The Wrong Road to the Top?

A recent casual conversation with an elite Australian athlete can only be classified as “Naive.” The question as I walked way was whether I was the one who was naive, or were they?

The issue that had me questioning was one of “vitamins.” The athlete in question explained how they were given a number of vitamins to be taken every day, to ensure that they stayed at peak levels of fitness. Now we are not saying that there is anything untoward in relation to the vitamins being given to the athlete, and others in the same program, but it did make one wonder what would happen if one athlete refused to take the vitamins. Would they be thrown off of the program?

There is no way that this assistance, to see an athlete reach peak performance, is going to ever be as bad as some of the programs established by the East Germans, but surely athletes should not be put in a position where there is pressure to take such vitamins. Who can forget East German shot putt champion Heidi Krieger, who was so masculinized by the drugs her coaches gave her that she later chose to become a man, undergoing a sex-change operation to become Andreas Krieger. However Kreiger was among thousands of young East German athletes who ended up scarred by an East German government plan to dominate Olympic sports through chemistry. In the investigation into the programs it was revealed that in most cases the athletes were told the pills and shots were vitamins and natural supplements.

This has a very familiar ring to it. Funding for various sports is as we have seen based on success or expected success, that success guarantees jobs.Suddenly the price of an athlete’s or a team’s success has far bigger ramifications.

What is being taken now may well be legal, but what may be the effects later?

In 2005 the New Scientist magazine revealed that professional footballers appeared to be at increased risk of a nerve disorder that causes paralysis and death. It is the same type of motor neurone disease that physicist Steven Hawking has, and is called ALS. A study of 7,000 Italian players showed the condition was five times more common than expected.

The study was carried out by Dr Adriano Chiò and colleagues at the University of Turin who looked back at the medical records of footballers who had played in Italy’s first or second division between 1970 and 2001. Normally the incidence of ALS, would be expected to be that one or fewer of the players had ALS. It was found that five had developed the condition. Apart from the higher incidence rate the players with ALS had developed it at a much earlier age than is typical for the disorder, at around 40 rather than 60 years of age.

At that time the researchers suggested “that the high risk might be linked to sports injuries, performance-enhancing drugs or exposure to environmental toxins such as fertilizers or herbicides used on football fields, as well as genetic factors.” The truth is the doctors do not know why this is the case, as Dr Brian Dickie of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, was quoted at the time as saying “We still don’t know what causes this link, or whether it would be reflected in other groups of footballers and sportspeople.There is some anecdotal evidence of a link between high levels of physical exercise and an increased risk of developing motor neurone disease. However, much more research needs to be carried out before we can draw definite conclusions.”

Some would say though that more caution should be taken by athletes before taking vitamins supplied by team doctors. One former Australian footballer who played in Italy, advised that vitamins were commonplace and brought around the night before a game. He advised that he would place them under his tongue and then spit them out once the doctor had left, as how could he be 100% sure what he was being given?

Today such tools as vitamins are called ergogenic aids and they are a legal way of enhancing performance.

A recent article by the BBC saw Spanish professional cyclist Fran Medina reveal the cocktail of multivitamins taken every morning. These consisted of “folic acid, iron, vitamin C – that helps absorb all the vitamins.” he was quoted as saying. He then said that he also takes B6 and B12 which he believed were good for “Oxidative stress.” This is a theory where the cells in the body are believed to experience molecular damage caused by reactive forms of oxygen, called free radicals; all very scientific!

After two hours of training the same article revealed that Fran then takes L-arginine which is also for oxidative stress. Other supplements on the market that do the same thing are apparently Bovine Colostrum, caffeine, sodium bicarbonate and nicotine. This last one is apparently under surveillance at the moment by the World Anti Doping Agency.

The same article from the BBC quoted Dr Mikel Zabala from the Sports Science Faculty at Granada University in Spain as saying that “while nicotine and caffeine help an athlete to be more alert, other substances are used to build muscle strength.”

The article went on to explain all manner of other supplements that are currently legal for athletes to use, but no one can confirm if there are long term effects to absorbing more than is natural. For example Creatine, plays an important role in the production of energy in the body, but how much is too much? Beetroot juice, helps increase the levels of nitric oxide in the body and could help a swimmer reduce the number of breaths they need in a short distance race. Are there long term side affects to this?

Another new and legal addition to an athlete’s preparation are Oxygen tents. Here athletes can sit inside the tent and simulate an environment of over 13,000 feet. Olympic Gold medallist in the 10,000m and 5000m at the London Olympic Games is believed to have slept in one such tent up until the last day before his race . This is called Hypoxic training -essential in endurance sports – and there is a big push by some nations to see it banned as it is classed as performance enhancing; in Italy it is already banned. Mind you it is not cheap, the cost is estimated to be USD5000. However when you weigh it up against the marketability of international sporting success it is a small price to pay.

