Balancing safety with ‘thrills and spills’ of sport

nick blackwell_edited alonso crash_editedMarch 26: Boxer Nick Blackwell stopped by Chris Eubank Jnr.  March 20: Fernando Alonso walks away from the wreck of his car.

Why do you do it?

That’s a question posed to or asked of people who do things that they enjoy but carry a very real risk of injury, permanent disability or even death. The fact that they continue to do what they enjoy in the full knowledge of the dangers involved is, probably, the reason for that question.

Mountaineers climb mountains ‘because they are there’, racing drivers are motivated by speed and determination to be the best, boxers love the thrill of a fight, team players love their various contact sports – and so the list goes on and on.

Sky-diving, skiing, sailing and so many more all have their own risks.

In the last couple of weeks, we have seen two serious sporting incidents. In one, boxer Nick Blackwell, aged 25, was carried from the ring on a stretcher and placed in an induced coma as he had a brain bleed. In the other, double world motor racing champion Fernando Alonso, 34, walked away with just some fractured ribs from a horrifying accident in Australia. That was a testament to the great steps taken to protect drivers in Formula One. Alonso’s McLaren-Honda car was demolished but he was protected; a few years ago, an accident like that would have likely resulted in death.

On the playing fields, over the last year, the world has seen the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, aged 25, after he was hit on the back of his neck by a ball during a match in Sydney; and at least 11 high school American Football players died last year, either from head or neck injuries or heat-related illnesses.

Rugby players now face mandatory concussion assessment and lengthy treatment protocols before being allowed to play again. This was introduced after some were allowed to play on, risking even more serious injury, instead of being replaced immediately.

There is no doubt that sporting bodies are intent on improving the safety of the contestants but there is only so far they can go without ruining the spectacle of the event.

Boxing injuries have to be assessed minute by minute by the referee who only calls for a doctor if he thinks it is necessary. Should a doctor have the power to intervene without being called by the referee?

Safety equipment, such as cricketers’ helmets, is always being reviewed and improved. The only way to improve rugby safety is likely to be rule changes to minimize risk of injury.

Thinking back to my sporting days, I played club cricket without a helmet or forearm protection and played (field) hockey for a club as goalkeeper also without a helmet. Why no helmet? In those days they hadn’t made it into common use. In fact, cricket helmets were not developed until the late 1970s.

Fun facts to entertain you

Just for a bit of fun, here are a few facts about me that you probably don’t already know or don’t even want to! Well, you probably know a few but not all of them.

1.       My third forename is Hunter, my mother’s maiden name.

2.       I was the only one of my parent’s family to be born outside the English county of Sussex; I was born in what was then Kent. My birthplace is now in the London Borough of Bromley.

3.       I am the youngest of three siblings. My sister is seven years older than me and lives in Devon, England. My brother, who was 11 years older than me, died in April 1990 at the age of 48.

4.       My earliest childhood memory is of being wheeled in my pram and left outside while mum went into a shop. Not something recommended these days.

5.       Although never sporting at school, I played both cricket and hockey (on grass, not ice) for local clubs.

6.       I qualified as a football (soccer) referee while still at high school and immediately started refereeing matches between adult teams. Often I was the youngest person on the pitch.

7.       I was once fired three weeks after I resigned! All a bit silly, I had already given four weeks’ notice but one week before my planned departure I was fired for refusing to work one evening because I was going to a formal dinner dance with the guy who would soon be my new boss. When he heard about it, he told me I could start my new job a week earlier than planned. Not bad – as my new job paid almost double the old one.

8.       Corgis, to be exact Pembroke Welsh Corgis, played a major role in my formative years. Most Saturdays were spent at dog shows. My mum started breeding and showing corgis when I was six or seven and she later became an international judge. She also was a judge at Cruft’s.

9.       Up to the age of 11, I attended a private fee-paying school but from then until I left, aged almost 18, I went to a regular state-funded high school.

10.   Two bones in my right ankle were broken in an accident while riding my bicycle in 1968. Six weeks in plaster from toes to knee, walking with crutches. Still remember it. Another time, I broke a finger on my right hand playing the supposedly non-contact game of basketball in the school gym. I still recall being told to walk to the local hospital by myself.

