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The Putin games

Putin riding a meteorite via Global Voices

I haven’t been watching the Sochi games at all—TV news reports excepted—, though have been reading about them plenty, more the politics than the sports. I’ve particularly liked the dispatches of TNR’s Julia Ioffe, who’s a bicultural Russian-American and thus knows the country well. But despite her Russian roots she’s no Russophile, loin s’en faut, as she makes clear in this piece from four days ago, in which she nails some of the psychological issues afflicting the collective Russian psyche (and which has similarities with the Algerian psyche, with which I am more familiar). I note that her attitude toward the country of her birth seems to differ from that of Russian-American blogger and former student of mine, Anna, whom I mentioned in an earlier post (Anna and Julia look to be the same age, BTW).

One inveterate Russophile, but who’s fully American, is Stephen F. Cohen, NYU and Princeton professor emeritus, well-known Soviet Union/Russia specialist—I liked his biography of Nikolai Bukharin, which I read way back when—, and who has taken to apologizing for the Soviet Union/Russia over the years, most recently in a piece in The Nation last week, “Distorting Russia,” in which he railed on about “[h]ow the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine.” Oh please. Cohen’s rant recalls The Daily World from the ’70s and ’80s, in which the American media and anyone who criticized the Soviet Union was accused of “anti-Sovietism” (I read this stuff in spades back then, so know of what I speak). Okay, Cohen’s piece was not that crude, but still… Among those he inveighed against were Julia Ioffe, Russia specialist Amy Knight, and Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, the latter two of whom, I regret to inform Professor Cohen, have greater cred in my book than he when it comes to analyzing the lands of the ex-Soviet Union (e.g. here is Snyder’s latest, must-read piece, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” that was posted on the NYRB website two days ago and will appear in the March 20 2014 issue). What Cohen loses sight of is that to report objectively on Russia—as on the Soviet Union in its day—is to necessarily sound negative. Some incontrovertible facts:

  • Russia is an authoritarian regime and where the rule of law is non-existent. The country has known nothing but tyranny for almost its entire history. It’s hard to get around this reality when analyzing the country’s politics.
  • Vladimir Putin is a KGB thug and with a KGB world-view. Period. He may have been legitimately elected and enjoy majority support among Russians in the heartland there but so what? That doesn’t make him any less of a thug (the parallel with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comes to mind). And if the cult he has built around his male virility is not utterly fascistic, then I don’t know what fascistic means.
  • Russia, despite its fabulous natural resource wealth and human capital, is an economic basket case. It is a rentier state which has nothing to offer the world—or even its own economy—but hydrocarbons and weapons. In the latter Cold War years the Soviet Union was nicknamed by its own citizens “Upper Volta with rockets.” Part of the Russian population today lives not too badly—thanks to rentier-generated income—but a significant part of it is still in “Upper Volta.” Russia is, as they say where I live, un pays clochardisé.
  • Related to the above, the Russian business oligarchy exports its capital. And sets up residence abroad—in Europe—and has its children educated outside the country. Imagine American (or French etc) capitalists acting likewise.
  • Russian civil society is weak and efforts by citizens to engender a measure of civisme are met with repression. Independent or discordant voices meet with little tolerance.
  • Russia is a brutal, violent society—which few Russians would deny—and with little social solidarity beyond the immediate family unit. And the political culture is thoroughly reactionary.
  • The level of xenophobic nationalism and racism in Russia has no equivalent in the Western world. Better not to be a black, dark-skinned, or Central Asian-looking person there. Or gay, of course. Racism and xenophobia exist everywhere, which goes without saying. One of the problems with it in Russia, though, is that a lot of it is stoked up by the authorities.
  • Russian society is ravaged by alcoholism and with societal decay such that overall life expectancy there is at a Third World level (below that of Bangladesh), indicating, among other things, a calamitous public health system.
  • Russia could have been a great nation but was wrecked—utterly ruined—by seven decades of communism. The Bolshevik Revolution was one of the 20th century’s greatest catastrophes (just behind Nazi Germany and along with the creation of Saudi Arabia). Some lefties may have a hard time accepting this but it is absolutely the case. The bilan of seven decades of Soviet communism is entirely negative. If Lenin’s train had derailed before reaching the Finland Station, Russia would no doubt be a better place today. And the world too.
  • Among the countless catastrophic consequences of communism was the destruction of the environment and of anything resembling a decent cuisine. Soviet cooking: anyone own a cookbook of this?
  • And there’s Russia’s predatory, imperialist relationship with its neighbors, who—with the exception of its Orthodox cousins (some of them)—fear and despise it. Go to any city in Poland and ask a hundred people at random how they feel about Russia…
  • Et j’en passe…

In his screed, Stephen Cohen took aim at the American press and American commentators on Russia, including those who are bona fide specialists of the country, not editorializing hacks. But he could have said the same thing about the French press and French specialists, whose analyses of Russia hardly differ from those of their counterparts outre-Atlantique. E.g. see the editorial in Le Monde dated February 9-10, “Vladimir Poutine ne mérite pas de podium,” which was no doubt written by Le Monde’s editor-in-chief, Natalie Nougayrède, who was the paper’s correspondent in Moscow and other cities in the former Soviet Union for a dozen years in the ’90s and ’00s. Le Monde’s Marie Jégo, who’s been reporting from Russia for many years, is no different in her assessments of the country. And then there’s Marie Mendras, France’s top academic specialist of contemporary Russia, whose articles on the subject—e.g. this recent one, on how the Putin regime is going after the opposition intelligentsia—hardly differ in tone from those of American specialists decried by Stephen Cohen. To all this one may add the enquête in the muckracking webzine Mediapart by Agathe Duparc, who reported from Moscow for eight years for various French publications, on the fortune Vladimir Putin has amassed during his years in power, which may be as high as $40 billion…

For the French press, Moscow has long been a plum post and with a number of France’s top journalists having been posted there and learned the language. What’s interesting and noteworthy is that the majority of them come away with a severe assessment of the country: not its people—one naturally forges friendships with many excellent individuals and appreciates aspects of the culture, not to mention the courage of political dissidents there—but its institutions, political culture, economic dysfunction, and everything else noted above. Contrast this with the US, Washington and New York also being prestigious posts for French foreign correspondents. Like their Moscow correspondent colleagues they also acquire specialized knowledge after time spent there, but do not become biting critics of America. Au contraire, they may invariably be counted upon to counter or refute a lot of the misconceptions and nonsense recounted about America and Americans by their French compatriots. Their analyses of America—of its politics, culture, whatever—are usually on target. And it is naturally likewise with the sizable community of French academic specialists of the US, whose knowledge of their subject often puts mine to shame. French specialists of other countries are second to none, so I take their analyses and views seriously, on Russia as on everywhere else.

I’ve actually never been to Russia but have long wanted to visit the country. If anyone wants to invite me there on all-expenses paid trip—or just accommodate me in Moscow (I can cover the rest)—I’m game. And if anything I’ve said above is misconceived—or so one deems it—, I’m open to having it challenged.

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#StopQatar2022

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France 5′s weekly news magazine “Le Monde en face” had a very good two-part documentary on Qatar two nights ago—on its transformation from an obscure patch of desert to a veritable regional power and with near global reach—, by investigative journalists Vanessa Ratignier et Pierre Péan, and which may be viewed on the France 5 website until next Tuesday: “Qatar: la puissance et la gloire – 1995-2008” (part 1) and “Qatar: trahisons et double jeu – 2008-2013” (part 2)—both 53 minutes and followed by a 15-minute discussion, “Faut-il avoir peur du Qatar?,” with two specialists of that accidental country and its megalomaniacal ruling family. The documentary touches on, among other things, the slave-like conditions afflicting the bulk of the mainly Asian labor force there, which was the subject of my post “Qatar: modern-day slavery” last September, in which I insisted on the utter unfitness of Qatar to be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

À propos, The Guardian reported this week that “[m]ore than 500 Indian workers have died in Qatar since 2012,” and to which may be added the 382 Nepalese workers who have died there during the same period. The Qatari World Cup organizing committee announced last week that workers building the stadiums—but not those building other infrastructure—would be held to higher standards, but with the kafala system remaining unchanged. This is BS to mollify foreign critics. When it comes to the conditions of migrant labor, nothing will change there. Qatar needs to be stripped of the 2022 World Cup. Spread the word on Twitter and everywhere else: #StopQatar2022!