Just because something is not illegal does not mean that it is fair, or in fact good for you.

The fact is none of this is new. From 776 BC athletes routinely boosted performance with hallucinogenic mushrooms, plants and mixtures of wine and herbs, and the winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, 110 years ago, Tommy Hicks was given a cocktail of a one-milligram grain of strychnine and some brandy. The effect was it gave him a temporary boost until another was administered. He won the gold but it damn near killed him when he finished.

I guess people will do whatever it takes to strive for athletic glory, but hopefully some athletes will ask more questions today than they did in days gone by. Certainly no athlete should be forced to take something they do not wish to take, or have their place on an elite program or on a team put in jeopardy by refusing to do so.

As for who is naive? Still trying to work that one out…

 

July 22, 2014 at 9:27 am Leave a comment

Sun Goes Down Over Orient, But the Cloud has a Silver Lining.

It was the great Dutch football coach and the man who is credited with inventing “Total Football,”Rinus Michels who said  “Football is business and business is business.”

Some would say that one businessman in the sporting world who knows how to manage both world is sports entrepreneur Barry Hearn.

Hearn’s involvement in the sporting world started with snooker. Some would say it was good timing when he bought a snooker hall in Romford in Essex just as the sport started to gain television coverage, others would say it was foresight. He became the manager of six times World Champions Steve Davis and several other top players through his company Matchroom Sport.

Hearn then moved into the world of boxing, the first fight he promoted was Frank Bruno v Joe Bugner at White Hart Lane, and he went on to promote big names in British boxing such Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn, Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed. He was the creator of the Prizefighter events and was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame earlier this year.

It was Hearn who brought darts to our television screens in such a big way and has given the sport a new life. There is no doubting he is a very shrewd businessman who knows how to promote a sport.

In 1995 Hearn stepped in as Chairman of Leyton Orient football club at a time when it was facing extinction. There were highs during his time at the helm under coach Martin Ling, but also lows with the club having its longest run in the bottom division (the fourth tier) of the Football League. However the club is now financially stable.

Just over a week ago Hearn won a settlement from the Premier League over the use of the Olympic Stadium and them promptly sold the club to Italian billionaire Francesco Becchetti. Some fans will be sad to see the club in foreign hands and also to see Hearn go, as he obviously cared about the club, but by all accounts the compensation he gained the club has been classified as “substantial.”

After a drawn out battle West Ham have tenancy of the Olympic Stadium with a 99 year lease at a cost of UKL2million a year. However the door has been left open for Leyton Orient to play “Showcase” games at the venue.

“It should have been designed as a ground-sharing football stadium from the off,” Hearn is quoted as saying. “That mistake has cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions. I never had a problem with West Ham. It was with the government who made a terrible decision in not taking advantage of what Olympic legacy really means.”

A comment that Western Australians would do well to remember as their new state-of-the-art multi-purpose stadium was unveiled last week. Let us hope our government has indeed got it right.

Barry Hearn is a very good businessman, and as he leaves Leyton Orient in a better state than he found it, he has also no doubt done his own business the world of good. There are many who dabble in football who leave unable to say that.

There was a great comment made by the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger a few years ago when referring to agents “The difference between you and me is that, if tomorrow there was no more money in football, I’d still be here, but not you.” The same could easily be said of some club’s owners.

July 21, 2014 at 10:15 am Leave a comment

Time To Give Back

It was two months ago in our story Investing in the Future we questioned the Football Federation of Australia splitting the profits from the sale of Western Sydney Wanderers with other A-League franchises to the tune of $250,000 each. We made it clear that this money should have been spent on development, with a focus on the women’s game, as surely when the Government gave the FFA $8million to set up Western Sydney Wanderers the money was supposed to be spent on exactly that, development. In fact the Government was very clear where the money was to be spent; “$5 million to help develop growth in participation in grassroots football of which $1 million will go to women’s football in the area. Another $3 million is set aside for the redevelopment of Football NSW’s headquarters at Valentine Sports Park in Glenwood.”

Sadly for the game the profits, which many feel should have been paid back to the Government before being shared, have been give to private investors to prop up their clubs with the aim of helping them record a profit in 2014/15 and make the competition look healthier than it is.

There were many who said that the FFA should have sat on the money and waited to see where the game needed investment the most, and had they done so they may well have been able to save the Australian Paralympic program and team.

