Stopping on rollerskates


Week 2 of training with the brilliant Romsey Rollerbillies

If you scroll to the last five seconds of the video below, you’ll see an expert’s example of how to stop on rollerskates in style

I signed up for the Rollerbillies’ Fresh Meat program having filmed them last year (see above). Having gotten into the filming swing of things, I’m now experimenting with a variety of non-conventional camera shots – in particular where me & the camcorder are moving. But I don’t think I’ll be getting anywhere near the standards of this clip below.

Joining a club run by and made up of mainly women members

[For those of you interested in sport & feminism, the paper Sport, Gender and Power : The rise of roller derby may be of interest.]

I’m really grateful for being given the chance to learn how to skate with them. The only lessons I’ve been able to find for skating have been in London. Not living in a single place for long enough – and thus not settling meant I never took up the option while I was living there in the late 2000s. Despite turning up in week 1 with the wrong kit – blades rather than skates, a cycle helmet rather than a more substantial crash helmet, and leisure pads rather than rollerderby pads, the welcome I got put me at ease. Quite something for someone with an anxiety disorder!

Safety first – and in more ways than one

The focus on safety was at the heart of everything they taught. A ‘tick-box’ culture this was not. What struck me was how similar their focus on health and safety was to the teacher training I did at Cambridge Regional College in late 2011. Straight from the textbook and communicated very well. I knew I was in good hands.

Furthermore, Shona the lead instructor on the first week and Rachel in the second reinforced the concept of the hall being a ‘safe space’ – and in two ways.

A safe space to make mistakes

The first was that it was safe to make mistakes, get things wrong, fall over and take time to learn things. For me this was like the opposite of school and church as a child. Do badly in an exam at school and all hell breaks loose with family and family friends. Make a mistake in life and you have to go to church and confess your sins and feel guilt and shame. Here was the opposite. What I also noticed was how some of the more experienced skaters read my body-language on skates like a book: I was incredibly tense – fearing the pain I might suffer if I fell over and having everyone pointing & laughing at me. The only time I saw people laughing at someone falling over was when one of the very experienced skaters did so.

A safe space for everyone – irrespective of your size or shape

The week I started skating with the Rollerbillies seemed to coincide with the #ThisGirlCan campaign to get more women into sport. I picked this up from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (who I met in Parliament a couple of years ago) tweeting about it.

I knew I was throwing myself into this while being very out of shape. What I didn’t realise until the end of the second week was just how much of a workout I had got. Having bought some new upgraded pads, I was astonished to find how soaked in sweat my wrist pads were. We were on our wheels for a good couple of hours. The exercise you get isn’t so much a sprint or a distance run, but more related to the pressure your muscles are put under – or so it felt. Being in ‘derby stance’ where you are effectively standing in a squatting position while skating around the track is something that requires an incredible amount of stamina – something that I’ve seldom had!

Just as with my days dancing in the 2000s, people of all shapes and sizes demonstrated incredible skill, talent, stamina and co-ordination. For all the body-shaming in the media, here were a large group of people in my home town comprehensively busting those negative messages.

At the same time given the nature of the activity & the level I’m at, I’m in listening & concentrating mode. Break that concentration & you fall over. Hard. I’m in listening mode because the people giving me advice have all been where I have been skating-wise. Their advice without exception has been constructive, friendly, reassuring & encouraging. With all of us newbies they have taken several of us slower learners aside for 1-2-1 short sessions to work on specific pieces of technique. For people who might be low on confidence and/or have an anxious disposition, the impact this approach has is huge.

Quite a commitment just to get a few seconds of dynamic film footage?

It sounds like it, doesn’t it? But remember back in 2012 I blogged how I wanted to learn how to stop on rollerblades? (With a view to skating regularly – somewhere). My mindset as in that linked blogpost is that I’m past my physical peak. (I’m in my mid-30s now). Therefore if I want to avoid middle-aged and elderly years full of regrets about not doing more physical activities, it really is now or never. That I can combine it with filming is even better. Even if I’m not able to capture the sort of footage I have in mind, I’ve still learnt a new skill, met some nice new people and improved my fitness.

Personal styles of learning – alone or in a group? One off or repeated over time?

An alternative style of learning to this could be looking online at some digital videos and going out somewhere to try things out myself. Another might be a one-day crash course. The former I find procrastination a huge barrier. With the latter I find I need to have been a practitioner and know the basics before going along somewhere to break through a glass ceiling. I found this out when I was a Freedom of Information Officer in the civil service during my early/mid 20s. The Act had been in force for just under a year and we had got a few things wrong – as you inevitably do with interpreting a new piece of legislation. Having booked myself into a seminar that I thought would have dozens of people with a senior barrister (I think it was Sue Cullen) on FoI & data protection – the latter of which I couldn’t get my head round on its application. In the end, only four of us turned up. Thus we had a whole day with a senior barrister to go through all of the issues at work we had with the two pieces of legislation. Following that session, I re-wrote the guidance on FoI & data protection for our office to make it fit for purpose.

In a nutshell, learning in a group over time is what works for me. Not just with skating but with music too. Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the experienced skaters, Meg, at our first Sunday music rehearsal for the Dowsing Sound Collective this year – having joined us a couple of weeks prior. Which reminds me, we have a musical year that looks like it’ll be just as exciting as 2014. And if you’re in London, get yourselves down to the Union Chapel on 28 March. The London collectives are up and running…



Cambridge – we need to talk about community & concert venues


Some thoughts following a year of going to lots of venues in and around Cambridge

Being a self-styled ‘community cameraman’ means I get to go out and about filming in lots of community venues. This year I’ve been to places in my home town that I had never been to before – such as the Corpus Playroom. These have often been venues that I have heard of but never got round to going to. This week it was the CB2 Basement – which is exactly as described. You can get about 30 people inside theatre style. Suitable for short performances and sketch shows, or for singer-songwriters starting out. Here’s a sketch from Paul & Izzy’s funky panto on 18 December 2014

“Is there lots of bad news for Cambridge on this front?”

On the venue front, yes – but…

“But what?”

But…the problem isn’t one that can be solved by the venue owners or operators themselves. It’s something that goes far beyond a level that institutions currently consider. It also requires a level of co-ordination & co-operation at undreamt of levels.

“OK – list the problems”

  • Transport accessibility to venues
  • Knowledge of existence of venues & their availability
  • Affordability of venues to people & groups that want to use them
  • An anecdotal but as yet unquantified excess demand over supply

…to name but a few.


Let’s take two very separate case studies: Cambridge United Football Club and the West Road Concert Hall.

Cambridge United

Car traffic on match day is always huge, making it difficult to run a decent Citi-3 bus service because Newmarket Road gets clogged up very quickly. Just as we did during my season-ticket-holding days, the roads of the local industrial estate and residential roads become places where fans try to find any space reasonably close to the stadium to park. During the 1991-92 season, there were games I attended where Cambridge would get double the attendances they get today – in the days when United had Dion Dublin & Steve Claridge up front. Had United got promoted that season, they’d have been in the Premier League for 1992-93. As it was, they lost to Leicester City, who subsequently lost to Blackburn Rovers & the rest is history. My point is that even with a high-flying team, Cambridge United will struggle to get more than 7,000 into the stadium for a match simply because the local transport infrastructure is not up to scratch. Why the local councils have not been able to agree transport improvements or an alternative venue is beyond me.

