Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Basketball funding debated in Parliament

Last night I had the great fortune to stumble onto the BBC Parliament channel just in time for a much earlier than usual adjournment debate, which what dealing with the recent funding settlement for Basketball in the UK.

Like other sports (wrestling, table tennis and handball) basketball has had its elite funding from UK Sport cut to £0 in the wake of the London 2012 games. The reasons given for the drastic cut in funding being that there is no prospect of qualifying for the 2016 tournament in Rio and no chance of winning a medal in 2020, wherever that might be.

There is going to be some funding available for the grass roots of the game, but with only £6.8 million available it represents just £12 a head for people who are playing basketball on a weekly basis, with no mention of attracting people to the game or the development of talent once spotted. To put that into context cycling is the best funded Olympic sport, receiving over £30 million has 500,000 in its performance base. That’s how you build for the future, looking for people to bring into the elite programmes and then funding them adequately when they arrive there.

Although I can understand that it isn't possible to give every sport the level of funding they might wish to have, it does seem strange to cut off the support given to basketball, which has some special features not shared by the other sports. 

Although the men and women played a combined ten games in London and won only once (the men beating China when both sides were out) there were several reasons to take heart. The men were only beaten by five points by Brazil and a single point by Spain. While not winning any games, the women did come close to beating France (losing by three after extra time) Russia (losing by six) and Canada (losing by eight). Compare that to the record of other sports that haven’t totally had their funding cut. Archery and badminton both failed to produce anyone coming even close to a medal, but they will still receive a combined £9 million for the Rio cycle. Fencing saw a pretty abysmal performance at the ExCeL Arena but has seen its funding increased to £3.1 million.

Basketball isn't just about the sport in the arenas though. It’s about what can be done in urban areas with people who don’t want to play other sports. It’s big among the black and minority ethnic community who can feel that football isn't an option for them. It appeals to those who may otherwise be doing things which could land them in trouble. In short it is a great way to build community links, bring people together and maybe even make society a bit of a better place. That might not be recognised in the Olympic medal table, but the more people who play the sport the greater the chance of finding the next Team GB players. Maybe even in time for Rio qualification, which is within the reach of the GB team through the European zone, regardless of what UK Sport says.

There is one comforting fact for those of us who want to see a strong Team GB basketball side in the future. After the Athens game in 2004 the funding awarded to gymnastics was slashed, admit many of the same complaints we hear now from the basketball community. The sport went away and decided how it was going to get itself back on track, and ended up as one of the biggest surprise packages of 2012, winning a sliver and three bronzes. 

That gymnastics was able to stay in the public consciousness was thanks in no small part to Beth Tweddle, who kept performing well and forcing a largely uninterested public to take note. Basketball has its equivalent in Luol Deng who plays for Chicago in the NBA. He has written to David Cameron urging him to restore the funding for the sport. While he obviously doesn't need it himself, he can win games alone, as was proven last year.

You can read the full letter Deng sent to Cameron here (warning, Daily Mail website) and read the debate from Parliament here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Knitting a hoody for a dog

So after two warm up postings on the trivial things in life like war and drugs, we finally get to the real deal of knitting. I've been knitting for around 18 years ever since my Primary School teacher had us knitting plain squares which she sewed into blankets to send back to her homeland of Zimbabwe.

Anyway, fast forward 18 years and working in an office where we can bring our dogs to work there are always possibilities to extend the knitting from the human to our canine friends. That's what this 'dog hoody' was about, as one of the Staffies who regularly visits was suffering in the cold because of his short fur.

It's a pretty basic pattern made with Aran wool (or 10 ply depending on which shop you visit) knitted in two parts, starting at the neck line and working down to the bum with just a little bit of increasing/decreasing to give it the shape. The leg holes are made by casting off stitches and then continuing to knit three separate parts before rejoining them again to continue the body.

To add the hood you simply pick up stitches along the cast-on edge and knit straight with a few increases in the centre to give the necessary shape. Casting off has to be done loosely to ensure that the edge doesn't crinkle up, else your pooch won't be able to see and will miss out on the all the admiring looks that the local bitches will be giving him (yes you can say bitches in this context).

