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The political rope-a-dope.

datePosted on 12:39, April 10th, 2018 by Pablo

Older readers will remember the “Rumble in the Jungle” where Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman for the heavyweight boxing title. Held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, the contest pitted the undefeated champion Foreman, a beast of a man whose stock in trade was brutal early round knockouts of people such as Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and other contenders of the time (the uppercut punch that KO’d Norton earlier in 1974 actually lifted him off of the ground) against an ageing Ali, well past his prime after lengthy suspension when his concientious objection to the Vietnam War was ruled invalid and he was convicted of draft-dodging.

In the build up to the fight Ali pushed the line that he was going to take the fight to Foreman with his superior speed and agility. But Foreman and his trainers knew, based on the workouts Ali allowed the public and media to see, that his hand, head and foot speed were no longer what they used to be, and he could no longer “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” The Foreman fight plan was therefore simple: bear down on Ali, cut off escape angles and corner him in the corners and on the ropes, then expose and exploit his slowness in a ferocious and relentless beatdown.

As readers will know, that did not happen. Ali privately trained to absorb body blows and using the lax rules of the boxing federations sponsoring the fight, was able to get the ring ropes loosened to their maximum extent (which allowed up to 12 inches of slack from the bottom to the top rope). Come fight time, this allowed Ali to lean back against the ropes, absorb Foreman’s increasingly frustrated and reckless body blows while dodging the occasional head shot and in doing so conserve energy by not punching himself out in a toe-to-toe brawl.

 

By the eighth round Foreman had thrown hundreds of punches. He was staggering around the ring in pursuit of Ali and physically spent, punch drunk and arm weary from throwing jabs, roundhouses and uppercuts rather than taking them. Once his hands dropped and stayed at his sides Ali pounced, using a series of jabs and hard rights to knock him down and out. It remains one of the greatest sporting upsets–and spectacles–of all time.

I mention this anecdote because it seems to me that we are witnessing a variation on this theme in US politics today. Although it is blasphemous to say so, think of Trump as Ali, his civil and political opposition and mainstream media as Foreman, the courts as the referee and the Republican party and rightwing corporate and social media, including state-sponsored trolls and disinformation purveyors, as the ropes.

In a straight up contest between Trump and the US constitutional system of checks and balances, it would be no contest. The courts, Congress and independent media would prevent Trump from slipping the boundaries of executive responsibility, would hold him to account and would punish him when he transgressed. Given his background and behaviour, he would not make it out of the first round.

But in the US today he has a support cushion in the GOP and rightwing media. Like the rules governing the tension on boxing ring ropes, the strictures governing partisan behaviour and truth in reporting have been stretched to their limits. Every blow he is dealt by the institutional system–the “swamp” as he calls it–is absorbed and countered by a chorus of hyper-partisan hyperbole and media ranting about “fake news,” conspiracies and the “Deep State.” This allows Trump to deflect, weave, dodge and counterpunch his accusers, questioning their character, motives, looks and heritage as if these were somehow equivalent or worse than the activities he has and is engaged in. The courts can only enforce what exists on paper, and since what exists on paper regarding presidential conduct is predominantly an issue of norms, custom and mores rather than legal accountability, there are limits to what they can do as referees in battles between Trump and other institutions.

Put another way: Normally a wayward president could not stand toe to toe with the institutional system of checks and balances without taking a beating. But that assumes that the limits of executive power are codified in law and not subject to manipulation. This turns out to be untrue. Much executive power does in fact answer to the law, at least in terms of how presidential decisions affect others. But much of it is also a product of precedent, practice, custom and tradition, not legislation, particularly when it comes to the president’s personal behaviour. In turn, the limits of presidential behaviour has always rested on the assumption that the incumbent will honour the informal traditions and responsibilities of office as well as the nature of the office itself, and not seek to manipulate the position for pecuniary and political self-advantage and/or personal revenge.

Trump has done exactly that. He regards the presidency as a personal vehicle and has disdain and contempt for its traditions and norms. He realises that he can play loose with the rules because the political constraints that bind him have been loosened by his corporate, congressional  and media supporters. He and his allies are willing to play dirty and use all of the tools at his disposal to thwart justice and destroy opponents.

This is the great irony of US politics. For a country that provides itself on constitutional protections and the “rule of law,” the framework governing presidential behaviour is little more than the ropes on a boxing ring.

For those interested in a return to civility and institutional norms this is problematic but is not the only thing that parallels the “rumble in the jungle.”  Like Trump’s attacks on those investigating him in the FBI and Justice Department, for months prior to the fight Ali poisoned the well of good will towards Foreman. Ali lost his prime fighting years to the suspensions levied on him by boxing associations after he refused to be inducted into the US Army in 1967. Although he never spent time in jail and became an icon of the anti-War movement, he resented the five lost athletic years and those who profited by stepping into the ring during his absence. He particularly loathed Foreman, who he considered to be the white man’s favorite because of his quiet, polite and compliant demeanour out of the ring. He publicly labeled Foreman an “Uncle Tom” and “House Negro” who turned his back on his fellow people of color. Although none of this was verifiable, Ali’s charges resonated beyond boxing circles.

When Ali arrived in Kinsasha he held public training events that were part sparring, part evangelical preaching. He railed against colonialism and imperialism, averred his faith in Islam, lauded African nationalists like Mobuto Sese Seko, then-president of the host country Zaire (and not one known for his affinity for democratic rights), and generally carried on like a bare-chested revolutionary in shorts and gloves. Foreman, for his part, stayed quiet, trained mostly in private and had his handlers speak for him. When they entered the ring on that storied night, the 60,000 strong crowd crammed into the national stadium was overwhelmingly on Ali’s side.

Perhaps Ali’s mind games were designed to help sway the judge’s decision in the event that it was close. Perhaps it was to intimidate Foreman himself. Whatever the motive, there is a parallel to be drawn with Trump’s attacks on his critics and investigators on Twitter, at press conferences and at campaign-style rallies. His ranting serves to raise public suspicion about the critical media and federal law enforcement much in the way Ali’s insults about Foreman had the effect of raising questions about his ethnic identification and personal integrity, something that eventually turned African opinion against him. Could the same happen with Trump’s support base and undecided voters in the US?