West Road Concert Hall

With Cambridge University’s main concert hall, as a child we used to go to the classical music concerts here. I remember them being excruciatingly ‘Keeping up appearances’-style events – ones where I felt embarrassed to be there. They didn’t have popcorn during the intervals – they had apples instead! Big shiny red ones! These were the days when my understanding of ‘cool’ was all things Stevenage – where they had a multilplex cinema, a bowling alley, an ice rink and most importantly, a McDonalds. Cambridgeshire remained stubbornly free of the last until 1992/93!

Just as it was then, it’s notoriously difficult to find a parking space nearby. The only bus route that serves the hall is the Uni4 bus service – aimed at students rather than residents. For those students living/studying close by, rocking up to a concert is relatively easy. If you are a resident in Cambridge suburbs, going to a concert requires military precision planning. Again, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the musicians or composers are, you’ll struggle to get people from outside classical music circles going along.

Where are our venues?

I discussed this here – part of the problem is we don’t have all of the information we need in an easy-to-access-and-analyse format. There are many hidden venues in Cambridge’s community silos – such as Save our Space through to under-used school and church halls. My existing challenge to the city is: How can we make the process of searching for suitable venues much less frustrating and time-consuming?

‘We can’t find suitable venues – they are all booked up/they are too expensive!’

I’ve heard these points made too many times for us not to do something about it. What we don’t have is hard data on the number of enquiries made that do not lead to confirmed bookings – and the reasons why. From anecdotes from people across the city I believe there is huge untapped demand for community venues. See the second half of the video below.

But without a more solid evidence base it’s difficult to make the case for greater investment in new or expanded existing ones.


The above was my view from the stage of the Cambridge Corn Exchange – before people filled it for the Dowsing Sound Collective Christmas Cocktail that sold out. What you’re looking at in this picture is 1,000 soon-to-be-filled seats. This was the first time I had seen the Corn Exchange from the stage. My first impression was that it was smaller than I had anticipated. The transport infrastructure around the trio of Cambridge venues – The Guildhall halls, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Corn Exchange isn’t great for pedestrians. The reason being they are strangled by the car routes into and out of the main city centre car park. (Will we get a metro?)

Even students are finding it hard to find venues – their colleges putting corporate interests first

This was one of the complaints by the recently-founded Whose University? campaign. With continued funding pressures, and with the international brand Cambridge has, you can see why conferencing is big business. But how do you balance the demands of conferencing with the needs of students?

If we want to find out what sort of venues Cambridge needs, and then go about building them, where do we start?

My first reaction to looking at the Corn Exchange was that Cambridge needed a venue with double the capacity. The Corn Exchange itself needs a big refurb backstage too – as do many of the other venues I have been to. If anything, the architecture backstage in the older venues feels a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ – splendid at the front where the customers are, but a maze of warrens at the back. Not good if you’ve got over 100 singers or large props on stage! Hopefully with the new Cambridge Live Trust they’ll be able to get some investment into the building.

‘Get me the data, get me the proposals from the community groups’

This for me is where we’re at now. Hopefully the coming together of the Cambridge arts’ communities can be the catalyst that drives the change. Gathering the evidence base is an essential part of that process.

Romsey Rollerbillies Rock – and they need our support


A pulsating afternoon of sport on eight wheels with one of Cambridge’s best-kept sporting secrets – a women’s sports club we in Cambridge could be giving far greater support to

I’d never been to a roller derby match before – despite having childhood friends being passionate skaters. I’ve still got a pair of rollerblades in my room gathering dust somewhere. Watching the Romsey Rollerbillies (they are here) and their opponents gliding round the room made me want to get my skates on again. (Problem is where to go in Cambridge – something I’ll come back to). Have a look at this short clip I filmed.

The skater to keep an eye on is Suffolk’s No22 wearing pink and white, with the nom de sport ‘Miss Behave’. Each of the participants in the sport adopts such a persona with the name emblazoned on the back of their shirts. If you’re wondering what the rules are, they are here.

‘We’re playful, but don’t mess with us!’

That was a theme that resonated throughout the afternoon. These women are hard as steel. Given the bumps and bruises you get from this sport – and the ease and speed they got up soon after falling over had me in awe. Not least because when I’ve fallen over on rollerblades, it has hurt. Badly! This is not a sport for premier league footballers. Also, everything at the end was good-natured, despite the very physical nature of the competition.

What struck me about the matches was how the skaters could move with the ease and grace of a ballerina across the floor, then instantaneously switch into a different mindset and crash through a wall of opponents trying to impede them. The much-needed padding on wrists, elbows and knees, along with the accessorising of clothing and sporting war-paint made you take notice.


It took time for me to get a feel for what was going on, but once I had picked up the individual on each side their opponents were trying to stop, it began to make sense. With the more experienced teams playing second, the difference in organisation and co-ordination was marked. The officiating was done as with other sports through whistles and sign language – the latter being much more clear and explicit than what you see in football. Something to learn from?

Game 1: Cambridge Rollerbillies vs Granite City Roller Girls (Aberdeen)

All of the women were competent on their skates. The similarity I found with dancing is that body shape and physique didn’t seem to be a determining factor as to how good an individual was.  As this was my first match watching, I didn’t really know what to look out for, so the 398-89 win for Cambridge didn’t feel to me as a new viewer to be one that I could easily say: ‘Yeah – they played their opponents off the park’. The other thing I struggled to spot were the judgement calls on sin-bin penalties. One minute a skater would be gliding around the hall, the next they’d be in the sin bin. Hence homework for my next match is to learn the referees’ signals. (There are several referees – all on wheels). Here’s a clip from the match.

Game 2: Cambridge Blockabillies vs Suffolk Roller Derby

Suffolk came out for the warm up on a mission. Their outfits, their body language, their warm ups and facial expressions demonstrated this. But then so did Cambridge. You got the sense that this was going to be a clash between two well-drilled sides. And it was. When skaters were inevitably sent to the sin bin, the side with the numerical advantage were ruthless in exploiting it. When you have over half your team in the sin bin, two vs five – even for 30 seconds feels like much much longer.

The variety of moves the jammers (the one player on each side that tries to score points by passing their opponents) used was noticeably greater than in the previous game. The same went for the defences/blockers too. I’ve never seen so many people so nimble on pairs of rollerskates. You anticipate a jammer who has built up speed will plough into a wall of blockers, but just as they are about to, they turn 90 degrees ‘Cruyff-turn-style’ and completely outwit four opponents before heading on their way – with four points in the bag.

Learning to be ‘as one’ with the camcorder

This was probably the most enjoyable filming session I’ve ever had with this camcorder – one where I’ve got some footage that is the result of conscious continuous decisions I was taking as I filmed rather than relying on the technology to do the leg work. In the first videoclip above, the part between 0m30s and 0m40s is the bit where I tracked the subject (i.e. ‘Miss Behave’) moving the camera while zooming in and out as she skated towards then away from the camera.

The view from the scoreboard end
The view from the scoreboard end


This was where I did most of my filming from during the two matches. This is a panorama taken from my cameraphone. The crowd are to the right, the scoreboard, commentators and first aiders are on my side. The track is denoted by the yellow-and-black tape you can just make out in the foreground. That said, we were rightly warned to stay out of the way lest we got clobbered. Fortunately none of us did – we heeded their advice.

Romsey Rollerbillies need our help

August 2010: the Rollerbillies become the first league in the UK to have their own venue, a beautiful warehouse nicknamed The Spandex Palace. In 2012 the warehouse was demolished, and the Rollerbillies now use practice venues in and around Cambridge

What is it with Cambridge demolishing, leaving vacant or underusing buildings that could be used by so many community groups?