Last week we featured Paul Brown the coach of the Pararoos on the show and he revealed the hackneyed way in which funding was handled. The Australian Sports Commission giving money to the Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) who then gave it to the FFA to set up the program. One has to wonder if any of the funds were eaten up with the administration of the the transfer of these monies. He also revealed that the FFA ploughed in around $90k to a make the Paralympic program work.

Funding for the Paralympic program has now been withdrawn despite strong arguments that it should have remained. (A decision that goes beyond comparison) The whispers coming across the country are that the FFA put a very weak argument forward for the Winning Edge program on which funding allocations are based. The proposal put forward apparently had a very strong bias towards able-bodied programs, where the revised coaching structures have in recent times seen Australia fail to deliver.

In fact the Pararoos didn’t warrant a mention in the Winning Edge Tally under Paralympic managed sports, despite having only just missed out on Paralympic qualification twice in the last two World Championships. Although we have nothing against the sport, Boccia achieves funding ‘because even though they are not worthy of a medal in 2016 they have potential in 2020.”

The Pararoos have lost all of their $170k funding and are now likely to fold due to the fact that they will have no money for camps, or to play in tournaments and maintain their number 10 ranking. Here is a prime example as to why the FFA should not have handed the profits of the sale of Western Sydney Wanderers to the other A-League clubs. Had the FFA kept that money they could have easily funded the program and maintained it, and then they would have had the right to call all players of the game in Australia part of the “Football Family.”

You cannot pick and chose who is in your family as we all know, but it would appear that this may well be the case here. Hopefully the family will pull together and ensure that this program does not fold. If very A-League club returned $25k of the $250k they received from the FFA our Pararoos would be able to keep that Paralympic dream alive. Maybe it is time fans of A-League clubs rose up and demanded such a gesture from their clubs. Maybe there is one club out there who would like to lead the way. After all it only takes one…

 

July 16, 2014 at 12:20 pm Leave a comment

The Price Of Failure Still to be Calculated

The FIFA World Cup has come to an end and Germany were the worthy winners. There have been many memorable moments, great goals great saves and great skill. Sadly as always some not so memorable moments too in terms of decisions, fouls and player behaviour.

As the world settles back into a normal routine, Brazil is left to clean up after the party. It is now many are predicting that they will find the real damage done during the hosting of the world’s sporting event.

Already many experts as well as key figures in the International Olympic Committee are extremely concerned about their event the 2016 Olympics being host in Rio.

According to Professor Ellis Cashmore a senior lecturer in culture, media and sport at the UK’s Staffordshire University the ramifications of Brazil’s 7-1 defeat spells trouble for the Olympics.

“For Brazil hosting the World Cup has been a disaster.” He said. “I think they will rue the day they ever bid for it. The World Cup was designed as a showcase for Brazil to be joining the world’s elite as a new economic power. Instead it has opened them up to ridicule. For years they have been the custodians of the “Beautiful Game” but that reputation has ended. Now they have two years before the Olympics. There were protests going into this World Cup because people thought it was too expensive and I think the Games will now lose more public support. We will see an escalation in protests.”

IOC President Thomas Bach who met with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is putting on a brave face and has said he is pleased with the confidence she has shown in delivering an outstanding Games. One thing Bach is already onto is and investigation into the ticketing process to ensure that the Olympics in Brazil do not suffer the same embarrassing ticketing scandals that the World Cup did.

They say sport and politics do not mix, yet politicians often gamble on sport assisting them in the polls due to the feel good factor when a host nation performs well. Sport can undoubtedly lift the people and instil national pride, and there are many great examples of this none more so than the Sydney Olympics and South Africa hosting and winning the 1995 Rugby World cup. The trouble is if as a nation your athletes under perform the backlash can be huge. Will Brazil’s government now feel the same backlash? We will have to wait and see.

July 16, 2014 at 10:54 am Leave a comment

The Catalyst For Change?

Ian Thorpe’s decision to go public with the announcement that he is gay has been applauded due to the fact that it may help other young gay men and women find the courage to not be afraid to tell the world, or at least their family and friends that they too are homosexual.

What is sad however is that in this day and age we are happy to accept that actors or dancers may be ‘gay,’ but that still a large section of the community have a problem countenancing the fact that an athlete, especially a male one should be gay. Sadly many of our female athletes are immediately branded as being gay, even if they are not, because of a thought pattern that existed almost a century ago when it was deemed that women were not suited to sport and their playing sport was unseemly.

It was the former President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage who was quoted as saying during his time in the role, “the ancient Greeks kept women athletes out of the games. They wouldn’t even let them on the sidelines. I’m not sure but that they were right.”

