Monday, 30 April 2012

Z is for… Zinedine Zidane

One of the most graceful players ever to step on to a pitch, Zidane marvelled football crowds for many years. His grace and skill on the ball, along with his effortless style, were memorably captured in a documentary that bears his name. His resume is also as impressive as almost anyone else in football: a World Cup, a European Championship, a Champions League, 3 league titles, 3 times World Player of the Year, and numerous other trophies and individual awards. Let’s take a moment to look at the career of one of the greats.

The early years

Zidane playing for AS Cannes
Zidane’s professional career began at AS Cannes, making his debut at the age of 17 against Nantes. Despite this early promise it took him two years to establish himself in the first team, but when this happened he helped Cannes to their highest finish in over 40 years, taking the club into Europe for the first (and only) time in their history. 

At the age of 20 he moved to Bordeaux, quickly settling into a position in the heart of their team. Within two years he had picked up the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award and had made his debut for the French national team, scoring two goals as a substitute on his International debut. After winning the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award in his 4th season with Bordeaux, European champions Juventus signed Zidane for £3.2 million.

Stepping into the limelight

Zidane with the World Cup
Zidane starred for Juventus straight away, being named Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year in his first season for the club. Heading into the 1998 World Cup Zidane had cemented his place in the heart of the French midfield as their playmaker, with the nation’s hopes riding on his shoulders. France won all their group games, before Zidane saw red in their first knock-out game against Saudi Arabia. Returning for the quarter finals, Zidane helped France squeeze past Italy, before producing a fine performance to help the home nation get past Croatia 2-1 in the semi-final and into their first World Cup final.

Heading into the World Cup final much of the world’s attention was focused on two players; Zidane and Brazil’s star striker, Ronaldo. However Ronaldo was strangely off-key in the match, while Zidane shone in the middle of the pitch with perhaps the finest performance of his career to date, scoring the first 2 goals on the way to a 3-0 victory. Zidane became a national hero in France, a status he reaffirmed after he led them to their second major tournament at Euro 2000, being voted the player of the tournament as France beat Italy with a golden goal in the final.

The Real Madrid years

A magnificent strike to win the Champions League
In 2001 Real Madrid signed Zidane for a world record fee of £53 million. He was undoubtedly the star of the Galacticos, leading the team to Champions League glory in 2002 with a stunning winner in the final. He won 5 trophies in 5 years at Madrid, and his influence is still felt at the club, with many fans believing him to be the greatest player in the club’s illustrious history.

Before the 2006 World Cup Zidane had signaled that he was going to retire after the tournament. France had a slow start to the World Cup, although as the tournament progressed so did their superstar, with Zidane proving himself as the outstanding player in Germany. Zidane was man of the match in France's games against Spain & Brazil, and scored the only goal of the game in the semi-final against Portugal. Before the final he was awarded the Golden Ball as player of the tournament, and went on to score the first goal in the final, his third on the biggest stage of all. His career unfortunately ended in disgrace, as he was sent off in the 110th minute of the final for headbutting Marco Materazzi, after which Italy went on to beat France on penalties.

Zidane was a unique footballer, who approached the game in a different manner to any other player in history. He always seemed to have more time than the opposition, and rarely made a poor decision on the pitch, his temper excluded. Whilst his statistics may not rank up there with some other greats, his influence on the game can’t be underestimated, and his ability to perform at his best on the biggest stages is almost unparalleled. I’d rank him in the second tier of greatest ever footballers, just behind Messi, Pele & Maradona.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Y is for... the Yips

The yips is an apparent loss of fine motor skills that affects certain athletes. It's most commonly known for affecting golfers, but can also affect athletes in a number of other sports. Some sports people affected by the yips can recover their ability, whereas for others it continues to affect them for the rest of their sporting life.

Bernhard Langer using a belly putter

Golfers who suffer from the yips usually find their putting stroke affected. Putting require a smooth, gentle stroke in golf, while the yips causes a golfer to flinch or twitch during this stroke. It can affect between a quarter and half of all serious golfers, although golfers with more than 25 years of playing experience are considerably more likely to experience it.