The announcers made appeals for sponsorship and support. Cambridge Womens Football Club have made the same. The ground they used to play at is no longer available, so they are having to play in Ely – over 10 miles up the road and on the other side of a completely different city. Women of Cambridge deserve so much better. If you are interested in joining or sponsoring either of the above teams, see Romsey Rollerbillies here, and Cambridge Women’s Football Club here.

And if you’re interested in improving the choice of sports and activities in Cambridge, and the sustainability of clubs that offer them…

Join us at Anglia Ruskin University for Be the change – Cambridge on Saturday 13 September – see for more details

Communicating beyond the written/spoken word


A wander through through things that unite people in the context of the World Cup and some recent things I’ve experienced

I’m typing this having just watched the Rio in Rio documentary by the former Manchester United and England defender. The documentary shows Rio Ferdinand as being a much more deeper thinker than what we normally see in the media – especially when you look at previous programmes he’s made. It also got me thinking about ‘academic stereotypes’ – in particular around charity and development fields – & empathy. Given Rio’s childhood growing up in Peckham, there seemed to be an instinctive connection between what people in the favella he visited with what was his childhood borough. That plus the footballing route out that he took along with musical, artistic and ‘being on the receiving end of the wealthy & powerful elites’ were common across continents.

A connection through football

When I was at primary school, we had a couple of children from Brazil who joined our class for a term (in the late 1980s). Such was the lack of support they got that I don’t know how much English they actually learnt. It was only when we had a PE lesson that involved football that one of them really came out of his shell. I still recall one of my friends at the time running up to me and saying: “Have you seen Dimas play football? He’s brilliant!” And he was. Then I thought (and I must have been about nine years old) “He’s from Brazil so that doesn’t surprise me”. Even though verbally we could hardly communicate, when given a football it was a completely different story. At a time when my school had relatively few children from other countries and cultures, football was a great unifier. In the late 1980s when Careca (Brazil) and Michael Laudrup (Denmark) were at their peaks, it made sense to us nine-year-old football fans that two of the best football players in our year group were from each of those countries.

In the ‘Rio in Rio’ documentary, it was clear Ferdinand was more comfortable playing street football than doing pieces to camera. That said, you got a sense of Rio’s sense of “That ain’t right!” when he was told about people being made homeless as a result of development for the 2016 Olympics, also in Brazil. As Rio said himself in the documentary, doing pieces to camera is not easy – as I’ve found out myself.

During the England vs Italy match in the World Cup, there were a number of occasions where players on one side going down with cramp were helped by players on the other before the physios came on. It was then that one of my Twitter friends says that many of the players knew each other and liked each other – therefore were not interested in being nasty to each other despite it being the World Cup. They may not have a common fluent spoken language, but they have the common bond of playing football at the highest level under a global media spotlight.

A connection through dance

I was watching a documentary about Brazilian ballet on BBC4 and remember a quotation about people who ‘could not speak a word of English’ being able to understand each other through the language of dance – in the context of international ballet. It reminded me of a couple of times I went ballroom dancing in German-speaking continental Europe. My German wasn’t particularly good and neither was the English of a couple of the people I danced with. Yet the instinctive connection we had as dancers was something that far exceeded our linguistic abilities.

Take a dance like the waltz – with the assumption that both sides know something of the basic steps. The choices you have when trying out a new series of steps is to try and explain it to your dance partner, or dance with them through them. If you don’t have a common spoken language, dancing with them through it far easier & far more enjoyable.

Football and dance in the words of Dr Socrates

This interview fascinates me – not least because I missed the opportunity to meet him in London before he died (I chose to go home straight from work because I was shattered – a decision I’ll regret forever), but also because it reflects both the talents and the flaws of this unique human being.

“Footballer, intellectual, doctor and democrat”

This from his obituary on the BBC (click on the link in the quotation). It’s his flaws that for me make him human too. The toll that cigarettes and alcohol took on his body are all to visible in the youtube clip earlier. This blogpost by Tony Seed has more on his legacy.

It works in politics too

The friendship between Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy first hit the political mainstream when both were finance ministers of their respective countries. Even though neither had a common language, they still got on. Not long after the latter became President of France, the media on both sides of The Channel made hay with his private life. Commentators were saying how ‘distinctly unpresidential’ this seemed. Within weeks, Gordon Brown (who had become Prime Minister) pulled out the stops to arrange a state visit to the UK for Sarkozy with all the trappings (eg an address to both houses of Parliament, state banquet and major business conference) that go with such occasions. Because the UK convention is that a head of state from a foreign country is allowed one state visit and one official visit during their term of office, a state visit from the President of France is a big deal. The photo opportunities (such as these) as far as Sarkozy’s political team were concerned must have felt like gold dust. Wall-to-wall coverage of a president being presidential in one of the most influential capital cities of the world.

…and even in music…

Think the friendship between Italian footballer Alessandro Del Piero and Noel Gallagher of Oasis – Del Piero’s side here, and Gallagher’s side here. (I saw Oasis live at Earls Court back in 1997).

I’ve blogged a fair amount about music, and the weekend just gone was the one of the World Cup Final. This was the first final on TV that I’ve missed since 1990. A milestone breaking the habit of a lifetime. But it was more than worth it – because I was performing as part of the Dowsing for Sound Collective in Bury St Edmunds. Here’s what the local press said about it. It was also the first time as an adult I found myself singing a solo bit on stage in front of hundreds of people in a public performance.

There was a bit of dancing on my side too!

Having listened to comments online and those from people in the audience that spoke to me after the shows, the two things that strike me are:

  1. Not only did people in the audience want to come back and see future shows, they wanted to join the collective (which is a ***massive*** achievement)
  2. For the much appreciated plaudits I got for my bit, music is a team game too

On 2), it was not a confident kid that joined Dowsing for Sound in spring 2014. Our musical director Andrea Cockerton has unleashed something positive in me that I did not think was possible. This is despite the fact that I’m not the easiest person to handle – even at the best of times. (A combination of personal character flaws, life history and mental health issues).

Yet having a supportive team of people who ‘want you to do well’ (& vice versa) makes a massive difference. I benefited from having Angela Jameson next to me on Alto as this stabilising ‘rock’ next to me on the main stage. Because for the first part of the first performance, I could feel myself all over the place. It seemed to take an age for my vocal chords to warm up. That plus whether I would remember the subtle differences between the first and second solo sections of my bit of the ‘octet’ of men performing a stomping electro-swing number by Disco-bob (a number that has vocal noises but no words). With my bit in the octet, I had to be on the front row of the main collective to get to and from the front microphones. When you’re on the front row, you can feel very alone and exposed. No one is in front of you, and I felt very self-conscious about looking in any direction other than at the audience. It was only when I looked around that I was reminded that there were about 100 other singers on the tiered stage behind me & Angela next to me.

‘Commanding’ an audience

To be honest without the feedback from the audience, I’d have had no idea as to whether as to whether they enjoyed our performance. But when you get people from pensioners to teenagers who you’ve never met coming up to you – as well as staff commenting positively on your part of the song, something went right. Not least because I completely messed up the sound check – my mind went blank for the second bit so I made it up. Hence the nerves. Then I thought: ‘Take inspiration from the lead singer of ‘Extreme’ at Wembley in 1992′.

