Things I write about #1: sport (and life)

Goal on wall

When people ask me what I write about, I am not very good at answering. I tend to say that I write long articles, and hope that is sufficient. Sometimes it is. If it isn’t, I normally mumble something further about a mixed bag. The truth is there is no single subject, or obvious specialisation, which will presumably damn me in the end, but after writing these articles for a while, I can see themes emerging in the rearview mirror, as it were, questions or zones of human life that keep drawing me back. I’m going to put up a few posts in the coming months that group some of my articles according to these themes, and the first of these is sport.

I read sports articles every day, and steered clear of the subject for a long while as a result. Some of the things I like most about most sports reporting – the formulae, the submerged cliché, the gossip – are things that I do not like at all about writing. It is escape, before it is anything else. So when I have written about sport, there has tended to be something else going on at the same time, sport as a metaphor, or a catalyst, or an instrument of power or social change. In the stories below sport has been an intended agent of development (in east London, for the Olympics); an expression of an oligarch’s power in his homeland (for Suleiman Kerimov in Dagestan, via Anzhi Makhachkala); a token of splintering identities (in Glasgow, during the downfall of Rangers Football Club); a vehicle for national pride in a country that doesn’t want to be a country (Belgium’s World Cup team in 2014); and a social manifestation of dastardly excitement, bravery and Britain’s love-kill relationship with animals (in the Grand National).

So, the stories:

The Olympic Shadow,” Prospect, 14/12/11
Will the Olympic Games help or alienate east Londoners?

Uncle Suleyman’s Army“, British GQ, 6/3/13
Can a billionaire’s football team transform Dagestan?

Terminal Blues,” Prospect, 18/7/2012 ($)
The implosion of Rangers Football Club

Death and Tradition at the Grand National“, Grantland, 17/4/13
It’s Britain’s favourite steeplechase, but the horses keep dying.

The Rise of the Red Devils,” Grantland, 15/5/14
The meaning of Belgium’s extraordinary World Cup team


In 2014….

God More PowerfulIt’s been a busy time, and it’s about to get busier. So I wanted to post an update on some things I’ve written, and some things to look out for.

I spent time last summer with Romanian gypsies who were coming to London, living uncomfortably between prejudice and rural poverty at home and a big rich city that doesn’t want them. “Home Invasion” was published in the January issue of British GQ. I wrote a comment article, unusually for me, a month later, in Prospect, about our out-sized fears of the Roma. The book on the subject, in case you’re wondering, is Isabel Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing”. Outstanding, more like. Beautifully reported. Completely prescient.

In February, Harper’s published “A God More Powerful Than I” (subscription required), probably the story that I have worked hardest on in ten years of reporting and writing. It’s the story of Jude Le Grice, a tree worker and opera singer, prosecuted for stalking a woman, and locked up in psychiatric wards for the best part of a decade. It’s provoked a mainly positive response, despite the very divisive and troubling subject. Stalking and harassment is a new crime – a massive phenomenon in developed societies right around the world – that we haven’t got right yet.

More recently – a jolly profile of Col Needham, the founder of IMDb, for the FT. A nerd in his domain. And another travel junket, this time to the fresh and geologically beguiling mountains of Oman.

With the World Cup tapping on our shoulders, I went to Belgium to investigate the origins of the most exciting European team heading to the tournament, and the strange social reverberations of having a wonderful vehicle for national pride in a country that…. doesn’t want to be country. Feel The Belgitude. In Grantland – a great website for British readers, who might not know it.

With luck, this summer there is more coming in British GQ, Harper’s and the FT. And a baby. And a refurbished house and and////

Escape into Aintree

AintreeI’ve been working on an article about the Grand National for Grantland, which involved spending a few days up at Aintree earlier this month. I stayed at a cheap hotel by the docks and was woken up each night by senseless shouting in the corridors, the bleary hysterical voices of people who been drinking and gambling and gambling and drinking until they had come to a stop, at 4am, faced with a closed door and some intractable problem. Anyway. When I arrived at Aintree each day around lunchtime, it was my pleasure, my escape, to get out into the middle of the track, which is an ignored netherland of coaches, roads, a golf course, and traffic lights with buttons raised for the convenience of people on horseback. I got chapped in the wind and the sun and saw some wonderful things:

“I walked out in the middle of the course. One of the unchanging things about Aintree is its preposterous size. The populated part of the course is still clustered around a single corner of Lynn’s triangle, and the northeasterly wind quickly scattered the drone of the Tannoy. Out in this strange, inland territory there were ponds, bits of gorse and scrub that have been here since Sefton’s day, and men wearing bibs that said “Horse Catcher.” I was out there at 3:40 p.m. for the Fox Hunters’ Chase, one of two races run over a single circuit of the National fences days before the big race on Saturday. The Fox Hunters’ is for amateur and younger riders (one of Lord Daresbury’s sons was competing), and I went and stood by The Chair, the largest jump on the course. It looked like it had been built to hold back a river. It was the first time I had ever seen a Grand National fence jumped at close quarters, and as the 24 horses approached — the 96 hooves, the 12 tons of muscle and bone — I felt a shuddering sense of time and ground shortening. Then they cleared it. Actually, they smote it.”

Here is the article.

