Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Ye Shiwen accusations are insulting

On Saturday evening, one girl stunned the world of swimming and indeed the Olympic Games. The women’s 400m individual medley final was won in sensational style by 16-year old Chinese Ye Shiwen, who smashed Stephanie Rice’s previous world record of 4:29:45 by swimming 4:28:43. Many have mentioned that, incredibly, her time in the last 50 metres was faster than men’s 400m IM gold medallist, Ryan Lochte.

However, instead of praising this quite remarkable achievement, one man’s shameful public comments created front pages this morning which are sadly unnecessary. US swimming coach, John Leonard, stated that Ye’s last 100m was “disturbing”, going on to say: “Every time we see something unbelievable it more often than not turned out to be some form of cheating… No woman has ever split the men.”
Ye Shiwen dominated the 400m IM final on Saturday

These are very strong words and quite frankly he should be punished. First of all, if he was so concerned about Ye cheating, why did he not have the guts to go straight to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who deal with these cases? Instead, he has just thrown a very loose accusation with no support whatsoever into the public domain, creating a “row” which never should have existed.

It’s easy to see how China’s reputation may have been tarnished by instances of cheating.  Their swimming team was hit with doping scandals throughout the 1990s, in particular during the 1994 Asian Games, while another 16-year old, Li Zhesi tested positive for performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin just last month.

But crucially in this case, Ye Shiwen was cleared by WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) before the Games, enough proof from the outset that she is not a cheat. In the unlikely event that she is, she and every other gold medal winner’s samples have be retained by the IOC for another eight years. This means if testing evolves (which it will do) then the new technology can be run on the samples to double check the results.

In any case, it has been well documented how brutally intense some of the Chinese training regimes can be for their promising athletes, which is why we are seeing some brilliant performances at these Games. There have been many reports of children being whisked away at an early age to camps going through regimes which are far more intense than anything experienced here in the Western world.

This indeed is what happened to Ye. She swims several hours almost every day and could perform 20 chin-ups at the age of seven. Her large hands and limbs, and her masculine upper-body structure, were immediately recognised by her coaches, and they have put her through everything imaginable and more to ensure she fulfils her potential at these Olympics. She must have felt deeply insulted, after all this hard work and effort, to have heard Leonard's comments.

Furthermore, the last point which coach Leonard makes above, that “no woman has ever split the men”, although factually correct, is interestingly placed in relation to the previous comments. Is he suggesting that the only explanation behind women going faster than men in swimming, or any sporting event for that matter, is that they cheated and took drugs? If so, it is also completely unnecessary to say during an Olympics which has embraced female participation across every nation.

So these comments by Leonard are shockingly misguided and baseless. We should believe in Ye’s brilliance until we are proven otherwise by the IOC and WADA. And we must remember the Olympic motto – “faster, higher, stronger”. Sadly this has been forgotten by some. Ye Shiwen is a remarkable athlete and one wonders when her achievements will be replicated.

Monday, 30 July 2012

A trip to Brontë Parsonage Museum

The story of the Bronte family, and the stories they penned themselves, have captured the imagination of book lovers for over 150 years. Charlotte, who wrote the beautifully crafted Jane Eyre, and Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, were the literary geniuses of their era and their influence lives on to this day.

This afternoon, I had a glimpse into their lives at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, a picture-postcard village in West Yorkshire, about ten miles west of Bradford. Needless to say, Haworth is now a major regional tourist attraction. People all over the world flock at this time of year to soak up the history, culture and landscape of plunging hills and stunning views which surround the settlement. It became clear how the Yorkshire moorland influenced the setting of their work and the nature of the characters.
The room in which the Bronte masterpieces were written

Cramped little shops snake up the hill leading to the village square and are well worth a look. Inside the square and at the summit of the hill is the famous Black Bull pub, which proudly overlooks everything else of importance in the village. Inside you can see the chair which Branwell Bronte (brother of Charlotte and Emily) sat on to enjoy his pint of beer.