Eyes, face language and body language. Let the band do the rest – they are the professionals. There was a bit of me that said: ‘Free the microphone’ that was in the stand. So I did. I also recall being angry with myself at something in the run up to the piece, so chose to channel that anger into the microphone for that piece.

Music: This one’s a team game

& I’m not just ‘saying’ that. Without the support & encouragement of the other seven soloists in the rehearsals (& the rest of the collective in our Friday and Sunday rehearsals) I wouldn’t have gotten near that concert hall. (Without Nicola giving me a lift to Bury St Edmunds and back, ditto!) Again, I recall a documentary on football, with Andy Cole reportedly telling new signing Fabien Barthez that at Manchester United they ‘win as a team and lose as a team’. It was an observation I wanted to make prior to the 2014 World Cup Final once it was clear it would be Argentina vs Germany. The pundits were saying Germany had the strongest team but Argentina has Messi. My take was that Argentina’s other high profile players (in particular those playing regularly in Spain, Italy & England) needed to step up & take the pressure off Messi.

My point is that we are all looking out for each other. A community: A group of people with something in common who also look out for each other? 

What’s even better for Cambridge is that the collective as a community is looking out for our wider community. All of the profits from the Dowsing’s performances go to the Dosoco Foundation. Sunday’s performances raised over £400 for it – helping fund projects across Cambridgeshire such as these announced earlier in 2014.

“Do we get to see videos?”

Hopefully – for we had a photographer there. I’ll see if I can get permission to post some photos, audio & video footage to share once it becomes available. In the meantime, have a listen to a clip of the music, and of what people thought of the 2013 Ely Cathedral performance.


Because even if you can’t always get what you want, you might get what you need!

Also, between the two performances a few dozen of us decamped to a restaurant for food – some in family groups, others in sort of singing parts. One of the waiters said to one of our number that if she could get the rest of us to sing a song ‘flashmob’ style, they’d give them a free dessert. Price of my drink? £2. Price of my food? £7.95. The look on the faces of the locals as we broke out into song? Priceless.

“Dowsing Sound Collective Concerts: More fun than every world cup final since 1990”

– And you can quote me on that one too. 🙂


‘Reclaim the game – Funk FIFA’


An old band makes a new return – and has the corrupt monster that is FIFA in its sights

This new number’s more than quite good

By ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’

About time we had some protest in music. And as targets, they don’t come much bigger. Rather than have me explaining in detail what it’s all about, have a look at this item from John Oliver:

If FIFA cannot be reformed, throw them out of the game – says this opinion piece in the New York Times.

A childhood based around football

I blogged about it here in 2012. I still remember a priest at my old church complaining that the youth football season meant that families would take their children to football matches rather than church. I ended up stuck in the latter because there were no volunteers at my first youth football club (“Cambridge Crusaders” – we trained on Coleridge Rec, little did I know that a quarter of a century later I’d be standing for election there) to continue coaching us. So yes, football mattered. The distractions of a couple of international tournaments around exam time probably cost me a couple of grades for GCSE and A-Levels too.

Keeping politics out of football

One of the early principles of FIFA was to keep politics out of football. Part of the aim was to keep vicious despotic dictatorships that had a habit of torturing players that performed badly in tournaments out of the game. If only the public had known about this at the time. Yet despite its negative connotations, international organisations need transparency and accountability to stop them going out of control. FIFA is out of control. But how to you ensure the best features of politics get applied to FIFA without the worst bits joining for the ride? At the moment, we only have the worst bits.

In the UK, we have a tradition of self-governing bodies. Courts don’t like to get involved in dispute resolution of things that have happened on the pitch or as part of disciplinary proceedings. When it comes to having poor systems of governance and administration, the English FA has got form – The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee giving them a kicking in 2013. That’s why complaints from the FA about FIFA’s poor governance…exactly. Note too that some of the FA’s official sponsors (see here) are also listed as some of FIFA’s official sponsors.

Buying independence from democratic oversight through the slush funds of sponsors

Now, we’ve been here before – see my blogpost on sponsors and London 2012. Part of the deal for London getting the games was that we’d change our laws and give multinationals and the organisers lots of tax breaks. The amount of money multinational brands have thrown at FIFA and the International Olympic Committee has allowed them to have independence from governments and parliaments. How are FIFA held accountable for the for the financial reserves that are now measured in billions? I’ve always liked the principle of ‘If your firms are multinational, your regulator needs to be – and that regulator needs to be accountable to the people of the world’. Of course how you do that is a damn sight more complicated. But it matters.

Feeding the behemoth which is coming back to bite them

This is what has happened to the sponsors – they’re all listed here. When Bloomberg is reporting that your sponsors are unhappy, you’ve got a problem. A big problem. But the sponsors are part of the problem. They’ve failed to insist on proper corporate governance. But then one or two of those sponsors have got ‘issues’ themselves when it comes to human rights. Sponsors have fed this unaccountable monster of an organisation for years without insisting on improvements to corporate governance until it has been too late.

Replacing Brazilian culture with bland featureless globalised culture of the 1%

FIFA has banned samba drums from World Cup matches. Yeah. My thoughts exactly. (I love samba so much I even wrote a blogpost about it!) Not only that, the ‘anthem’ FIFA have come up with has not gone down too well in Brazil either – see here. For me, part of the fun of the World Cup is that you have the crowds bringing in their instruments. The Scots (during the years when they’d regularly qualify) bringing bagpipes with the Brazilian drums was something that Dario G picked up on in their epic Carneval de Paris in 1998. Today, in the era of tickets going to the disinterested guests of official sponsors and delegations, expect to have the sort of atmosphere slammed by Roy Keane. But it’s not the prawn sandwich brigade. It’s the champers and exotic endangered fish eggs brigade. Football’s the bit-part. FIFA and international tournament organisers cannot have their cake and eat it. They cannot expect to have an exciting and vibrant atmosphere while handing over large allocations of tickets to people not passionate about the event or the activity. Remember the early days of London 2012 and all those empty seats?

How do you make football – or any international sport accountable to ‘the people’?

The solution – and the principles around it are straight forward: Make FIFA and national associations directly accountable to supporters’ federations – such as the FSF in England. One other alternative – for the EU in particular is for the European Parliament to declare competency over UEFA as part of strengthening democratic oversight over Europe-wide institutions. Yes, that goes against the political tide in the recent European elections, but think what a positive impact it could have if talented MEPs (and there are talented ones out there, despite what the media might imply) cross-examining UEFA and FIFA executives on an annual basis.

One of the big underlying problems with FIFA at the moment is they are not seen to be accountable to anyone. No institution can haul Sepp Blatter and his executives in front of a committee and subject him to detailed and critical cross-examination. In the UK I’d go further and have the executive directors and chairpersons of the Football Association, the FA Premier League and the Football League appearing annually before the Committee on Culture, Media and Sport upon publication of their annual reports – taking evidence from sports journalists and supporters’ associations on what issues the Committee should raise. You never know, it might get people interested in other political issues and the functioning of politics in general.

“Do you want the tournament to fail?”

For the fans, no. Of course I want everyone passionate about the game and excited about the World Cup to feel the sort of excitement I had when my class at primary school prepared for Italia ’90 – and to have lots of fun! Like the participants in this unofficial video seem to be having!

For some in Brazil – the ones who’ve lost their homes in the clearances, or those that lost their lives building the stadia and infrastructure and who won’t get justice…exactly. That’s to say nothing of FIFA running off with all the money – tax free. How a clique of men (and it is mainly men) that live a jet-set lifestyle in five-star hotels can have connections with the grass roots of football is beyond me. Blatter’s not doing himself any favours with statements like this. Astonishing.