Hall of fame golfers such as Bernhard Langer, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan all experienced the yips during their careers. The yips isn't something that usually affects golfers all of the time, but rather on select occasions, often when the pressure is high. To try and overcome the yips some golfers have changed from using a traditional putter to a belly putter.

Other sports

The yips can also affect bowlers in cricket, with in particular left-arm spinners having trouble in release the ball at the end of their action. In a couple of instances this has led to a bowler retiring from cricket (Keith Medlycott), or concentrating on batting instead of bowling (Gavin Hamilton).

Releasing the ball at the right moment has also affected pitchers in baseball, with Pittsburg Pirates pitcher Steve Blass going from an all-star pitcher to the minor leagues within 2 years of suffering the yips. Tennis players such as Guillermo Coria and Elena Dementieva have also had troubles with the yips, which severely affected their serving action, as they found it difficult to throw the ball up correctly.

The cause of the yips has yet to be determined, although it's believed that it may result from biochemical changes in the brain. It's certainly difficult to see athletes suffer from the yips, as there often seems to be little they can do to overcome it. Being confident in your ability and blocking away any doubt certainly seems to help, although concentrating too much can also make the problem worse. Hopefully in time more research is put into the problems the yips can cause, and the best possible way to counteract them.

X is for… the X Games

The X Games consists of two annual sporting events, showcasing the best in extreme winter and summer sports. The first Summer X Games took place in June 1995, with the first Winter X Games following in January 1997. The X Games currently consists of 7 different sports: moto, rally, skateboarding & bmx in the summer; skiing, snowboarding & snowmobile in the winter.

X Games highlights

The X Games are seen by the competitors as the ideal platform to attempt new tricks and break new ground in their sports. Although the ultimate objective is to compete for the medals on offer, there is also a strong emphasis on entertaining and thrilling the crowd. Music forms a big part of the X Games too, with a number of rock bands and DJs performing at the Games.

Some of the most spectacular feats at the X Games include Tony Hawk achieving the first 900 on a skateboard, Heath Frisby perfoming the first ever snowmobile front flip, Torsten Horgmo achieving the first first landed triple flip in a snowboard competition, and Anthony Napolitan landing the first ever double front flip on a bicycle.

X Games superstars
Shaun White on his snowboard

Shaun White is arguably the biggest superstar in the X Games, winning medals at every Winter X Games from 2003 to the present (12 golds), as well as 2 gold medals at the Summer X Games. The American snowboarder and skateboarder has also won consecutive gold medals at the Winter Olympics in the snowboard halfpipe event.

Tony Hawk is one of the most successful skateboarders of all time, with "The Birdman" claiming 9 gold medals over the first 8 Summer X Games. When Hawk landed the first 900 at the 1999 Summer X Games, he failed to complete the trick on his first 10 attempts. Regulation time had finished, but the announced stated "We make up the rules as we go along. Let's give him another try." In the spirit of the X Games none of the other competitors protested, and when Hawk landed the trick he won the gold medal in the "Best Trick" event.

The X Games is perhaps the most fun and entertaining major sporting event. Despite the increased popularity and attention the event has received since the first games in 1995, the spirit of the game still remains strong, with the event sure to provide many more highlights in the future.

Friday, 27 April 2012

W is for… Willpower

The unwavering strength of will to carry out one’s wishes

Every single person reading this post has struggled with their willpower at times. We’ve all let short-term satisfaction get the better of long-term benefit, but why do we do it to ourselves? Why do so many people slip up when they’re on a diet, or find themselves watching tv when they should be studying? The simple answer is that we all have a limited amount of willpower. We’d all like to believe we could achieve anything we want to if we really put our mind to, but human beings just aren’t built to act that way. 

Thankfully, there are ways to increase our willpower. By training any act of self-control we can actually increase our capacity to self-control. This act of self-control can be relatively simple – make sure you get some regular exercise each day, or limit the amount of television you watch – as long as you manage to consistently control one thing, it has been shown that you become more capable of controlling other things in your life.

