I feel so sorry for Sebastian Coe.

On 6th July 2005, I remember going to school with a portable radio so I could listen to the International Olympic Committee’s announcement on who would host the 2012 Olympics. In the cafeteria, the school had filled the room with British flags and put the TV on so the students could watch the announcement. It took a long time for the envelope to be opened, but when it finally was, we all celebrated. Winning the Olympics was a really, really big deal and excitement gripped the country (at least for 24 hours, because the London bombings brought everyone back down to earth the following day).

Since that announcement, the Games have received nothing but negativity. Led, it seems, by journalists who only want to present everything in a bad light, people have found themselves with many reasons to complain.

Too expensive, too much traffic, disruptive, pointless, mayhem on public transport, poor ticketing system, the Stadium will be a white elephant… The complaints are seemingly endless.

Supporting the Olympics in Trafalgar Square

Seb Coe and Boris Johnson are doing their best to deflect the complaints, and have been getting visibly annoyed with the persistent criticism.

In truth, since that day in 2005, I have been nothing but an Olympic supporter. As Boris likes to say, it is on budget, it is on time and it is going to show the best of British.

The fact is that the Olympics are going to cause disruption for a very short period of time. It will be annoying for commuters, and yes, if you’re not a sport fan, the BBC is going to drive you insane for a few weeks. But people need to stop complaining and start looking at what an amazing spectacle is going to be taking place in their country in under a year’s time. After all, it will probably never happen again in our lifetime.

A few weeks ago, I was able to interview Greg Whyte, sports scientist, and ask him a few questions about his work with David Walliams on the Thames swim, his other Comic and Sport Relief challenges, as well as his feelings on both our home town of Luton. Photos are credited to Greg Whyte.

David and Greg emerge from the water

– – – –

While Little Britain’s David Walliams fought tirelessly against the cold and sewerage in 140 miles of the Thames, swimming alongside him for 100 miles and carefully monitoring his progress was Greg Whyte, an expert in science behind sport.

Greg has had an eclectic career, having represented Great Britain in the Modern Pentathlon in the Olympic Games in 1992 and 1996, and won a Silver and Bronze medal in the World Championships in 1994 and 1999. Alongside training and preparing celebrities for some awe-inspiring challenges for Comic and Sport Relief, he is also a Professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University where he runs an MSc course, and is a specialist at the Harley Street Clinic that aims to improve sport performance.

It was in 2005, when David Walliams was first considering Comic Relief projects that Greg Whyte first got involved with the BBC’s annual fundraising projects. It all started with a tongue-in-cheek comment made by Walliams that he would swim the English Channel. It proved eventually to be the challenge he undertook, with Whyte at his side, coaching and mentoring him. Since then, Greg Whyte has been involved in nine Comic and Sports Relief projects and has helped his respective celebrities raise an amazing £13 million for charity.

When asked if any of these fundraisers, including Walliams’ recent Thames Swim, Eddie Izzard’s 43 marathons in 51 days and the trek up Kilimanjaro, have been the most challenging, he says, “a challenge is about the journey, not the end point.” He cites Bleakley’s attempt to water ski across the Channel as being an amazing achievement, considering the fact that “she was weak, had no endurance and was afraid of water.” But he does concede that Eddie’s marathons and Walliams’ Thames swim were “standout performances.” Indeed, Izzard was given a special award at the 2009 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards to mark his incredible achievement.

David’s Thames swim, compared to the Channel swim, was “different, though similar up to a point. The Channel was tough but was only one day. The Thames was over multiple days. We went to France for three days for up to eight-hour swims and we had four months training. But David had already swum the Gibraltar Straits, and done the non-stop cycle, so he was in much better physical condition this time.”

Greg helps David Walliams get ready to return to the water

Greg Whyte says “I am effectively anonymous; it is ultimately about the performer, but my job as coach is to bring about success.” He is responsible for the logistics of each challenge, arranging food, scheduling, training, support and how long each stage will be. Underpinning his coaching and research is his experiences in sport, including Olympics games and World Championships and he says “I was fortunate to be talented to take part in sport and joined academia with sport. I could use the science in training.”