These sights set up the trip to the Parsonage very nicely indeed, and we were not to be disappointed. We learned the Brontes moved in the residence in 1820, when Emily and Charlotte were small children. Their elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, succumbed to an early grave due to a typhus epidemic caused by disgracefully poor sanitary conditions. Their father, Patrick, had secured a job as the Perpetual Curate of Haworth Church and somehow ended up outliving his entire family, finally passing away in 1861 at the grand old age of 84.

Patrick’s study – a den of quiet concentration – was meticulously presented, epitomised by the magnifying glass used to assist his extensive reading and writing, placed on the table. As the major political figurehead of the village, one can imagine he spent many hours here. Among other commitments he founded a Sunday school in 1832 and campaigned for a clean water supply to Haworth, secured in 1856.

Perhaps most interesting was the dining room, one of the more most spacious areas in the house. It was where the sisters’ literary triumphs were forged, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. A rocking chair in the corner next to a grand fireplace would have been regularly used to ponder the next sentence, while, on a more sorrowful note, the sofa opposite was the piece of furniture on which Emily died.

We were also taken around the tiny kitchen, the generous servants’ room and the art studio of Branwell, filled with paintings – some excellent, others rather amateurish. Most interesting was Branwell’s bedroom, where he eventually died as a result of his all-too-frequent trips to the Black Bull and dire alcoholism.

So, if you’re living in the region and interested in your literature, I would recommend a visit! I’m hardly a bookworm but it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Team GB clinch first medals

Relief. That’s the feeling in the Team GB camp after day two of the London Olympics, as two medals were collected and several other crucial victories were notched to move swiftly on from the struggles of day one.

A new star was born to the British public in Yorkshire’s Lizzie Armistead, who claimed silver in the women’s cycling road race, before Rebecca Adlington relinquished her gold from Beijing in the 400m freestyle but still secured an impressive bronze medal.

Elsewhere, the beach volleyball pairing of Zara Dampney and Shauna Mullin won a nail-biter at Horse Guards Parade, the Riverbank Arena played host to a brilliant 4-0 victory for the women’s hockey side over Japan and the men’s footballers eventually secured a 3-1 win over the United Arab Emirates at Wembley.

And Beth Tweddle demonstrated age didn’t matter in the artistic gymnastics, as her mesmerizing performance on the uneven bars inspired her teenage teammates to a second-placed finish behind the might of the USA. It continued Team GB’s good run from yesterday when the men impressed.

For Armistead to achieve silver in such tough conditions makes the moment all the more special to savour. Her expertise in sprinting from her track career certainly counted in her favour, namely winning gold and silver at the 2009 and 2010 World Championships respectively.

Her promise in the road race event was recognised in 2010 as she won stage events at the presitigious Tour de l'Aude and the Tour de l'Ardeche, while last year she claimed the 2011 British road race title. So if you’re a cycling fan, today’s result might not actually be that surprising.

Meanwhile, Adlington’s emotional post-match interview epitomised just how much the 400m freestyle category has evolved since Beijing. The field has become remarkably stronger since 2008 when Adlington won by a fingertip, as more swimmers are comfortable in a range of distances. With the 800m coming up, Adlington will be the favourite to defend her gold from Beijing in her favourite distance.

All of these events listed above experienced terrific atmospheres inside their respective arenas, which was highly encouraging to see during the ongoing debate over empty seats. Understandably, a lot of anger has been vented today on the issue, and what happens over the next few days will be crucial as to what actions Locog take.

In fact, some are so incensed that a new Twitter page, @OlympicSeat, has been established, which tweeted earlier: “It was my lifelong ambition to be an Olympic seat. To provide rest and comfort for cheering sports fans. I feel like such a failure.” Sometimes I wish people would stop moaning and cheer up.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Slow start for Team GB

China have already raced to six medals, while the USA and Italy boast five each, but Team GB are yet to capture a single one in their quest to topple their 48-medal target.

It was a disappointing day overall, epitomised by a 29th placed finish for Mark Cavendish in the cycling road race. Sickeningly, it was the former drug cheat, Alexandre Vinokourov, who crossed the line first thanks to a horrendous error in the final 100m from Colombian Rigoberto Uran.
The strategy worked perfectly at the World Championships and the Tour de France, but unfortunately few others helped out this time around, as Cavendish and co were not able to adapt.