However, in spite of how much training we do, we all still have a finite amount of willpower at the end of the day – that fact has been proven in numerous scientific studies. So it makes sense to save your willpower for the things you really want to achieve. Plan your regular exercise so you get in a routine and don’t use all your reserves willing yourself to the gym. Make sure you have a healthy meal planned before you go to work, so when you get home tired and hungry you don’t have to use your willpower making yourself cook a healthy meal off-the-cuff.

So when we see our favourite sports stars, musicians, actors and writers and admire their willpower and work ethic, remember that they’ve also probably got their life in good order, so they’re able to concentrate their energies on where they need them most. Then try to make some small achievable changes in your life, don’t try to change everything at once. And don’t beat yourself up if you let yourself down, remind yourself that you’re only human and that it happens to all of us, however strong willed some people may appear.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

V is for... Villains

Having discussed unlikely sporting heroes in yesterday’s post, today I’m going to look at those we love to hate; the villains in sport. Sporting villains can fall into many different categories:
  • Administrators who are trying to ruin our sports
  • Individuals who take bribes to influences results
  • Arrogant and big-headed athletes
  • Blatant cheats who revel in their underhand tactics
  • Thugs who perform despicable acts on or off the field
  • Athletes who use performing-enhancing drugs
  • Individuals who believe their celebrity allows them to express abhorrent views
I haven’t got the time (or space) to list all my sporting villains, so here are just a few of my personal ‘favourites’.

Mike Tyson

The "baddest man on the planet"
By the age of 13, Mike Tyson had already been arrested 38 times. Two years later in 1981 he won the boxing gold medal at the Junior Olympics by knocking out all his opponents; a feat he managed to repeat the next year. When Tyson moved into the professional ranks he already had a reputation, which rapidly grew as he won his first 19 fights by knockout, with 12 of those knockouts occurring in the first round. His fearsome punching power and intimidating reputation quickly earned him the nickname the "baddest man on the planet”.

Tyson’s aura in the ring was diminished slightly after his shock loss to James ‘Buster’ Douglas in 1990. Outside of the ring his life was also falling apart, and in July 1991 he was arrested for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington. Tyson was convicted of the charge in February 1992, and was given a sentence of 10 years, six in prison and four on probation. However after 3 years he was released after good behavior, and resumed his boxing career in 1995. 

The resumption of his boxing career started well, with Tyson convincingly winning his first 4 fights, before surprisingly losing to Evander Holyfield in a blockbuster fight. A rematch with Holyfield was held on June 28, 1997, with Tyson again the favourite to win the contest. However the fight was stopped in the third round after Tyson bit Holyfield on the ear, and after the resumption Tyson bit Holyfield again, this time taking a chunk out of his ear. Tyson was disqualified and fined $3 million over the incident. 

Tyson resumed his career the next year and had several more good victories before his career petered out with a couple of shock victories. Despite a slight turn-around in Tyson’s public persona, for me he still remains one of sport’s all-time great villains. 

Spain’s Paralympic basketball team (2000)

Spain's Paralympic cheaters
Basketball ID is a form of basketball adapted for players with intellectual disabilities. In the tournament at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, Spain comfortably won all 5 of their matches, claiming the gold medals in the process. However scandal broke out afterwards, when one of the Spanish competitors, Carlos Ribagorda, revealed he was an undercover journalist, and that most of his teammates hadn’t undergone the tests to prove they had the disability. 

The claims were investigated by the IPC, and it was found that the Spanish Paralympic Committee hadn’t carried out the necessary tests, and 10 of the 12 competitors in the team weren't disabled. The scandal rocked the Paralympics, and the IPC suspended all official sporting activities involving an intellectual disability. Although this was later relaxed, these events are still not included in the Paralympic games.