I hope Brazil 2014 marks the start of where the fans across the world started the fight back against the parasites sucking the lifeblood out of the beautiful game. Let’s have the game run by and for the people who care about football, not the institutions that imprison it. The tragedy for Brazil is that the person who had a plan, the calibre of person, the intellect and an awesome footballing and democratic pedigree for overhauling things over there back in 2002 (see here) is no longer with us. Dr Socrates died in 2011. But at least Brazil had an inspiration for both change in football as well as for democracy and social justice. If England has an equivalent, I’ve not found him.


Food wars


While politicians pull the only two levers they think they have, the issue of obesity is far more complex.

You may have seen the news over the weekend: One side proposed squeezing the benefits of those obese, while the other wanted to ban your Frosties! The debate that ensued reflected the problem of viewing an issue in a purely political spectrum. In the world of politics, there are two definitive levers that you have:

  1. Money
  2. Law

You can either do something that involves taxation or spending, or you can change the law. In this case, one side proposed squeezing the benefits system (thus helping deal with a wider fiscal issue of welfare spending) while the other proposed pulling the legislative lever, banning products with high sugar or fat in.

But it’s not an either/or

This illustrates why public policy is very complex. Take both the levers. Not all people who are obese are on benefits. Therefore the impact of reducing benefit payments will have an almost zero impact. Using the law on food products may have an impact on some, but what about those where obesity is not primarily caused by eating unhealthy foods? It could be a wider lifestyle issue.

Linnear politics and policy

We need to get away from the mindset that ‘if you do A, the result will be B’ which hits the headlines all too often. e.g. tighten up the borders and immigrants will go away, reduce benefits and more people will get jobs, cut spending and the private sector will pick up the slack. No. No. No.

It’s more complicated.

Let’s take the issue of obesity. The various factors involved fall within the remit of more than one government department. It’s not just a Department for Health issue. It covers the departments of Education, Culture, Media and Sport, and to some extent it touches on Business, Transport and Work & Pensions too. And what about local government?

Education: What were your experiences of PE at school? Were they enjoyable? Horrific? A bit of both? Do you miss it now? Did playing sport when young inspire you or put you off sport in adult life? What sort of culture and attitude towards sport and exercise do we want to embed in young people to take into their adult lives?

Culture, media and sport: The mistake often made in policy-land is that sport at elite performance (eg Olympics) standards and sport at a ‘sport for all’ level are confused as being one and the same thing. They are not. Yes, elite sports stars can be hugely influential for people – just look at the enquiries for non-traditional sports that followed the Olympics. The challenge here is how to get the two sides to complement each other. There may be some groups of people who are more easy to inspire than others. For example they may like a sport but not play it enough – but periodic sessions with well-known sports stars may bring them into it. Others who are yet to get to get off the sofa on the other hand may need a different approach. 

Business & Work: This in part is a cost of living issue. Do I have the time and can I afford the fees? As budgets are squeezed ever tighter, it’s easy to see why some sporting activities might be dropped. Are there sports facilities within easy reach of where people live and work? Are they of decent quality and are they affordable?

Transport: Does your public transport network support the facilities that are there? For example bus stops outside swimming pools or sports centres. Are they community hubs? Is there easy parking? Are people often stuck in traffic jams? Are people being priced off public transport due to service cut backs?

Finally, there is the wider issue of how to encourage people into sports and exercise where they may not have a history of doing so, or where they have been scarred by experiences in the past. Why would someone who had been hurt in the past want to put themselves in a situation where they might be hurt again? Think how intimidating it is for someone obese going to the gym or to the swimming pool for the first time. During my late teens I had negative body image problems to the extent that I wouldn’t go to the gym or go swimming. Not until my early 20s (after being diagnosed with mental health issues) did I take to the pool on a regular basis – simply on the grounds that ‘life as usual’ could no longer continue and that I had to face my demons. No amount of benefit squeezing is going to force people with similar issues to take to a swimming pool.

Yet there’s also been an insight into how to tackle obesity from the likes of Jamie Oliver and from Strictly Come Dancing.

Jamie’s School Dinners from a few years back demonstrated what could be achieved (as well as what the problems and barriers that would be faced) when trying to educate families about healthy eating. Have you seen any similar things locally to you where charities, voluntary groups or the local council have adopted similar approaches to obesity and food poverty?

As far as Strictly was concerned, Lisa Riley was an inspiration, showing the nation something that I had already learnt from my dancing days. During those days, I danced with a number of people who, on first impressions you’d assume were overweight if not obese. Yet on the dancefloor were incredibly mobile, fast-moving and could turn on a sixpence. Their bodyshape hardly mattered. What did was their ability to follow a spin turn while cornered by other couples on the dance floor, or their ability to pull off a double-reverse spin in a quickstep. Lisa showed an activity to be fun, active, glamourous and achievable to people who might not have thought so. My take would be that getting people like Lisa and those of a similar figure who can dance to a reasonable standard on board for a properly-funded ‘get active’ campaign (esp where first couple of sessions are free) would have a more positive impact than say restricting benefits.

“Yeah, but when are you gonna ban Frosties?”

The wider issue here is the power of the food lobby. There’s no point even suggesting restrictions on what should and should not be in food unless you tackle the power of the food lobby in the first place – from the manufacturers to the supermarkets. Such is the power of the supermarkets that any campaign involving food is pretty much made or broken by them.

There are a whole host of other issues with big food – not just obesity. Monopoly power, impact on small independent stores, impact on small suppliers domestically (eg milk) and internationally (eg farmers in developing countries). Friends of the Earth have been campaigning on this for years. So on the food side of things, unless you tackle the power of the big corporates, trying to get something done about what is in ingredients is a non-starter.

What about takeaways?

When I visit some of my relatives in London, I lose count the number of fast food takeaways I pass – and those are just the branded ones. What are the public health impacts? Has anyone done any research with the regular customers of such outlets to ask them why they use them regularly? There’s a wider high streets issue here – where clones of fried chicken, loan sharks and betting shops are cropping up everywhere. But this is a local government issue. Given the cuts, do local government have the resources to tackle this issue? Do they have the legal powers to prevent certain types of shops from setting up? My guess is that they do not, despite things such as the Localism Act 2011, but I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise.

So…your point is?

If you want to make an impact on all things obesity, taking away social security payments or banning Frosties isn’t the best way to go about it. The issues are far more deep-rooted and complex. They involve more co-ordination at ministerial level, better engagement with wider society and require a better understanding of the needs and barriers that people face.

Any politician in any political party that is serious about dealing with obesity needs to put together a comprehensive plan that examines these things as well as the very important health issues that fall within the Department for Health’s remit.

Culture, leisure and sport in Cambridge


An evening with Cambridge Past, Present and Future  (CambridgePPF)- and friends, trying to answer the question: “How can we encourage as many people as possible to be actively engaged?”

I took Puffles along to a gathering of the great and the good – despite fatigue from a busy week last week. Yet something inside me said I had to go and live tweet because no one else was going to. As it turned out, I couldn’t live-tweet because the venue where this was hosted – Cambridge University’s Centre for Mathematical Science had zero mobile reception and no accessible wifi. One of the top mathematical science institutes in the world failing on something like this…astonishing.