Furthermore, there were problems of empty seats at venues from the Aquatic Centre to the North Greenwich Park, which depleted atmospheres at some events. When Team GB needs all the help it can get from home support, it is disappointing that spaces reserved for “members of the Olympic family” – whoever they are – were not taken.

However, there were glimmers of hope in the men’s gymnastics, table tennis and women’s football. Team GB reached the final of the men’s team gymnastics for the first time in modern history as they finished third overall in qualifying behind heavyweights China and the USA.

Individually, Max Whitlock and Louis Smith will both appear in the final of the pommel horse. Smith was particularly impressive and admitted the vociferous crowd helped him; his emotional reaction afterwards showed just how much it all meant. Meanwhile, Kristian Thomas reached the finals of both the vault and the all-round categories, with Dan Purvis also joining him in the latter.

In the table tennis singles, as Joanna Parker and Paul Drinkhall moved into the second round of their respective events, while the women’s footballers saw off Cameroon 3-0 as they secured qualification for the quarter finals.

Tomorrow, we have many more of today’s sports as well as seeing our men's basketballers for the first time, Ben Ainslee in the sailing and also the water polo side (anything close to the drama of the Roses match would be perfect).

I’m confident that Team GB will reach their medal target and that these Olympic Games will be one of the greatest ever. Let’s hope the today’s problems serve as a wake-up call for the organisers and that our athletes can shake off their understandable nerves.

Stay tuned to The Bradders Blog for posts throughout the Olympics as well as York Vision for more in depth comment pieces. And most importantly, enjoy the action!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Olympic Dreams: David Florence

Name: David Florence

Event: Canoe slalom

Date of birth: 8/8/1982, Age 29

Career highlight: Winning silver in the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Did you know? Before the 2008 Olympic Games, Florence had applied to become an astronaut at the European Space Agency.

Scotsman David Florence is regarded as one of the main men to bag at least one medal for Team GB at the London Olympics. Not only is he competing in the single canoe but also the two-man canoe along with Richard Hounslow. If he achieves this, which is not completely beyond the realms of possibility, he will become the first British paddler to win medals in different disciplines at an Olympic Games.

Florence will be aiming for at least one medal at London 2012

Born in Aberdeen and raised in Edinburgh, David always had a role model in his family, namely his father George who was a former Scottish canoe champion. He began canoeing at the age of 14 along the River Leith which weaves through Edinburgh, and quickly joined the Forth Canoe Club – the oldest such organisation in Scotland. He later moved to Notttingham not only to study for a degree in mathematical physics, but to further his canoeing career at the National Watersports Centre.

After finishing 4th in the 2005 European Championships, David secured 5th at the 2007 World Championships, before making history last month. He won two World Cup gold medals in the C1 and C2 events in Cardiff, which has never happened before, and is the reason why many are tipping him to do the same in London.

His main rival in the C1 will be Tony Estanguet, the double Olympic champion from 2000 and 2004, while in the C2 there could be an interesting battle against British pair Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott. However, David says it is important that he and Richard focus on their own race: “Rivalry is almost irrelevant. You don’t go down the course at the same time and there is nothing anyone else does which affects what I do. If you can put down a great run, you have a chance.”

Canoe slalom requires huge levels of commitment in training, and the technical challenges faced by the paddlers can appear daunting to spectators. Competitors must navigate through 25 gates on a 300 metre course, including a 5.5 metre drop, in the fastest possible time. Penalties of 2 seconds are imposed if a paddler hits a gate and 50 second penalties if the gate is missed altogether. The venue for the canoe slalom is the Lee Valley water Centre, located nine miles north of the Olympic Park.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Great Scott takes early Open advantage