Jason Akermanis

Akermanis - a thoroughly dislikable man
Jason Akermanis was a highly-skilled footballer for the Brisbane Lions, who was capable of miracles with the ball. On the oval he was a superstar, claiming the game’s highest individual honour, the Brownlow medal, and three Premierships with the Lions. However he carried an air of arrogance about him which meant he had few friends in football. After making disparaging remarks about his coach in 2005, AFL legend Leigh Matthews, he was unceremoniously dumped from the club in a 12-0 vote by the coaching panel and senior player group. Akermanis went on to join the Western Bulldogs in 2007, having three successful seasons with the club, before again falling out with the coaching staff and players and leaving his second club in 2010. 

Although Akermanis was never really loved as a footballer, it was in the final years of his career and post-career when he found himself as a hate figure in AFL circles. His often controversial views included telling gay footballers who were thinking about coming out in public to forget it, and that it “would cause discomfort in that environment should someone declare himself gay.” Also, following the death of much-loved AFL great Jim Stynes this year, Akermanis claimed that he was "a nasty man in his day", and questioned whether he should receive a state funeral.

Do you have any ‘favourite’ sporting villains? And do you genuinely hate these villains, or are they just part of the theatre and drama of sport?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

U is for… Unlikely sporting heroes

Everyone loves to see the superstars of sport perform at the peak of their powers, but perhaps even more thrilling is when an unlikely sporting hero arrives; someone who comes out of nowhere to grab the sporting limelight for a brief period of time. Let’s celebrate a few of these heroes and their achievements.

Gary Pratt

In cricket, substitute fielders are supposed to be used to provide cover for injured players. England’s use of substitute fielders in the 2005 Ashes series proved to be controversial, with the Australian team claiming England were using substitutes to rest their bowlers between spells, and were picking specialist fielders for the job. 

Gary Pratt gets mobbed by the England team
Gary Pratt was an unremarkable cricketer, who at the time was contracted to Durham, but failed to play a first class game that year. He was however a good fielder, and was chosen by England to be a substitute fielder in the fourth match of the series at Trent Bridge. During that match England’s fast bowler, Simon Jones, suffered an ankle injury, and Gary Pratt came on to take his place in the field. 

At the time Ricky Ponting, Australia’s captain and star batsman, was in the middle with Damien Martyn. Pratt was fielding at short cover when Martyn tapped the ball in his direction, looking to run for a quick single. Pratt ran quickly towards the ball, picking it up cleanly and throwing down the stumps in one motion. He’d managed to run out Ricky Ponting, the thorn in England’s side for so many years! Ponting fumed as he trudged off the field, angrily shouting towards the England balcony at their use of substitute fielders. 

The moment proved to be a key turning point in the series, with England pressing home their advantage and winning the match, claiming a 2-1 lead in the series, which they managed to hold on to. Pratt briefly became a national hero as England reclaimed the Ashes for the first time in 16 years, and he joined the rest of the team in an open-bus ride around London in celebration. 

Steven Bradbury

Steven Bradbury wasn’t expect to be a challenger in the speed skating 1000 metres at the 2002 Salk Lake City Winter Olympics, but a series of remarkable events led to him claiming the most unlikely of gold medals and becoming one of the heroes of the Games. After winning his first heat convincingly, Bradbury was given a nightmare draw in the quarter final, being up against the world champion, Marc Gagnon, and the American favourite and 1500 metres gold medallist, Apolo Anton Ohno. Only the top 2 finishers were due to advance to the semi-finals, and after finishing 3rd Bradbury thought he was eliminated. However a review showed that Gagnon had obstructed another racer and he was disqualified, with Bradbury being promoted to second in his place.

Steven Bradbury celebrates a remarkable gold medal
In the semi-finals Bradbury was expected to be well off the pace, and unsurprisingly found himself in last place heading into the final bend. However one of the other racers slipped at he turned round the last corner, colliding into another racer and leaving both of them on their backsides. Bradbury skated through to finish in second place and qualified for the final. 

Bradbury was once again well off the pace in the final, with all 4 other racers competing for the medals on the last lap. Then, once more heading into the final corner, one of the racers slipped, leaving only 3 guys ahead of his going into the final straight. Remarkably the other three competitors then collided, leaving Bradbury with the simple task of gliding round the final turn to claim perhaps the most unbelievable gold medal in Olympic history. 

