How sport revived Cuba from an economic crisis

The collapse of the USSR could have financially bankrupted Cuba, but the intelligence and the creativity of their sporting institute had other ideas.

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Liam Moore

The collapse of the USSR could have financially bankrupted Cuba, but the intelligence and the creativity of their sporting institute had other ideas.

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Fidel Castro boxing great, Teofilo Stevenson in 1984 ©The Olympians

For the first two-years following the 1959 Revolution, professional sport in Cuba suffered. The country that prided itself on its sporting achievements was in decline. Yes, the Americans were removed – thus allowing the small island independence – but morale was low. The revolutionary politicians knew this issue had to be addressed, and swiftly.

They had two specific areas that they targeted and the establishment of their new sport institution would oversee the development. ‘The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation’ (INDER) was created in 1961 and the organisation was designed with two specific goals. Firstly, they wanted to increase participation in sport as they fully believed that access to exercise was a basic human right. Secondly, they wanted to continue to produce elite athletes that could compete for their country on the global stage. It’s important to note that there were no time constraints regarding these objectives or no annual goals that had to be achieved. Cuba believed that it was important to put no pressure on those who were responsible of producing these changes.

Within ten years, INDER was succeeding at an incredibly fast rate. As aforementioned in the previous article, Cuba have won 195 medals since the 1972 Olympic Games, including 67 golds. They are the most successful team at the International Baseball World Cup, achieving 30 medals (25 golds) compared to America’s 15 medals (4 golds). Okay, so the elite performance goal was certainly progressing, but how was mass participation in sport doing? Fantastic, is the answer. Not only were the numerical figures above and beyond of previous years, but the idea of the ‘community’ had returned. Citizens were socialising with one another and the health of the individuals had improved; the divide between social classes that money had brought along was diminishing.

In August of 1991, Cuba hosted the Pan America games. The Games were a success and 26 countries came to Havana to compete in the newly built facilities. There was additional success for the hosts, as they topped the medal table with 140 medals compared to America’s 130. Despite the success, criticism soon followed as one journalist from the New York Times was critical that the country decided to host the games with the collapse of the USSR looming. Thus, questioning the use of Cuba’s limited resources. Cuba’s economy relied heavily on the Soviet-Union as their sugar export profits were largely through the USSR. Worryingly for Cuba, the state collapsed on the 26th of December 1991 and an economic crisis rapidly followed. This period of time was labelled the ‘Time of Peace’ by Cuban nationals. Ironically, what followed could not have been more of the opposite.

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Cuba hosted the competition in 1991 ©Sportcommunicator

Cuba’s trading preferences were severely damaged, and as a result, Cuban trade crumbled by 87% as their preferred sugar trade with the USSR could not be replicated by any country. Their GDP plummeted by 35% in the following 12 months and the financial security of the state was being questioned. However, amidst the chaos that was ensuing, Cuba’s sporting power continued to grow. Their decision to prioritise the development of sport could be argued as risky – or downright absurd – but it paid off, enormously.

Sadly, funds had to be generated from somewhere and the country had to endure multiple cuts to public expenditures such as libraries or community buildings. However, alongside the success of producing sporting athletes, participation in sport did not suffer. The state viewed participation at a local level just as important as creating athletes.

Morale was high again as participation continued to be successful. Although the mass partaking was excellent and will always be regarded as a great way to keep the inhabitants healthy and active, it was INDER’s intelligence that truly helped the country depart from its ‘Time of Peace’. Baseball players were loaned out to America and Japan where the majority of their wages would go back into the Cuban state system. The Indian National Army asked Cuba if they could send over boxing coaches to help its soldiers prepare for battle, which subsequently produced further income for Cuba.

