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Seve Ballesteros, 1957-2011

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The sport of golf has lost an artist and a true gentlemen. It was with great sadness that I awoke to read the news of Severiano Ballesteros‘s passing in the early hours of this morning at the age of 54. The Spanish great had been suffering from failing health since being diagnosed with a brain tumour in October 2008.

The greatest sporting icons frequently set themselves apart by only ever needing to be referred to by their first name: everyone knows who Tiger is, and with apologies to Mr Johnson the athlete ‘Michael’ will forever be associated with the Chicago Bulls‘ Jordan. ‘Seve’ very much falls into this category.

Sporting events form a large part of the jigsaw of my childhood memories, and my clearest recollections start from when I was eight or nine, from mid-1978 to mid-1980: the electric finish to the 1979 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United, Allan Wells winning Olympic gold in the 100 metres, the last days of the thrilling Welsh rugby union team of the 70s. Seve’s triumph at the 1979 Open championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes ranks right up there.

I remember watching captivated as a youthful Ballesteros overcame a two-shot deficit to the American Hale Irwin going into the final day with a round of erratic but brilliant genius. With the title still in the balance, he famously hacked his tee shot at the 16th into a car park. Not only did he recover, he made birdie and eventually triumphed by three shots. At 22, he was the youngest winner of the tournament in the 20th century and also the first man from continental Europe to win one of golf’s four Majors in 72 years.

That 16th hole at Lytham summed up everything that was magical about Seve. So often he drove the ball as waywardly as any occasional weekend golfer, but his ability to recover seemingly hopeless situations from sand or rough was unprecedented. Whether it was an unerring middle-iron hack out of long grass or a delicate, soft-handed chip from a green-side bunker, Ballesteros thrived on his ability to conjure up the seemingly impossible with his short game.

And more than his ability was the child-like enthusiasm he brought to the game. In an era of media-trained professionals and corporate correctness, there is something inherently uplifting about watching old clips of him rolling a sublime chip to within six inches of the flag and seeing his smile and that familiar, unrestrained fist-pumping jig of delight. Yes, there were times when his Latin temperament brought a terrible case of the sulks down upon him when things were going badly, but Ballesteros always connected with the fans in such a way that it only endeared them to him even more. Tiger Woods is seen as petulant, Seve was just ‘one of us’.

Therein lies the fundamental difference between these two great golfers: Woods is admired, but Seve was loved.

It’s easy to underestimate the impact Ballesteros’s win at The Open had on the wider game. His success paved the way for the wave of top continental European golfers who have since followed. And it is not stretching the truth too much to say that in some small way his warm personality and accessible, down-to-earth charm helped open up the game to a wider audience who had previously viewed the sport as aloof and elitist. And he did it all with a certain grace, from the artistic invention of his stroke-play to the simple and understated elegance of his attire. (No garish plus-fours for Seve.)

In total , Ballesteros won five Majors during his career. In 1980 he became the first European to win the Masters, and also its youngest ever champion at 23 (a record since broken by Woods). A second triumph followed in 1983, followed by two further Open championships in 1984 and 1988. As a player and captain, he helped the European Ryder Cup team to five wins. After the current world golf rankings system was introduced in 1986, he was world number one for 61 weeks. (Only three men – Woods, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo – have held the position for longer.) Both statistically and emotionally, there is no denying his place among the legends of the sport.

Despite recurring back problems and increasingly poor form, Ballesteros did not retire from the game until 2007, a year before his tumour was diagnosed, finishing with a total of 91 professional wins. He also helped introduce the Seve Trophy in 2000, a bi-annual team competition similar to the Ryder Cup in which a Great Britain and Ireland team take on their counterparts from continental Europe.

Seve Ballesteros is survived by his ex-wife of 16 years, Carmen Botín, and their three children Baldomero, Miguel, and Carmen.

Those whom the gods love die young, indeed. May you rest in peace, Seve. Whichever bunker your ball lands in on Heaven’s golf course, may it be a favourable lie from which you can magically escape up-and-down in two.

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Tweddle’s hat-trick achievement throws Rooney’s millions into sharp relief

Triple world champion Beth Tweddle (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Beth Tweddle secured both personal and team glory for Great Britain in Rotterdam by winning gold in the uneven bars, rounding off a day in which Louis Smith and Dan Purvis also won silver and bronze to ensure Great Britain’s best ever performance at a World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.