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Voilà more links on Sochi.

On the outrageous cost of the games, MJ has charts on what are absolutely “The most ridiculously expensive games ever.” Totally obscene (though the Sochi price tag will be peanuts compared to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar…).

In my previous post I linked to a piece by Christian Caryl, in which he explained that Putin’s bid to hold the games in Sochi was intimately linked to the wars in the Caucuses and the determination to assert Russia’s will in the region. À propos, Joshua Keating has a piece in Slate rhetorically asking “Did the Age of Genocide begin in Sochi?” The genocide—or maybe it was just massacres on a mass scale; the question is not settled—was of the Circassians, a generic term for the Muslim peoples of the northwestern Caucuses who were killed en masse and expelled—to the Ottoman Empire—in their near entirety during the Russian conquest of the region in the 1850s and ’60s—a conquest that made what the Americans did to the American Indians a tea party by comparison. The cruelty of the Russians in Caucuses was on another level altogether. And as we know, historical narratives are passed down through the generations, so the memory of this is still very much alive.

There are some 20,000 Muslims in Sochi today, BTW, but the city does not have a single mosque, as one learns here.

Tons has been written on the nearby Chechens—who have historically gotten it almost as bad from the Russians as did the Circassians—but if one is interested in a single book, here’s a review of historian Moshe Gammer‘s The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule, by U.Mass-Dartmouth Islamic history prof Brian Glyn Williams (published in Slavonica 13/2, 2007).

For Francophones, the blog Penser la Russie had a dossier last week on the Sochi games. The lede

À l’approche des Jeux Olympiques, Penser la Russie publie un dossier consacré à l’événement le plus chaud de cet hiver. Le dossier s’ouvre par sur un reportage d’Éléna Ratcheva du journal Novaya Gazéta. Publié il y a un mois il contient des détails précieux sur le déroulement du chantier olympique: ouvriers impayés, chasse aux immigrés, les travaux contraints des «bénévoles» et… manque de main d’œuvre.

Nous publions également une interview de Vladimir Poutine qui témoigne de l’image contraire à la réalité du déroulement des travaux préparatifs . Le président russe souligne que dans le succès des préparations des JO de Sotchi réside la réussite du pays dans son entier. Ceux qui osent en douter, comme le démontre un échange sur Twitter, sont de suite condamnés : selon un fonctionnaire « patriote », «l’Empire » ne serait qu’ « un son creux » pour ces personnages…

And then there’s The Sochi Project, by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen. The description

Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen have been working together since 2007 to tell the story of Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. They have returned repeatedly to this region as committed practitioners of “slow journalism,” establishing a solid foundation of research on and engagement with this small yet incredibly complicated region before it finds itself in the glare of international media attention. As van Bruggen writes,
Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi. Just twenty kilometers away is the conflict zone Abkhazia. To the east, the Caucasus Mountains stretch into obscure and impoverished breakaway republics such as North Ossetia and Chechnya. On the coast, old Soviet-era sanatoria stand shoulder to shoulder with the most expensive hotels and clubs of the Russian Riviera. By 2014 the area around Sochi will have been changed beyond recognition.

Hornstra’s photographic approach combines the best of documentary storytelling with contemporary portraiture, found photographs, and other visual elements collected over the course of their travels. Van Bruggen contributes a series of engaging stories about the people, the land, and its turbulent history. Together, the images and texts unpack the complex, multivalent story of this contested region, shining a harsh light on Vladimir Putin’s claim that, “The Olympic family is going to feel at home in Sochi.” Designed by long-standing collaborators Kummer & Herrman, The Sochi Project book, website and exhibition: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is the culmination of this five year project, a contemporary masterpiece of photography and journalism in the collaborative tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor.

On a lighter note, here’s the Russian Police Choir singing ‘Get Lucky’ at the Olympics opening ceremony. Not bad…

Circassian-Republics-Map

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The Sochi games

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I haven’t watched them at all so far—not even the opening ceremony (wasn’t home)—and likely won’t, except maybe the figure skating. Have never been into winter sports (I never learned how to ice skate and have never put on skis in my life—which is too bad for me, as I know skiing is a blast, countless friends and others having thus informed me over the decades, my daughter included). And then there are the politics surrounding the Sochi games, the obscene $50 billion price tag—bigger than the GDP of over a hundred countries—, and just the mere fact that they’re happening there. I’ve read numerous articles and reports on the Sochi Olympics over the past several months, all of which, without exception, have been negative—and with the negativity being 100% confirmed by a current Russian student in one of my courses, who is active in a Paris-based pro-democracy/anti-Putin association. But then, a Russian student of mine from ten years ago, Anna—a delightful young woman and smart as a whip—, who presently works for Russia Today (RT) television in Moscow, is fed up with all the negativity and dumping on Russia by the international media, as she wrote yesterday in a post on her fine blog (check it out: lots of cool photo essays of Moscow). Along with her other compatriots she watched the opening ceremony on Friday with patriotic pride. Ça se comprend.

But, pace Anna, as I’m not Russian and have my political convictions, I have no choice but to add to the negativity. I have tons of articles on Sochi that I can link to but will select just a few (and particularly as a certain number have been making the rounds—not to mention the funny tweets from journalists these past few days recounting their Sochi hotel experiences).

One piece I just read is a post on the NYRB blog, dated February 5th, by former Moscow correspondent Christian Caryl, on why Vladimir Putin wanted the Olympics in Sochi. The short answer: because this would symbolize his triumph in the war with the Chechens.

In the February issue of Vanity Fair journalist Brett Forrest, who’s lived in Russia, has a report on “Putin’s run for gold.” The lede: “At $50 billion and counting, the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, will be the most expensive Olympic Games ever. Intended to showcase the power of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, they may instead highlight its problems: organized crime, state corruption, and the terrorist threat within its borders.”

For those who are not NYRB subscribers, or who are but missed it, Amy Knight had a review essay (behind the paywall) in the September 26 2013 issue on “Putin’s downhill race,” in which she discussed a 41-page report released in Moscow last May by Putin opponents Boris Nemstov and Leonid Martynyuk, entitled “Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Independent Expert Report.” Here’s the key passage from Knight’s review

When the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, was chosen as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics in 2007, Vladimir Putin had every reason to be pleased. Russia was given a chance to show the world the accomplishments of his regime. Now that he is again Russia’s president, after a four-year hiatus as prime minister from 2008 to 2012, Putin himself will be at the center of the events. But the Olympics might not turn out as he and his Kremlin colleagues have envisioned.

According to two of Putin’s critics from the democratic opposition, Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk, the Olympics, to be held in February 2014, are a disaster waiting to happen. Nemtsov and Martynyuk have published a booklet, Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Independent Expert Report, describing the folly of the choice of Sochi, the unprecedented amount of government money being spent to prepare for the games, and the vast corruption that is part of the process. The Sochi Olympics, for these writers, are a microcosmic example of what is wrong with Russia today. And far from presenting Putin’s Russia in a favorable light, the Olympics could be devastating to the country’s image, as well as Putin’s. The authors begin:

Russia is a winterly country. On the map, it is hard to find a spot where snow would never fall, and where winter sports would not be popular. Yet Putin has found such a spot and decided to hold the winter Olympics there: in the city of Sochi.

