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A game of three thirds

Kimi Raikkonen won yesterday’s Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps for Ferrari – their first win of a miserable season – and Giancarlo Fisichella added Force India‘s first ever points to their maiden pole position in finishing a close and deserved second. But Formula 1’s microscope remains focussed very much on the form (or lack thereof) of championship leader Jenson Button.

Before yesterday, Button had finished every event this year. The law of averages dictated he was due an accident or mechanical failure sooner or later.

Sooner, as it turned out.

Having qualified a lowly fourteenth on Saturday – the first time all year he had failed to make the top ten – Button’s race lasted half a lap before he was shunted into retirement by Renault‘s Romain Grosjean. Although he was an innocent victim of an accident which also took out reigning champ Lewis Hamilton, his position in the middle of the pack, which left him vulnerable to such an incident, was very much his own fault after a lacklustre qualifying performance.

The Briton’s lead in the race for the drivers’ title, a commanding 26 points after June’s Turkish GP, is now just 16 points with five races remaining. He is lucky it is still that much, given a combination of recent misfortune and poor results for his closest rivals, teammate Rubens Barrichello and Red Bull‘s Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. It’s almost as if no one really wants to win the title.

Button’s problems are both manifold and well chronicled. Some are technical. His car, so dominant in the early part of the season, has been struggling to generate heat (and therefore grip) in its tyres, a problem which is exacerbated by his smooth driving style, which is relatively easy on rubber. The Brawn team has limited finances for car development, and slower-starting but better-funded outfits like McLaren and Ferrari have subsequently closed the gap in performance.

But, perhaps, the single biggest threat to Jenson Button is Button himself. In the last few races he has become increasingly conservative, seeking to defend his points lead rather than attacking races. And, as his rivals have closed in, he has become increasingly reactive and tetchy, resulting in errors in both qualifying and the race itself in Valencia last weekend, followed by the DNF at Spa.

If anything, Jenson Button is thinking too much. Paralysis by analysis, if you will.

It is, of course, easier said than done, but he needs to get his head straight and deal with the mounting pressure. Or else his season, which has looked for so long like a triumphant march to the drivers’ title, is in danger of total implosion.

With all due respect to the now BBC pundit, Button increasingly reminds me of David Coulthard: a talented driver who looked blisteringly fast and silky smooth when his car was well-balanced and he was running at the front of the pack, but far less convincing when the set-up was less to his liking and he had to mix it in the midfield.

Generally speaking, Formula 1 world champions fall into two camps. There are good drivers who maximise their opportunity when presented with the best car in the pack: Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve for instance. And then there are those blessed with the ability to take a less-than-dominant car and win races they have no right to win: think Ayrton Senna in the very average 1993 McLaren, or Michael Schumacher at both Benetton and in his early years at Ferrari. Button has proven he can be the former, but now that he possesses merely one of a number of very good cars (rather than the outright best one), he needs to demonstrate a bit of the latter too. Pootling around like the F1 equivalent of a careful Sunday driver, picking up points from the minor placings and waiting for others to fall by the wayside will no longer cut it.

In short, he has to stop being merely very good and start being great.

Right now, Jenson Button resembles a 400 metre runner who has set off at a blistering pace but is tying up in the home straight. He may still stumble across the finish line first, but it isn’t looking pretty.

Or to utilise another sporting analogy, we often talk about ‘a game of two halves’. Button is having a season of three thirds: having won six of the first seven races this year, he has failed to make the podium in the last five. The drivers’ championship appeared to be a foregone conclusion three months ago; it isn’t now. And while the Brawn team have a big role to play in giving Button the tools he needs to complete the job on the track, it is ultimately how he handles the demons in his own mind that will determine whether he is crowned world champion in Abu Dhabi in November.

If he falls short, he will have no one to blame but himself.

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To see, or not to see – that is the question

Arsenal 3 Celtic 1 (5-1 on aggregate)

Arsenal cruised into this afternoon’s draw for the Champions League without ever really needing to get out of second gear, courtesy of goals from Eduardo (a penalty), Eboue and Arshavin, but all anyone seems to want to talk about are the events leading up to the penalty.

Before I go any further, let me say this: yes, it was a dive. From the replays, it is possible that Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc may have clipped Eduardo, but any contact was purely incidental and the Croatian striker was clearly on his way down already, hoping to win a penalty. And I’m certainly not proud that one of our players won a penalty by what appears to be deliberate gamesmanship.