He is grateful to his parents and believes “success in life is built around family. My parents were interested and committed to give me opportunity.” But he also believes the facilities in his hometown of Luton were as important. He was a member of the Luton and Vauxhall Swimming Club, Luton Sword Club, Luton Athletics Club and he used to ride horses in Harpenden, all of which gave him a terrific grounding in sport that helped pave the way for the rest of his career.

The town of Luton often receives a bad reputation in the media, but Greg says that a lot is being done in Luton to help young people get involved in sport. “It is an extremely challenging time with the obesity epidemic conspiring to make it very difficult. But there is still commitment, drive and excellence in Luton with very good facilities.”

His advice to anyone trying to get into sports science, and applicable to any profession, is “to work hard, take opportunities and put yourself out there. My Comic Relief work was done for nothing, like much of my early career. I did unpaid work in football, and Formula 1. We live tragically in an X Factor driven society, as though ‘sexy’ jobs fall through the door. But you have to work for it.”

He maintains links with his home town, is still a Luton Town Football Club season ticket holder, and attends matches regularly with his dad. He describes last season’s play-off final against AFC Wimbledon as “gutting” and says “Luton deserves to be playing in a better league. The support is amazing, both home and away. They are playing good football and I hope they do get promoted this year.”

In December 2009, I was fortunate to visit the island of Antigua and visit the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, the Allan Stanford ground, Sticky Wicket, and the Antigua Recreation Ground – the ARG. I wrote an article that was published on cricinfo, but I was never able to post it alongside the photographs to demonstrate exactly what I saw. Here, for the first time, is my account with photographs of those three grounds. (When it was written, Allan Stanford had been exposed as a crook and was in jail and the England Test had been moved from the Viv Richards Stadium to the ARG after a poorly prepared pitch).

– – – –

7th January 2010

Unsurprisingly, it is a warm day in Antigua, and the West Indies’ cricket season is slowly beginning to build up. In the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, a structure that cost approximately $60 million to build, and held the shambolic ten-ball game between England and the West Indies last year, the Leeward Islands are playing a warm-up game. The groundsman at the Antigua Recreation Ground, Keith Fredericks, describes them as the “future of West Indies cricket” with a sense of pride in his voice. Watching a few of the shots played, the signs of potential are out clearly visible, though a near run-out suggests there are still problems in running between the wickets.

The Viv Richards Stadium, “the one so much money was poured into”, is nice, as far as large stadiums go. Cricketers will enjoy playing here in the future in front of what is hopefully a large crowd. However, the ground also strikes me as unfinished and soulless. The linoleum flooring is not cut properly at the top of the stairs in the stand, and bits overhang the edge. Inside, only a quarter of the framed photos are hanging above the captions, which are almost too small to read properly. Those that do hang are hanging askew and are carelessly positioned. On the wall, a wire for the television is sticking out. Pride, clearly, was not put into the finishing touches.

The photos of West Indies heroes hang askew

One of the first games of the season

Maybe, and hopefully, once this stadium starts hosting matches again, after a year-long hiatus, the income will help create some atmosphere into this characterless ground. For the cricketers that come here, inspiration of the achievements of former players is severely lacking. As I look around, I’m glad for the youth of the Caribbean cricket injecting some energy with their exuberant appeals and desperate dives at the boundary edge. There is some hope for this ground yet.

Walking into the Sticky Wicket, the Allen Stanford answer to cricket stadiums, there is a clear difference between the sharp, empty white walls of the Viv Richards ground and the cream and pale green walls of this pavilion and restaurant. The ceiling is red, reflecting the West Indies colours, a very patriotic symbol. Why does the Viv Richards ground have yellow and blue seats? The walls at the Sticky Wicket are littered with photos of West Indies greats. Photographs of achievement, pride and success. West Indies success. Caribbean success, and the feelings of national patriotism that goes along with it. These photos are lined up perfectly with the ceiling, positioned with care. In the cupboards too, there is cricketing memorabilia. Some West Indies based; caps and shirts. Other bits are clearly bought with Stanford money; bats from previous World Cups, signed by all of the players from South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand. The acquisition of these bats stinks of private auction and e-bay, for Stanford was never known to be a great cricket fan.