The trickiest two sections were the outer seam, which requires a needle long enough to hold around 180 stitches, picked up from either side of the body and the left over stitches from the bum. A circular needle is recommended but I managed without. There is also a little knitting around the leg holes to tidy them up which  would be much easier to do with 3 double-pointed needles, but I'm lazy and just did 2 separate sections and sewed them up. Rocky didn't really seem to mind though.

All in all it probably took around 20 hours to do, once you get into the bulk of the sticking stitch it grows quite quickly because of the size of the needles (5mm) and the thickness of the wool. And for shameless plug I'm offering them on ebay for a very competitive price. And if you want to give me money for doing something which will take about 20 hours but don't want a dog hoody at the end of it, then you can always sponsor me for the Brighton Marathon. 

Rocky with his hood up


Enjoying a new hoody and a bone. Reem

Monday, January 21, 2013

The case for standing by and watching in North Africa

Not many people would have actually noticed that the UK had silently become involved in its latest war last week, had it not been for the hostage situation in Algeria which has ended in total chaos and unknown numbers of dead. The latest reports are that 25 hostages have died, with 6 of them being British. The number of Algerians killed is unknown, or at least not being reported, because they are not as important as westerners.

David Cameron responded in the only way a western leader knows how to when faced with a problem in a distant part of the world, calling for an intervention which would last ‘years if not decades, rather than months’. And so aiming to continue the current trend of the west getting involved in wars with little or no thought about what they want to achieve, how they are going to achieve it or what they will do afterwards.

I can think of at least five reasons why we shouldn't get involved in Mali or North Africa generally, but there are other very reasonable ones, I'm sure.

We don’t have a dog in the fight

This was the same argument many of us who were uneasy about the intervention in Libya used, but it is even more relevant here. In Libya there was, we were told, a clear intention of the ‘bad guys’ to kill lots of the ‘good guys’ and this warranted us getting involved to try and stop, or at least minimise the damage. In Mali there has been no specific threat to any one side from the other, instead just a general feeling from the Government that there could be a rise of Islamists if something isn't done. Now that might be worrying for the people who live there, but I'm not sure it directly concerns us.

Intervention is what the ‘enemy’ wants

Before he went all crazed-world-domination-murdery on us, one of the planks of Osama Bin Laden’s message which even some in the west would agree with (though not when it was said by him of course) was that the great divide of the 21st Century between east and west would not be resolved by the latter continually barging into the business of the former. America backs Israel and harms the prospects of settlement for the Palestinians, the siding with one group of people over another including (but not limited to) Kuwait against Iraq, rebels against Gaddafi etc. By getting involved again where we are not wanted or needed we simply give more ammunition to those who want to fight some romantic misty-eyed version of war (on both sides).

It wouldn't work

This is probably both the most obvious and the most important. If France and her allies spends the next few years fighting in Mali and then gets drawn into a wider conflict in the region the prospects of success just keep going down. Look at Afghanistan, look at Iraq, and look at Libya. It doesn’t make sense to send soldiers into an area they don’t know about, to fight in a conflict in which they have no interest with unknown objectives. Why does the west insist on repeating the mistakes of the past? We are about to leave Afghanistan in a much worse state than it was in when we arrived in 2001, with many of those who we wanted to get rid of simply waiting for us to pack up and go so they can return, and now the locals know that they are more inclined to be on the side of the ‘militants’ so they don’t suffer the consequences when we’re long gone.  

It might not be legal

I know this isn't one that we tend to put a lot of faith in, but unlike Iraq there appears to have been very little debate in the run-up to the Mali conflict about what we should be doing there, who would be sanctioning it and when we would know that it was over. Perhaps someone could hire a warship and a massive “Mission Accomplished” banner. There is still one in America somewhere I think. France may think that it has a right to go into former colonies, but that doesn't mean that we should run in there with them into their folly.  