Despite being her favoured event, Tweddle was an underdog coming into the uneven bars final, having qualified behind reigning champion Ke Hexin and her Chinese teammate Huang Qiushuang. However, both Chinese girls fell during their routines, opening the door for her. Tweddle had fallen from the top bar during last year’s championships, and her nerves must surely have been jangling having seen her two biggest rivals fall immediately before her.

We should never have doubted her. Tweddle is a redoubtable competitor, consistently cool under pressure, and her difficult and varied routine was flawless, earning her a score of 15.733. Of the five other finalists who followed, only Russia’s Aliya Mustafina came close to matching the Briton’s score, registering 15.600. The USA’s Rebecca Bross was a distant third with a score of 15.066.

The 25-year old Tweddle is the only British gymnast to have won World Championship gold, and today’s victory marked her third such success, having triumphed on the same piece of apparatus in 2006 and on the floor last year.

It means everything to me to regain the bars title. I have worked so hard day in day out in the gym for this so I’m very proud. I wasn’t watching the previous routines but from the noise of the crowd I could tell the two Chinese girls ahead of me had fallen and so I tried to remain calm, but knew at that point that if I went clean I had a great chance of winning the title.

Earlier in the day, Dan Purvis had followed up his fifth place in the men’s all-around competition with a bronze medal on the floor, while Louis Smith took silver on the pommel horse, with a small error potentially costing him gold. Double Commonwealth gold medallist Imogen Cairns finished eighth in the final of the vault. Never before has the Great Britain team collected such a haul of medals at a single World Championships – and this was achieved without the injured Daniel Keatings, who won silver in the men’s all-around last year.

Gymnastics used to be a sport in which we were something of a laughing stock, where also-ran status was the best we could ever aspire to. In no small part due to the success of Tweddle, gymnastics is on the up and Britain can look forward to a ground-swell of support and medal expectations by the time the London 2012 Olympics comes around.

Nonetheless, it remains very much a minority sport in terms of the funding and commercial interest it generates. Last year, Tweddle received £25,000 in lottery funding, supplemented by a sponsorship deal with equipment manufacturer Gymnova worth about £10,000. That brings her total earnings to around £35,000 – similar to the average for a higher level NHS midwife, and less than a typical London tube driver. Or, to put it another way, in a week in which a certain England footballer somewhat cynically negotiated a new contract with Manchester United which, reportedly, has at least doubled his £90,000 per week basic salary, it would take Tweddle at least five years to earn what Wayne Rooney is now paid every week (and that is before you factor in his image rights and other commercial earnings).

Yes, I understand all the arguments that justify the incredible amounts top footballers are paid. I know the popularity and economics of football and gymnastics are on completely different scales – hell, they are on completely different planets – but is Rooney really worth 250 times what Tweddle is? One is a three-time world champion who has inspired a new generation to take up a sport they might otherwise have ignored in record numbers. The other has never made it past the quarter-finals of a major tournament.

As Tweddle told the Guardian last year:

If I was doing this for fame or money I would have retired a long time ago. As long as I keep doing what I love, training and competing in gymnastics, I don’t really mind. I’m very happy.

In so many ways, Beth Tweddle is a remarkable young woman. It is a tragedy that she has received so little financial recognition for her achievements.

Disability swimmers continue summer of success for British teams

With the London 2012 Summer Olympics now less than two years away, it has been an encouraging summer for British sport, with record medal hauls at both the European Athletics Championships in Barcelona and the European Swimming Championships in Budapest. That trend has continued at this week’s IPC World Swimming Championships in Eindhoven, where Great Britain’s disability swimming team finished with an impressive tally of 18 gold medals.

In total, 12 British athletes won individual gold at the championships, including four for 15-year old Eleanor Simmonds to add to her double gold at the Beijing Paralympics. She set a new world record in winning the S6 100m freestyle:

I am on such a high right now. I have won four gold medals and I am so happy. I haven’t broken that world record since 2009 and I feel really good to have done it here. It was good to come into the race and get the gold and back up my success from Beijing.

Other winners included Sascha Kindred, twice a gold medalist in Beijing, who continued his winning streak in the 200m individual medley, and Louise Watkin in the S9 50m freestyle, who beat South Africa’s Natalie du Toit into second place.

On the final day yesterday, Daniel Pepper added gold in the S14 200m freestyle to his earlier win in the 100m breaststroke:

I didn’t think that I would win that race but I put my head down and have come away with gold. That gold was quite unexpected. I just knew I had to focus and if I did then I would have success. I am really happy with the way this week has gone. I think it has been so good and my races went to plan.

Congratulations to the entire team, from whom we can once again expect a wealth of great performances at the 2012 Paralympics.