It’s not even an excuse to claim that this is just tit-for-tat because we conceded a critical penalty under similar circumstances late on in a Champions League quarter-final two seasons ago (courtesy of Liverpool’s Ryan Babel).

It was wrong, plain and simple. Deep down, I think most true fans would prefer not to score goals this way. Certainly, I do.

However, I’m a little perplexed by the reaction – some might say over-reaction – from certain quarters over the past 24 hours. Scottish FA chief executive Gordon Smith has called for UEFA to ban Eduardo, as has Celtic midfielder Massimo Donati. And I noticed several people on Twitter during and after the game last night expressing the fervent wish for Eduardo to break his leg again as punishment for his actions. (I mean, honestly, you’d think he had tried to deliberately hurt an opponent with a vengeful, premeditated stamp. Not that any professional would ever do that, would they?)

Apparently UEFA have the authority to retrospectively review the incident and, if deemed appropriate, hand down a two-match ban for simulation. Fair enough, although to me that seems a bit excessive given that, if the referee had seen fit at the time to penalise Eduardo for simulation, he would have received a straight yellow card, nothing more.

While I am in no way attempting to mitigate Eduardo’s actions, what’s with this sudden witch-hunting bandwagon? The penalty didn’t materially affect the outcome of the tie, as Celtic manager Tony Mowbray freely admitted after the game. Why single out Eduardo when defenders regularly foul opponents who would otherwise be clean through with a shot on goal (as happened on at least one occasion last night), or who target a team’s star player by kicking lumps out of him at every possibly opportunity (as Celtic players did to Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas in last week’s first leg)? And from the outrage that some clearly feel towards Eduardo, you would think that he was the only player ever who had dived to try and win a penalty. (Ahem, Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen …) When Owen ‘finds a leg to fall over’, as one common euphemism puts it, as he did against Argentina in the 2002 World Cup, he is hailed for his cunning centre forward play. When Eduardo does it, he needs to be hung, drawn and quartered, apparently, or at the very least horribly injured.

Double standards, anyone?

Anyhow, I don’t really want to get into a debate about what an appropriate punishment is for last night’s events, particularly not with the kind of people who think that a proportionate response is to declare thermonuclear war on someone who has cut them up at a roundabout.

UEFA president Michel Platini has reiterated his desire to position additional assistant referees behind the goal to help combat diving. And while I personally don’t believe that’s the answer, there is certainly a need for match officials to receive help in making critical decisions.

Here’s what I would do. Rather than put extra officials on the field, I would employ technology to do the following three things:

Use Hawk-Eye (or a similar system) to determine whether a ball has or has not crossed the goal-line, a system which has been reliably proven for years in tennis.

For critical incidents only – by which I mean determining whether ‘goals’ are offside, or questionable penalty claims, or other incidents which may result in a player being sent off – allow play to continue where appropriate, and then use video replay to determine what actually happened. Similar processes are in place in the NFL, rugby and cricket, all of which work well. Managers could even be issued with a certain number of ‘challenges’ per match (as they do in the NFL), which they can use whenever they feel a key decision has gone against them. If replays can conclusively demonstrate within, say, 60 seconds, that the call on the field was incorrect, then the decision is reversed.

For all other incidents, a video review board should sit after every round of matches (as happens in rugby) to examine any contentious or unseen incidents, with the power to issue retrospective yellow or red cards accordingly – such punishments would be consistent with what a referee would have given on the pitch.

The aim here would be to provide support to (not undermine) the officials to ensure key decisions are made correctly, but without causing huge disruption to what is, and should always be, a flowing, fast-paced game. To me, stopping play briefly once or twice a game to ensure justice is done seems like a fair trade-off. After all, we generally see at least a couple of injury stoppages a game already anyway, whereas in rugby play would continue while an injured player is receiving on-field treatment.

So there you have it. Under my proposed system, last night we would have had an overturned penalty decision, a yellow card for Eduardo, and a ‘fair’ result overall – which would still have been an Arsenal win anyway.

Of course, I don’t expect anything like that to happen any time soon. After all, nothing I’ve proposed is particularly new or left-field, and nothing has been introduced yet.

And what would we have to argue about in the pub if referees always made the right decision, eh?

More than a trophy

The Australian cricket team will have woken up this morning to the confirmation that they are officially no longer the best Test side in the world. After a run of six years, not only have they lost the top spot in the ICC Test rankings to South Africa, but they have also slipped to fourth behind Sri Lanka and India, and just ahead of England.