11.   I fell in love with politics at the age of 10 and at 14 joined the youth section of a political party even though its minimum age was 15. I didn’t lie, they just bent their own rules. In the years since I have voted for various parties as my views and circumstances have changed. Now that I live in Spain, I am allowed to vote in parliamentary elections in the UK and local elections in Spain.

12.   Hobbies? Not really had the time for those although I have been involved in the running of various not-for-profit community and charitable organisations. These days, most of my ‘hobby time’ is dedicated to preparing and publishing this blog.

13.   Although brought up and later confirmed as a member of the congregation of the Church of England, I have since changed my faith. While recognising that all faiths and deities are equally valid, I am now a Pagan and follow the Wiccan religion.

14.   It is no secret that I have a disability caused by Multiple Sclerosis. This is one of a few illnesses and conditions that affect me but my life is full and enjoyable. Apart from difficulty with walking, standing and using my left side generally, I feel well and like to do everything that I can.

15.   I follow the fortunes of quite a mixed bag of sports teams: Football (soccer) – Fulham and Spain; Rugby Union – Ospreys and Wales; Cricket – Sussex and England; Formula One – Anyone who can beat Mercedes; Baseball – NY Mets.

16.   There are two distinct musical loves in my life: Country and the Sixties.

17.   Holidays are rarely better than those taken aboard a cruise ship. You get to take part in shore excursions every time you dock and enjoy dining and entertainment on board. You visit different towns, even countries but only unpack once as the ship is a floating hotel – and much more.

18.   Following 63 years of living in the UK, I have now moved to Spain with my adorable New York City-born wife, Lisa. We arrived in Spain on November 15, 2015, and now live in our own two-bedroomed single-storey property in a small community in an agricultural area with a real Spanish village nearby. The nearest town is Cuevas del Almanzora which is only about 10 minutes away by car, while the Mediterranean coast is a drive of about 15 minutes.

Governing body is the real culprit

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It is not easy being in charge, especially if it is in a highly competitive environment and also the subject of great, and conflicting, emotions. Keeping a cool head in that sort of situation is going to test anyone, no matter how experienced they are.

That is why we should not all be jumping up and down criticising South African rugby referee Craig Joubert for making one mistake. Granted the error in awarding a penalty was crucial as it meant that Scotland was knocked out of the World Cup and that Australia won through with that fateful kick.

World Rugby has since said that having reviewed television coverage of the incident that a penalty was not the right decision. But, of course, the result of the match cannot be changed just because the referee made a mistake.

As a former football (soccer) referee, I can sympathise with Mr Joubert. Referees have always needed to make rapid decisions about events in a match. And they are always expected to get them right; 100% correct, 100% of the time. If only humans could achieve such greatness.

For years now, referees in US sports have had the ability to review TV coverage of incidents and to take decisions based on what actually happened. Furthermore, an aggrieved team can protest a controversial decision and demand that it be reviewed.

In the world of rugby union, however, the use of modern technology is more restricted. Referees can ask the TMO – Television Match Official – to confirm that a try has been scored or to identify any reason why it should not be awarded. The TMO can also draw the referee’s attention to some foul play that was missed by the three on-pitch officials.

So far, so good, but the rules do not allow the TMO to be consulted on other aspects of play. That is why, in the case of the Scotland v Australia game, Mr Joubert did not consult the TMO. He was not allowed to do so. Nor was Scotland allowed to protest and demand that the decision be reviewed as that right does not exist in rugby.

Where does that leave us? Scotland out unjustly, Australia through unworthily and Craig Joubert being criticised unfairly.

Meanwhile the real culprits are escaping almost unnoticed. World Rugby has reviewed the same recordings that the TMO could have used to prevent this happening; World Rugby has said the referee was wrong but I believe he is not really to blame.

The responsibility for the fracas must rest solely with the sport’s governing body. It has the technology ; it has TMOs. Let referees use them to ensure this sort of mistake never happens again and also allow TMOs to take the initiative and insist on a review if a mistake is being made.

Furthermore, why not give teams a limited number of appeals during a match? Cricketers already have that, as well as baseball and American Football teams, so let rugby have that as well.