Nonetheless, the mementos are clearly lacking in the multi-million dollar stadium down the road. This building has created a bit of cricketing history, however distasteful that history is. In one of the cupboards are the programmes and posters of Stanford’s disastrous Twenty20 for $20 million tournament, in which England lost and the ECB lost all credibility. On the wall, there is still a photograph of Stanford surrounded by West Indies cricketing legends. The building feels as though it hasn’t changed since Stanford last stood here. The restaurant is running smoothly, with two waitresses and three chefs working in what appears a relatively busy lunchtime, considering it is a Tuesday afternoon. The vibrant flowers in the driveway are in full bloom, and the staff are clearly happy to be working here. Someone is still paying the staff, and the building hasn’t fallen to ruin.

The outfield is another story. It appears watered and mowed, but it is sandy, the grass is coarse and uncomfortable underfoot and ants’ nests litter the grass. This may as well not be a cricket pitch; you certainly would not want to dive for a ball here lest your foot get caught in the sand. Nowadays, the ground feels more like a resort with a big field of grass in the middle which you could perhaps play sport on if you felt like it. The large stumps by the door remind you that this ground’s main purpose was cricket, albeit cricket at its most un-cricket. The big screens stand still, as do the lights, which caused many fielders problems (they are lower than usual due to the airport runway nearby). The buildings are attractive, the staff attentive and the pavilion does feel like a building dedicated to cricket. What this place will be used for in the future is hard to say. It would make an attractive exclusive resort or hotel. It could be taken over by the WICB and used as a practice ground. Maybe local school teams could play here.

The magnificent entrance to the Sticky Wicket

Neatly lined-up tributes to a great West Indies past

The outfield, believe it or not.

The WICB would in no way encourage it to become a top ground like the Viv Richards Stadium, after all. I would rather it became a resort, as not far from the city stands the ARG – the Antigua Recreation Ground. This ground was used as a practice ground by both the West Indies and England teams in 2009 and hosted the moved Test match in that same series at very short notice. It is not the prettiest ground in the world, nor is it the most comfortable – a chair made the most concerning noise as I sat down – but of all three grounds, it feels like a proper, traditional cricket ground.

It is full of character, soul and history (Sir Vivian Richards scored the fastest ever Test century here, and this is the home of Brian Lara’s record-breaking 400 runs). This is also the home of Keith Fredericks, an incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated groundsman. It is the home of the legendary entertainers Gravy and Chickie, the DJs who have entertained countless crowds and maintained the party atmosphere. It is a favourite of many; Sir Ian Botham was delighted when the Test match was moved here, and Curtly Ambrose describes it as his favourite ground. Many ex-players are both secretly and publicly unhappy with the new Viv Richards stadium.

Standing on the square, on the spot where Brian Lara kissed the ground as he brought up his 400 runs, I can see why this ground is such a favourite. It may not have the biggest capacity (a temporary stand was rented from Miami to accommodate the Barmy Army one year), it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing (though the hills in the distance are spectacular) and it is clearly not the WICB’s favourite cricket ground on the island of Antigua, but it is easily my favourite of the three I have visited today. I’d go as far as to say it is among the best grounds I have visited in the world, and I would have loved to have seen a game here. It would be a shame to see this ground with its record-breaking achievements being dedicated purely to football, or even worse, left to fall to pieces.

For the sake of Keith Fredericks, if no one else, I desperately hope it can be saved for the use of international cricket once more. No one would benefit more than cricket fans around the world, who could come here and visit and say that they have seen the same spot where the best in West Indies cricket created history. Inside the pavilion is the honours board, filled with impressive names from the cricketing world. Can the WICB not honour this outstanding piece of cricketing legend by allowing it the right to games, both international and domestic? Or has the WICB truly put all its eggs in one basket with the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Ground? The answer appears clear; the ARG will probably be ignored in the near future. This is a very, very sad state of events indeed.

Some of the ARG records. Brian Lara's 400 is visible here.

Me walking along the ARG outfield. So green compared to the disregarded Sticky Wicket

The ARG - On par with Lord's as one of the best grounds I have visited.

It’s that time again when the grounds for the much-fought over Ashes Tests are announced for 2013 and 2015. When they were announced in 2009, there was uproar when it was discovered that Cardiff would host the first Test of the series.