It is too early to tell if Trump’s “rope a dope” political strategy will see him triumph over his adversaries. But that leaves pending an open question: is there a person out there that can play Leon Spinks to Trump’s Ali? And if so, is that person named Robert Mueller, or could it turn out to be Stormy Daniels?

One thing is certain. Trump is a big fan of the WWE and likes to fancy himself as a tough guy willing to take on all challengers. However, in this contest, unlike the WWE, the outcome is not pre-determined and the blows are both real and far from over.

Spare a thought for grumpy old men.

datePosted on 13:11, February 23rd, 2018 by Pablo

At an early age, I knew that I was going to be athletic-minded. I used to say to my father “I am immortal until proven otherwise!” and, much to his consternation and that of my mother, set out to prove the point by engaging in a number of risk taking (read: stupid) activities. More constructively, from the age of seven I played sports, lots of them. I played team sports and I played individual sports. I ran, I swam, I rode bikes and I raced around fields throwing, catching and kicking balls. Those balls were big and small, oval and round, and I waved an assortment of sticks at them when duty required.  Heck, I even tried ice hockey even though I could not skate: the team made me a maskless goalie on sneakers while I learned to skate until I realised that was a losing proposition.

I  boxed and I tried judo. I was a gym rat that lifted weights and even tried body-building for a decade or so. I loved to run trails, desert washes and beaches, preferably barefoot on the latter. I enjoyed the camaraderie of team sports and the solitude of the long distance runner. I got hurt a fair bit and I lost more than I won, but it was the act of competing, of testing my limits, that I most enjoyed. As I say to my kids, there is honour in losing so long as you make the other guys work hard for their win. After I had to give up team sports I endurance raced in order to justify my (compulsive) training, was a referee/umpire and coach in a couple of sports for a while and even surf lifeguarded to hone my open water skills and contribute to the community in which I now live. I also was able to engage in physical activities connected to government service before I moved to NZ, something that complemented my sports-minded approach to life.

Although my physical decline began with injuries dating back to the 1970s, things really began to unravel about ten years ago when I had a near-death experience that ended my competitive endurance racing life. Five knee surgeries had already given me a noticeable limp, and osteoarthritis in my feet, knees and shoulders made doctors comment that my X-rays looked like that of an 80 year old rather than a 40/50/60 year old. I ate aspirin like cereal and served as a involuntary guinea pig for the testing of assorted balms, lotions and other muscle and skeletal ache remedies.

With weight bearing activities no longer possible, I switched to indoor machines and eventually set up a home gym with stationary bikes, a rower and an elliptical machine. I spun, I glided and I rowed to the tune of thousands of songs, something I would never do when training outdoors. I was determined to make the most of what I had left in me, and enjoyed being able to use music as an external displacement/disassociation  training method rather than the internalisation/association techniques that are the stock of endurance athletes (where you go inside yourself to monitor your body’s performance rather than diverting attention into things like music).

While rowing two years ago I felt a twinge in my hip. I rested for a week, then resumed, only for the twinge to come back, this time a bit more sharply. Over the course of the next months that twinge turned into a constant sharp pain in my left side. It eventually started to affect my gait, as it became difficult to walk uphill or downhill (particularly the latter). I eventually stopped gong to the pool, not because I could not swim but because the walk from the parking lot was too painful and I was too unsteady on my feet on the damp surfaces of the pool decks and changing rooms.

Based on what I described, my GP prescribed industrial strength ibuprofen and paracetamol, but that only dulled the pain. Eventually, I had to stop trying to exercise as inevitably something would tweak and I would be immobilized for days. The more I was unable to exercise the more I put on weight while my legs atrophied. It was a vicious circle.

A few weeks before leaving to the US last July and at the insistence of my wife I told the GP that I was in fact barely mobile because of the hip pain. She ran some basic tests and said something to the effect of “your hip is munted.” The trouble was that my family and I were leaving on a five month sabbatical to the US and so there was nothing that could be done until we got back to NZ other than to eat painkillers. And so I did.

What I did not anticipate was that I would continue to deteriorate exponentially. I was walking with difficulty when we arrived at our place in Florida. A month later, when we moved to Boston, I could barely walk two blocks without having to stop and rest. A month into the Boston stay I couldn’t walk more than 100 meters, and a month after that I could not go even 20 meters without having to stop and do pain management. My wife bought me a walking cane and I began to use it. It was not enough.

All the meticulous planning for the division of labour while we were in Boston, where I was the designated support person, evaporated once we got there. I could not use pubic transport to shoulder my responsibilities as the primary caregiver, since even with the cane I could not get to the nearest bus stop in order to take the kid to the twice weekly pre-school we enrolled him in. Nor could I shop at the local grocery without assistance from strangers. By the time we left Boston I could not push a mop without having to take multiple breaks. That left everything in terms of domestic chores to the person who was there to do research and write, and that was not me. My physical condition became, and is, a family problem.

As part of the sabbatical we had a number of pre-booked domestic flights to take (we wound up taking 10 flights and spending 51 hours in the air during that trip).  By mid-October I could no longer walk through airport terminals even with the cane and started having to be wheeled from the check-in counters to the gates. Not only did I find that humiliating and a tremendous burden on my wife and four year old, but I discovered that many people simply do not see or dislike disabled folk and consider them nuisances or obstacles in their way. Making inter-terminal and rental car transfers were a nightmare, and contrary to popular belief, not all of my wheelchair bound passage was expedited by the TSA security people. Sometimes I got waved through, sometimes I was made to stand and go through the regular screening process, sometimes it was a little bit of both.

It was heartbreaking to see my old US friend’s faces when they set eyes upon me. The had images of me in my “prime,” and instead they got a hobbled shell of the guy that used to be. Although mellowed by experience, I still have the same persona, the same ideas, the same outlook on life as twenty or even thirty years ago, but the shell is not the same. It pained me to see how distressed my old friends were at the sight of me bent over on a cane at their doorsteps.