Everyone at Royal Lytham and St Annes feared the worst for the 141st Open Championship yesterday, as practice sessions were plagued by horrific conditions; bunkers, full of water, masqueraded as rock pools and the players dreaded what was in store for them.
Today, we expected pars to be a bonus and birdies to be a heavenly blessing, but the rainclouds never seriously threatened the course, leaving warm, calm conditions and a beautiful playing surface. Hence many surprisingly low scores appeared on the leaderboard as the players tried to make the most of the opportunity presented.
And none were more impressive than 32-year-old Australian, Adam Scott, who finished with a six-under-par round of 64 and is one of the few players in the top 10 not to have won a major. A 63 would have been a record-equalling first round score at a major, something only 26 other players have achieved in the entire history of the sport.
Scott is regarded as one of the best players not to win a major
His start of two pars and a bogey was not the most encouraging, but Scott turned on the style with birdies at holes 4, 5 and 7 to tie for the lead. He bettered this with a sensational back nine with five birdies to lead outright. If he maintains this momentum, Nick Faldo’s 1992 Open record for the lowest score after two rounds (130) will be under threat.
It bucks the trend which Scott has experienced in majors so far this season, with opening rounds of 75 and 76 at the Masters and US Open respectively saddling him with uphill battles. For a player who usually improves as major championships go on, it is something of a concern for rest of the field.
Occupying second place at five under are Paul Lawrie, Zach Johnson and Nicolas Colsaerts, a 30-year-old Belgian who made the cut at a major for the first time at this year’s US Open. He was briefly tied for the lead in the third round of that tournament, symptomatic of an impressive season having beaten Graeme McDowell in the final of the Volvo World Match Play Championship in May. He will be full of confidence and is one to watch over the next three days.
However, defending champion Darren Clarke’s hopes of retaining the Claret Jug look in dire straits after a round of 76, fully ten shots off the lead. When he starts his second round at 14:10 tomorrow, his first aim will be just to make the cut, never mind be in contention.
As for the British cavalcade, McDowell and Rory McIlroy, on three under par, are in the best shape. The former enjoyed an excellent front nine in which he hit four birdies and is prepared for whatever weather Lancashire has to throw at him: “I’m under no illusion that this golf course has teeth and could be a sleeping giant for sure.”
The latter, after a solid front nine, endured a bumpy ride afterwards in which he hit a spectator on the head from the 15th tee, but held his nerve to hole a birdie on the 18th to give himself every chance of catching Scott.
Westwood endured a frustrating first round, despite a bright start
Elsewhere, James Morrison (who played in the same England youth cricket teams as Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara and Tim Bresnan) played the round of his life with a magnificent two under par 68. World number one Luke Donald finished on 70, but squandered numerous birdie puts before bogeying the 18th.
However, it was a frustrating day for Lee Westwood, who suffered four bogeys in his last six holes to finish three over, while 2010 champion Louis Oosthuizen did not look himself at all with a disappointing round of 72. Both will be praying for good conditions tomorrow as there is work to be done if they are to climb back up the leaderboard.
As for the Tiger, who was the bookies’ favourite before the tournament, the word “ominous” was being muttered around the course after his first seven holes as he knocked in four birdies. His swing looked as good as ever and his aggression paid off; write him off at your peril.
So as expected, this year’s Open is finely balanced after day one but there will be many more twists and turns before we reach the climax on Sunday. For now, Adam Scott will be the happiest of the group and all eyes will be on the Australian when he resumes his quest for a maiden major title at 13:43 tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Olympic Dreams: Richard Kruse

Name: Richard Kruse

Date of Birth: 30/7/1983, Age 28

Event: Fencing – foil

Career Highlight: Finishing eighth at the 2004 Athens Olympics when just 21

Did you know? In the build-up to Beijing Olympics, Kruse worked part-time as a civil engineer on the London 2012 site.

Fencing has not historically been one of Great Britain’s strongest sports at the Olympics. However, the influence of one man has given Britain real hope of a medal this summer at London. Foil fencer, Richard Kruse, burst onto the scene in 2001 when he became the youngest ever British champion at the tender age of 17, and his career has gone from strength to strength.

In 2004, he surprised the whole nation by reaching the quarter finals of the Athens Olympics. It was the best finish for a British fencer since the Tokyo Olympics forty years previously.

He followed this up with an excellent silver medal in the European Championships in 2006; Britain’s first fencing medal in any international event since 1965. Although Kruse dissapointingly missed out on an automatic qualifying place for the Beijing Olympics, he still managed to compete as a wildcard entry, reaching the round of 16.