The 2012 Summer Olympics will be hosted by London from 27 July to 12 August 2012, with the Summer Paralympics taking place between 29 August and 9 September.

The week in numbers: w/e 1/8/10

19 – Total number of medals won by the Great Britain team (six gold, seven silver, six bronze) at the European Athletics Championships in Barcelona, one better than the previous championship best of 18 at Split in 1990.

Mo Farah

1Mo Farah‘s victory in the 10,000 metres was Britain’s first-ever gold medal in the event. It was also Farah’s first major championship title.

17.81 – Distance (in metres) jumped by Phillips Idowu to win the gold medal in the triple jump. It was a lifetime best by the British athlete.

6,823 – Total points accumulated by Jessica Ennis in winning the heptathlon, setting a new European Championships record. Ennis beat Olympic champion Nataliya Dobrynska of Ukraine into second place by just 45 points.

726 – As of Sunday, days remaining until the start of the 2012 London Olympics – July 27th was the ‘two years to go’ milestone.

James Anderson

11/71James Anderson‘s combined return in the first Test match as England defeated Pakistan by 354 runs at Trent Bridge. He took 5/54 in the first innings and followed it up with 6/17 in the second, as the visitors were dismissed for just 80.

20 – After Sunday’s Hungarian GP, the points separating Mark Webber (161 points), the Formula 1 championship leader, from Fernando Alonso in fifth (141) – less than the 25 on offer for a race win.

45 – Points difference after the first period in the AFL local derby between the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles – 7.6 (48) vs 0.3 (3). The match finished 160-85 in favour of Fremantle.

0 – Total transfer fees paid for central defender Sol Campbell during his professional career – all his moves have come on a free transfer. He signed for Newcastle on Wednesday, having previously played for Tottenham, Arsenal, Portsmouth and Notts County before a second stint at Arsenal last season.

My sporting month: August 2010

You know summer’s nearly over when the newspapers start to publish their new season previews and the invites to join various fantasy football leagues flood into your inbox. Of course, the start of the new Premier League season is a big event, but there’s more to the month of August than football.

With that in mind, here are the top five non-football sporting events I will be watching over the coming month:

1. AFL round 18: West Coast Eagles v Fremantle Dockers (1st)

It has been (yet again) a tough season to be a West Coast fan, with the Eagles languishing at the foot of the ladder while the Dockers are seemingly playoff-bound, but there is always the opportunity for local bragging rights over the neighbours to look forward to. West Coast will be looking to avenge a heavy 111-73 defeat in May, which would represent an all-too-rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal year.

2. England v Pakistan – 2nd, 3rd & 4th Tests (starting 6th, 18th, 26th)

Pakistan bowler Mohammed Aamer

Following on from the first Test which started on Thursday, England‘s final matches before heading down under for their defence of the Ashes will provide a good benchmark as to our likely squad and prospects against a Pakistan side who are as capable of brilliant cricket as they are of total implosion. Never a dull moment.

3. Vuelta a España (starts 28, ends 19th September)

Alejandro Valverde (image courtesy of khoogheem)

The last of this year’s three Grand Tours, the Vuelta often feels like the slightly shabby cousin of the family when compared to the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, particularly because of its timing so late in the season, when many riders are looking forward to either the World Championships or a well-earned break. However, the Vuelta remains an intriguing race, with some incredibly tough climbs and generally more open competition than you see at the other Grand Tours. Defending champion Alejandro Valverde is otherwise occupied serving a doping ban, and with many top riders likely to opt out after a brutal Tour, we should get an interesting look at riders who might otherwise be swamped by the established heads of state. Watch out for Tejay van Garderen, the 21-year old HTC-Columbia rider, who impressed with his third place at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. With Lance Armstrong retiring, American cycling will be looking for a new young hero – van Garderen and 20-year old Taylor Phinney are strong candidates to fill Lance’s considerable shoes.

4. Belgian Grand Prix (29th)

After a four-week summer break following this afternoon’s Hungarian GP, the Formula 1 circus will return to action at one of the drivers’ and fans’ favourite venues, the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. With championship leader Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber currently separated by just 21 points (and with Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso lurking in close attendance), we are facing the prospect of a genuine four-way (potentially even five-way) battle for the drivers’ title. With just six races remaining after Belgium, major points in this race could be vital by season’s end.

5. US Open tennis (starts 30th, ends 12th September)

The final Grand Slam tournament of the year will hopefully see the oft-injured Juan Martin del Potro defend his men’s singles title, while Kim Clijsters will be dreaming of a repeat of her fairytale comeback win in 2009.

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