In December I presented myself to NZ Immigration in a airline-supplied wheelchair with a grumpy kid and a heavily backpack laden, sleep deprived Mom in tow. The arrangement with Air NZ, as far as I can tell,  is that they wheel people to the arrivals terminal greeting space. After that things are by private arrangement, including disposition of the the service chair in parking lots.

By the time we came back to NZ the hip pain had spread to the other side and lower back (it turns out that is typical of “end state” hip osteoarthritis). The day after we got back I saw my GP, who referred me for X-rays the next week. They showed that my left hip has no cartilage left and is bone-on-bone with spurs growing in the joint. The right hip is half as bad. Armed with that information, I was referred to a hip replacement specialist. I am now scheduled to have hip replacement surgery sometime in the next month or so.

When I saw the orthopaedic surgeon in early February the pain was constant and continues through the night. I was prescribed Tramadol, which again dulls but does not eliminate the pain even when taken in combination with other non-opioid pain relief. The hip is now structurally failing at inopportune times such as stepping from the porch to the footpath leading to the garage, to which can be added regular knee buckling when I overcompensate by putting most of my (over) weight on my right side.

There is no getting around the pain and structural failures. Consequently, we have curtailed our social activities away from home because I have great difficulty in accessing venues, and even disabled parking places are often too far from the destination for me to walk without stopping or assistance (I have a temporary disabled placard for the car, something that has introduced me to the special type of lowlife known as the able-bodied disabled parking space squatter). I try to avoid too many trips to the kitchen or bathroom because it hurts to get up and do the short walk to them. In effect, I am trapped in my body and pretty much homebound, using the car as wheelchair, the cane as a prop and relying on family and friends to help with simple chores. That sucks.

The real issue and the point of this post is pain. Pain robs one of the joy of life and even, after a while, of the will to live. Pain makes one timid, fearful that the next step will bring more injury and worse pain. Pain makes one irritable and short-tempered for no apparent reason. My ever patient and long suffering wife says that my smile is more often a wince these days. Pain makes one cynical, gloomy and pessimistic. Pain is an energy-sapping, tupor-inducing drain on life. It robs personality spark and it cripples spirit. If it cannot be stopped by medical intervention, it invites remedy by other means. Ever-present, pain is an all-encompassing, quality of life-ruining curse.

It ruins lives in many ways. I find myself getting short with my four year old when he is just being a kid and snap at my wife over silly or minor things. I increasingly dislike noise. I am mean-spirited more often than not. I feel envious of the able-bodied and am frustrated that I cannot chase my boy around the paddock or no longer do some funky chicken dance with him to the tune of the old roundtable or Mom’s CDs. The sum effect is to sink into a funk, although I am lucky in that I, for reasons known only to the goddess, have more of an optimistic than depressive personality.  But that does not mean that I am fun to live with in my current state. Because I, my friends, am a grumpy old man.

Hopefully all of that will end once I have the hip emplacement surgery. I am relatively young and am told that the pain goes away immediately, and that after the physical rehabilitation work I should be back to near-normal (that is, no more Ironman but I will be able to throw and kick balls with the kid and yes, trot after him when doing so). I sure hope so, and hope is my friend at this point.

But for others not as fortunate as me, hope may not be enough or no longer be possible. So please spare a thought for grumpy old men and women. Be it as a result of sports injuries, hard physical labour, chronic illness or accidents, many senior people are not irritable by choice. They too, are products of their pasts and they too are trapped in bodies that bear the physical consequences of lives spent in something other than splendorous leisure. Showing them empathy and compassion may not take away their pain, but it will at least show them that you share the understanding of what it does to them.

That is the best palliative of all.

Witty Banter

datePosted on 11:42, April 3rd, 2015 by Pablo

I am somewhat amused by the reaction to the Australians sledging of the Black Caps during the Cricket World Cup final. It is clear that, with a couple of exceptions, the Ozzie cricket team display incredibly poor sportsmanship, even to the point of racism on occasion. But what else is new? Why are so many incensed by their oafish behaviour?

Sledging, or trash talking as it is known in the US, is a sad but integral part of many sports. The more contact there is in sport the more trash talking there often is. Some athletic cultures thrive on trash talk–think boxing, American football or league.

On the other hand more ‘genteel” sports like golf, tennis or cricket are expected to provide a more civilised approach to the game. When athletes in these sports adopt more vulgar competitive approaches such as trash talking, they are quickly denounced. John McEnroe and Jimmy Conners in tennis, John Daly in golf, and an assortment of foul-mouthed cricketers have felt the wrath of those who feel that these sports are above the everyday fray.

That, I think, is the heart of the matter. It is a class thing. It is acceptable and considered normal to trash talk in “common” sports played by working and lower class people. But when it comes to the sports of the upper classes and elites, of which cricket, polo and yachting are the epitome, it is unacceptable for players to descend to the level of the hoi polloi. At most, in between tea breaks and pressing their linens for the evening overs, cricketers were and are expected to offer no more to their opponents than witty banter. It does not matter if these sports are now played by non-elites (some of the Australian cricketers can barely string a sentence together, much less hold a degree). What matters is that the genteel image of the sport must not be tarnished by crass displays, verbal or otherwise (recall that Wimbledon still has an all white dress code for players and prohibits shorts on female players).

In effect, the definition of good  and bad sportsmanship is determined not by the nature of the game but by the classes from which it originated. What is acceptable gamesmanship in sports that originated in the working masses is not acceptable in those that had their beginnings in more privileged circumstances.

The outrage directed against the Australian crackers for their sledging is more about about maintaining the appearance of class appropriate propriety than about their very poor sportsmanship. Had their trash talking happened on a soccer or rugby pitch it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and perhaps even gentle ribbing.