The 2009 season was arguably his most consistent, as he won gold at the Copenhagen World Cup and silver at the 2009 European Fencing Championships. He almost retained his World Cup medal in 2011, but lost by a single point against Italian Andrea Baldini.

Kruse’s recent form has been good, defeating world champion Andrea Cassara en route to a bronze medal at the Japan Wakayama Grand Prix in April, before claiming another bronze at the European Championships last month.

Now Kruse is part of a nine-strong Team GB squad, along with fellow foil fencers James Davis and Husayn Rosowsky. His main rival will probably be Germany’s Peter Joppich, who has finished within the top six in the previous two Olympics and has four foil world titles to his name.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Tennis' one-trick pony

There is no doubt that when Andy Roddick hangs up his racquet at the end of his career, he will be remembered as one of the greatest American tennis players to play the game. Back in 2003, we saw a young, dynamic, 21-year old trounce the rest of the field in the US Open, securing his one, and only, Grand Slam and claiming the world number 1 spot. His status as America’s new tennis hope in the post-Pete Sampras era was born. His triumph, along with Roger Federer’s maiden Wimbledon title earlier in the year, undoubtedly sparked a renewed global interest in the sport. He has carried the American flag in men’s tennis almost single-handedly since, while his sharp and witty character has won many fans around the world. And with that serve, so emphatically exhibited in 2003, we fully expected Roddick to go on and dominate men’s tennis for another decade.

Looking back from 2012, we realise our forecast was wrong. No more Grand Slams have followed Roddick’s 2003 success, although he has come mightily close at Wimbledon on three occasions, only to be denied on each occasion by Roger Federer. Now ranked 27 in the world, third in the US behind Mardy Fish and John Isner and on the verge of turning 30, it appears as though Roddick’s ability to compete at the highest level is over.
Roddick beats Juan Carlos Ferrero to win the 2003 US Open

Roddick’s serve has been described by some commentators as the greatest in history, but it has not been enough for him to achieve consistent Grand Slam glory. Let’s look at some statistics. Clearly, Roddick’s serve performance has been remarkably consistent over the years as the table shows. His first serve percentage in 2003 was distinctly average, yet he was able to crush his opponents. As we can see, however, although Roddick’s first serve percentage has steadily improved over the years, the percentage of points won on his first serve and service games won have not followed this trend; they have if anything regressed.

First serve %
First serve points won %
Service games won %

Source: ATPWorldTour.com

However, if we dig deeper the reasons behind this serving paradox become much clearer. The tennis players which Roddick is facing today are vastly different to what they were back in 2003. Taking the top ten players from June 16th 2003, the average height measured up at exactly six feet and the average weight 175 pounds. Today’s top ten have an average height three inches taller at 6’3 and a weight of 194 pounds. Roddick, who is 6 feet 2 and 195 pounds, was bigger and stronger than most players in 2003, but is now probably just below the norm today. Perhaps if Roddick was playing instead of fellow American Pete Sampras in the 1990s he would have won just as many Grand Slams, but today’s incredibly competitive field has limited his chances.

The statistics essentially prove today’s top players are fitter than ever before, which has meant many can match Roddick’s serving ferocity. The need to deal with these serves has in turn led to an emphasis on the returning game; just look at how good the likes of Murray, Nadal and Djokovic are at returning the huge serves of Karlovic, Isner and Roddick himself. The diagram below shows Roddick’s serve placement against Federer in the 2005 Wimbledon final. What is most fascinating is that although many of Roddick’s serves are placed close to the corners, he hit only seven aces to Federer’s 11. In most cases, Federer was able to execute most returns with a simple backhand block.

Roddick's serve in the 2005 Wimbledon final did not hurt Federer
Then, once the serve is returned, today’s fitter, stronger players excel in the longer rallies. This is where Roddick has historically struggled; his touch at the net and his ability to hit backhand winners, for example, often lets him down. His inability to mix up his game contrasts with the array of shots the best players possess in their armoury to keep their opponents guessing. For example, Federer can deploy a range of drop shots, slices, squash shots, you name it, which is why he is still going strong into his 30s. In addition, although Federer’s serve averages at 115-120mph (around 20mph slower than Roddick’s) his ability to hit different spots with equal success makes him highly unpredictable to face. You could also argue Rafael Nadal has adapted his game hugely from his comfort zone on clay in order to win Wimbledon twice.