Sochi, which Nemtsov knows well—he is a native of the city who ran unsuccessfully for mayor there in 2009—is indeed an unfortunate choice. According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk, the temperature at Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain cluster outside of Sochi where many of the winter sports will take place, reached 55 degrees Fahrenheit this year on February 7, the date when the games will open next year. Four days later the temperature reached close to 60 degrees.

The Rotenberg brothers, Arkady and Boris, friends of Putin since their childhood in St. Petersburg, are a case in point. They were judo partners of Putin at the Yavara- Neva Judo Club in St. Petersburg, and continue, along with him, to be benefactors of the club. In 2008 the brothers, now billionaires, began buying up subsidiaries of Russia’s national energy company, Gazprom; their construction company, SGM Group, is now a major supplier of pipelines to Gazprom. They also have large investments in Mostotrest, a road construction company that won the concession to build the controversial toll road from Moscow to St. Petersburg and is now the contractor for several road projects in connection with the Olympics.

In total, the Rotenbergs have received twenty-one Olympic construction contracts, worth around $7 billion, more than the entire cost of the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk, the Rotenbergs have reaped enormous profits from the projects because the contracts were awarded without competition.

Another old Putin friend, Vladimir Yakunin, a former neighbor of his at the exclusive Ozero dacha compound outside St. Petersburg, is also a major beneficiary of the Sochi Olympics. Yakunin is the head of Russian Railways (RZD), which was designated to oversee the building of a combined highway and railway from the city of Sochi to the area for downhill skiing at Krasnaya Polyana. As Nemtsov and Martynyuk note:

The most expensive facility of the Sochi Olympics…is not the central stadium, the ski-jumping center, or the bobsled track. Those facilities were peanuts compared to a 48-kilometer stretch of highway….

As in the case of the Rotenbergs, the builders of the road and railway, which have caused unprecedented environmental damage, received their contracts through Russian Railways without competitive bidding.

Yakunin has recently been in the spotlight because of revelations by anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny about his questionably acquired luxurious dacha outside Moscow. Navalny’s Fund to Fight Corruption also uncovered a network of offshore companies that Yakunin and his family use to fund real estate ventures abroad. In June it was widely reported that Yakunin had lost his job. But the Kremlin quickly dismissed the reports as unfounded.

Yet another Putin crony, Gennady Timchenko, is a large stakeholder in SK Most, one of the companies contracted by Yakunin to build the road and train to Krasnaya Polyana. He also happens to be a sponsor of the Yavara-Neva Judo Club and reportedly plays ice hockey with Putin and Arkady Rotenberg and some other close friends of the president. Timchenko runs Gunvor, the third-largest oil-trading company in the world. Gunvor rose from a little-known business to become a major force in the oil industry after the takeover by state-run Rosneft of the oil giant Yukos—and the arrest of its owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky—in 2003. Rosneft now sells a significant amount of its oil through Gunvor.

According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk’s report, the cost of the highway to Krasnaya Polyana would have been radically reduced if the project had not included railway lines. But this would have meant leaving RZD management out of the vast profits, along with the affiliated companies with which it makes contracts.

In addition to the unfavorable climate, Nemtsov and Martynyuk go on to point out other risks of having the Olympics in Sochi. A major problem is the enormously large amount of energy that will be required. Sochi, a city of only a half-million people, is woefully inadequate for this task. In 2012, more than a thousand power outages—an average of three a day in various parts of the city—occurred there because of the poor condition of the electricity network.

The construction of facilities for the Olympics is being carried out by more than 16,000 migrant workers from the former Soviet republics. According to the report’s authors, in 2012 alone forty construction accidents and twenty-five deaths occurred in the preparations for the games:

The poor quality of construction and violations of technological rules and regulations are related to the use of cheap and unskilled labor. A paradoxical situation arose: despite the astronomical budget,…the building workers often did not receive their hard-earned pay. The money ended up in the pockets of the main clients, general contractors, subcontractors, and subsubcontractors…. We can only speculate what the quality of the facilities built will be.

The authors observe that many of the contractors have not met the deadlines for completion: “This means that the last stage of preparation for the Olympics is being carried out in an emergency mode, and no one cares about the quality and technology used.”

Moreover, the authors predict, visitors to the Olympics in Sochi, which is known for its road congestion, will encounter traffic jams that could make Moscow streets seem tranquil in comparison:

Due to the influx of high-ranking officials of Putin’s government and official delegations, who are used to having the traffic halted to allow them to speed by, the situation on the roads of Sochi will become a real nightmare.

Adding to the concerns about the Kremlin’s planning for the Olympics is the controversy over the draconian anti-gay legislation, including a ban on “homosexual propaganda,” signed by Putin in June. The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, has said that this law will be enforced during the Olympics. Gay activists are calling for a boycott by participants in the games.

Nemtsov and Martynyuk make only passing reference to the possibility of terrorism at the Olympics, noting that Sochi is part of the notoriously volatile North Caucasus. In fact, Sochi is located just 250 miles from the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, where Islamist rebels have their base. In early July, Doku Umarov, the leader of the rebel movement, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains between Dagestan and Chechnya, threatened in a video that his followers would use “maximum force” to ensure that the games do not take place. Umarov has claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks in Russia, including that on the Moscow metro in 2010, which killed forty people, and the 2011 bombing at Domodedovo airport, which resulted in thirty-seven deaths.

The full report was translated into English on Boris Nemtsov’s website (here, scroll down).

For those who know French, Envoyé Spécial had a half-hour reportage last September 12th on “Sotchi: les jeux à tout prix,” that is well worth watching.

À suivre.

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I’m watching the Super Bowl as I write, which means it’s well after midnight chez moi. And which ergo means I that must really want to watch the game. It’s almost the end of the second quarter. Denver not looking good. Only one brief commercial interruption so far, which gives an indication as to the size of the audience here. A lot more non action than action during a US football game. Even though I’ve followed the NFL since age nine—with a few gaps here and there—it is, objectively speaking, a lousy sport, which I’ve written on here and here, and has zero chance of catching on outside the US. And while it will remain the nº1 spectator sport in the US for many years to come—and generate billions of $ in profits for the NFL—, it can only decline in the long run (after many of us will be dead). One thing I learned in the past five or so years, that I had no idea of, was the existence of Pop Warner football, where boys as young and five and six-years-old play tackle football in organized leagues—and where most NFL players get their start. I always thought the tackle game began in high school. It’s one of those bizarre phenomena in l’Amérique profonde (like beauty contests for little girls, the existence of which many Americans of my general socio-educational stratum learned about during the JonBenét Ramsey affair in the 1990s). This is insane—and insidious, as, among other things, Pop Warner also involves primary school-age girls cheerleading, of the girls cheering on the budding macho boys (and never the reverse; talk about a gender hierarchy from another era). As US football is a violent, dangerous game—with news of a former NFL player suffering from dementia or dying before his time announced almost every week—it is unconscionable to allow children to play tackle football. The game should be banned for minors. Hah, fat chance.

The fact that NFL players have been playing the game almost all their lives should somewhat reduce the NFL’s responsibility for the brain damage that many suffer in later life, as the players had sustained countless concussions by the time they entered the league in their early 20s.

Increasing numbers of parents are keeping their boys out of Pop Warner and high school football, as is being reported, e.g. here and here. And a certain number of fans—probably not many but still— are turning away from the game on account of the violence, e.g. here and here.

One thing I learned just the other day is that the NFL is tax exempt. This fabulously profitable enterprise earns billions and pays no taxes. Outrageous. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has initiated a bill to put an end to this anomaly. This is one Republican initiative I can sign on to no prob’.

On the subject of Republicans/conservatives, Bill Maher had a commentary recently on “new rules football and conservative bullies,” in which he ridicules right-wingers (Rush Limbaugh et al) who attacked President Obama for saying that if he had a son, he wouldn’t allow him to play football. Oh my, how un-American!! Maher is usually a dick but he’s great in this one (watch here).