In that light, an observer might wonder exactly why the Ashes are such a big deal. After all it’s just a trophy contested by two countries – and two middle-ranking ones at that.

Well, the Ashes are to English and Australian cricket supporters what the North London derby is to Arsenal and Tottenham fans, or what the University Boat Race is to students of Oxford and Cambridge, or what England versus Scotland at pretty much any sport is. It doesn’t matter whether it is a contest between the two best teams or two distinctly mediocre ones; it is important simply because it is representative of a historic rivalry which carries just a soupçon of enmity (and frequently a lot more) about it.

With the Ashes, this rivalry is magnified because it is only conducted (in Test form, at least) twice every four years, and because each series unfolds over the course of an entire summer and not a matter of minutes. There is ample opportunity for the story to ebb and flow; for stars to emerge and for the stories of supporting characters to be fleshed out; for raised hopes and false dawns, and for the tension to be slowly cranked up to a final, dramatic denouement. This is what makes the Ashes so special: it combines the adrenalin rush of a one-off derby match with the slow-burn, emotional investment of a league season.

This summer’s series has been an exceptional one not because of the quality of the play, but because of the quality of the narrative, with the advantage swinging wildly from one team to another, and culminating in a fifth and final Test where England needed to win to regain the Ashes – and promptly delivered.

In a series between two well-matched sides, but which the visitors dominated in terms of individual statistics, Australia could be excused for wondering how this series slipped away from them. Their batsmen scored eight centuries to England’s two; three of their bowlers took at least 20 wickets, whereas Stuart Broad led for England with just 18.

But, in hindsight, the series turned on three key passages of play, all of which went in England’s favour. In Cardiff, Australia’s bowlers failed to dislodge England’s last wicket pair of Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, as unlikely a pair of batting heroes as you will ever find, who saw out the final 69 balls of the first Test to preserve a draw. In the second Test at Lord’s, with Australia chasing a target of 522 to win, the talismanic Andrew Flintoff took 5/92, breaking a 185-run partnership between Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin which had been turning the match in the tourists’ favour. Finally, at the Oval on Friday, Flintoff’s heir apparent Broad took five wickets in a devastating spell which reduced Australia from 73/0 to 111/7 and swung the pendulum decisively in England’s favour.

In the final analysis, although the Aussies performed more consistently than England, they were found lacking inspiration at crucial junctures. And perhaps no single moment was more inspiring than Flintoff’s match-turning intervention yesterday, breaking a burgeoning 127-run partnership between Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey with a glorious pick-up, throw and direct hit from mid-on to run out the Aussie captain by nearly a full yard. Somehow, despite providing little more than the odd crowd-pleasing cameo with bat and ball in his final Test, it was inevitable that ‘Freddie’ would provide the defining image of the day: standing statuesque, both arms thrust aloft in celebration, drinking in the adulation of a capacity Oval crowd.

And so ends a rollercoaster series in which England veered from near-disaster in Cardiff to momentum-turning triumph at Lord’s; from being in command of a weather-affected draw at Edgbaston to the humiliation of an innings defeat at Headingley, and finally to four dramatic, nail-biting days in the must-win finale at the Oval. The overall quality may have been a notch or two down on the benchmark 2005 Ashes series; the spectacle, however, has been equally magnificent.

England will now travel to South Africa this winter for a series against the world’s new number one Test side; however, the one truly important battle of the year has already been won.

After all, to paraphrase the words of the late Bill Shankly, the Ashes are not a matter of life and death; they are much more important than that.

Mud sticks

Yesterday, I wrote about the appalling way that Caster Semenya has been treated after the IAAF revealed that she had been asked to undergo gender verification testing, a procedure which is normally kept private until an athlete has ‘failed’ the test, for obvious reasons of sensitivity.

It has led to much wild speculation, much of it dreadfully uninformed, and open accusations from fellow competitors such as the Italian Elisa Piccione, who finished sixth behind Semenya in the 800 metres final: “For me, she is not a woman.” It was a calculated and utterly groundless personal attack based on Semenya’s physical appearance and deep voice – neither of which are unique for a female athlete (think Maria Mutola or Fatima Whitbread, for starters).

What next? Accusing any breakthrough performer of doping just because they’re faster than you? Or deciding that the bloke sitting next to you on the train must be gay because he’s wearing a pink shirt and is well-groomed?