Whose Team New Zealand?

datePosted on 16:20, September 21st, 2013 by Pablo

As much as anybody I enjoy sports and competition, so much so that I enjoy watching top level competition in sports that I am unfamiliar with. I have therefore enjoyed watching the America’s Cup racing, not so much because of the nationality of the teams but because of the boat design, speed, tactics and seamanship involved. In fact, I am poorly placed to get worked up on patriotic grounds because as readers of my earlier post on liminality may remember, I have allegiances to several countries and divided loyalties as a result. Moreover, I believe patriotism to be the last (and best) refuge of political scoundrels so I endeavour to resist its emotional pull wherever I happen to be living.

In this America’s Cup series I am cheering for Team New Zealand because I know that it means a lot to New Zealand and very little to the US. Other than rugby, Kiwis tend to adopt a “David versus Goliath” approach to international team sports. They are not alone in this small country syndrome, as I have pointed out previously with regard to Uruguay and team sports other than soccer. But in New Zealand that syndrome extends beyond sports, including into the international political and economic arenas.

With regard to the America’s Cup, here in NZ there is live blow by blow coverage of every meter of every race, whereas in the US it is not being covered live anywhere except on boutique cable boating channels. Here it is front page news in every newspaper and news broadcast. In the US it barely rates a header in the sports section of big city newspapers, including that of the race venue San Francisco. Heck, in Texas high school football (the helmeted version) gets more coverage on a weekend than the America’s Cup has had in a year!

In the US most people do not give a darn that Larry Ellison indulges a billionaire fancy with a crew that includes only one American. Here people want to name their first born sons after Dean Barker. They also want that turncoat, traitorous preferably ex-kiwi Russell Coutts strung from the lanyard because he dared to work for the competition. In other words, Kiwis are heavily invested in the outcome whereas in the US they are not.

Or are Kiwis that heavily invested? From what I gather from video coverage of people watching the race live on television on the Auckland waterfront, there is hardly a brown face in the mix. The same goes for those Kiwis who have traveled to the America’s Cup Village in San Francisco. Pure pakeha pulsation throughout.

So where are the non-Pakeha kiwis when it comes to this race? Are they just not into sailing? If so, why not? Why is something that is so heavily promoted by the media and advertisers as a nationalistic rallying point having so little impact on non-Pakeha communities?

I ask because the New Zealand taxpayers have put $38 million into Team Emirates for this race series (both Labour and National support the expenditure). So whether or not they are emotionally invested in the racing, Kiwis are financially invested in it. The public expenditure was justified on grounds that the economic benefits to NZ of a future Cup defense in the event of a win would justify the investment (since winners get to name the venue for the next race). The narrow investment now is said to bring greater and broader future returns.

Besides the fact that no public consultation preceded the allocation of taxpayer money to Team Emirates, the issue of benefits is thorny. Even if Auckland benefits from hosting a future defense of the Cup (and that would mostly go temporarily to hoteliers, restaurants, bars and other service sector providers), what about the rest of the country? Other than Auckland based niche industries like boat-building and sail-making and a few high-end tourist locations and ventures, is it true that the country as a whole will benefit from the tax revenues generated by increased economic activity in Auckland? Do we really expect to believe that places like Ruatoki and Twizel will see direct benefit from an America’s Cup defense in Auckland?

It should be noted that Team Oracle USA received no public funds for its Cup defense, and that the redevelopment of the Embarcadero in San Francisco was a majority private venture that has not yielded the economic dividends to the city that were originally tabled by way of justification for holding the race there. So the “future benefits” argument is contentious at best, especially if drawn over the long-term. Yet spending public money on the challenge is seen as in the long-term NZ national interest.

Put another way, why is it that NZ taxpayers coughed up money for a yacht race campaign that not all New Zealanders care about and which relatively few New Zealanders will benefit from in the form of future uncertain economic returns in the event of a successful challenge this year? Since hosting the Cup defense will undoubtably include allocations of more taxpayer dollars to infrastructure and venue development, is this an appropriate use of public money? Given that the food in schools program receives just $10 million a year, could it not be argued that government priorities are a bit out of whack when it comes to long-term investment in the nation’s future?

Leftist conspiracy types will claim that the government subsidy for a small appeal elitist sport is designed to benefit its rich and upper middle class business supporters, nothing more. I would hope not, but then again I come back to the question of who in New Zealand is truly supporting the Cup challenge. Is the America’s Cup for the few or for the many? In the US it is for the few by the few, but here in NZ the issue appears a bit more complicated.

Anyway, I could be entirely wrong in my read and certainly do not have a good handle on the extent of support for the America’s Cup outside of what I have seen and heard in the media. Readers are welcome to ponder and comment on the issue.

Better to do that than to get started on the subject of host venue race time limits being enforced in low wind conditions on a day when a overwhelming match-winning victory by the challengers was in sight!

Pick a side

datePosted on 09:15, April 6th, 2013 by Lew

Commenter Chris (not THAT Chris), says:

For all I know, [Dame Susan Devoy] may be a complete dud, or a wonderful race relations mediator. But whatever she is, you are being totally unrealistic passing judgement on her because she refused to appear on TV within a day of starting her (part-time) job.

Well, no. A part-time job that pays $270k per year? Someone appointed to a role like this should not need on-the-job training to be able to answer basic questions about it. Nobody is asking for detailed policy analysis or in-depth engagement with specific issues — only for broad discussion in principle, so we can get a sense of where she stands, and how her qualifications on race relations differ from those of some random person down the pub.

On previous performance I’d have thought there wasn’t that much to distinguish her from someone down the pub on these issues. But recently Toby Manhire dug up this wee gem from her autobiography, in which she reveals that the only thing preventing her from playing the “sunshine circuit” in apartheid South Africa was the threat of sponsorship being cancelled and that “media coverage could damage my reputation in this country.”

She also doesn’t think sports boycotts helped the situation there. Here are two people who do:

Dame Susan’s words were probably written in 1992, and it is possible she holds a different view now. I hope someone will ask her. But by 1992 the end of apartheid was already nigh, several years of negotiations to end it having already been undertaken between the government of FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela (who had been out of prison since 1990). South Africa fielded a “non-racial” team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona — the first Olympics it had been permitted to compete in since 1960. The notion that sport had not been an important factor in its end is simply not credible, and was not credible in 1992 either.