But not all right-wingers like the game. E.g. George Will is not a football fan and makes no secret of it (here, here, and here).

Back to the game underway, the Seahawks are mauling the Broncos big time. This is turning into one those 1980s-90s Super Bowl routs. Too bad for Peyton Manning. And for my friends in Denver.

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The Ice Bowl

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For the first time in over twenty years I’ve spent a weekend watching NFL playoff games. Have watched part or all of all four. The last one, the Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers—which is on the tube as I write—, is being played, for those who don’t know, in Green Bay in sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures. I am reminded of the Packers-Dallas Cowboys championship game on December 31, 1967, in Green Bay. The temperature was -13°F/-25°C (and without the wind chill factor). I was a boy in Milwaukee—where the temperature was exactly the same as in Green Bay (200 km to the north)—and a fanatical Packers fan. As it was too cold to step outside the house, I couldn’t go over to my best friend’s, so had to watch the game at home all by myself (I have no memory of my parents—who had zero interest in football—that day or where they were). The game is called one of the greatest ever in US football and it is indeed. I remember feeling confident through most of it but when the Cowboys went ahead 17-14 on the first play of the 4th quarter—on Dan Reeves’s 50 year halfback option TD pass to Lance Rentzel—I started to panic. The Packers’ final drive was no doubt the most stressful twenty minutes—or however long it was (5 minutes on the football clock)—of my life, then and since. I didn’t have my eyes open when Bart Starr went over the goal line with 13 seconds left for the winning touchdown. I was even panicky as Don Meredith threw hail Mary passes as the game ended (you never know). What a f**king game! The Super Bowl victory against the Oakland Raiders two weeks later was an anticlimax.

This 13 minute YouTube documentary tells the story of the Ice Bowl. Some great lines, like this one on the temperature that day: “It is called Russian winter, the kind of brutal cold that made Napoleon and Hitler flee in panic from the doorstep of Moscow”… Yeah, but not the Green Bay Packers!

Turns out it’s not so cold at the moment in Green Bay after all: 4°F/-16°C. C’est rien.

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La France qui gagne

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard)

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard)

[updates below]

The France that wins. We haven’t heard that one in a while. For anyone who doesn’t live on this planet—or who lives outside France and doesn’t follow international soccer—the French national team played one of the greatest games in its history last night at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, beating the Ukraine 3-0 to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next June. Hardly anyone dared to imagine such a result. In round 1 of the qualifying phase, Les Bleus (logically) finished second to Spain in their group, so went to the two-game playoff (matched against the Ukraine, which finished second in its group; fortunately Les Bleus didn’t draw Portugal). Last Friday’s game in Kiev was a disaster. Les Bleus were mediocre, losing 2-0. The Ukrainians were better and just wanted it more. To win the ticket to Brazil—and avoid the bitter disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup (for the first time since 1994), not to mention humiliation of being the sole big European soccer nation to suffer elimination at this stage—Les Bleus had to win with at least a three goal spread. No team had ever come back from a two goal deficit in a European World Cup qualifier playoff. The statistical probability of Les Bleus surmounting it was exactly 19%, so it was said. It’s really hard to score three goals in a soccer game and shut out the opposing side while one’s at it, and particularly when up against teams of the Ukraine’s quality. But Les Bleus did it (highlights here; on Karim Benzema’s apparent offside goal: as he was robbed of a goal several minutes earlier on a manifestly bad offside call, it was legit he wasn’t called on this one). It was an amazing spectacle. One for the ages. The team rose to the occasion as we have not witnessed in a very long time. I’ve seen just about every game the French national team has played over the past fifteen years that counted for something—World Cup, European championship, and the qualifiers for these—and cannot recall such a performance apart from the 1998 victory against Brazil. And such an explosion of joy at the end of the game, on the field and in the stands.

So we likely won’t be hearing anymore about the French public’s famous désamour of the national team, with its collection of spoiled, overpaid, selfish, antipathetic jerks, or so it has been said of them. The ignominy of the 2010 South Africa fiasco—and the ugly, illegitimate playoff victory against Ireland the November before—will likewise be relegated to the memory hole. On this I differ with the Équipe reporter quoted at the end of Scott Sayare’s good NYT dispatch on last night’s game. E.g. see here.

3516817_3_b2e3_quelques-unes-de-quotidiens-mercredi-20_e36b8c0a99ce652755ca2c1889b30601

It was also nice that Algeria qualified last night, beating Burkina Faso, to which it was a goal down coming into the game. La France et l’Algérie ensemble au Brésil. C’est beau. France, Algeria, and Portugal supporters were celebrating together on the Champs-Elysées last night. It’s going to be a great lineup for the tournament in Brazil. All the major European soccer powers will be there: Spain, Germany, Italy, England, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands (too bad we won’t be seeing Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimović). The qualified teams from Africa—Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast—are the best from that continent. The ones from Asia—Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Australia—are just right. And Mexico and Uruguay are sure to qualify in their playoffs today, so every logical country from the Western Hemisphere will be present. C’est bien.

Remark: the French hard right—so nationalistic and supposedly loving of France—is reacting with predictable bad humor to last night’s victory. Radio silence on Marine Le Pen’s Twitter feed, as on those of the FN and the reactionary Valeurs Actuelles (which has become the leading media mouthpiece of the hard right). And then there was this tweet from UMP hard rightist Lionnel Luca (and he had others of the genre). How low of him. The hard and extreme right just hates it when a French team loaded with African and Maghrebi-origin stars wins (and, adding insult to injury, with the star player of regular French stock—good ol’ boy Franck Ribéry from Boulogne-sur-Mer, who’s as working class as one can get—being a Muslim convert and with Algerian-origin wife). Well, they just need to get over it. Voilà, c’est la France d’aujourd’hui et de demain. Il faut s’y faire.

UPDATE: The FN did issue a communiqué on the game the day after. The Frontistes, who are clearly not exulting in the victory, continue to be obsessed with the “Black, Blanc, Beur” composition of the team, which no one outside the far right brings up anymore. Celebrating la France de toutes les couleurs is so 1998. It’s now banal. Except for the far right.

2nd UPDATE: Mamadou Sakho did indeed score the third goal (at the 72nd minute), as the video here makes clear. It wasn’t a Ukrainian own goal, as was initially reported (including in the NYT article linked to above).

3rd UPDATE: A poll taken over the two days following the game indicates that the désamour of the French public for the team has not dissipated and despite its exemplary performance on Tuesday night. Peut-être. I’ll need to see more evidence of this, though which we won’t have until after the tournament next June-July (as Les Bleus won’t be playing any games that count until then). If a continued désamour persists—and despite an honorable performance in Brazil—, then this will indicate that the problem is more on the side of the public than the team, that large numbers of Frenchmen and women do not relate to a national team heavily comprised of players of Maghrebi and African immigrant origin, and who issue mainly from the cités in the banlieues. On verra. (November 23)

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: AP/Thibault Camus)

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: AP/Thibault Camus)

Saint-Denis, November 19  2013 (photo: L'Equipe)

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: L’Equipe)

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Qatar: modern-day slavery

Qatar (photo: Construction Week)

Qatar (photo: Construction Week)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

The Guardian has an article with accompanying 9½-minute video on Qatar’s World Cup “slaves”: the migrant workers in that accidental country who are forced to work for no pay while building the stadia and other infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar was amazingly, incredibly chosen by FIFA to host. The Guardian has been on a tear on the issue over the past week, with one article asserting that “Qatar World Cup construction ‘will leave 4,000 migrant workers dead’,” and another asking “How many more must die for Qatar’s World Cup?” (See also the Qatar 2022 coverage in the excellent blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.)