The other thing that made things awkward was having the gathering in somewhere that felt like it was in the middle of nowhere – in particular somewhere not easy to get to by public transport.

Accessibility was a core theme throughout

How do you encourage people to be actively engaged when so many of them are locked out or priced out of the facilities? It was an issue I raised at a previous meeting I went to not so long ago about community facilities in Cambridge. Being locked out is a huge issues – especially in a city so dominated by the University, and where a number of the sports fields in the city are owned by private schools, thus limiting the public’s access to them. It’s not just the private schools. On grounds of security, schools too have tightened up on access, thus locking out children from the very playgrounds that in my view are theirs in the first place.

#Diversityfail again?

As with the last gathering I attended, the lack of young people – teenagers & young adults – was noticeable. To be fair, CambridgePPF have run similar sessions in schools, but it’s a shame that we as a city are not engaging with young people in a comprehensive, systematic and continuous manner. Are young people as apathetic as this example makes out? I’m not so sure. While that example is disappointing, is it more a reflection of engagement processes than a single project? I’m tempted to think the former.

I’m not going to pretend to know what the answer is – other than not another committee. If you want to kill passion and energy in an idea, set up a committee. I’m more interested in existing networks – especially digital and virtual ones – or ones that are supported by a strong social media presence.

This is one thing I’m particularly interested in around the student societies in the city – of both the further and higher education institutes. But not only that, things like large employers that employ lots of young people (such as supermarkets and department stores), and the nurseries, to engage young parents too. It’s all too easy to slip into the mindset that young people = schools and colleges only. Part of shaping the future of the city – which is what the Cambridge 2030 Vision is all about, has to involve those young people that may not be in formal education. After all, aren’t they the ones that are least likely to be able to move out in the near future?

The scale of the challenge seems to be getting bigger

Some of you will have seen my ideas for a Cambridge L!VE project. My suggested sequencing of getting community groups and voluntary organisations trained up and using social media, followed by a societies fair followed by a hack camp to make a single community portal resonated with some but not others. (I’ve set these out here). In particular, the concept of a hack camp – let alone the one that took place in June 2012 for the arts sector in Cambridge. Again, this further underlines the issue of lots of good stuff being in the city, but it’s sitting in little bubbles.

Part of my response is to find the social media advocates across the city – for example through Teacambs, as well as reaching out directly to the people through free social media workshops and surgeries through Net-squared in Cambridge. But in the grand scheme of things, my efforts are a drop in the ocean. The challenge is getting the local institutions on board. Hence the direct but very labour-intensive activities of turning up to gatherings, arranging 1-2-1 meetings and generally trying to raise awareness. Easier said than done.

Not being part of an institution myself

While spending my days with Puffles has its advantages, I can no longer call on the firepower of being part of a large institution. During my civil service days, a phone call to a local authority more often than not would result in people at the other end dropping everything to respond to my beck & call. These days I’m more likely to be thought of as a direct-marketing sort of person: best avoided. A account gets you noticed in hierarchical public sector land. I’m no longer that. Just a bloke with a dragon.

At the same time though, it also means I’ve got to be that little bit more creative. Bringing Puffles to such gatherings is part of that. People may not remember who I am or even remember my presence, but chances are they will remember that a dragon turned up. Puffles is a very useful little filter too. As I’ve mentioned earlier, those people not put off by the presence of Puffles tend to be the people that ‘get’ social and digital media. Given that one of my top priorities is to build a network of social and digital media activists in and around Cambridge, this is no bad thing.

Maybe make a short digital video to capture people’s imagination?

Now there’s a thought…

“Without the sponsors, we wouldn’t have had The Games”

Summary response:

“Bovine excrement!”

This blogpost looks at how corporate interests nearly killed London 2012, and why the experience of the past few weeks and of the South Africa 2010 World Cup shows two massive holes: One in corporate governance and the other in accountability to the viewing public and supporters.

The basics

The statement of this blogpost implies that there was no choice – or rather that the choice was binary: a 1 or a 0. Either accept the sponsorship that we had, or no games. Nonsense. There were a huge number of political and financial choices that were made. One of the (understandable) choices that was made was to try and exploit ‘brand Olympics’ as much as was financially possible so as to nominally reduce the impact on the UK taxpayer.

Given what we know now, did the Government concede too much to the sponsors and corporate interests to the extent that it had a negative impact on the experience for those visiting and following the games beyond any financial benefit gained the other way? For example, what would have been the economic impact if the Government had refused to make the venues ‘sterile zones’ to keep out non-accredited providers? A greater level of employment and income for smaller independent firms, lower benefits payments and increased tax revenues compared with the payment from the sponsors? Who knows? But this was just one impact of the branding exercise.

Is the brand more important than the event?

One estimate for the value of the “Olympics” brand is put at $47.6billion. How much!?!?! At the same time, the value of that brand can only be as much as the laws that are in place to ‘protect’ it – along with enforcement. This may explain the draconian steps taken in the run-up to the Olympics to gain ‘maximum value’ from the brand. We were told this would help reduce the cost to the tax payer.

The UK had legislation in place to protect the Olympics brand long before London 2012 was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. John Major’s government passed the Olympics Symbols etc (Protection) Act 1995. Brand value is dependent on the laws that protect them. Understandable if you’re the maker of a product and you don’t want to get ripped off by someone making a cheapo skanky version of your product, passing it off as yours, running off with the money and giving you a bad name. Yet I can’t help but feel that in this hyper-consumerist world we now live in, brands have become more important than the product, service or event they are supposed to be representing. My feeling with the Olympics is that too much effort and resource was diverted towards protecting the brand from otherwise non-existent or minimal threats, which could have been diverted elsewhere to make the whole thing much more fun for everyone concerned. But given that over 90% of marketing revenues came from broadcasting or sponsorship, the IOC inevitably becomes dependent on the paymasters.

Protecting the brand by killing the competition through the law rather than good products or services

This is exactly what happened in the London ExCel when I took Puffles to watch the judo. The same is the case for the Olympics Park. This led to farcical headlines with McDonalds. Rather than saying to McDonalds “You should be beating the competition by providing a better standard of chips produced to higher ethical standards sold by workers paid a decent wage at a price that beats all of the other competitors hands down” (which is how competition should work), they signed a sponsorship deal that banned all of the competition from the venues.

That, ladies and gentlemen is an anti-competitive practice and if pro-market politicians were serious enough about their beliefs, they would have been screaming blue murder about this in Parliament and beyond. As it was, the quality of the ‘fayre’ in the big bland box that is the London ExCel was so bland it made John Major’s dress sense look colourful. But the brand needed protecting even if it meant delivering an inferior product, service and experience to the paying fans and spectators.

Why protect the brand?

One of the reasons for the high estimated value of the Olympics’ brand is that people recognise the rings symbol. Given the corporate interests of the sponsors, there’s huge pressure to monetise this. If you’re a not-very-well-known sponsor that wants to break into a world market, why not pay that premium to get the Olympic rings stamped all over your products, or have your brand featured on all the global publicity?

Yet unlike other goods and services, the summer games only come round once every four years. It’s not like selling nik naks or pork pies – there are only certain times when you can squeeze the Olympics brand for all that it’s worth. As far as London 2012 is concerned, there’s not long to go at all. The other thing that differentiates the Olympics’ brand from the corporate world is ownership of the product or service – the sports themselves. In the mind of people worldwide, the International Olympics Committee does not ‘own’ the 100m any more than FIFA ‘owns’ football. They might like to pretend they do, and they have certainly put structures in place to do so – it’s just that no one has called their bluff. Yet.