Women have had to suffer incredible slights as they have pursued sporting success and nearly every successful one has at some stage been accused of being gay.

Why is this still the case? For those who say it isn’t, sadly it most definitely is. Hopefully it will not be for much longer.

Equally why should sports fans care whether an athlete is a homosexual or a hetrosexual? Surely most sports fans watch sport for the athleticism of the athletes taking part, because they follow a team, or admire an individual’s ability. Does it really make a difference who they go home to at the end of the day? We applaud great actors, singers and dancers who we know go home to a partner of the same sex, so why is it that sports stars are not allowed to to be who they really are.

Martina Navratilova bravely “came out” when at the top of her tennis career. Some would say that she had the financial stability at that time to do so. The year was 1981, but still all of her sponsors dropped her, even though she was the World number one and already had Grand Slam victories under her belt.

That was over 30 years ago, surely sponsors would not withdraw from a modern day athlete purely because he was “gay?” If they did, would not society today look down on that product rather than the athlete?

Most fans when they watch sport want to see the best perform, and if not the best individuals they want people to go out there and perform as if their life depended on it for their team. Surely that is all we should ask of our sports stars, that they reach for goals we can only dream of, that they entertain us, and make us talk about their exploits long after they have retired. Their sexuality should be irrelevant.

If football really is the working man’s ballet, then why can’t footballers be accepted the same as dancers, if they are gay or straight?

Hopefully an icon such as Ian Thorpe ‘coming out’ will break down even more barriers. Hopefully it will not change the way people felt and still feel about his athletic achievements, as the two are not even closely related. It is sad that he felt he had to make such a public announcement, but if he makes it easier for those following in his footsteps then his greatness goes beyond his success in the Pool. May he now be able to live an unburdened life and be left to live it in peace. He has given us so much, it is now time we gave him his privacy and his own life back; not the one we think he should live.

July 14, 2014 at 5:28 pm Leave a comment

A Decision That Goes Beyond Comparison

News that the Paralympic football program has lost all of its funding has angered many sports fans across the country. Probably because these Paralympic footballers epitomise the Australian spirit. They are all battlers who have in the main through their own dedication and commitment, financial and physical made it to be ranked number 10 in the World.

All of the players dream of fulfilling the Paralympic dream in Rio, yet with no funding they will now have to withdraw from international tournaments, their world ranking will lower and their chances of qualifying will evaporate. Some have even said that the Paralympic program will collapse.

Football has always promoted itself as being the most inclusive of sports and a game where there are so many avenues to international representation. There are mens and womens teams at senior level and junior level and all have the chance to play in World Cups. There is a national Futsal team the Futsalaroos, there is even a national Beach Football team, the Beach Socceroos. All of these are overseen by the Football Federation of Australia.

There are some sceptics who are looking at the Paralympic football program and watching very closely to see if the FFA diverts funding to the program to cover the $170k cut made by the Australian Sports Commission. A failure to do so will have many questioning whether the FFA’s commitment to this program is merely lip service and a commitment made to the program to tick a box in its World Cup bid; similar to the Indigenous program that was withdrawn once the bid was lost and was only  re-intstated due to pressure from outsiders who sourced the majority of funding.

Let us compare apples with apples. The Pararoos didn’t qualify for London 2012. The Matildas did not qualify for London 2012. The Olyroos did not qualify for London 2012. So there are no differences there.

The Pararoos play in Oceania, but finished second in the only Paralympic tournament held by the Asian Football Confederation. If they played in Asia many believe they would be the second best team. The Matildas came second in the Asian Cup earlier this year having won it four years ago. The Socceroos came second in the Asian Cup four years ago. Again no differences there.

At the last World Cup the Pararoos did not progress from the group stage; had they done so they would have qualified to the Paralympics. The Under 17′s mens and womens teams did not qualify for the World Cup. The womens Under 20 side did not qualify for the World Cup. The men did, but failed to make it out of the Group stage. The Socceroos have not made it out of the group stage at the last two World Cups. Whereas the Matildas made the quarter finals of the 2011 World Cup.

With the exception of the Matildas once again there is no difference in all of the teams. Yet the youth international teams, the Socceroos and the Matildas will all receive financial support; the male side of the game substantially more than the female side. Yet in reality Australia’s best chances of World Cup or Olympic glory lies with the Matildas, and the Pararoos.

If we look at the opportunities being given to the players in all of these teams, every single one in the youth team set ups will be part of a state or national High Performance program. Only two of the players in the Pararoos are part of such a program. Both of them in Western Australia, where Football West have been extremely supportive to the program, and are to be applauded for the progress made.