AHAP#3: Watching the Olympics on television

Why is watching the Olympics on television so much more pleasurable than watching any other televised sport – any other television, really? I am sure it is not better. I could have spent the half hour I gave to the second round of the men’s badminton competition last Monday night (not even the controversial women’s one) on something much more dramatic, and better put together: one of those billion dollar biology shows, or something sharp and American, or any number of the culturally important programmes that I am always missing. But none of them would have been so satisfying, would have given me the same set of feelings as watching an upstart Finn briefly threaten – and then lose, puffing and wrecked – to a springy Malaysian with a shuttlecock for a heart.

P is away at the moment, filming, meaning that me and the televised Olympics have been spending a lot of time together. Not that her absence has made a huge difference, I suspect. Our last breakfast together was our first ever in front of the television: docile and quiet, being primed for the order of races coming from Eton Dorney. But her not being there has magnified the sense that the only living things in the flat are me, and even then only in so far as I exist in orbit around the other animated object: our tiny television, which has been pulled out from under the bookshelf and into the middle of the room. It is, without doubt, the current principal life source: a fragile, busy cube of blue hockey pitches, pink trampolines, green javelin fields and orange running track in an otherwise dead space.

My viewing pleasure* evolved over the first week of the Olympics. At first, the happiness was in handing over control to whichever competent person was sitting on the BBC’s black sofa, the white triangles of the stadium, creeping up behind them. They knew so much better than I did what was going on, and there was real joy in being led: to Lord’s, for the final of the men’s team archery (pudgy, moody Italians conquering taut, disbelieving Americans); to the pool for the heats (that reunion, every four years, like an astronomical return, with the figure of the fastest loser); to the dressage, to see horses immaculately crossing their legs one over the other in the pouring rain of Greenwich. Those early days in front of the television were defined by a sense of abundance, a city of things going on, and trusted guides to take you to the right places, providing “Essential Info” on the difference between the kayak and the C2 canoe. It was, I think, the pleasure of a tourist.

Of course it quickly gave way. One of the beautiful myths of watching the Olympics is the accessibility of the sports: we decipher them instantly, we know a 15.264 beam routine from something really horrid, a 13.761 say, within ten minutes. The BBC’s London 2012 coverage, with its 24 channels (I still don’t really know where they are); stop start rewind internet; etc etc; means that you can quickly cut Barker or whichever powdered lump is sitting on the sofa and get to the real stuff with a few random clicks and presses. This was the second phase of my television experience, steering my way to the untracked corners of the jungle: hauling past hours of stored footage on the internet to watch both semi finals of the women’s 200m backstroke; taking in twenty minutes of the American basketball team (glossy giants, smiling all the time, sinking basket after basket after basket after basket). It was how I came across the fencing: less a sport than a series of collisions between electrified marionettes, wired up to a giant, gameshow set. But wait until they take off their masks! Then it is the Olympics of operatic flourishes, Zorro swishes, Koreans screaming. I dare you not to cry. At the quieter moments of my self-propelled journey through the broadcast Olympics there were times when I noticed there was no commentary at all. I was just watching what seemed like abandoned live feeds, people filing in and out the boxing hall, the underside of the swimming pool waves. It was raw. It delivered a bigger hit than the presented, curated events. It was the pleasure of an addict.

And then there was Saturday night. Which was, among all the other things that it was, a statement of the combined power of the Olympics and television. The Nazis, visual pioneers, noticed it first, and sought to harness the symbolism, to engineer a fusion of Games and Volk. The 1936 Olympics were the first to be televised: to a collection of cinemas in Berlin. The next time it happened, in London in 1948, the culture of amateurism, and the sense of television as an experiment was still strong enough for the IOC to turn down an offer of 3,00 guineas from the BBC for the broadcast rights.

It was only in the 1960s that television became the dominant means by which the Olympics were experienced. In Rome, the tapes were flown across the Atlantic and processed at Idlewild Airport, in New York, to be broadcast that night by CBS. The same year, a CBS producer called Tony Verna was asked at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley to provide footage of a ski race to the judges, and the idea of the instant replay was born. Instant replay, slow motion, close-ups, montages, post-match interviews: these were the innovations that made television more than a poor substitute for being there – they became the thing itself. The spreading of satellite dishes has been spreading of the Games. They were first broadcast in Africa in 1994. TV rights now bring in 47% of the revenue of the Olympics: $3.9bn in the current quadrennial of Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. In Beijing, TV money brought in ten times the income from ticket sales. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony – with its Oscars’ inspired TV insets – was made for television. Jessica Ennis knew the importance of “putting on a show” – to make a visual, replayable memory – of the 800m race on Saturday night that she did not need to win.

The third, and most advanced, stage of my pleasure of watching the Olympics on television has been knowing that everyone is watching the same thing at the same time. It is the opposite of variety, or being told what to watch, it is the certainty, and synchronicity, of a few moments of mass shared experience. (I wonder, by the way, if that is partly behind America’s backlash against NBC’s coverage: the people are out of sync, the internet, the TV advertising has fragmented them, and they don’t like it). A great part of the deep joy of watching Mo Farah streak around that final lap was shouting “Mo” at the screen and hearing the crowd in the stadium shout “Mo” and shouting “Mo” again and knowing that P was in Scotland, shouting “Mo” as well. We all had the same pictures and we all had the same words. And then we watched the same, breathless pro-forma interviews (the pressure, the support, the disbelief) and then we watched it all again on the news because we did not want to turn it off. We did not want it to end. We did not want to be on our own again.

*AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.