INDER guided Cuba away from a turbulent time, helping to increase their economic value and general wellbeing of their population. One aspect of INDER that has not be mentioned yet is their work in other countries. They conduct courses – and even send out coaches – to help the establishment and growth of sport development programmes. Although some countries can financially contribute to Cuba for their resources, other countries – such as Paraguay – cannot afford to offer such wealth. Despite this, Cuba still remain in those countries to help the development. The third and final article will go into more depth about INDER’s involvement outside of Cuba as well as discussing the role of ‘The Escuela Internacional de Educacio´n Fı´sica y Deporte’ (EIEFD). A university that offers free physical education tuition to foreign students.

Liam Moore

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Sporting history of Cuba: Despite its success, why is the state-driven Cuban sports module severely unknown?

This is the first of a two-article series of the rise and growth of Cuban sport development as well an insight into the elite sporting athletes that the country consistently create.

Liam Moore

This is the first of a three-article series of the rise and growth of Cuban sport development as well an insight into the elite sporting athletes that the country consistently create.

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Cuba has produced many famous boxers, including Mario Kindelan (right) who defeated Amir Khan at the 2004 Athens Olympics ©Zona de Boxeo

Cigars, landscape and plantations. Just a few things that Cuba are known globally for. Something that certainly flies under the radar – wrongly, may I add – is their sporting excellence. I’m not just talking about their consistent world boxing champions either. Between the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Cuba won 195 medals, including 67 golds. During that time period, they either matched or outperformed countries with a much healthier economy, Canada and Great Britain to name a few.

Little is reported on Cuba and their sporting achievements; their methods are largely unexplored and Robert Huish – who has studied the sport development of Cuba in depth – certainly believes that the Cuban sports model could be successfully adopted around the world. Sport has been a part of Cuban culture since the 19th century and started to flourish in the 1990s. For 150 years, Cuba has placed an importance on sport. The government view it as a tool to increase the living standard for the vulnerable citizens of their nation and they believe access to physical exercise is a basic human right. Facilities – whether that is sporting stadiums, tennis courts or swimming pools – are available to all citizens and the state conduct regular exercise classes to increase the general wellbeing of the population.

Cuba’s national sport is baseball, in which they have consistently produced fantastic players. The Cuban government have loaned players out to Japan and have taken up to 80% of the players’ wages. This, effectively, gets reintegrated into the system and more stars are created. In the 19th century, baseball was just as much Cuban as it was American. In fact, the first baseball teams that were established in Mexico, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rica were founded by plantation owners who had left Cuba to expand their businesses throughout the Caribbean.

Baseball played an influential part of Cuba’s second War of Independence against the Spanish as baseball games were held to raise funds to help with the war effort – they were successful as the Spanish were finally ousted out of Cuba in 1898. Sadly, the nationalists were presented with a problem immediately after American intervention soon followed. Cuba became unrecognisable with schools teaching English instead of the native Spanish, the American dollar was the preferred choice of currency and the country became awash with US exports.

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An exhibition match that then US president, Barack Obama attended ©US Department of State

Poverty and inequality worsened in Cuba as America’s presence grew stronger by the day. Despite the decline of the beautiful country, the Cuban population still had one thing they treasured closely, sport. The standard of baseball was at its pinnacle and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) would often challenge Cuban teams in a variety of sports. The former would usually prevail victorious, except one sport, there was one physical sport that the Americans could just not beat their neighbours at – boxing. Despite Cuba being dominant in the ring, nationalism started to decrease and when Cuban baseball players were being exiled to the US to play in the Major League Baseball (MLB), Cuban sport was at an all time low. Between the years of 1947 and 1961, 135 Cuban baseball players had left the country to play in America.

In 1959, Cuba’s patience and willingness had seemingly depleted. The 1959 revolution – led by the historic Fidel Castro – pushed America out of Cuba. The following years saw a decline for sport in the country. With the sheer number of players migrating to America to play baseball the wrong message was being conveyed throughout Cuba – to be successful you must leave your homeland. Sadly, professional sport suffered as a consequence as professionalism started to dwindle rapidly. America responded by imposing a ban on Cuban players playing in their major leagues and this prohibition would stay intact until the 1990’s.