When you look at this closely is Football really being inclusive? Surely the FFA could hold back on bringing over a tired former superstar and divert their share of his salary to the Paralympic program. They certainly do not need to pay them to play in Foxtel All star games, when that money could be spent on Australian players and teams.

Australia is supposed to be the country where everyone is given a fair go. Let all Football fans unite to give the Pararoos a fair go of qualifying for the Paralympic Games in Rio and put pressure on the powers that be to give the team the funding they require to remain competitive.

July 9, 2014 at 8:02 am 1 comment

Coming Full Circle?

In a sport where you have to throw the ball backwards in order to go forwards it would appear that one team is having to go back in time before it can move forward. South African rugby finds itself at yet another crossroads despite the Apartheid regime coming to an end over twenty years ago.

It was understandable after decades of segregation that once the barriers came down South African sport had to do something to ensure that there was integration of black players into the predominantly white cricket and rugby teams. Unfortunately some black players paid a heavy price, by being promoted to the national team or even provincial team before they were ready. Others in those early days were given time to settle into the role given and the team as a whole, but all will tell you it was not easy being a minority in a team and knowing that many were wondering if you were there purely to meet a quota, or whether you were in fact good enough.

Twenty years on and the quota system is still in place. Should it be? Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated several years ago that he felt it should not be. That South Africa now had to be run based on merit, and not along tribal lines or based on the colour of a man’s skin. Regrettably the leaders in the ANC no longer choose to listen to this wise man who has lived through so much and his efforts were recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize.

In April this year the South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula stated that major sporting bodies in the country needed to implement a quota policy that raises the number of blacks in provincial and national teams.  He wanted this brought in immediately. Mbalula, wanted to raise the quota from 50 to 60 per cent in favour of Black players in response to a study that showed South African sport was dragging its heels on transformation.

The South African Rugby Union were ordered to submit to the government its development plans to address this issue “as a matter of urgency and with immediate effect”. They were not alone as the South African governing bodies for cricket, soccer, netball and athletics were also told to lodge their transformation plans.

Interestingly the soccer team is made up of predominantly black players and it is believed when the Minister was asked if the same quota system would apply to white players in that team he dismissed the question. This is one reason why a quote system will not work.

The other is that the hierarchical system in South Africa is not as simple as Black and White. In many facets of life preference is given based on a person’s tribal background first and foremost. In fact many leaders in South Africa do not even appreciate that the Chinese during Apartheid were classified as black, yet are they on an equal footing now?

Last week the issue was raised again when head of the union COSATU implied that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer was deliberately not giving black players a chance. “The team on the field is still over-represented by white players, even though there are many great black players in the squad,” said the COSATU statement.

It went on to say, “Looking at the match on Saturday, again black players are brought on to the field in the last five minutes, even though the Springboks are comfortably ahead. This is because the coach is scared that the black players will outshine the white players, if they get lots of game time. Even when players go off for injury, they are rushed back on because the black replacements may shine. The arrogance of the white boys club continues to be displayed very publicly, an example being how Matfield wears an old South African riot squad skull cap, completely disregarding how this may impact on the sentiments of black South Africans.” Matfield was wearing the same scrum cap that matches his Blue Bulls hideous and inappropriate military-style alternate strip.

Sports Minister Mbalula has warned that any sporting body that resists the new government order could have its funding withdrawn and runs the risk of being  banned from representing South Africa in international events.

He may not have to do that, as sadly many sporting bodies outside of South Africa are already watching these moves very closely and just as there was a boycott of South African sport when the Government of the day chose to exclude black players, feeling is growing that the time to boycott South African teams may again not be that far away this time for white players being excluded.

South Africa promotes itself as the Rainbow nation, their government would do well to remember there are seven colours in a rainbow that make it such a spectacular sight. It is not dominated by any one colour, they all stand together as one. It is from that unification that such a beautiful vision is created.

The time for Quotas are over. By all means have a quota with your squads, and the Government could subsidise  teams to include and bring through more players of colour, but come match day a coach must always play his best team with no interference based on age, religion, tribe or colour. Picking a player for any of these reasons does not do the individual any good.

It is sad that the current Government have forgotten so quickly the words of their former leader Nelson Mandela who said “Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Sport cannot be contrived, it cannot be open to questions of over its validity. If it is that hope soon becomes despair. Twenty years on it is time to focus on development and then let the talent determine who deserves the highest honour of representing this great sporting nation.

With only one Super Rugby franchise making it to the finals in 2014, many believe that the slide has already started, for sports sake, and for the nation’s sake let us hope that is not the case.

 

July 8, 2014 at 11:26 am Leave a comment

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