By contrast, Roddick’s style has barely evolved in his career; he is still hoping his powerful, and increasingly predictable, serve can blow away increasingly more formidable opponents. It is true that Coach Larry Stefanki has improved Roddick’s tactics, fitness and overall performance, but even this hasn’t been enough to win another Grand Slam and stay in the top ten. Roddick’s only remaining chance of Grand Slam success is going to be at Wimbledon, because the surface does not tend to favour tall players with the ball staying low. He surprised everyone back in 2009 by reaching the final and pushing Federer all the way, but I can’t see any Ivanisevic-style heroics happening; far more players are adapting to grass in the top ten nowadays, particularly Nadal and, as we saw last year, Djokovic.
Was this year's Wimbledon Roddick's last?

This last point links to another evolution in modern tennis – the slowing pace of many surfaces. This is particularly the case with grass, the fastest surface in tennis, as Roddick’s serve used to be able to stay very low and fast after hitting the ground. Today, though, the ball reacts differently to courts such as Wimbledon as it bounces up higher. This is crucial when we analyse Roddick’s serve as players have approximately a tenth of a second longer to react and play a decent return than they did 20 years ago. Even the hard courts have become noticeably slower recently, especially at the US Open, which was probably among the fastest courts in the world a few years ago. In short, players such as Roddick are getting fewer free points on their serve, which is why we are seeing more gruelling rallies which today’s bigger, stronger players excel in.

It seems to me that Roddick and his coaches have been so transfixed by his powerful serve that other aspects of his game are being ignored, with significant consequences. The courts have slowed, and the players Roddick faces today are physically superior to a decade ago, but Roddick has proved too often he has no Plan B. Of course, Andy has suffered from a number of injuries over the last few years which have limited his ability to play over 20 tournaments a year. However, I would argue blaming Roddick’s decline on injury is very short-sighted; the inherent problems stem from his consistently narrow game plan in every tournament and on every surface he plays. The Andy Roddick case has demonstrated to the tennis world that you cannot afford to be a one-trick pony any more. Variety, adaptability and all round physical strength are now highly valued attributes which are top of the priority list for a place in the top ten and, ultimately, Grand Slam success.
From the first issue of Into The Sunset magazine.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Hexham Courant newscast

Here's my Hexham Courant newscast from Wednesday, as heavy rain failed to deter several key events going ahead in Tynedale. Also, the burden of VAT on air ambulance services was debated in the House of Commons. You can read the full transcript of this debate on Guy Opperman's blog here: http://guyopperman.blogspot.co.uk/.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Olympic Dreams: Rajiv Ouseph

Name: Rajiv Ouseph

Date of birth: 30/8/1986, age 25

Career highlight: Won the 2010 US Open Men’s Singles

Did you know? Originally wanting to pursue a career in journalism, Rajiv studied Media and Communications at Loughborough University.

Brought up in Hounslow, the London Olympics will be a very special occasion for Team GB’s men’s singles representative, Rajiv Ouseph. As he says:

“The Olympics is a once in a lifetime experience and I’m honoured to be representing Team GB in my home city of London. Having grown up here, it’s even more exciting to be competing in front of a home crowd and knowing you have great support on the door step.”

His badminton potential was emphatically showcased from an early age as Ouseph won the 2005 European Junior Championships, as well as every English national title between the ages of 13 and 19.

And with a series of impressive results over the past couple of years which has seen him become British number 1 and world number 19, there is a new level of expectation on Ouseph’s shoulders, something he has not experienced before.

He won the English National Singles in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, the first to win four in a row since Darren Hall in 1991. He attained his highest ranking of 18 after winning the 2010 US Open, before claiming bronze in the European Championships and silver in the Commonwealth Games the same year.

The format for the singles at the Olympics will be a group stage followed by knock-out, while the favourite to win overall is the Chinese Lin Dan, regarded by many as the greatest badminton player in history. He won gold in Beijing and is also the reigning world champion, so will take some beating.

To read all the other profiles in the Olympic Dreams series, visit York Vision's London 2012 page.