Qatar may pledge to reform its migrant labor practices but it won’t. Just as it won’t end the Kafala system of tying foreign workers to employers, confiscating the former’s passports, and requiring exit visas (and which does not only concern manual laborers from poor countries; e.g. see the article in yesterday’s Libération on what it’s like to work for Qatar Airways). Qatar won’t change on this score—nor will other states of the Arabian peninsula—because the master-slave mentality is almost inscribed in its cultural DNA (see my previous blog posts on this theme here, here, and here). To expect Qataris—or Saudis, Emiratis, etc—to voluntarily change their ways on this—and in the absence of democracy, a civil society (and with independent trade unions), or anything even halfway resembling the rule of law—would be akin to politely asking an antebellum Mississippi plantation owner to free his slaves, pay them correctly, offer decent working conditions, etc. For this reason alone, FIFA needs to strip Qatar of the 2022 tournament and award it in extremis to a worthy country (if UEFA countries are eligible, England or Turkey; if not UEFA, Australia or the US).

What a batshit crazy decision to award the tournament to Qatar. It is clearly unreasonable to be playing sports in 50°C temperatures—air conditioned stadiums or not (and what happens when people are not in the stadium? where will the masses of fans spend their free time?)—and shifting the tournament to the winter will almost certainly not happen—regardless of what FIFA and UEFA are saying on this today—, as it will come in the middle of soccer season in Europe and conflict with the Winter Olympics. Qatar is simply unfit to be hosting the tournament. In addition to the labor issues and climate, the country only has one city worthy of the name—and which has no public life to speak of—, the distractions and amusements for the fans—notably bars and members of the opposite sex in abundance—will not be available (at least not in the quantities necessary for a month-long happening of this scale), and the prospects for cultural friction will be considerable (can one imagine the tens of thousands of rowdy, beer-swilling English, German, etc fans on the streets of Doha or Al Rayyan for three whole weeks—with nothing to do between matches and thus bored out of their minds—, and crossing paths with the hordes of Saudis who are certain to descend on the emirate for the event?). Forget it, Qatar just doesn’t have what it takes to be hosting the World Cup. Even Mongolia would be a better choice. The campaign to strip it of the tournament is apparently gaining steam in FIFA. Très bien.

UPDATE: Business Insider has a post on the “11 reasons why the Qatar World Cup is going to be a disaster.” One pertinent point about scheduling the tournament in the winter is that it will conflict with the final phase of the American football season, thereby dramatically reducing the level of interest in the US—a major FIFA growth market—and wreaking havoc with the television contract there. And a World Cup elimination match would almost certainly fall on Super Bowl Sunday. Just can’t see FIFA doing this. Or the Fox Broadcasting Company agreeing to it.

2nd UPDATE: It appears to be open season on Qatar this week, as the BBC website has a piece up on how “Qatar 2022 World Cup organisers [are] ‘appalled’ by work conditions.” They’re shocked, shocked!

3rd UPDATE: The Business Insider piece above links to an item about the possible price tag of Qatar 2022, which could be as high as $220 billion. Even if it’s only half that—though one supposes it will likely be far more—, this is, objectively speaking, an obscene amount of money to be spending on a one-month sporting event. One may easily come up with a list of more socially, economically, and humanly useful ways such a sum could be spent. All the stadiums and related infrastructure built for the event will give a new dimension to the term “white elephant.” This has long been a problem for major international sports events—particularly the Olympics—and looks to be a big one for Brazil next year (e.g. see the NYT article earlier this week on the stadium under construction in Manaus and, more generally, the social movement in that country against the diversion of economic resources that hosting the event necessitates). The fact is, the World Cup and Olympics tend not to be a good economic deal for the hosting country—when a not downright bad one (e.g. Montreal 1976, Athens 2004)—, and particularly if that country is not among the world’s richest. Now Qatar may be flush but it is simply unconscionable to be blowing that kind of cash building sports stadiums and gleaming infrastructure that will eventually be swallowed up in the sand.

Migrant workers, Doha (© 2011 Sam Tarling)

Migrant workers, Doha (© 2011 Sam Tarling)

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Istanbul Olympics

olimpiyatlar

Thank God Istanbul didn’t get them. As one gleans from the above image—by a local anti-Olympics group—hosting the games would have had all sorts of deleterious consequences: white elephant facilities, ecological carnage, bulldozers working overtime 24/7 and razing at will—as if Istanbul needs more of that (and with the AKP’s construction clientele enriched ever further and with the attendant corruption)—, and damage to the city’s historic and cultural patrimony. And this being Turkey, there is the matter of demonstrations and the way the police there deal with them (I wonder if the IOC wasn’t thinking of Mexico City 1968 in its deliberations). And then there was the question of cost (image below). Turkey may have boomed economically over the past decade but that boom is slowing down and with the economy hitting some walls. The Olympics are colossally expensive and almost always huge money losers. Economically speaking, the games would have been a bad investment for Turkey. (À propos, Parisians—myself included—were so disappointed that Paris lost out to London in hosting the 2012 games; but in the years after 2005, when that decision was made, there were no regrets; what a relief Paris didn’t get them).

Last but not least, there’s prime minister Erdoğan. Winning the 2020 games would have been a huge political and personal victory for him. Losing them was a big slap in the face. And if there’s anyone who needs to have his face slapped—figuratively and perhaps literally too (what an interesting idea)—, it’s RT Erdoğan. It was reported that big crowds gathered in Taksim Square on Saturday night to celebrate the city not getting the games. How gratifying.

On the Turkish activists who campaigned against Istanbul hosting the games—and lobbied the IOC—, ex-Istanbul based journalist Jay Cassano has an informative article in Jadaliyya.

Changing the subject from the Olympics, Christopher de Bellaigue had a very good piece in Slate two weeks ago, on “Turkey’s hidden revolution.” The lede: How Prime Minister Erdoğan accidentally fostered a generation of Turkish liberals. The emergence of a significant liberal current among the forces vives in Turkey was one of the revelations—for those outside Turkey, at least—of the Taksim Gezi Park movement in June. A very positive development, c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire. The existence of this current is a big difference between Turkey and the Arab world. The latter lacks it. Tahrir Square is not Taksim. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

UPDATE: Journalist Cengiz Çandar has an article in Al Monitor on Istanbul losing the Olympics.

How much will the Olympics cost?

How much will the Olympics cost?

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PHOTOGRAPH BILL FRAKES SPORTS ILLUSTRATED GETTY

On the occasion of the Super Bowl—which begins in a couple of hours—here is my “Reflections on American football,” that I posted the day of last year’s game. As I explicated in some detail, American football is a perverse sport in several respects, very much an American exception, and with zero export potential. And I point out that the notion that much of anyone outside the US—and who has never lived in the US—may have any interest in the Super Bowl is a laughable American illusion.

On the subject, here is a pertinent essay I just read by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, who argues that US football is in a “death spiral” and “may eventually collapse.” He makes a number of good points, one being this

it’s such an unforgivable time-suck — a few minutes of action surrounded by oceans of advertising, high-end graphics and idiotic banter

I felt the same thing while watching an NFL playoff game in the US in December. There were so many commercial interruptions—literally every five minutes—that I stopped watching and did something else. I don’t see how even the most diehard fans can put up with the constant breaks in the action and advertising assaults. The game is unwatchable.

Another article worth reading is by sports writer Will Leitch in NYMag from last August, “Is Football Wrong? Even to a devoted fan, it’s getting harder to watch the NFL.”

As for tonight’s game, I know nothing about the 49ers or Ravens and couldn’t care less who wins, but, like last year, I’ll try to watch the whole thing (which for me means staying up to at least 4 AM). What the hell…

UPDATE: Joshua Keating has a piece on the FP website on “America’s Game: Why don’t other countries like football?” (and in which I weigh in in the comments thread).

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Capital vs. talent

Interesting op-ed in today’s NY Times on the NFL referees’ strike as a metaphor for the battle in American business. The author, Roger L. Martin, argues that the NFL team owners fought the referee union so hard not because the latter’s demands were costly—which they weren’t—but

Because the league was fighting a bigger fight, one that is representative of a war beneath the surface of the modern economy — the war between capital and talent.