So I know whose side I’m on. Still, it beats the Prime Minister’s claim that he didn’t know what side he was on. At least Dame Susan is open about her ignorance of the issue.

L

Some questions about Zac Guildford.

datePosted on 19:59, January 24th, 2013 by Pablo

Zac Guildford’s latest alcohol-fueled incident has been amply covered in the press, and the focus is on his problems with the drink. But there is another issue that the media have only briefly touched upon that is far more worrying than his drinking.That raises questions about what the New Zealand rugby authorities know or are doing about it.

Consider the fact that Guildford, a 23 year old well-paid professional rugby player and All Black to boot, is living in the house of a 43 year old man. One would think that a player in his circumstances could afford an apartment of his own. Perhaps he needed guidance as well as companionship. But the older flatmate in question is not a personal trainer, rugby coach, NZRU representative, his agent, an addiction specialist, mental health counselor, spiritual guru or a relative.

No, the flatmate, who Mr. Guildford has lived with for two years, is a TAB bookmaker. Apparently he specializes in harness racing and got to know Guildford through their mutual interest in horse racing. Regardless, the bottom line is that the bookie makes his money playing the odds on sport and Guildford happens to play at the pinnacle of a sport that is the national pastime. Odds-making depends on information. Information on professional sports is carefully managed, often regulated and therefore hard to come by, especially when it comes to precious national institutions like the All Blacks. In many countries professional athletes are barred from having any contact with gambling entities or bookmakers of any sort, or if allowed, under strictly supervised circumstances. Apparently that is not the case in NZ, or at least in Guilford’s case.

It gets worse.  Guildford is rumored to have a gambling addiction problem, and even his bookmaker buddy admits that the latest incident involved gambling as well as a drunken assault.

So lets recap what we know so far: an immature, young, alcohol and possible gambling addict professional athlete on New Zealand’s most revered sports team shares a house with a bookmaker who considers the athlete to be one of his best mates. They share a love of horse racing, which is also a love shared by the athlete’s jockey girlfriend.

This leads me to some questions. Is it me or is there not a potentially serious problem here? Do not the Crusaders and NZRU feel a touch uncomfortable with this triangle? Do they not consider the implications of having a reputed alcohol dependent gambling addict on their payroll living with a bookmaker while exchanging pillow talk with a jockey? Things like rugby training ground injuries, possible lineups, game strategies and formations and a host of other team intelligence is the stuff bookmakers live and dream for. Add to that the possibility of the casual exchange of information on horses, racing tactics and betting trends and one has the potential for manipulation of odds in a number of betting scenarios, with the common denominator being a talented but troubled professional athlete as the source of inside information. All of this against a backdrop in which organized crime has its hand in the gambling business.

I may just be a cynical doubter and everything about Mr. Guildford’s relationships with the bookmaker and jockey are above suspicion. The triangle could be fine except for Mr. Guildford’s drinking. However, methinks that alcohol issues are only part of the problem that is Zac Guildford. The issue may well be much larger and far more insidious than one man’s personal failures, which makes me wonder why the rugby authorities and mainstream press have avoided the gambling angle like the plague. It is not like the summer news cycle is jam-packed with hard story action.

Lets look at a worse case scenario: if it became known that at least one bookmaker has inside information on Guildford’s rugby teams and/or the ponies via his jockey friend, then a scandal of major proportions could well ensue. The trouble is that avoiding the issue does not make it go away, and if what I am wondering about proves to have a grain of truth–and I have no basis for ascertaining the truth either way–then the damage to NZ sports as well as the country’s reputation could well be immeasurable.

It is time a stakeholder addressed the issue of the exact nature of the relationship between the troubled rugby player, the jockey and the bookie.

 

In Defense of Responsible Cyclists.

datePosted on 17:52, November 17th, 2010 by Pablo

I have ridden a bicycle of one sort or another since I was 7 years old. I got my first race bike at 14 and I spent most of my adulthood in the US riding bikes as a commuter, triathlete, and occasional mountain biker (even on a tandem MTB!). I did some long road races for training, and continued all of the above when I moved to NZ in 1997. When I stopped competing in 2002 I continued commuting and riding for fun, even after my precious triathlon bike– a 2000 Cervelo P2 fitted to me–was stolen in a burglary (if anyone sees a red 26 inch wheel P2 with Ironman Hawaii stickers on it–it is mine and I want it back). All told, I have ridden well over 100,000 miles in a variety of places, on and off road, urban and rural, solo and tandem. I love bicycles, from old beaters to beach cruisers, classic Italian road bikes, dual shock MTBs and, as my foremost love, the bicycle equivalent of my partner’s mind: time trial bikes–sharp edged, aero, lively and fast, deep dished and big geared, yet immediately responsive and intuitively attuned to where I want to go and what I need to do to get there sooner rather than later (I may get in trouble for this since a bike has no soul, but for me it is an attempt at making a material comparison to a precious intangible. Competitive cyclists and tri-geeks will know what I mean).

As for the relationship between competitive rider and bike, I shall defer to the wisdom of an old Mexican mechanic who serviced my ride while I was racing in El Paso, Texas: “it is not the machine but the monkey that rides it that matters.” Competitive or not, it is the monkey who ultimately pays the price for riding on public roads. As an insentient object,  a bicycle may be broken or destroyed but not injured or killed when it crashes. For the human rider, that substantive difference does not obtain.

Anyway, I moved to an island state in SE Asia in late 2007 and took my nice commuter bike with me. In the first 14 months in country I was hit by cars twice, once by the side rear view mirror of a van passing at 50 kph and the other by the back end of a city bus that cut in front of me  in order to pull into a bus stop (when it could have waited 2 seconds to allow me to pass the bus stop entry). Although the first driver stopped to see if I was Ok after he heard the thump, the bus driver and passengers on the bus berated me for being in the road (this, while I was laying on the curb checking to see if I was injured).