We can’t afford it

This is the weakest one but at a time when the Government are just about to give people on the lowest incomes a real terms cut in their benefits, we are hearing more and more about how the cuts are hitting those at the bottom the hardest, and yet we can once again find the money to go and folly into a country which has nothing to do with us. Wouldn't this money (and a massive proportion of the defence budget generally) be better spent on improving the lives of those of us who are here? Rather than making the lives of those in foreign lands worse?

Now of course none of this or any other sensible and reasoned argument will make the slightest bit of difference to the UK Government when they are deciding to what extent they will get involved in France’s war. One thing is for sure though; whatever role we plan to play at the start will almost certainly be increased when mission creep starts to enter the scene as it always does.

It’s often repeated that the main duty of any Government is to keep the people they govern safe. That hasn’t been the outcome of Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya (mainly because there was no threat of us being unsafe before) and it definitely won’t be the outcome of a trip to North Africa for the next decade or more. We should let other countries sort themselves out and give support and guidance when they want it, but we should not look to regain our colonial past through the use of force which will just make our country less safe and the lives of those we leave behind worse.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Armstrong fails to Lance the boil

It's always easy to be wise after the event, and even easier to point out that you were actually wise before the event. Or at least that you were wise while the event was going on. Other than the most rose-tinted biased cycling fan I haven't found anyone who really suspected Lance Armstrong was riding clean.

Like most sports fans I didn't really like cycling until Britain started getting really good at it. Even though I've always admired it as a very acceptable mode of transport, in the same way that I think cars are incredible for getting one around but using them as such is in no way a sport. Anyway I digress.

For much of the 1990's and early 2000's you could spot a professional cyclist a mile off. Bloodshot eyes, continual twitching and always carrying around a drugs sample pot asking members of the public to urinate into it in case they were called upon to give a sample. Obviously that's a slight over-exaggeration, but not by much.

I should say that I don't actually blame cyclists for using performance enhancing drugs. They are essentially athletes much the same as any other but being asked to do increasingly stupid things for the entertainment of fans. The bicycle was originally designed for short journalist at a leisurely pace, not for going full pelt up and down the Alps day after day. If I was doing that I think I would need some juice too. Or a car.

While it was well known by anyone with even a passing interest in cycling (even me for goodness sake) that everyone was doing it, that doesn't make it OK for other competitors to start. If you want a level playing field, which we all claim to, then blow the whistle on the cheats. The US Postal Team ended up not having the best cycling team, but they sure as hell had the best chemist.

Then it was all confirmed towards the end of last year when the USADA published its full dossier setting out the claims against Lancey, backed up with testimony from most of his team mates. Instead of doing what any decent human being would have done (at least the sort of decent human being who tries to con the world for 7 years) he denied it all over again, crying conspiracy. The fact that he offered no defence was actually a much better confession than the one he tried to give this week.

This whole 'coming out' thing really is the last insult to cycling fans as well. Rather than have a serious sports journalist to go over his career and really find out why he felt he had the right to cheat for all those years he decides to have Auntie Oprah give him a very light grilling. Someone who knows nothing about what it's like to compete fairly at the highest level of sport....being interviewed by Oprah (yeah I know).

His description of himself as a 'flawed character' is fair comment to say the least. But to suggest that there was some link, even the slightest, to his testicular cancer is a pretty grim insult to anyone who has suffered from the disease and survived. It also left me wondering if it wouldn't have been for the best if he hadn't been able to live strong for such a long time. Just a thought.

His crocodile tears won't butter any parsnips with the vast majority of people, but the ones I really feel sorry for are those who went to watch him ride, caught themselves up in the hype, bought his book and especially those who wore his silly yellow wristbands.

Old Lance has got more questions to answer, and I'm not sure if Oprah will be able to many answers though. Maybe it would better if they were being asked by a lawyer, you know, in court. But he isn't the only one. Unless he had a near miraculous system being put into action, then he should have been picked up by a drugs test, right? Because in the dirtiest of sports you would be testing your idol and poster-boy to check that an entire decade didn't come crashing down around your ears. Wouldn't you? My guess would be that at least a few people in the ICU knew all about these tricks. Who knows, maybe they even helped Lance get away with it to continue the narrative of so many consecutive Tour wins.