Martin’s Marxist-ish analysis is refreshing in this age of neoliberal hegemony, particularly as he is not some tenured radical prof at U.Mass-Amherst or UC-Santa Cruz but the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Conservatives will likely retort that he’s Canadian so whaddaya expect? Martin’s recent book, Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL, looks most interesting. It’s published by Harvard Business Press Books. The publishing arm of Mitt Romney’s alma mater. I would doubt he’s read it.

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I didn’t write anything about the controversy over the IOC’s refusal to mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympics massacre with a moment of silence at the opening ceremony of the London games—a refusal that, entre autres, earned the IOC a thank you note from the Palestinian Authority, which seemed to feel that such a commemoration would “be a cause for divisiveness and for the spreading of racism.” No joke. It’s now old news, so two weeks ago. Except that yesterday I was on Alain Gresh’s blog on the Le Monde Diplomatique website and came across a post of his dated July 25th, “Jeux olympiques : Munich, quarante ans après,” where he offered his commentary and then posted the entirety of an article that LMD published in October 1972 on Black September’s Munich operation, by Lebanese intellectual Samir Frangieh—then a leftist, nowadays a leading figure in the March 14 alliance—, where Frangieh described the collective “état d’esprit” of the Arab population in the aftermath of the operation and with an analysis of its significance for the Palestinian movement. An interesting read. This passage caught my attention

Pendant vingt-quatre heures, les masses arabes, profondément traumatisées par l’échec de la tentative de détournement de l’avion de la Sabena en mai 1972 et par les commentaires suscités en Israël, ont vécu dans l’angoisse. Et quand la nouvelle de la mort des otages israéliens a été connue, une explosion de joie a secoué le monde arabe. A Damas, les gens se félicitaient dans la rue du succès de l’opération. A Tripoli, dans le nord du Liban, une collecte de fonds, organisée en faveur de la résistance, a permis de ramasser des sommes d’argent considérables. Septembre noir venait de porter un coup au mythe de l’invincibilité d’Israël, savamment entretenu par les théoriciens des régimes arabes et qui représentait certainement un des blocages idéologiques les plus forts au niveau des masses.

In short, the news of the death of the Israeli athletes was greeted with an explosion of joy across the Arab world, with people congratulating each other on the street, doing high fives, and the like. How nice. Well, I guess one understands why the PA was so hostile to marking Munich with a minute of silence…

This reminded me of one of the many interesting things I learned in Yezid Sayigh’s Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993, which I read a couple of years ago (an essential book on the subject, though hard to come by; at 1000 pages w/small print, it was not exactly a best-seller). In discussing the Palestinian fedayeen operations launched from Lebanon into Israel in the 1970s—Kiryat Shmona, Maalot, etc—and that targeted civilians, Sayigh informs the reader that the Lebanese offices of the groups that carried them out (PFLP, DFLP, etc) were besieged with potential recruits in the aftermath of the operations, thereby encouraging other groups to emulate them. The base, as it were, thought terrorism was great. They loved it. Hey, Sayigh said it—in so many words—, not me.

Back to the Munich massacre, after Steven Spielberg’s film came out in 2006, a Paris theater screened the 1999 documentary on the event, ‘One Day in September‘, which won the Oscar for best documentary that year. It’s a very interesting film, where one learns that the German state—the government and police—was blindsided by Black September’s operation and was utterly unprepared and unequipped to deal with it. International terrorism of the sort inaugurated by the Palestinians—and with the complicity of states—was a new phenomenon and that had Europe entirely exposed. Thus the confused reaction of the German authorities and the incredible incompetence of its police (which adapted and got smart after the event, as witnessed, e.g., in the 1977 Lufthansa hijacking). A documentary worth seeing.

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[update below] [2nd update below]

Lovely image of the two Saudi women athletes—Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar—at the opening ceremonies in London last Friday, even if they were all covered up (thankfully they weren’t wearing the niqab). But as Jocelyne Cesari—the well-known scholar of political Islam—argues in a commentary on the CNN website, the token presence of Shaherkani and Attar is a sham. The Saudis sent them to compete in London only under duress—as the IOC threatened to exclude Saudi Arabia from the games if it did not start including women in its Olympic delegation—but that this has hardly brought about a change in women’s sports in the country, i.e. of the near non-existence of it. This recalls the IOC’s expulsion of apartheid South Africa in 1964, even though the South Africans had said that several black competitors would be included in their delegation to the Tokyo games that year. But the issue wasn’t a multiracial Olympic delegation but apartheid in sports in South Africa. It should be likewise for Saudi Arabia. Until gender discrimination in sports is ended there, the country should be expelled from the IOC, indeed from all international sporting competition. And while we’re at it, the gender and sports situation in other countries, notably in that corner of the world, should be examined as well, and with similar threats of exclusion.

UPDATE: Wojdan Shaherkani’s performance in her judo match, which lasted all of 82 seconds, was such that journalists and others present wondered if she had ever practiced judo in her life. It was a joke. Which is precisely what her presence in the Olympics was. (August 3)

2nd UPDATE: It seems that the two Saudi female athletes have been labeled by some of their compatriots back home as “prostitutes of the Olympics.” (August 13)

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Super Mario Balotelli

[updates below]

The New York Times has a cover story on its web page today on Mario Balotelli, the star striker of the Italian national team and Manchester City, whose performance against Germany in Thursday’s semifinal turned me into a Squadra Azzurra fan for the first time in thirty years—at least for tonight’s final against Spain (in the Euro 2012, if one doesn’t know). Here’s hoping he scores the winning goal and becomes Italy’s national hero, thereby causing the masses of racist, monkey-chanting idiots there to STFU. He’s already won hearts in the peninsula and elsewhere by showing himself to be a good Italian boy who loves his mamma (below and here). On the question of race in European soccer, see this analysis on “Mario Balotelli and the new Europe” by historian Laurent Dubois, on his excellent blog Soccer Politics/The Politics of Football. A British TV reportage on Mario B. may be seen here. For now, all I can say is Forza Azzurri!

UPDATE: As it happens, Mario B.’s adoptive mother is Jewish and has family in Israel.

2nd UPDATE: Mario wasn’t too brilliant against Spain, nor were his teammates. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all, as they say…

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On the occasion of the Euro 2012 and the French national team’s first game—vs. England, which I am watching as I write—here is an in-depth interview, in Sports Illustrated (h/t Peter Gray), with France’s beloved Lilian Thuram on his high-profile campaign against racism in sports and society, which he launched during his illustrious career (with clubs in France, Italy, and Spain, and, above all, the French national team). As a player he will forever be remembered for his two back-to-back goals in the 1998 World Cup semi-final against Croatia, that allowed Les Bleus to proceed to the final and clean Brazil’s clock. He was as stunned as everyone by his feat (photo), as he was a defender and thus not known for scoring goals. A glorious, albeit fleeting, moment in the contemporary history of France…

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[update below]

This story has been making the rounds the last couple of days—though apparently not too much in Israel—, of Beiter Jerusalem soccer fans going on the rampage in a shopping mall after a game last Monday and assaulting Arabs with impunity. No arrests have been made. Read about it here in +972—which links to the Haaretz report and has a video— and here. The Beitar F.C.’s anti-Arab racism is well-known, of the fans—the banner in the above photo reads “No Arabs”—but also of the club’s hiring policies (e.g. see here and here). If Beitar doesn’t clean up its act it should be expelled from UEFA. And if the relevant Israeli authorities don’t move against it, all Israeli clubs should be suspended from UEFA tournaments.

ADDENDUM: In the home of a family in Ramallah’s Al-Amari refugee camp three years ago (see here), I noticed that one of the men was wearing a Beitar Jerusalem t-shirt. I was informed—and I’m not making this up—that the club has numerous Palestinian fans. Go figure.