Sports administrators and rule-makers need to take action now. The technology is there, it is time to let it be used in all circumstances. It is, after all, the 21st century.

 

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Danger, corruption and drugs but no rock and roll

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Danger is part of an F1 driver’s life. Carlos Sainz survived this crash during practice for the Russian Grand Prix but other safety lapses need attention. (Pic: Rex)

In life there will always be lots of ups and downs, just ask any sportsman or woman, but sport in general seems to be going through some very hard times at the moment.

Thankfully, the troubles are varied, there does not appear to be one underlying cause. In fact, there are many; so many that it is impossible to mention them all here. That being the case, my remarks will be confined to just a few of them.

Drug-taking has created problems in more than one sport, with athletics and cycling bodies being determined to stamp it out. Both international organisations have chosen new presidents, coincidentally both British, with Brian Cookson now in charge of cycling while Lord Coe is now leading athletics. As Sebastion Coe, he won middle-distance Olympic gold medals in 1980 and 1984.

On being elected in September two years ago, Cookson said: “My first priorities as president will be to make anti-doping procedures in cycling fully independent……..(and) to ensure a swift investigation into cycling’s doping culture.”

Meanwhile Coe’s attitude to drugs in athletics can be shown by his words on being elected in August this year. He said: “There is a zero tolerance to abuse of doping in my sport and I will maintain that to the very highest level of vigilance.”

But the problems in those two sports combined are dwarfed by the goings-on in the world of international football, or soccer, this time not by the players but those who are in charge.

There have been allegations of corruption, illegal payments, unfavourable contracts and vote-buying in the run up to the decisions on where to hold the next two World Cup tournaments.

Internal investigations have taken place, criminal proceedings have been started in Switzerland and the USA, arrests have been made and extraditions started, It’s a mess.

Everyone involved has denied any wrong-doing but now FIFA’s Ethics Committee has suspended international president Sebb Blatter and UEFA (European) president Michel Platini because of criminal investigations.

I have no idea where this is all going to end, how high up the tree the allegations will be proved, but one thing is needed – transparency. Football fans everywhere need to be assured that all the guilty have been removed and steps taken to ensure that nothing like it can ever happen again.

Formula 1, the pinnacle of world motorsport, has its own issues but not of the kind plaguing other sports. In motor racing, the problems seem more about management and engineering shortcomings. The breakdown in the relationship between the Red Bull team and its engine provider Renault is one example of the latter.

The division of F1 income between the teams, however, is pure management of the financial side of the sport. The money is not distributed fairly and, although the top teams would say they deserve the lion’s share, the smaller teams really need greater support for their efforts. If F1 management want small teams to survive, they need more of the cash.

Safety is another area that needs greater attention. Great steps have been taken over many years but it has not been enough. Jules Bianchi died as the result of a crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014; on Saturday, Carlos Sainz suffered a high speed crash in the final practice for the Russian Grand Prix and this just one day after diesel oil was spilled on the track by a truck – although those events do not appear to be connected. And you can add to that the spectacle of an F1 fan walking along the track during this year’s Japanese Grand Prix!

For a sport that prides itself on doing all it can to enhance the safety of everyone involved, whether in-car, in the pit lane and paddock or spectator areas, it is clearly not enough.

I could go on, about deflated balls in American Football and a lot more, but don’t want to risk becoming boring. It all needs to be fixed NOW.

Support – a question of sport

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Nationality and patriotism are areas that can both stir up strong emotional feelings that are mostly for the good but sometimes not.

Of course, the most extreme forms of both are found in times of war or conflict between nations but, on a lesser scale, it flows across into the realms of sport.

When I moved from London to North Wales in 1992, despite being English by birth and parentage, I became loyal to my adopted country and its rugby union and football (soccer) teams – even when playing against England.

I learned to sing Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (the country’s anthem) in Welsh as well as to spell and say the name of its longest village: It is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (and, yes, I did type all 58 letters without looking it up and without any correction being needed). Additionally, the only two rugby shirts that I have owned have been the red of Wales and the black of the Ospreys team based in South Wales. Although never having a Welsh football shirt, I still followed the progress and fortunes of the team.