But SG is not too bad. During the 10 years I lived, trained and raced in NZ I was hit five times–two sideswipes, two at roundabouts by motorists who would not cede although I had the right of way, and one T-bone when a car turned left across my bow on a steep hill during a rainstorm. In two instances I was assaulted by the drivers involved (one whom was on his way home from church), and in one case the driver attempted to flee. In four of the cases the driver was a middle aged pakeha male (the other was a chinese male), with two of the five driving panel vans. In the US I was hit once, in Florida, by a a slow moving geriatric in a Cadillac who wanted to “move me along” down the road because I was moving too slowly (at 40 kph on a Sunday morning at 7AM). I also had a gun pulled on me in Tucson (at 6:30AM!) by a redneck in a pickup truck who swerved into a bike lane to show me and my riding buddy who was boss–but then ran into a red light half a block down the road. When I rode up to confront him he kindly produced his penis-substitute.

I tell this story because once again cyclists have been killed and injured in NZ by careless motorists. Every year, it seems, the triathlon and road racing community loses someone to a car crash. Simple bike commuters die as well, every year. What ensues is discouraging: motorists angrily denouncing cyclists as road hogs, irresponsible, effete, possible gay lycra-clad wankers with too much time on on their hands and too much money invested in bikes. They rail about cyclists needing licenses and taxes in order to ride public streets, and generally stress the inconvenience of having to slow down for the oxygen and blood powered vehicles in the way between them and whatever important destination it is that cannot be impeded by the two wheeled laggards blocking the road.

Inconvenience? Let me explain some very simple physical facts. Even if rude and inconsiderate, cyclists are human beings with spouses, children, parents and others who love them, riding on a self-propelled unarmoured vehicle wearing nothing but a helmet and normal clothes (or lycra). The rider’s points of contact with the pavement are two 5 centimeter patches of 21-25 mm rubber rolling at anywhere from 70-130 rpm, at speeds that can be as low as 5 kph or high as 60kph under normal variable terrain conditions in NZ. A rider and bicycle might, if the rider and bike are big, weigh 150 kilos. The bicycle is a vehicle in the road, as is any other, but with the twist that it shares with horses (which are also vehicles in their own right), the virtue of being self-powered. Yet no one in their right mind would sideswipe or fail to yield to a horse and rider. So why do it on a bike? The very attitude of some towards cyclists–that they are lesser beings, inconvenient, in the way, tax-dodgers etc., betrays an authoritarian mindset that speaks to the darkness within the NZ psyche. After all, bicyclists are people too, and in a democracy those people have just as much right to the road as anyone driving a fossil fuel powered vehicle. They may be slower, but they are equal when it comes to sharing the road.

The root problem of the conflict between cyclists and motorists is a matter of simple physics. An automobile weighs a ton, has 4 surface contact points of over a quarter meter each, travels from 0 to 150 kph as a matter of course, and has a metal and composite-encased passenger compartment with air bags as basic safety measures between the flesh inside and the kinetic effects of hitting the road or another object at speed on the outside. A bicycle rider has none of those, and is at the mercy of elements, road surfaces, the disposition of motorists and his or her own spatial and situational awareness in order to ensure safe passage during the journey. At the end of the day, cyclist is not in complete control of his and her fate when riding on public roads. The largest part of a cyclist’s fate that is not under his or her control is the attitude and behaviour of motorists.

Of course there are irresponsible cyclists. These should be ticketed, fined, and if causing injury, prosecuting for vehicular assault depending on the gravity of their transgressions. But motorists need to understand that a touch of fenders between two cars merely results in a dent in each, whereas the touch of a fender on the rear or front wheel of a bicycle, to say nothing of a full-fledged sideswipe or frontal collision, has the very serious, even likely potential for catastrophe for the cyclist. Do motorists really want to maim or kill cyclists just because the latter are rude, inconsiderate, slow or inconvenient? As it turns out, even the behaviour of cyclists can be classified and spotted a priori.

There are the four types of cyclists usually seen in the public streets: road riders, triathletes, commuters and bike messengers (MTB folk wisely tend to stick to non-paved rural tracks where trees, rocks and precipices are the main obstacles). Triathletes ride what are known as time-trial bikes given the individual nature of the sport. These bikes have aerobars jutting off the front handlebars on which the rider can rest their elbows in order to lower his/her aerodynamic profile (since most of the gains in bicycle speed come from overcoming wind resistance). Triathletes mostly ride alone except on occasional social rides, mainly because the triathlete must learn to suffer, fuel, eliminate and otherwise cope by his or herself given the nature of the sport (this is especially true of the long-distance triathlete, although some short distance triathlons now allow drafting in packs–see below).

Road riders (known as “roadies” and identified by their curled handlebars and stylised clothing) usually ride in groups, do not use aerobars (which are dangerous in packs if one is stupid enough to try to ride on them), and lessen their wind resistance by drafting. Drafting is a practice where one rider “pulls” the others by leading out front for a short spell of time while taking the brunt of the frontal air flow, upon which the following rider moves up front and the lead falls to the back of the “train” of riders behind him/her (I should note that the drafting effect is even greater when swimming given water resistance, and is even possible while running). This allows all riders to rest and give maximum effort during their short “pulls.”

The trouble with this practice is that it produces a double line of cyclists, those going forward and those going backwards, which on narrow open public roads can lead to lane blockages even if the pack is riding at 50-60 kph.  As a result, roadies are the cause of most motorist rage, although triathletes often cop the blame from road raging cowards because they are alone rather than sheltered by a pack and hence are  easier to intimidate from a moving vehicle (a situation that is often worse for female riders). Roadies often compound the problem of group rides by spreading 3 or more abreast in order to converse or gain some space in the pack. The trouble is that the law prohibits cyclists from riding more than 2 abreast, so in going beyond  the “2 wide” rule they are illegally blocking the road. No wonder motorists get angry. Road riders in groups tend to be the the cause of most of the more egregious examples of anti-cyclist road rage, be it in the moment or later.