UPDATE: Abbas Suana, a former member of Israel’s national soccer team, calls Beitar Jerusalem’s fans the “most dangerous” in Israel. (March 28)

(photo: http://www.one.co.il)

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Reflections on American football

Yesterday I had a post on American football, which provoked an irate comment from a reader. I’m used to irate, somewhat defensive reactions from American football fans when I critique the sport. As today is the Super Bowl, the biggest sporting event in America—but definitely not in the world—, I think I’ll recidivate with some observations on this curious game, which is truly an American exception (and a little bit Canadian too, to be fair).

First, I wonder if the TV announcers will inform the audience during the game that the Super Bowl is being watched by an audience of “one billion” around the world, as they used to back in the 1980s (and in the era before satellite television), as if living rooms, bars, and cafés in France, Finland, Turkey, Kenya, India, China, Brazil, and you name it were packed with people at 3 o’clock in the morning watching a game almost no one knew a thing about, of teams and players they’d never heard of, and of which they really couldn’t care less. I thought it was a complete hoot that anyone could say such a thing, let alone imagine it. In point of fact, the worldwide TV audience for recent Super Bowls has been on the order of 100 million for the whole game and spiking to 150 million for part of it (most no doubt for the half-time show). At least 97% of this is in the US, with most of the rest in Canada and among Americans abroad. Really, the near totality of the world’s non-American population has never heard of the Super Bowl, let alone has an interest in watching it. For the anecdote, when the Chicago Bears went to the Super Bowl in 1986, I was living in Cairo. I very much wanted to see the game, as I was a Bears fan and they’d had a great season and with a great team. Impossible. I couldn’t even get it on shortwave radio, let alone on television. Even the Marines at the US embassy had to wait a couple of days before receiving the video cassette tape. If you had asked 100 people at random in Tahrir Square what they thought of the Super Bowl, you would have received 100 blank stares.

Beginning in the late ’80s Canal+ in France began broadcasting the Super Bowl but for subscribers only (so the image was scrambled). In 1997, when the Green Bay Packers went to the Super Bowl for the first time since the Lombardi era, I absolutely had to see it, having been a childhood Packers fan in Milwaukee during that era (if you want to hear about the 1967 season, including the famous “Ice Bowl,” I will tell you all about it). The only place to watch it publicly in Paris was at American-themed restaurants with special Super Bowl nights. I went to the Mustang Bar in Montparnasse, from midnight to 4 AM. It was packed. Almost all Americans. Beginning in 2007 the Super Bowl shifted from subscription TV to France 2 and now W9. The NFL, in an effort (futile) to market its product abroad, is most certainly giving the broadcast rights away for next to nothing, if not for free. The proof: there is minimal to no advertizing during the game. Try watching a football game where ads are replaced by a round-table of specialists—here, Frenchmen who’ve played football in the US at some level—analyzing the game, or just the announcers yakking on while nothing is happening on the field. One realizes how much dead time there is in American football. It makes the watching experience tedious.

I mentioned the effort of the NFL to market itself abroad, to go global in the age of globalization. The NFL is looking at the NBA, MLB, and NHL, with their increasing numbers of non-American players (plus non-Canadian for the NHL) and audiences abroad—particularly for the NBA—, and wants to get in on the act. So it now holds a regular season game a year in London and exhibition games in Tokyo and Mexico City (the games quickly sell out, which is normal; it’s like the circus rolling into town for a day). It’s a joke. The NFL has no chance whatever of spawning significant interest abroad. One would think they’d have learned something from the failure of NFL Europe. First, the NFL is trying to promote itself—the league—and not the sport of American football itself (unlike FIFA, which promotes soccer in parts of the world where it is not dominant by building youth and amateur leagues; promoting the sport itself, from the bottom up). The NFL is acting like a businessman trying to market a product and make money. But a sport is not a product. It’s a lot more that that; it’s a culture and a practice, and a taste for which is developed young. If one does not become hooked on a team sport by, say, the age of 12, it will likely never happen.

For this reason, the NFL has no chance of gaining a significant audience abroad, as the game is not played anywhere except as a variant in Canada. No sport can take off somewhere if it is not actually played there. And if one does look at a sport—as it is played—as a product, American football is a bad one, or at least totally unadapted to the world market. It is unexportable. The reason why the NBA is followed around the world and with increasing numbers of non-Americans playing for it is because basketball is a big sport in much of the world and America has long been the best at it (though that’s beginning to change). It is America’s most successful sporting export (actively promoted abroad by the YMCA not long after it was invented and codified in the US). Basketball is an easy sport to learn and can be played by just about anyone (of a certain height at least). Baseball, which was brought to the countries where it is played—notably Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Japan—by American soldiers or oil company personnel, is also a relatively easy sport to learn and can be played by anyone (one does not need to be big, strong, and/or tall, or even run particularly fast). And it’s a great game, though one has to grow up with it to think this.

Not the case with American football. It is a minor sport in Germany—thanks to US soldiers, who introduced it there—and the NFL has a niche audience in Britain—dating from the 1980s, when NFL games were broadcast on Sunday nights on ITV and at a time when the soccer First Division was in crisis on account of rampant hooliganism and decrepit stadiums—, but that’s about it. One of the reasons for this is that there are other oval ball games out there that are objectively superior to American football and with greater growth potential, most notably rugby, both union and league. I used to think rugby was a game of little interest—and by definition inferior to US football—until I watched it for the very first time in 1999—France-New Zealand in the semi-final of the Rugby Union World Cup—and tried to figure out its rules and logic. I decided there and then that it was in fact a superior game to US football. And this has been reconfirmed in every game I’ve seen since. In 2009 I went to the Charléty stadium in Paris to see my very first rugby league game (France-Australia). Rugby league, which is a minor sport in France compared to union—it’s mainly played in northern England and eastern Australia—, is considered to be close to American football, so I was interested in seeing it. Again, it is a superior sport to its distant American cousin and for several reasons, which I enumerated at the time for a skeptical American friend:

First, American football has become a freak show, where the average weight of players is now around 250 lbs (113 kg), and with linemen over 300 (136 kg). This is grotesque. Rugby players are beefy but some 35 lbs lighter on average.

Second, American football is violent and dangerous, with a significant percentage of former players suffering dementia after age 50 from all the concussions they sustained during their careers. The NY Times had a number of investigative articles on this at the time and which finally got the US Congress interested (and obliged the NFL to stop denying reality). This is, BTW, the main reason why soccer has taken off in the US among middle and upper-middle class boys: because their parents don’t want them playing football and getting hurt! Rugby is not so violent or dangerous. And as one may have noticed, their players don’t wear helmets or pads.

Third, the action in football is too halting and, as mentioned above, with too much dead time. The ball is in play for maybe seven seconds, followed by 45 during which the players huddle, pat each other on the bum, or just stand around. Football players spend way more time doing nothing on the field than doing something. In rugby, the action is continuous, with few breaks in the play. A few NFL teams have gone to no-huddle offenses but they’re still the exception. The dead time in American football and the incessant breaks in the action are invariably the first critiques one will hear of the game by a non-American who has tried to watch it. (Another critique is its excessive complexity)

Fourth, and related to the above, there are 60 minutes on the clock in football but only 12 minutes or so of real action. But—and here’s the kicker—the games last for at least 3 hours! This is way too long. There are 80 minutes in rugby, almost all action, and the games last a maximum of 1 hour 50 minutes (as with soccer). The rugby league game I went to started at 3:30 PM and I was thankfully out of the stadium at 5:20.