Interestingly, those that claim to own such sporting events were called out in a very big way over the empty seats. See the top of page 12 of the 2009 Olympic Congress recommendations:

“Sport holds a mirror to society”

You bet it did there – and beautifully so. What was the likelihood of members of the ‘Olympic Family’ or corporate sponsors being ordinary people? This image of the swimming spoke volumes. The elites of the Olympics family were so greedy that they had reserved more of the best seats than they were able to fill – despite there being huge demand from elsewhere. This reflects the unequal distribution of wealth in society, where the super-rich cannot consume all the resources that they have acquired.

This catches the big business interests where they would not like to be caught. They can’t demand all of the best seats in the house, not use them and then moan about the lack of atmosphere in venues – which inevitably ruins the experience not just of those attending but to those viewing on TV and online too. This then damages ‘brand Olympics’ and the corporations associated with them. Who is going to be the person to tell these elites that they need to learn how to share?

So…who does own the Olympics – or football or any other sport for that matter?

“The people who are passionate about it” – the fans. This is what the organisers at the top of international sporting organisations have forgotten in their pursuit of the corporate dollar. I remember the days when football kits were really expensive – paying £40 for a boys football kit in 1989 prices. A joke – and that was before the first SkyTV deal. In economics terms, Murdoch took a huge gamble in judging that demand for televised top flight football would be strong enough that people would pay far more than they were at the time through terrestrial TV. He was right. He was able to use a new technology – encryption – to price discriminate in a manner not previously possible. Such is the political pressure around sporting events that the government has had to legislate to protect certain events from subscription and pay-per-view, such as the FA Cup Final, the World Cup and the Olympics – much as private companies (and top clubs too) would like to go down that route.

Rather than being ‘co-owners’ of sport, fans and spectators have become cash cows for corporate interests. It’s not just the pricing and branding that has reflected this: It’s the complete lack of accountability to ‘the people’ that is present within the IOC and FIFA. The International Olympic Committee is littered with royals – those noble bastions of democracy over the centuries. Looking at the recommendations from the 2009 Olympics Congress, I point you to paragraph 41.

The legitimacy and autonomy of the Olympic Movement depends on upholding the highest standards of ethical behaviour and good governance.
All members of the Olympic Movement should adopt, as their minimum standard, the Basic Universal Principles of Good Governance of the Olympic Movement, as proposed by the IOC. All members of the Olympic Movement must always demonstrate integrity, accountability and transparency, as well
as the highest level of management skills; and they must ensure that at all times their legal status is both fully consistent with their activities and responsibilities and wholly compliant with the laws of the land (applicable laws).

Accountability? I don’t recall any sports fans having a say on whether the Princess Royal or Sir Craig Reedie should represent the UK. This is not a point about whether they are any good at what they do, it’s simply asking the question of “How did you get your job?” For all we know, both may well have been pushing for improved governance within the IOC – but we don’t know this because the IOC lacks transparency. A symptom of this was the way that LOCOG was made exempt from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – despite the huge amounts of public money handed over to it.

Hey Pooffles, this sounds like sport and politics mixing. This is not good.

When an international sporting event of that scale is hosted anywhere, especially when terms and conditions of hosting such an event require changes in the law, surely this is sport imposing itself on politics? Or rather, it’s big business using sport as a means to impose its will on the political process?

There are very good reasons to try and separate sport from politics in an international context. Not least because such sporting events have been used in the past as a means to provide legitimacy for despotic and authoritarian regimes worldwide. From the World Cup of 1934 (Mussolini), the infamous Berlin Olympics all the way through to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina to London’s predecessor in Beijing, which put a huge focus on human rights in China.

But then, sport and politics have always mixed in these modern times – whether it’s the sight of David Mellor and John Major watching Chelsea, Tony Blair playing head-tennis with Kevin Keegan to George Osborne going to watch the Champions League final with his German counterpart – a snapshot that none of us watching the final saw coming. “Yeah – there’s a bloke who looks like Gideon celebrating with John Terry!”

So…if sport and politics inevitably have to mix, then what?

As paragraph 41 says, international sporting organisations need to demonstrate through their structures & membership, a sound level of responsibility, transparency and accountability. Even better, how about adopting the seven principles of high standards in public life?

Sport has a huge power to unite people and help drive positive social change. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the structures of international sporting organisations could be changed so that those representing each nation in such bodies had to have the legitimacy of grassroots support, rather than being the political or royal appointee? It would mean a huge investment needed by FIFA and the IOC, but then it’s not as if they haven’t got the reserves with which to do so – as I set out in a previous blogpost.

Much as I’d like to see the reform coming through, I can’t see it happening. Not least because the cliques at the top of both organisations have a very strong vested self-interest in keeping each other where they are. Thus it is easier for them to put on a united front over any possible threat compared say with the EU – whose response to the financial crisis has been utterly woeful. In principle, the EU is an ideal institution to take on those vested interests in international sporting bodies, but the reality is that the EU has become so dysfunctional itself that it probably wouldn’t know where to start.

Puffles at the Paralympics


Crazy dragon bloke takes cuddly toy to Stratford Sports Day

No – really, I took Puffles with me and they allowed us both in! I managed to get hold of a couple of pairs of tickets – one for the London ExCel and one for the Olympics Park. Given my past criticism of all things Olympics, why would I want to? Many reasons. There were two big ones. The first was to get a feel for the spectacle with my own eyes and ears. It’s all very well criticising (or praising) things from afar, but as any journalist will tell you, you get a unique insight when you are ‘on the front line.’ The second was because of Tanni Grey-Thompson. No – really. She was probably the only person who persuaded me prior to the first opening ceremony that London 2012 was going to be anything but a spectacular disaster. Which also reminded me that as a taxpayer it seemed crazy to have spent all of that money only to wish for things to go wrong. Hence why via Puffles I tweeted that I’d be keeping tabs on those sports that were not attracting the publicity and celebrity ‘glamour’. It also became clear through her tweeting that far more was at stake for people with disabilities. It was only when I turned up to my first event at the London ExCel that it really hit home just what she meant.

Getting there

The journey to the London ExCel was fairly straight forward. I went outside of rush hour and it was only when hitting the DLR to the venue did the crowds make themselves felt in a big way. What really struck me with all things security was how G4S were nowhere to be seen. The people who were there in huge numbers were the gamesmakers, volunteers and the police. The presence of the former two took a lot of the tension that is often raised (in my experience) by large numbers of police officers. It’s one thing having two police officers standing next to each other alone, but quite another to have two police officers standing next to two other people with the biggest pink foam gloves pointing the crowds in the right direction. The former two may have big truncheons but they are NOTHING compared to big pink foam gloves! Says the bloke walking past them carrying a big cuddly dragon.

“Welcome to London’s biggest box, owned by foreign places!”

…is the branding on the ExCel. It’s owned by a corporation owned by a far away regime somewhere. (I’m poking fun at the idea of a venue owned by the corporate arm of an authoritarian regime, not making a xenophobic point for the record). They say it’s award-winning but really at the end of the day the venue is a big box that stops people from getting wet. I’ve been there for a couple of events and showcases before – once with the civil service. It’s functional more than anything else – big enough to hold all of the people queuing for stuff and to create temporary arenas for the various events. I’ll save further (more critical) comments about the ExCel for a later post.