So, what does that all mean for my impending move to Spain?

Switching allegiances from one British team to another was no big deal but supporting Spanish teams would entail a much greater transfer. But isn’t that what I will be doing by living there? In a way, yes it is but, conversely, I shall be remaining a UK citizen and I will continue to vote in parliamentary elections in the constituency I which I now live. So, loyalties will be divided.

Spain is not a major rugby-playing nation, so in that sport I shall continue to support Wales. Football is another matter, though. The Spanish seem to treat ‘futbol’ as a way of life, they are fervent. And the national team is good too, having won the World Cup in 2010 and the Euro Championship in both 2008 and 2012. I don’t think Wales will rival that team or play against it very much. It seems likely that I’ll be able to support both.

At club level, Fulham has remained my UK football team since moving to Wales but now I’ll need a Spanish one as well. On purely geographic grounds, that looks set to be Almeria that plays in the La Liga second tier in which it currently lies 16th of the 22 clubs. So it looks like I will have to get used to supporting a team that plays in a red and white striped shirt.

Baseball is another sport that interests me and, as theirs is the only stadium I have visited, Toronto Blue Jays is the team for me. On the other hand, Lisa being American says that my support should be for a USA team not one in Canada. Fair enough, I suppose, but I’d have to see them play first!

As far as my last major team sport is concerned, there is no need to change anything. This is because cricket is not a feature of many nations and so I can rest easy supporting the England team that represents the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Hunting not a sport or hobby

Just taking a short break from packing up possessions for shipping to Spain in advance of our move in November.

A few years ago, well in the 1990s to be accurate, I worked full-time as a journalist for a weekly newspaper in North Wales, in the UK. I include the UK qualification so that my American readers don’t think I was in Pennsylvania – yes, there is a North Wales there too.

Anyway, back to my story.

I have taken on many and varied roles during my journalistic career but, at that time, I was Rural Affairs Editor for a regional newspaper group covering a vast area of North West Wales. That area is renowned for its diverse terrain of mountains, including Snowdon, and lowland areas such as the Isle of Anglesey.

Commercially, it includes beef, dairy and cereal agriculture but the main rural activity, by far, is sheep farming. Next to this, the next major industry is tourism.

My rural affairs coverage included news and feature items along with a clearly labelled ‘opinion’ piece in which I was able to express my views on various rural matters.

One of these was the vexed issue of fox hunting that, at that time, had come under the spotlight as there was a plan to ban it. Many in the rural community opposed such a ban, talking about having the freedom to hunt and enjoy country sports. Others, also opposed to a ban, spoke of the need to keep fox numbers down because of the number of lambs that would be killed without hunts to control fox numbers.

In my opinion pieces, I may have surprised many readers by stating my clear and unequivocal opposition to fox hunting and in favour of the proposed ban.

The facts are simple:

  • Being chased by a pack of hounds would be terrifying for any creature.
  • Being torn apart by hounds is cruel. It is not a quick clean kill.
  • As a method of fox control, hunting is inefficient; very often hunts return without even finding a fox.
  • Some hunts even go as far as to encourage fox breeding in man-made ‘earths’ just to provide foxes for the hounds to hunt.

In due course, the ban was implemented. Did we see a huge explosion in the fox population in the UK? No. Did we see a sharp rise in the number of lambs and sheep being killed by foxes? Again, No.

It was with some surprise, therefore, that I heard that the current government was going to give MPs a vote on whether to amend the law, effectively rescinding the ban. Protests followed and the powers that be decided delay the vote until they could be sure of a majority. The battle may have been won but the war still rages on. It is not all over yet.

Talking of hunting as a so-called sport or hobby, I really don’t have time for anyone who hunts any animal just for something to do. And here I do not differentiate between foxes, lions or even giraffes. And to say giraffes are dangerous is ridiculous. They are placid and will run away rather than fight. If you get too close, they can kick if they feel threatened but they are not made to bite.

To me, there is something lacking in the brain of anyone who thinks such ‘sports’ are a ‘freedom of choice’ that must be defended. They are blots on mankind’s copybook and need to be erased permanently.

OK, I got that off my chest, now back to the packing.