The Cardiff Test in 2009, I think, surprised a lot of people. It provided a very good pitch, it went to a fifth day, and the result was a good one for England, which kept the supporters happy. The Cardiff Test has a place in many people’s hearts as a crucial match in the Ashes in recent years. Since then, Cardiff hasn’t done so well. The Sri Lanka Test (though rain affected) struggled with small crowds, and, as a result, low income. Unable to pay the ECB, the West Indies Test for 2010 was moved to Lord’s. In 2015 however, Cardiff will again host an Ashes Test match.

The 2013 Ashes Test venues are: Lord’s, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford, Durham, The Oval.
The 2015 Ashes Test venues are: Lord’s, Trent Bridge, Cardiff, Edgbaston, The Oval.

Lord’s in 2013 and 2015
Lord’s is back to its rightful place of hosting the first match of any series. Although Cardiff did prove a lot of people wrong in 2009, I think both fans and players alike missed the atmosphere and the sense of history that Lord’s provides.

Trent Bridge in 2013 and 2015
Many spectators have regarded Trent Bridge as an exemplary ground. It is a great place to visit and full of atmosphere. It has, like Lord’s and The Oval, been awarded two Ashes Test matches. On one hand, it seems a good move. Having missed out in 2009, it may have been felt by the ECB that Trent Bridge deserved two Ashes Test matches to compensate. Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad are likely to be delighted that their home ground has successfully bid for the Ashes in two successive series. On the other hand, it is a kick in the mouth for grounds such as Edgbaston, and for the Rose Bowl who lost out in both bids.

Old Trafford in 2013
It was not surprising to see Old Trafford get a Test match again, after failing to in 2009. Its redevelopment has been impressive, and it keeps strong links wit the local community, something the ECB looked at closely during this bidding process. It was slightly surprising that Old Trafford were awarded a 2013 Test instead of 2015, which would have given more time for the redevelopment to be complete and for the new pitch to bed-in. 

Durham in 2013
It is great that a Test match has been awarded as high up the country as Durham, but there are some problems. First, it is a smaller capacity stadium. Second, there is an issue with the weather. Granted, it is unpredictable anywhere in the country, but if the Test in Durham is too close to September, it could be a genuine concern. 

The Oval in 2013 and 2015
The Oval was already guaranteed these Tests, despite it not being viewed as warmly by spectators. Nevertheless, The Oval is a good host and will put on as good a show as it did in 2005 and 2009, where it held two very spectacular Ashes Test matches.

Cardiff in 2015
Cardiff, along with Durham to some extent, I cannot understand. Based on the Sri Lanka Test, it is evident that there isn’t enough passion for cricket in the local area to draw large enough crowds for most England Test matches. The Ashes will be different, and it is highly likely it will be a full-capacity ground. Nevertheless, Cardiff should not be given Ashes Test matches purely on the basis that they do not have the support to host any other Test series. The ground is also a lot smaller than the others, and so getting the maximum number of spectators to view the Ashes will not be achieved here.

Edgbaston in 2015
I have seen many complaints among my Warwickshire friends because Edgbaston misses out in 2013. To be honest, I cannot really see their argument. Yes, Edgbaston has recently undergone a redevelopment and is a lovely ground to visit. But, it hosted an Ashes Test in both 2005 and 2009, which left both Trent Bridge and Old Trafford missing out. It seems only right that Trent Bridge and Old Trafford are given an opportunity to host a Test match in its place. Where I can see where Edgbaston-regulars are coming from though, is in the case of Durham being given a Test. It is a smaller capacity ground, and less developed. Nonetheless, I believe Edgbaston should be content with its one Test in 2015. It is, afterall, better than none.

Of the ones who missed out, Headingley decided not to bid due to its financial problems. The Rose Bowl will feel the most aggreived, having hosted a good (albeit wet) Test match against Sri Lanka and having already proved its ability with One Day Internationals and International Twenty20. What will the Rose Bowl have to do to grab a chance to host an Ashes Test match?

As an England fan, I have naturally been thrilled by the results of the Test series against India this summer, and judging by the  T20 game and the two subsequent One Day games, there is going to be more to celebrate by the end of this series as well.

Nevertheless, my enjoyment of watching England play so well as been tainted somewhat by the minority of fanatical India fans who have treated a few sports broadcasters with the utmost contempt for even considering mentioning something negative about their side.

