Saturday 21 October 2017

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil - Hypocritical English needs to look at their own

No Farah and (inset) Justin Gatlin received very different receptions
No Farah and (inset) Justin Gatlin received very different receptions

Eamonn Sweeney

It was hard to stomach, wasn't it? Seeing a man like that, a man with all those questions surrounding him which he's never answered properly, a man who so many people believe is a cheat, winning gold at the biggest event in world athletics. And having to watch Justin Gatlin winning the 100m the night after was even worse.

If the World Athletics Championships was a movie and its screenwriter had decided to show the hypocrisy of the home crowd by juxtaposing their acclaim of Mo Farah with their abuse of Justin Gatlin, he or she would have been rightly criticised. Come on old chap or girl, we'd have said. No need to be so heavy-handed and obvious. Don't rub it in. We get your point, there's no need to be doing the Ken Loach on it.

Yet last week truth turned out to be less subtle than fiction. There they were in London, cheering Mo Farah to the echo and booing Justin Gatlin like there was a prize for going for it.

Now Justin Gatlin is a cheat. The fact that he won the world title last week and that there are other cheats in his sport does not change that. Yet never before has he been booed the way he was in London. In Rio in 2016, in Beijing in 2015, in Moscow in 2013 and indeed in London in 2012 he was able to take the track without this kind of accompaniment. Yet all these championships took place after his punishments for doping violations. So why the enormous display of public outrage in London in 2017?

It can't all be to do with Justin Gatlin, whose behaviour hasn't changed since he ran in London five years ago. But what has changed, or at least been challenged, is the British assumption that their native sporting heroes are morally superior and wholly untainted by the suspicion of dubious behaviour. Question marks have arisen about Sir Mo Farah and Sir Bradley Wiggins and the cycling teams led by Sir Dave Brailsford, questions which are difficult for the home crowd to deal with.

Hence, I suspect, the gusto with which they booed Justin Gatlin. It's what psychologists call a 'displacement activity.' Confronted with conflicting urges they are unable or unwilling to resolve, animals and humans will sometimes do something else altogether to relieve the tension. So a crowd unable to face up to the questionable nature of Sir Mo Farah's achievements decided to give Mister Justin Gatlin both barrels.

By booing the American to such an extent they were saying, "We British are outraged by cheating, in fact more outraged by it than anyone else. So it stands to reason that none of our heroes are cheats, because if they were, we'd be outraged by them. And we're not. Honestly."

It wasn't just the crowd in the stadium who behaved like this. Lots of British pundits affected to believe that Gatlin's victory is an unprecedented low for athletics. Some of them even coupled the unbelievably good performance of Almaz Ayana along with it as gravely worsening athletics' credibility problem.

Mo Farah after finishing second in the 5,000m final at the World Championships in London last night. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty
Mo Farah after finishing second in the 5,000m final at the World Championships in London last night. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty

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Yet, as anyone outside Britain can clearly see, at the moment Ayana's success gives less cause for suspicion than Farah's does. At this stage Farah has so many red flags surrounding him he could form his own Communist Party. There is the strange mid-career improvement stemming from his move to be trained by Alberto Salazar who the United States Anti-Doping Agency has said used illegal drugs to improve the performance of his athletes.

Farah insists Salazar is innocent. He also insisted he didn't know another coach associated with doping, Jama Aden, until Aden's daughter posted a picture on Facebook of the pair of them having dinner together. It also turned out that Farah had attended training sessions with Aden. The blanket denial of acquaintance was then replaced by Jesuitical claims that Aden hadn't been exactly running the sessions but had merely been there in some unexplained capacity.

As the man said, there's more. The fact that Farah missed enough dope tests to be within one missed test of being banned for one thing. And the leaked revelation that Farah's biological passport details in 2015 meant that he was flagged as a 'likely doper' before being checked and marked 'normal' in April 2016. At this championships Farah, who has never failed a drugs test, has gone from refusing to answer questions about doping to refusing to answer questions altogether.

Now it may be that Mo Farah is entirely innocent. We can't be sure either way. Such stories, however, have not always ended well. So it is extremely odd to see both the BBC and the British sports media in general pretend that these questions don't exist at all.

When you see it reported without comment in the normally sceptical Guardian that the head of UK Athletics Neil Black knows Farah and Salazar aren't cheats because he has looked into their eyes, you can tell that common sense has left the building.

Sport does not exist in isolation from society. The GAA's infamous Ban, for example, was a product of the conservative, fearful and xenophobic Ireland of the time. And the refusal to admit that very large question marks exist around the successes of Wiggins, Farah, Brailsford et al is tied in with the return to England of a type of jingoism it seemed to have shaken off decades ago.

wiggins.jpg
Bradley Wiggins of Team Wiggins. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

When I lived in London in the late 1980s, the lack of nationalism was refreshing, particularly by comparison to Ireland. Yet, and perhaps Tony Blair's extolling of 'Cool Britannia', the rise of Britpop and the 1996 European Football Championships were key markers, the pendulum seems to have swung back the other way.

You can see it in something as simple as the way English football hooliganism abroad is reported. Where this was once a cause for national shame, now the first instinct is to blame over-zealous local police or sinister foreign fans. Last year's insistence that the drunken aggressive English fans who'd taken over the centre of Marseille for days were harmless compared to the Russian hard chaws who gave them their comeuppance was a classic. As far as the mass of the English media was concerned, the English fans could not be to blame because they were 'our boys'.

