USOC's highest award, the General Douglas MacArthur Award. He worked on New York's unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 Olympics and is now director of communications for the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation. He writes a weekly column on sport that you can read here

Mike Rowbottom: Modern Pentathlon has shot itself in the foot with rule change


altIt’s in front of me as I write – a target printed on yellow card, signed by a range officer, evidencing the results of 20-odd shots from a Morini 162E air pistol at a range of 10 yards. I fired the shots, which are largely grouped in an archipelago to the right of the central black circle.

In places, the holes in the card are conjoined, like frog spawn. My range officer, John, was enthusiastic about this. He thought the consistency showed promise. In my eyes, the target spoke of a marksman consistently off target. But there you go – maybe it would just be a matter of adjusting the sights…

It is beyond argument, however, that the shots were grouped. And it is beyond argument that the second series of shots I fired at a different target are all over the shop.

Why the discrepancy? Easy. In the intervening time I broke away from the range where competitors at last month’s World Modern Pentathlon championships were shortly to do their own firing, and ran a lap of the surrounding Crystal Palace track as fast as I could in blazing sunshine before being steered back to my firing position and invited to do my best within a couple of minutes.

It’s a while since I’ve run on a track. Okay, it’s more than 30 years since I’ve run on a track. In that time I’ve even resisted the temptation of joining in the unofficial sprints that seem to take place after every major athletics championship has come to a close. As scaffolding clatters and clangs, and TV commentators at the back of the stand re-record their spontaneous reactions with synthetic fervour, and technicians reel in their wires, and cleaners hover over sheaves of not-quite-finished-with results sheets, and engineers hover over not-quite- finished-with television screens, two or three youngsters always appear on the track to run their own clumsy 100 metres final. Usually one of them over-rotates, as athletes like to say, and falls on their face. At which point, the others laugh.

Such jolly larks. But as I say, I have nobly resisted the impulse to join in such merriment, which meant that my pace judgement, as athletes like to say, was lacking. At 300m I actually felt my legs beginning to tremble, to the point where I momentarily considered I might not be able to complete the circuit. With John awaiting, ushering arm outstretched, that would really not have been good.

That humiliation spared, I resumed my stance with the Morini 162E, left hand hooked, as before, in my belt loop, legs firmly placed. The problem this time was that my heart appeared to be beating in my right hand. Bump. Bump. Bump. The barrel was taking my pulse.

The thought struck me: why am I trying to do something that requires a steady hand after violent exercise?

It is an athletic oxymoron. Running and shooting – they go together like opposed magnets.

And this is what modern pentathletes now have to do. What next – combining the horse riding with the swimming, perhaps?

The decision of the sport’s international authority to streamline two of their elements is a fait accompli – strictly speaking, shouldn’t their sport now be called the modern quadrathlon? – but the attitude of many competitors is far from decided.

Jan Bartu, Britain’s long-serving performance director, says he has been speaking with counterparts in the Winter Olympics event of the biathlon to gain information about the best way of balancing the contending forces of shooting and running.
 
On being asked whether there has yet been any suggestion of introducing skis to modern pentathlon, the former Olympian manages a strained smile.
 
You could say there is a sub-text of dissent among many modern pentathletes. Heather Fell has been open about her disappointment over changes that have arrived just as she has established herself as one of the event’s leading performers. The word "gutted" has indeed been used.

Why do administrators do these things? As so often, the intention has been to jazz the event up, to eliminate the early morning longeurs of the lonely morning shooting session, offering spectators the more stirring prospect of a whiz-bang finale.

It’s all wrong. It’s going too far. It’s akin to the simplistic notion floated some years ago by FIFA of creating more goals in football by – wait for it – widening the goals.

Brilliant. But even the widest goal can be missed, gentlemen. I suggest introducing five or more differently coloured footballs into each game. Then watch those scores mount.

And while we’re at it – the marathon. Terrific event. Historical. But it goes on, doesn’t it? Hours of plodding. I’d say it either comes down to 5k or we get the runners to do something a little more alluring en route. Maybe we need to think about getting some gymnastics in there.

Swimming? Again – classic Olympic event. But it’s an extended exercise in avoidance, isn’t it? If we get rid of those outmoded lanes we’ll finally see those sporting rivalries manifest themselves in direct and passionate combat. Fight for the right to medal, sort of thing. Like Gladiators.

Anyway, you see the sort of thing I’m getting at.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now freelancing and wrties regularly for insidethegames

Tom Degun: My ride on the wall of death

altWhile I am certainly no Chris Hoy, I consider myself to be a reasonably good cyclist. It was for that reason that I rather courageously - or foolishly depending on your viewpoint - decided to participate in a track cycling session at the Wales National Velodrome at a press conference that preceded the UK School Games.