First, there was Jonathan Liew’s very funny article on Sachin Tendulkar. To most people, it was clearly tongue-in-cheek. But for some reason, a few Indian fans really didn’t understand Liew’s very obvious humour. Instead of assuming that a Telegraph journalist such as Liew must know that Tendulkar couldn’t possibly ever play in the Ashes, and that the only Test match has ever been played at the Rose Bowl was against Sri Lanka this year,  and so Tendulkar could never have scored a century there, a few Indian fans turned to vile, blatant racism to protect their hero.

One commenter, said this:

The most ill-researched blog I ever read in my life. Although I am neither a great fan of Tendulkar nor of Cricket, but the title attracted me to read this blog..The myths of Jonathan are busted as follows
1. There are more than 150 excellent cricket grounds in the world, since Tendulkar has 99 centureis only… how can he play on all the grounds. Only 44 in the tests…
2. Sachin has test centuries against all test playing nations, you fool. You cannot even count to the numbers which Sachin has scored playing…you idiot.
3. Ashes is played between Austalria and England, and (un)fortunately Sachin is not the citizen of these countries.
4. Sachin is 5 feet 5 inches….
5.  You might be the ‘broker’  that’s why you know all the details …you bookie…

The man in question carried an Indian flag in his picture alongside the comment, showing clearly where his loyalties lay.

During the fiasco, Liew posted numerous quotes on his Twitter page, reciting some terribly racist comments intermingled with some very funny replies to what should have been a harmless, satirical article. Indeed, the whole matter ended up on Indian television. Crazy.

This summer though, Michael Vaughan has also made the situation worse. I have followed him on Twitter, but I have found him, on occasion, to not be very sensible when dealing with abuse. Like many commentators this summer, he has recieved a lot of crazy comments from India fans, but instead of ignoring them, he has decided to re-tweet them and reply. Yesterday, he wrote this, only intensifying the situation:

Anyone got any good jokes?? And don’t say the Indian Cricket team.. Ha ha.

Michael Vaughan then posted a few replied, ranging from ‘f*** off’ to the England team’s nationalities being a joke. The problem with Vaughan’s supposedly ‘jokey’ initial tweet was that he’d already been baiting some Indian supporters, by posting their insults and suggesting the Indian team were using Vaseline on their bats to prevent nicks showing up on HotSpot (it was later shown that Vaseline made no difference to HotSpot technology).

Some Indian supporters have made life very difficult for commentators this summer, and some of England’s best loved writers and presenters have had to deal with a lot of abuse on Twitter. Jonathan Agnew, particularly, has had a torrid time and has spoken outwardly about how difficult it can be to deal with these horrible comments.

The most recent debacle involved a simple comment from Sky commentator Nasser Hussain. While commentating, he said:

“I would say the difference between the two sides is the fielding. England is all—round a good fielding side. I do believe that India has few…3 or 4 very good fielders and one or two donkeys in the field still.”

This off-the-cuff remark drew criticism from the BCCI, saying they would take the matter up with the ECB, and outrage from Indian fans. The abuse Nasser has recieved (it is a good job he is not on Twitter) has been horrifying. At the One Day match at the Oval today, one Indian fan held aloft this banner (taken from Twitter user sampsoncollins – I hope it’s okay!):

To my mind, there is no reason why Nasser should even contemplate resigning over what he has also said was a bit of ‘cricket slang’. It is harmless.

Even considering insulting the Indian team, especially Tendulkar, has been met with a bombardment of insults and abuse, especially over Twitter, from a few Indian supporters. Michael Vaughan has further amplified the situation by mocking the abuse he has received.

I have been very careful to say that it is a minority of Indian fans who have caused problems for pundits this summer. But, they need to start realising that the negative comments are not personal, they are objective opinions based on an overall poor performance from India this summer and not to be taken so seriously.

Today is Transfer Deadline Day. The mere mention of it fills with me with absolute horror.

Not because I’m scared that my little town of Luton Town FC won’t find anyone worth buying. Not because I’m worried that Owen Hargreaves won’t actually sign for Manchester City. And not even because Sky Sports News won’t show anything other than football news all day.

No, today is the ultimate reminder that there is no loyalty left in a lot of people. None at all.