At first they were bored but then the crowd roared

We all wanted to go and see the sitting volleyball, but it got full too quickly, so we all ran off to watch the judo instead – not that many of us seemed to have much of a clue about judo. Other than it being one of the martial arts that some kids who I didn’t hang around with at school did, all I knew about it was that it was a martial art. (Stealing a theme from Shappi Khorsandi, respectable children like me went to church and did our violin practice. Children whose parents had less respectable values played football and partook in violent pastimes.) Such good it did me. I now don’t do violin practice, despise religious institutions, have lost faith in football and have an anxiety disorder that in part is rooted in not being able to deal with violence.

Back to judo again, fortunately for me the show began with a full explanation of the rules and what to look out for. This increased the viewing pleasure not just for myself but for everyone else. Why? Because it made it clear what the competitors were trying to do to each other – and (perhaps more importantly) what they were trying to avoid having done to them. It became clear that trying to slam-dunk-da-funk your opponent on their back was the name of the game, but the various tricks of the trade used to avoid having this done quickly made it clear that judo was far more than just about rolling around on the mat. The first few contests – including the strongly supported (but ultimately unlucky)  Sandrine Martinet of France – showed huge variety in tactics and approach. Martinet and the women competitors played out a series of tense closely-fought contests across small areas while the men early on were chasing after each other all over the mats.

“Why is yoo supporting foreign places?!?!”

Actually, that’s what made for an extremely vibrant atmosphere – the French in particular – many of whom either live in London or who had jumped on the Eurostar to make their way here. The rapid turnover of contests – timed to last 5 minutes maximum for each one – meant that a different section of the crowd went wild depending on which country was being represented. China, Japan and Russia had noticeable support in the main crowd, as did a few of the tinpot dictatorships in the expensive seats. (I can hear the stand up comics now: “I think there should be a new rule that those turning up to sit in the posh seats should wear morning dress and behave with decorum! None of this #TeamDaveCam in tracksuit tops nonsense! You’re the Prime Minister!”) Everyone else in the latter seats seemed to sit there motionless and expressionless like the Queen at the ceremonies. Personally I’d rather be in with the crowd going wild than in the posh seats – even if it did mean getting accidentally thwacked over the head by an inflatable thingy that you sometimes see continental Europeans using at sporting events – which can be almost as noisy as vuvuzelas – which were (mercifully) lacking. As for Great Britain’s supporters? We shouted and jumped up and down – lots.

Then Ben Quilter arrived

Unfortunately he’d been knocked off a gold-silver showdown earlier this morning, so ended up having a play-off prior to a contest for bronze. It was here that I suddenly realised the difference a home crowd can make (and why the empty seats at the Olympics was even more of a scandal than the media made out). The atmosphere in the arena was absolutely electric – shaking the temporary stands to the core. Bearing in mind many of these competitors will not have competed in stadia or arenas with such intense support before, I could ‘feel’ just what a difference a crowd can make.

It was the bronze medal bout that really got the crowd going. One of the ways to win in judo is to pin your opponent to the floor on their back for 25 seconds. Ben managed to get his opponent into such a position and the clock started counting – for the whole arena to see. It was a bit like a boxing count only longer and more intense for the competitors and viewers alike. This is because the competitors have to concentrate and give it their all continuously for that extended period. When the time expired the crowd erupted – in a manner far more intense than at any football match I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to more than a few!

If anything, it was worth heading down there just to see those two contests by Ben – so a BIG THANK YOU to Ben from me for making the journey and visit well worth the effort.

“Don’t make fun of people who are achieving more with no legs than you can with two”

The actor Will Smith tweeted this just before the opening ceremony of the Paralympics. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was referring to the achievements of US archer Matt Studtzman – mindful that the target is 70m away. How many so-called able-bodied people could get anywhere near such a target time after time? Exactly. For those that say “Oh well, with the same amount of training and time commitment I could.” Well, they put in that training and time commitment. You didn’t. If you did, you’d have been competing at the Olympics. But you’re not.

After these games I’d like to think that the media will diversify its sports coverage away from top level football and the circus that surrounds it, towards other sports and competitors. The excitement level can match any a football match that I’ve been to – and I say this as someone who went to see Liverpool vs Man United at Wembley during the early 1990s.

What’s really coming through from the coverage is the barriers that competitors have had to overcome to get to where they are, and what they are achieving. Once you’ve got past the annoying BT and Sainsburys adverts, have a look at this goal by David Clark. He did all of that blind/blindfolded past a sighted goalkeeper. Watching the match, it’s clear how you need to be talented with both feet rather than just the one. Remember England’s persistent problems on who to play on the left-wing post Barnes and Waddle? If professional footballers had trained like Clark, maybe this would not have been a problem.

A change in society on the way?

That remains to be seen. What the Paralympics have done though is demonstrated that the achievements of the competitors are being seen by many in a context that goes far beyond a sporting one. This is because the illnesses, conditions and disabilities that the competitors face are ones they have to live with day-to-day. Prior to the Paralympics my guess is that many people now watching were probably unaware that such competitors were capable of such great achievements. It’s made some of us – myself included – aware of what people can achieve despite the problems they face day-to-day. This inevitably makes the whole thing political – but in this case perhaps rightly so.

It’s utterly depressing that in the run-up to the biggest Paralympics ever that we’ve also seen a huge rise in hate-crimes against disabled people. It’s got to the stage where the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Dame Anne Begg (a wheelchair user herself) has had to pull up ministers over the negative portrayal of people receiving state support. There have also been a number of high profile people of impeccable credentials speaking out too – Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson being one of them. (Puffles helped Tanni out with the flying during the opening ceremony – you were just imagining the images of the wires). Despite her profile and sporting achievements, even she gets abuse.

The impact of empathy

Again, this is sort of relates to the ‘change in society’ thing – where there has been genuine local pride around the achievements of competitors both at the Olympics and Paralympics. We can see that in part because the response from local areas hasn’t been this slick publicity operation that you’d expect from a high-powered London PR agency. For whatever reason I can relate more to the competitors at the Games in the more minor sports than any of the others. Perhaps it’s because they don’t get transferred from place-to-place for mega transfer fees but instead move because of similar reasons that the rest of us have to. Perhaps it’s because they use similar facilities that ordinary people use, rather than training inside the golden cages of five-star country parks – magnificent though they might be. Perhaps too they’ve not had the long tidal-wave of ‘colourful’ publicity around their non-sporting lives following the injection of big money TV – Spice Boys anyone?


Inspire a generation they say. For me that depends ultimately on us – the grass roots. The legacy – whatever it will be – cannot be imposed top-down. If it did, we’d still be talking about Live8 from 2005. Remember that? Remember lots of bands scrambling to get onto the billing for all of the publicity? Remember all of the pocketed extra sales? Remember the VIP pit? Have a look at the not-so-crowded bit close to the stage to the bottom left. How is that different to the empty seats at the Olympics? The legacy of Live8? Lots of celebrities got to see lots of top-end bands who made a lot of money from extra record sales while politically, diddly-squat was achieved…or am I being cynical?

What would I want a legacy for London 2012 to be? A society that’s less suspicious and less hostile towards each other. One where people don’t automatically see the worst in each other. One where we’re not in a default mode to screw the other person out of whatever we can get from them.

It’s too much to ask from one sporting event.

So I hope that once everything is over, a few people will be motivated to do positive things for their local areas that they might not otherwise have even thought about doing. Because if a few people can get together to do good stuff, you never know but what they achieve may well be greater than the sum of their parts.