Jamie Staff, the Beijing Olympic gold medalist in the team sprint, was leading the track demonstration with four young cyclists due to compete in the UK School Games, which started last night, before five members of the media were allowed to join the session.

Reassuring myself that I was in the capable hands of an Olympic champion, I booked one of the five places convinced that everything would run smoothly. However, things did not go according to plan.

Having made a hasty decision to drive from my home in Essex to the Velodrome in Newport, I arrived rather late after a five-hour journey, most of which was spent admiring the tail lights of the stationary cars in front.

Eventually finding the Velodrome (map reading was never my strong point); I hurried to the track where I was immediately asked to change into my sports gear as the demonstration was ready to get underway.

Although I do not think driving a car down the M4 is how Jamie warms up for his races, I realised that the time to pull out of the session whilst saving face had long expired. As an aspiring young sports journalist, I certainly didn’t want to be labeled “that chicken from insidethegames”.

When I returned to the track, I was given a bike, which was extremely light, a helmet and some gloves. It did not take me long to discover that unlike the mountain bike in my garage, this bike had no brakes! It also had very thin tyres and handlebars that curved downwards. I was beginning to realise that I may be in some trouble.

As I looked round the Velodrome, I saw just how steep the track was. The two ends of the track were so vertical I thought they had been replaced by walls.

Feeling less confident by the second, I approached Jamie with a smile that did not conceal my nervousness.

Apart from me, there were only two other cyclists from the media taking part in the session while the rest of the assembled press watched on with obvious amusement.  “I thought there were meant to be five guys from the media?” Jamie asked. “No, two pulled out,” said a gentleman nearby. Though I laughed, I thought that they probably had the right idea.

We put our gloves and head gear on and climbed onto our bike by leaning against the metal rail on the inside of the track to put our feet in the straps attached to the pedals.

alt“Okay then” Jamie said, “Make sure that you hold the bottom of the handlebars. You will have to lean forward [in the superman position]. It might hurt your back a bit but make sure you stay in that position if you can”.

“These bikes [track racing] obviously have no brakes so you have to slow down your pedaling to go slower and pedal backwards to stop.

“Make sure you keep pedaling or you will fall off. Always look straight and a good piece of advice is to go hard into the slopes as you approach them. They are the same gradient as the ground if you cycle at a steady pace on them. Okay guys, 'Let’s go'."

Having barely understood most of the instructions, I set off on the flat part of the track hoping I would get the hang of it once I started riding. My first thought was that it wasn’t too difficult. I could feel the gears clicking but I kept a steady pace behind Jamie and the bike ran smoothly.

“Okay,” Jamie shouted, “Let’s head up the slope a bit."

Tentatively, I moved my bike onto the slope and although I felt I was at a right angle, the bike gripped the slope well.  “Just keep a steady pace,” I reassured myself, “and you will be fine."

With the wind blowing hard against my face which actually proved a pleasant sensation, I began to get more adventurous and advance further up the slope. Things were going well when, after about 10 laps of the track, I began feeling a little tired. You may call me unfit, but I was going round those slopes extremely fast to ensure I didn’t fall while trying to keep up with an Olympic champion!

Getting steadily more tired by the second, I began to fall quite a way behind Jamie when suddenly, the bottom of my tracksuit got caught in the pedal strap. Though I didn’t fall, I wobbled aggressively as I managed to pull the bike back in a straight line.

Hoping the assembled press hadn’t observed this, I quickly glanced at the inside of the track where a group of grinning faces confirmed to me that they had indeed noticed. I valiantly peddled on until Jamie finally called us in.

It took a while for me to slow down sufficiently to grab hold of the metal rail that would bring the bike to a halt but with Jamie’s assistance, I managed to do so. I climbed off the bike completely breathless and dripping with sweat but still in one piece.

altJamie rode up to me with a smile on his face. “Did you enjoy that?” he asked.

“Yes,” I admitted, “it was good fun. It’s so tiring though. How on earth do you do that for a living?”

Jamie smiled again in a gesture that said more than words ever could. The smile indicated that it is years of hard, tiring work and dedication on a track like this that makes an Olympic champion.

I think I’ll let Jamie do the hard work, endless training and tough competition, though. I’ll stick to writing about it.

Tom Degun graduated this summer from the University of Bedfordshire with  
a BA First Class honours degree in Sport, Media and Culture and joned insidethegames last week as a reporter and our Paralympics correspondent