Most people, almost all, in fact, would agree that they would leave their job if offered another one for more money. And they can hardly be blamed for that fact. But these football players are on so much at one club that actually, a pay rise just makes them an even bigger millionaire than they are already.

This is the crux of the matter. The ridiculous sums of money passed around on Transfer Deadline Day actually make me feel a bit ill. And people talk about it as though it’s nothing. When Fernando Torres signed for Chelsea last year for £50m everyone balked a little bit, including Chelsea supporters. It was truly an astonishing amount of money. I just felt it was disgusting. £50m for a man who kicks a ball around? Really?

I know money in football is only natural nowadays. And the buying of players has made a very… Well, I want to say competitive English Premier League. But it’s not really, is it? It has made certain teams ‘the ones to watch’ and it has given others horrible financial problems to other teams that may torment them for years to come.

A small side may raise a player. Pay for their coaching and lifestyle. They will win matches because of this young player, maybe even win trophies. And then Manchester United turns around one day, flashes a lot of cash and this small side cannot refuse to sell their homegrown player. Manchester United will go on and win some trophies because of this player, and my little club struggles to stay up. It drives me to distraction that only a few teams are now going to win the League. Every team knows it before they even set out. Their hope is merely to stay up. Competitive Premier League? Sure, if a four side race can be called ‘competitive’.

Of course, some will say any side can win trophies. Well, if some billionaire comes in with a lot of money all of a sudden they can, and yes, Manchester City and Crawley Town, I am looking at you.

I don’t find football always the most enjoyable sport to watch. At the best of times, I find it tedious, and as a result, I am not writing this blog with the most open mind.

But I hate Transfer Deadline Day with a passion. It genuinely makes me feel sick to my stomach. I await the day when a player is sold for £80m, and football fans slowly begin to feel the same way. Football is not just about tactics and goals and wonderful passes anymore. Underlying every single game is the amount of money paid for certain players, or the difficulties teams will face having lost certain players. Football  is now simply a stock market, with players the commodities. What has ‘the beautiful game’ become? And where will it end up?

If you read nothing else today, read this article by Andrew Steele, British 400m runner.

These last few days, I have been writing about the wonderful achievements of athletes in Daegu. Well, that and the failures. But what never gets mentioned is the athletes that would have given everything to race, jump or hurdle alongside their contemporaries but can’t, for one reason or another. A lot of athletes have set-backs.

In 2008, Andy Turner’s lottery funding of £12,000 a year was cut off, based on the assumption that he would not win a medal in the 2009 World Championships at the 110m hurdles. At the time, he said “It’s going to be tough but I have to do it as I’ve still got dreams of winning a medal in the Olympics,” and that he would have to look for an outside sponsor or start a part-time job. The idea of not competing did not cross his mind, despite financial concerns. Competition, after all, drives all sportsmen. Turner had the drive to continue competing, despite the new hurdles he had to jump (pun intended).

Turner had to bounce back from what was probably a sporting all-time low and start achieving in order to get his funding back. Here are some of his achievements (and setbacks) from 2009, a year after he lost funding:

  • Fourth in 60m hurdles in European Indoor Championships
  • Won 110m hurdles in European Team Championships
  • Eliminated in heats at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, carrying an injury
  • Fifth in the 2009 IAAF World Athletics Final
And here are a list of achievements from 2010:
  • Won 110m hurdles in European Team Championships
  • Won 110m hurdles in 2010 European Athletics Championships
  • Won 110 hurdles in the Commonwealth games
And today, Turner was rewarded with the Bronze medal at the World Championships in Daegu, proving once and for all that he was more than deserving of Lottery funding.
Turner’s obstacles have been different in nature to that of Steele’s. Steele’s struggle with glandular fever means that he is not just struggling with his finances (he believes that, like Turner, he will lose his funding), but he is struggling everyday with his body. An athlete’s most important tool is, naturally, his body.

Steele’s article proved a timely reminder: The athletes at Daegu have worked incredibly hard to get where they are. But they are also incredibly lucky not to be plagued by injury and illness. It’s amazing to watch their performances, but it is very easy to forget the ones that have pushed themselves to the limit trying to achieve the same things.

I’m going to give Steele a thought when I’m back watching athletics on Thursday. I hope he gets well soon.