Commuters come in all sizes and shapes and ride all sorts of bikes, and are seen mostly in cities rather than in towns. They mostly stick to surface streets but have been known to ride footpaths and stray onto major arteries. They often share bike lanes with buses, which makes them hated by and targets of bus drivers. Many use what is known as a “California” stop at street lights and stop signs, which is a slow roll-through when cross-traffic is clear rather than a full stop (this practice spans all types of bike rider, especially those wearing “clipless” bike shoes with special soles and peddles to maximise rotational efficiency throughout the peddle stroke, which if efficient makes for cumbersome foot plants at short notice. I have been guilty of employing the California stop from time to time, given that I have fallen more than once while trying to quickly unclip out of a clipless peddle).

Bike messengers ride hybrid bikes (road frames with MTB bars and gearing), and tend to exhibit an unhealthy regard for personal safety as they play a form of bicycle parquet during the course of their errands. They often are the most accomplished bicycle handlers and often are competitors in some form of cycling when not working, but they also tend to have the loosest view of traffic regulations and the interface between street, footpath, alleyway, steps and any other potential riding surfaces. They are a major source of motorists’ ire in large urban areas.

This brief exegesis is offered so that readers who are motorists but not cyclists will understand what they are dealing with when they come upon bicycle riders in the road. Virtually all cyclists are acutely aware of how vulnerable they are and most take pains to avoid confrontations with motorists. But sometimes terrain, context or circumstance conspire to bring them together in an untoward way. The fundamental thing that a motorist needs to understand in such instances is that, no matter how rude, inconsiderate, wankerish or otherwise inconvenient that rider’s presence may be, he or she is a living, breathing person made out of flesh and blood who has a right to life as much as you do. Injuring or killing them with your metal steed in an effort to prove a point or teach them a lesson is not only stupid–it is criminal. Even if it takes a minute or two (or five) to get around a cyclist or group of riders, perspective has to be maintained: a slow delay versus a thwarted life–is that a fair or reasonable trade off? Moreover, motorists need to understand that most of the roads they transit now have cyclists on them, and that cyclists have a legal right to be there. That means that motorists need to drive as if horses with riders were on the road–caution must taken in blind spots, on curves and hill summits and the two meter legal separation distance between cyclist and motorist must be respected when overtaking.

In the case of the irresponsible, arrogant or generally tosser rider(s), better to call the cops to the scene and/or demand more stricter enforcement of cycling and road safety regulations so that the minority of those who make up the bulk of the conflict with motorists are made to understand that with the right (and freedom) to ride a bike comes the responsibility to behave according to the universal rules of vehicle conduct. Otherwise homicidal or negligent motorists will have the final word on every cyclist’s fate on any given day.

Running towards disaster.

datePosted on 14:19, September 24th, 2010 by Pablo

News that preparations for the Delhi Commonwealth Games are in disarray, and that Indian Games officials deliberately misled NZ and other foreign officials about the state of play with regard to the preparations, should give those responsible for sending the NZ team serious cause for concern. It fact, they should seriously reconsider whether sending a team is worth the risks. Several foreign athletes have already declined to participate due to their concerns about security. Other countries have delayed sending their teams and some are considering withdrawing entirely. NZ needs to do the same. No amount of temporary athletic glory–and the bureaucratic empire-building that rides on the back of athletic accomplishment–should overcome a reasoned and rational appraisal of the risks involved in sending Kiwis into a potentially dangerous situation. The hard fact is that unlike the football and rugby World Cups, where local and international sanctioning organisations work hand-in-hand to ensure that high standards are maintained across the board, this edition of the Commonwealth Games is singular in its lack of coordination and oversight. The results of that misadventure are now plain to see, and yet NZ and other countries have wavered about whether to send their delegations less they risk causing offense to the hosts that lied to them.

Let ‘s take just two dimensions of risk: health and security. Pictures of the atrocious conditions of the athlete’s village have now surfaced, including leaking and broken toilets, seriously dirty washrooms and bedrooms, bedding that has dog prints and human excrement on them, exposed wiring, broken windows, faulty lighting, garbage strewn walkways, staircases and balconies with defective railings–the range of construction and finishing problems runs the gamut. A pedestrian bridge connecting a parking lot to a stadium collapsed, which raises questions about sub par construction standards, possible corruption in the awarding of contracts, inept or negligent construction oversight or some unhappy combination of the above. Given the revelations that Games officials deliberately misled foreign delegations about the status of the construction project, it is entirely reasonable to ask whether this lack of ethics was pervasive throughout the build up to the Games, and what that means in terms of the integrity of the venues.

Let us take the concern further. If this is the state of the physical construction required to host the games, what will be the condition of the kitchens in which athlete’s food is prepared, the personal hygiene standards of those preparing such food, and the cleanliness standards of the public restrooms, food vending outlets and other public spaces in which athletes will find themselves? Will NZ be securing its own dedicated cooking and abolution spaces and if not, how does it propose to guarantee that its athletes will be free of the risk of infection, contamination and other human-caused disease (to say nothing of other maladies such as the mosquito-borne dengue fever epidemic currently raging in Delhi and to which the simple of solution of mass fumigation campaigns such as those used in SE Asia is apparently unheard of or not implemented)?

Then there is the issue of security. It turns out that rival Indian security agencies are engaged in turf battles that have impeded intelligence sharing and real-time communications. Although the Indian Army can be considered competent and focused on deterring potential threats, local police forces are less professional in approach and susceptible  to corruption, infiltration by extremists and simple incompetence. Given that Pakistani-based militants have already issued direct threats against the Games and conflict in Kashmir has escalated in recent weeks, the scene is set for a major terrorist attack on the Games, be it against a foreign delegation, a specific event or the host arenas themselves. The NZ government is unable to give assurances that something nasty will not happen because the Indian government, for all its blowhard security rhetoric, cannot offer absolute guarantees that the Games will be safe (again, owing to distrust and disunity between national, state and local security agencies). In fact, NZ already has travel advisories in place for India irrespective of the Games, so if anything those need to be updated in light of the realities on the ground there.