There are two problems with stereotyping. Firstly, while some people may conform to a certain stereotype, we do not all obey them rigidly. A trivial example: my 20-month old son’s favourite colour is currently pink, and I’m not exactly jumping to any conclusions about his sexual orientation.

Secondly, when someone is publicly given a derogatory or accusatory label, mud tends to stick, and becomes impossible to wash off. No doubt Semenya will be dogged by black clouds for the rest of her career (she is still only 18). Just ask former England footballer Graeme Le Saux, who was regularly treated to homophobic abuse – from both fans and, most scandalously, on the field by Robbie Fowler – because, atypically for a footballer, he was educated, read the Guardian, and had an appreciation for the arts. (Le Saux is married with two children, but why let the facts get in the way of an urban myth?)

It is also worth bearing in mind that it is possible for an athlete to be born female – i.e. with two X chromosomes, rather than X and Y – and be completely unaware that they are in fact technically ineligible to compete as a woman (according to the sporting authorities’ arbitrary definition). It is not a case of cheating; more a matter of being deemed to have an ‘unfair competitive advantage’, whatever that is.

For more detail on events surrounding Semenya and the scientific process behind gender verification and ‘intersex conditions’, I would recommend articles in today’s Times by Sports Journalist of the Year Matthew Syed and science editor Mark Henderson.

Syed perhaps says it best in his piece, highlighting the moral and emotional issues behind this needless controversy.

Could [the authorities] not have worked their way through the gender-verification process, only breaking cover if the athlete failed the test? Should this confidentiality not be part and parcel of IAAF procedure? In short, could this not have been handled with infinitely greater sensitivity, given the incalculable trauma that Semenya has now had to endure?

This ought to have been an uplifting story of how an 18-year-old sports science student from Pretoria University, who grew up in Ga-Masehlong, a village near the northern city of Polokwane, became world champion.

It ought to have been an inspirational story of personal triumph against the odds. It ought to have been a story of hope and optimism, only morphing into something different in the event of a failed test. It is difficult to suppress the feeling that, whatever happens hereafter, a young and vulnerable athlete has been cruelly let down by the very authorities that ought to have protected her.

It is saddening to see how both the IAAF and her fellow competitors have treated Semenya in this whole affair; equally, it was gratifying to see that the Berlin crowd applauded her warmly at her medal ceremony yesterday.

Already the counter-whispers of racist and political agendas are starting to emerge, and it is unlikely the doubts will be fully eradicated even when the results of Semenya’s tests are announced. (As Henderson explains in his article, there is often no definitive black-and-white answer in matters of gender verification.)

As I said at the beginning of yesterday’s post, it should be a simple matter. It isn’t.

A breed apart

It is no more than we have come to expect from a man for whom, as the Adidas slogan states, ‘impossible is nothing’.

Usain Bolt may have been a fraction below the kind of form he was in last summer in Beijing, due to missing a month’s training after writing off his car earlier in the year. He admitted to feeling a bit tired after his exploits in the 100 metres on Sunday. And he was clearly tying up in the last 30 metres of last night’s 200 metres final as he struggled against a 0.3 m/s headwind and wearying legs.

Nonetheless, he crossed the line more than five metres ahead of the rest of the field, recording a time of 19.19s and lowering his world record by the same margin – 0.11s – as he had done in the 100 four days earlier. (He now holds three of the five fastest times in history; only two other men – Michael Johnson and Tyson Gay – have run under 19.6s.)

Now imagine what he might do with a full training schedule under his belt, a legal tailwind and the benefit of focussing – as he suggested he may do one day – solely on the 200.

Is the mythical 19 second barrier breakable?

Surely, barring serious injury, it is now a matter of when rather than if?

In the meantime, it’s best that we marvel at the superhuman exploits of a man whose races are simultaneously utterly predictable and delightfully mesmerising. Bolt is now the only man ever to concurrently hold both World and Olympic titles at both the 100 and 200. He has broken the world record in the former three times; the latter, twice. And don’t forget that he will also run in the 4×100 metre relay, where he will be odds-on to complete a second major championship hat-trick on Saturday night.

There is no question that Usain Bolt is a freakish, exceptional talent. Despite all the publicised deficiencies and failings in Jamaican drug-testing, I want to believe – make that: I do believe – in the fairy-tale, just as I believe in Lance Armstrong.

Because that’s what sport is all about – the celebration of excellence, and the glorification of the truly exceptional. Lance Armstrong. Michael Schumacher. Sir Steven Redgrave. Usain Bolt.

A breed apart.

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