Jimmy Glass

Jimmy Glass was a journeyman goalkeeper who found himself at Swindon in 1999. However, after falling out with the Swindon manager, Jimmy Quinn, he found himself on the outer at the club, and engineered a loan move to Carlisle after the Cumbrian club found themselves with no fit goalkeepers and three games left of the season to play.

Carlisle were struggling to stay in the football league in the 1998/1999 football season, and found themselves at the foot of the third division going into the final game of the season, with relegation to the football conference beckoning. On the final day of the season the equation was simple, they needed to better Scarborough’s result to avoid a heartbreaking relegation out of the football league.

Jimmy Glass etches his name into football folklore
The match at Scarborough finished 10 minutes before the match at Carlisle, and with Scarborough achieving a 1-1 draw against Peterborough Carlisle knew that a victory against Plymouth was the only result that could keep them up. The score at Carlisle was also 1-1 heading deep into injury time, when Carlisle won a corner. Knowing that it was now or never, Glass left his goal to join his teammates in the opposition area. The corner came in and a Carlisle player got a header at goal, which the keeper could only parry in to Glass’ path. Instinctively Glass lashed the ball home, saving his new team from relegation in only his third match for the club. 

Jimmy Glass never played football for Carlisle again, and retired from professional football two years later at the age of 27. However his goal ensured that he’ll never be forgotten in one of football’s greatest fairytale finishes to a season.

T is for… Test cricket

There are three forms of international cricket; test cricket, one-day cricket and 20-20 cricket. Whilst the latter has exploded in popularity in recent years, for many people test cricket remains the truest and most compelling form of the game. There are currently 10 test playing nations, each of them playing the other nations over a six-year cycle. Test cricket is usually played as a series of matches, each of which can last for up to five days. The first test match of cricket took place in 1877 between England and Australia, with Australia winning the match by 45 runs.

Why test cricket is so great

Sachin Tendulkar - one of the greats
Test match cricket is an appropriate name, as it really does test the character of the players involved. It’s a real challenge of patience, determination and concentration for each individual involved. The batsmen need to keep their focus for every ball they face, judging each delivery on its merits and deciding when to attack and when to defend. The bowlers need to decide whether to attack the stumps or whether to try to lure the batsmen into playing a rash shot, and need to keep patient as they stick with their plans of attack. The fielders also to keep their focus, sometimes going long periods of time without touching the ball, but having to stay alert all the time.

A good test match is like a good story. There are moments of high drama, when the match moves quickly with a flurry of wickets or a batsmen attacking. Then there are moments when the match is bubbling under, when both teams are trying to wrestle control of the action. The momentum will swing in a good match, both teams will have periods where they’re on top and times when they’re chasing the game.

The Ashes

After Australia became the first team to defeat England on an English ground in 1882, The Sporting Times wrote a mock obituary stating that English cricket had died, and “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” England’s next tour to Australia became “a quest to return the Ashes”, and during that tour a small terracotta urn containing the ashes of a cricket bail was presented to the English team. The two nations now meet biennially to compete for the Ashes; with the winning nation claiming the Ashes and a drawn series meaning that the country already holding the Ashes retains them. Each Ashes series now consists of five test matches, and sixty-six series have been played, with Australia winning 31 and England 30.

Ian Botham at his swashbuckling best
Several great players have made their name in an Ashes series, with Ian Botham stamping his mark on the 1981 series after producing outstanding performances with both the bat and the ball. Shane Warne burst on to the cricket scene with his first ball in an Ashes series after producing the “ball of the century” to dismiss Mike Gatting in the 1993 Ashes series. Andrew Flintoff also produced his finest moments in the Ashes contests, particularly in the 2005 series, where England regained the Ashes for the first time in 16 years after a long period of Australian dominance.

Test match cricket provides so many memorable moments that make it one of my favourite sports. It’s unique blend of narrative and ebb & flow are unmatched in sport, and will continue to give delights to its fans for many years to come. As the 10CC song goes; I don't like cricket, I love it!