The bottom line is the Delhi Games are not only in trouble but are trouble in the making. It therefore behooves the National government, to say nothing of MFAT and the NZSIS/NAB etc., to take the lead in determining whether it is worth risking NZ lives by sending them to a second-tier athletic competition in which their health and safety cannot be guaranteed. After all, it was the government that intervened to tell NZ cricket that playing matches in Zimbabwe was not advisable because of the nature of the regime rather than any specific threat to the cricketers themselves. In this case the threats are multiple and real even if the host government is friendly. Should not the NZ government be as concerned in this instance as it ostensibly was with the cancelled cricket tour?

It may be diplomatically uncomfortable, and personally disappointing for the athletes involved, for the government to pull the plug on NZ participation in the Games, but that is a decision that should not be left to those who were duped by the Indian con in the first place and one which should place more value on the long term welfare of its athletes than on the immediate potential for medals that they may accrue.

**UPDATE** No sooner had I posted this than cyclist Greg Henderson announced he was withdrawing from the games citing–surprise, surprise–health and security concerns (can you imagine riding in a cycle road race in New Delhi, where the safety and security of the racers over distances of more than 100 kilometers is entrusted to local volunteers and security officials responsible for keeping traffic off of the course?). That a cyclist has to be the first to admit the obvious, even if he is doing so out of concern for his long-term professional career rather than that of his fellow athletes, is indicative of the lack of wider perspective exhibited by NZ’s athletic overseers. Which is why the government needs to get involved.

**UPDATE 2** The army of cleaners pressed into service at the last minute by the Games organisers includes 7 and 8 year old girls. I wonder what their wages and terms of employment are? Also, various Indian officials have claimed that the complaints are evidence of Anglo-Saxon racism and enduring colonial attitudes. To which I say: Good job guys. Nothing like addressing the root problem full on.

It might be unpatriotic to say so, but …

datePosted on 08:21, July 13th, 2010 by Lew

… the All Whites’ unbeaten record at the FIFA World Cup was not the tournament’s greatest underdog performance. That accolade should go to the hosts, for beating France, who were a perfect illustration of all that’s wrong with football in 2010. High-strung Ferrari-driving show-ponies who failed to perform and behaved like rebellious toddlers when expected to do so; led by dictatorial, egomaniac management who refused to accept the results of their own uselessness with any sort of humility.

South Africa were ranked second-lowest in the tournament, lower even than the All Whites, and they demonstrated that if you hang tough and play as a team you can beat a side which, on paper, is far better than you are (and keep them out of the second round). The footballing world owes South Africa a rich debt of gratitude, not only for organising what was by all accounts a cracking tournament, but for humiliating France.

A fitting end to a tournament for which they shouldn’t have qualified in the first place.

L

New Zealand and Uruguay as sporting equivalents.

datePosted on 18:34, July 3rd, 2010 by Pablo

As some readers know, I was raised and have worked professionally in South America, primarily in Argentina, with extended stays in Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. I also played soccer for 30 years and coached and refereed for ten of those. Eventually, injuries took their toll but the blessing is that even while growing slower I was able to play into my 40s. Then I moved to NZ.

Needless to say, I am following the World Cup closely and am quite pleased with the results so far. Before the games began my rooting  preferences (as in fan support, less the dirty-minded get other ideas) were 1) Argentina; 2) Uruguay; 3) Chile; 4) Paraguay; 5) USA; and 6) Brazil. Being an adoptive Argentine I am not a big fan of Brazil (because the rivalry is pretty intense and often ugly), but will take any South American country over others in the final. So far so good.

What struck me as I watched Uruguay advance to the semi finals is how much they are the mirror image of NZ when it comes to sporting history. Uruguay is a small, agro-export dependent country with a population of 4 million. It has won two soccer world cups, the last 60 years ago, and has never fully realised its footballing potential ever since. Uruguayans love their soccer with passion and most boys grow up dreaming of being soccer heros (it remains a largely male sport in Uruguay). But until now, the last decades have been one of World Cup frustration for the “charruas.”

NZ is another agro-export dependent country of about 4 million. Rather than soccer it is rugby that is the national sport. In spite of being a perennial favorite it has only won one World Cup, and that was 25 years ago. In spite of dominating the world rankings and being the stuff of boyhood dreams, the All Blacks have failed to live up to the hopes and expectations many Kiwis place on them when it comes to the ultimate rugby prize.

Which is what makes the All Whites accomplishments all the more remarkable in comparative perspective. In making the World Cup and then achieving three ties against teams ranked far higher than them, including defending champions Italy, the national soccer team overachieved beyond reasonable expectation. This would be the equivalent of Uruguay qualifying for the rugby World Cup, then managing to tie Scotland, Ireland and South Africa in the group stage! The latter is simply inconceivable even though rugby is in fact played in Uruguay and some of its players have played professionally abroad. 

All of which is to say that what the All Whites did, however modest their ambitions, is truly remarkable. Now if only the All Blacks can emulate the charruas and at a minimum make the semi-finals of the rugby World Cup next year. Playing at home should at least guarantee that, which makes the charrua return to form in a tournament held abroad all the more satisfying for supporters like me. That having been said, my heart and hopes always rest with Argentina in spite of their mercurial coach, who may seem crazy to outsiders but who has hit all the right buttons in bringing his team to the verge of World Cup glory (and I must admit to being very skeptical about Maradona’s coaching abilities until the World Cup began). Should the albicelestes get by Germany tonight (no  mean feat), they stand a good chance of making the nation proud, although that could mean playing Uruguay in the final. So, for the moment, all I can say is “Viva Uruguay!’ and “Vamos Argentina!”

PS: Kate Nicholls and I wrote a book in 2003 that explicitly compared NZ and Uruguay in terms of their insertion in the global political economy and their labour politics, so it is not that crazy to see the sporting parallels as well. I am also aware of Kiwi accomplishments in a slew of other athletic endeavours (such as triathlon, my other sporting love), but am limiting this comparison to the major national sport and its lesser valued (male) team equivalent in terms of how they have performed on the world stage.