The same kind of mentality is evident in the way that the BBC have turned the last two Olympics into a kind of Nuremburg Rally in shorts. There was something charming about the tennis fans who shouted, "Come on Tim," on Henman Hill. People who are supposed to be providing a professional viewpoint shouting, "Come on Mo," "Come on Chris," and "Come on Marginal Gains," not so much.

Bad things happen when you indulge this kind of mentality. In an excellent article in April's Times Literary Supplement, a writer, and rowing coach, named Josh Raymond suggested that jingoistic sports coverage had paved the way for Brexit. There certainly are unmistakable parallels between the Brexiteers and the Team GB Cheerleaders. The former tell the doubters to shut their eyes, wave the flag, forget about the painful economic facts and remember the Dunkirk Spirit. The latter do the same thing in sporting terms.

The silence surrounding Mo Farah is perhaps increased by the fact that the more liberal English sportswriters who normally make a stand against jingoism are reluctant in this case because, in a country riven by racial tension, Farah as a former child refugee and a Muslim has become a poster boy for a multi-cultural society. This is all very laudable but they might be better off sticking to Moeen Ali.

I say all this as an Anglophile, maybe even something of a West Brit. I love the best of England and that's why it saddens me to see BBC panels and commentators night after night pretending that there is nothing problematic about the triumph of Mo Farah. This is the BBC after all, the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world. It should be better than this.

The damage wrought by the norovirus has added to the impression that these are the World Championships from Hell. There was nothing much the organisers could do about the fact that the virus swept through one of the athlete hotels. Yet had the same thing happened in Rio or Beijing we'd have been deluged with hot takes along the lines of, "This might not be very PC, but those countries, eh?" You'd even have had the odd adventurous soul suggesting all the athletes should be brought home before someone died and that in future major games should only be held in civilised Western cities. You know, like London.

Some people were downright exultant about Gatlin's victory which they see as exposing the contradictions of the IAAF's stance on doping. I didn't celebrate much myself. Athletics is still a great sport, one which provides an enormous amount of joy, especially for competitors at underage level. Anything which damages it is nothing to cheer about. I'm sentimental that way I suppose.

It might not be perfect but athletics didn't deserve a World Championships like this. No sport does.

 

Canning's mature reflection proves players can be trusted to speak and still perform well

When Joe Canning hit his score of the century this day last week one particular group of non-Galway people were especially pleased. The group in question? Sports journalists.

This wasn’t because of our enhanced emotional sensitivity towards and recognition of greatness. Not just because of it anyway. It had more to do with the fact that the previous day a lengthy interview with Canning by Vincent Hogan had appeared in the Irish Independent.

The idea that giving an interview in the run-up to a match puts a player at risk of performing poorly has become something of an obsession with GAA managers. It’s resulted in media bans and the virtual absence of meaningful interviews with top footballers and hurlers during the championship. Canning’s miracle shot had barely split the posts when reporters were observing with some glee that this pet theory of inter-county bosses seemed to have been disproved.

To make things even better, it hadn’t been any old interview which had appeared the previous day, it had been a masterpiece of the sportswriter’s craft, a journalistic equivalent of Canning’s wonder point. I’m not saying this because I’m some pal of Vincent Hogan’s, we barely know each other. And the old saying of Dr Johnson, “The Irish are a fair people, they never speak well of one another,” often holds true in journalism.

But as the poet Michael Longley observed, the best test of a piece of writing is the “throbbing of the envy gland” of another writer. Mine was hammering away good-oh on that Saturday. What can you do?

The piece wasn’t just a credit to Hogan, Canning also came out of it incredibly well. He seemed thoughtful, well-balanced and mature and achieved the difficult feat of speaking about himself at length without seeming at all self-obsessed. Instead he sounded self-aware. He sounded like a grown-up.

It would be as daft to suggest that Canning had a great game last Sunday because he gave an interview as it is to suggest that other players perform badly because they do the same thing. Yet there may be a small connection between the Saturday interview and the Sunday score. To take on a shot from that distance and angle at that juncture, and execute it perfectly, required more than just talent. It also required the maturity necessary to shoulder the responsibility and to not merely bear the pressure involved but thrive under it. It needed an adult.

It takes a mature player to dismiss superstitions about the possible effect of an interview on his performance. And superstitions is what they are, no more founded in logic than a kid’s conviction that it’s necessary to jump over the cracks in the footpath on his way to school or to touch every third lamp post. When Canning missed a couple of early frees, I’m sure there were a couple of sour bellies ready with the rejoinder, “It would have been more in his line to be practising frees than talking to journalists,” but in giving the interview he was also mature enough not to worry about ill-founded comments of that nature.

The problem with media bans is that they are another manifestation of the contemporary tendency for managers to treat players like children. The attempt to micro-manage every aspect of players’ lives betrays a belief that they aren’t mature enough to make up their minds about anything. Yet treating people like this, in sport, at work or in life, is hardly conducive to getting the best out of them.

One reason there have been so many lopsided encounters in this year’s football championship may be the emotional fragility displayed by so many teams. If Plan A doesn’t work teams seem to panic and go into an absolute meltdown. One of the familiar sights of the championship has been players looking plaintively over at the sideline because things weren’t supposed to work out this way. It is the look a child throws at an adult when reality is too much for them to cope with.

Really, once players leave the minor grade they’re entitled to be treated like adults who can be trusted to make their own decisions. Joe Canning is a great player and he is also a grown-up. And when the game is in the balance in the final seconds, it’s a grown-up you want to be taking that last shot.

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