One particularity of American football may be added that sets it off from all other team sports—and renders it all the more unexportable—, which is its hyper-specialization. Every team sport involves specialization of players at given positions but all have a chance to handle the ball and score. E.g. in basketball, all players—forwards, guards, and center—dribble and shoot, in baseball all players—be they outfielders, basemen, or even the pitcher (except in leagues with the stupid DH rule)—get to bat (likewise in cricket), in soccer and hockey all players (including the goalkeepers) can move the ball or puck and take a shot on goal, in rugby (and in Gaelic and Australian rules football) everyone moves the ball. But not in American football. In addition to the particularity of having the team split into two—offense and defense, plus specialized kickers and punters—, only six or seven of the 22+ players have the right to handle the ball and score, except in cases of fumble recoveries or interceptions.  The role of most of the players is blocking and tackling, to be the foot soldiers for the general (the quarterback) and his officers (running backs and receivers). This is not an issue for spectators but I think it is for the players themselves, at least when they start playing the game as children. This is an empirical question—which I have admittedly not looked into—but I cannot believe that the vast majority of boys who start playing football as children don’t wish to be quarterback, running back, and/or receiver. Do any willingly choose to be a guard or tackle? This is why American football can only be played in organized leagues with adult coaches assigning positions, deciding who will be quarterback, wide receiver, offensive guard, linebacker, etc, and which then becomes the player’s specialty. And a perverse effect of this: insofar as linemen have to be big, otherwise normally built boys will put on bulk, thereby becoming fat, if not obese. I’m sorry but to put it colloquially, I think all this sucks.

Another problem with American football. It cannot be played by girls. Women play everything nowadays—even rugby and judo—but not US football. Sure, some play flag, but flag is not taken seriously. It will never be the softball equivalent of baseball’s hardball.

Conclusion: American football is interesting to watch if one grew up with it but, objectively speaking, it’s a lousy game and with zero export potential. And in view of the manifest danger it poses to the health and lifespan of its players, it may well decline over time, as has boxing. With all this said, I’ll now go watch the Super Bowl, if I can stay awake for it.

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The cost of football glory

NYT columnist Joe Nocera writes today—on the eve of the Super Bowl—about head injuries in American football and the brain damage suffered by so many former players, particularly linemen, as they age (one may also add the long-term consequences of all the other injuries, e.g. Joe Namath’s knee problems, which worsened as he grew older). A lot has been written on the subject over the past several years, of course, but Nocera discusses the very first article he read on it, written in 1976 by a reporter for an alternative weekly, who interviewed players in Super Bowl X (Nocera links to it in his column). No one ever brought up the issue in those days. Nocera concludes the column with this

“I don’t think anyone should play tackle football before high school,” [former football player Jean] Fugett told me before getting off the phone. “Kids’ bodies are not ready.”

“Flag football,” he said, “is a wonderful game.”

I’ll go one step further. Tackle football should be banned even in high school. It is crazy and irresponsible for parents to allow their teenage sons to play such a dangerous sport. Let them play flag. Or if they want to rough it up a little, rugby.

BTW, I remember Super Bowl X. Steelers-Cowboys. Great game. I was for the Steelers.

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Yesterday I had a post on Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos’ God-loving and praying quarterback who practically everyone in America is talking about these days (but not in France or anywhere else, that I promise you). Almost as soon as my post went up a Tea Party Republican reader—and who seems to be a practicing Christian—commented on it, informing me that “to most Americans, who love both God & football, Tim Tebow has become an American hero and role model.”

“Most” Americans? Like 90%? 80? 51? Got any survey data on this? I am quite sure Tebow is a fine young man on a personal level and if people want to admire him for whatever reason, that’s their affair. But a hero? WTF has he ever done to merit hero status to anyone other than Broncos fans and for anything other than leading come-from-behind 4th quarter victories? As for being a “role model,” for what precisely? À propos, I learned just yesterday that Tebow, who is 24 years of age, is a virgin. This personable, handsome young man has never “done it,” though he has no doubt had countless opportunities to do so over the past, say, eight to ten years. He is apparently “saving himself for marriage.” Why anyone would preserve his or her virginity until marriage is beyond me. It makes no sense whatever. But if Tebow’s peculiar religious convictions—and yes, they are peculiar—mandate this, that’s his business.

So here’s my question: why isn’t Tebow married? WTF is he waiting for?? Particularly as he has no doubt met numerous attractive, personable Christian women who would give anything to lose their virginity with him—and him with them—according to their (peculiar) Christian precepts. The thing is, it is not normal to voluntarily be a virgin at age 24. I repeat: NOT NORMAL. Societies and cultures—from time immemorial to the present-day—that have mandated chastity until marriage have made sure that men and women marry young, in their teens or early 20s at the latest. Even the most conservative cultures have recognized that the raging hormones of young people—and of both sexes—need a licit outlet and should have it, and as early as is reasonably possible. (And, BTW, this includes Arab cultures—and which understand perfectly that women need and want it as much as men.) In America in the old days, couples got married out of high school, or by college graduation at the latest. Educated Americans I have known of the older generation, who were in their early 20s in the late 1940s or 1950s, have talked of the frenetic frenzy to find a husband or wife their senior year of college if they weren’t already engaged. One member of this generation has told me that she got married (at 22) because she was fed up with being a virgin. One of the tragedies in the Arab world of the past three decades—where virginity is still culturally mandated for women—is the inability of men and women into their 20s—and even 30s—to get married, mainly for economic reasons (e.g. the men unemployed, impossibility of finding housing, inability of families to pay the bride price or finance the costly wedding party). The mass sexual frustration I observed in Algeria twenty years ago was so palpable. Algerians talked about it openly. I found the place a dystopia for this reason alone. I was personally convinced—and Algerian friends, including academics, agreed with me—that sexual misery was at least one variable in explaining the rise of Islamist extremism.

But that’s Algeria and the Arab world, where abnormally prolonged virginity is mainly about archaic codes of honor regarding women’s sexuality and the lack of any place for young unmarried couples to intimately meet (privacy—the lack of it—is a serious problem in these societies). These are not issues in America. But one would hardly find Tebow’s attitude in any other society. It’s a weird American exception. Sexuality is not only normal but is a human necessity, regardless of marital status. If Tim Tebow wants to repress his sexual urges, that’s really his private business. But in no way should he be made into a role model for it. In fact, it should make him a negative role model. I’m sorry but the guy is weird.

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[update below]

Tim Tebow, for those who haven’t heard of him—and the majority of people I know have no doubt not—, is the quarterback of the Denver Broncos—that’s American football—, who is mainly known for wearing his religiosity on his sleeve and dropping down in prayer every time he completes a pass. Even in a sport rife with evangelical Christianity—where players and coaches assemble in collective prayer before a game, sometimes with the opposing teams together—, Tebow is considered over the top. Two of my lefty Facebook friends—who I doubt are football fans—posted links on Tebow today—the Broncos have a big game this weekend—, one on “the non sport’s fans guide to Tim Tebow,” the other asking the $64K question: “What if Tim Tebow were Muslim?

How would our society react if during every interview, Tebow said “Insha’Allah” or “Allāhu Akbar” rather than thank his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Or instead of falling to one knee and praying,  Tebow pulled out a prayer rug and faced Mecca?

To ask the question is to answer it. Duh. In reading the piece I thought right away of France and Franck Ribéry, the big time soccer star who plays for Bayern Munich and has had 56 appearances so far with the French national team. Ribéry is a great soccer player—though with a less-than-great intellect (he is challenged between the ears)—, a good ol’ boy from Boulogne-sur-Mer, and a convert to Islam. Before every game he raises his hands in Muslim prayer—stands in salah—and possibly during the game as well. The TV cameras—at least for the national team games—zoom in on him during the act but with no commentary. Everyone sees it, people talk about it, but the media does not mention it, at least not so far as I’ve seen. It’s the unmentionable subject. But if he were an evangelical Christian and kneeled à la Tim Tebow, that would be different. Impossible. Not in France. Il y aurait un tollé, c’est sûr.

UPDATE: The comedian and TV host Jimmy Fallon does a great mash up of Tim Tebow and David Bowie: Tebowie. Hilarious!

Here he’s with Nicolas Anelka, also a Muslim convert.

His wife is from Algeria.

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