In 1961 – two years after the success of the revolution – The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) was established. The target was to increase national participation in sport. However, little did Cuba know that INDER would go on to do wonderful things not only for the wellbeing of the island, but also the country’s economy.

Liam Moore

You couldn’t even ref yourselves: A reality check

Why you are the cause of your misplaced hatred of referees: A brief history.

Spencer Kassimir

Why you are the cause of your misplaced hatred of referees: a brief history.

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©Lovedaylemon

Once upon a time, there were games with no referees. Gentlemen were said to simply play the game in pursuit of the Muscular Christianity ideals of self-improvement and fair play, manly and gentile.

The only problem is that this is entirely a lie and, at best, grossly misrepresenting the facts we know to be true.

In the beginning, captains and players were the referees. Maybe this is a technicality but the role encompassed more than just playing the game and leading the team. Thus, we recognise that there has always been a need for decision makers where disputes occurred.Where there would be a referee or umpire to solve a dispute, the captains on the field, would come together and have a discussion and then find the sporting solution to their problems. The same was for the touchlines but with players filling these roles.

Thus, we can see that, no matter who was charged with the duty of refereeing, it has been and will likely always be needed whether a disagreement is the result of blatant cheating, a difference in interpreting the laws, and/or viewing an act differently due to parallax.

Now, whether you believe having captains in such a role is a pie in the sky bad idea or you truly think that people 150 years ago were more honourable than today, the result is the same. We now have separate people, with a distanced bias, in the role of referees and umpires.

Having players on a team, in any capacity was always a bad idea even though the concept was in alignment with the zeitgeist of those seeking personal improvement through the zeitgeist of Muscular Christianity. First and foremost, this was a bad idea that led to lots of problems due to perceived and actual biases. Eventually, in many football codes, these polite debates on how to solve a dispute ended up in good old-fashioned fisticuffs.

When there is a perceived bias to begin with, it is already hard enough to come to a decision over the distance of five yards. Now imagine a situation where a defending side claims that the attacking player stepped out of bounds 90 yards away from the goal, thereby disallowing the points scored but the attacking side claims that there was no such infraction. Do you simply agree to split the difference?

Mind you, in the sports where spectatorship has always been encouraged such as Aussie rules, baseball American and Canadian gridirons, and rugby league, fans have and still do go ballistic over bad decisions and have always been vocally supportive to the home team and dissenting of advantage towards a visiting side.

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©Andy Hooper/ Daily Mail

Let’s take a moment to put ourselves into the shoes of spectators of these times. Imagine, you have travelled, possibly for miles on foot and, if you were wealthy, horseback, to watch a game as part of your one day of the week you did not work to be entertained by the great athletes and get your mind off of your troubles. You show up at the ground and BAM! You find yourself sitting in the freezing rain watching a bunch of guys sitting around practicing their negotiation tactics after every single disagreement! Imagine what spectators were thinking… ‘this is not interesting. I could have gone to a courtroom to watch this. This is not what I want to be doing on my one day off…’

Not only was this gentlemanly ideal tedious for the players but it was awful for the crowds. Though there were times when things became interesting again in cases where punches were thrown and melees occurred but this was not the norm.

You read it here first. You the player and you the fan are to blame for us having referees. Players, you couldn’t work it out amongst yourselves; fans you couldn’t stand watching the players not figure it out! You demanded referees yet today, you both revile those you demanded.

But the history of how we got here is quite fascinating.

If we need referees, who will do it for free? The answer is very few since even the lowest levels and youngest ages of competition in most sports are given some financial incentive.

From the old perspective, if players are not permitted to be paid, why should referees? Some would say there is glory and other gains from being a part of the competition but very little of this for one who officiates. Moreover, it may be needed to ensure fairplay and consistency in the competition.

In sports with an early form of professionalism that was more like subsidised amateurism through “broken time” in work, like rugby league, how much should referees be paid? The status quo has that is held today is exponentially less. Today’s NRL player average is $371,000 whereas the referee’s is around $173,000.

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NRL referees are paid considerably less than the average NRL player ©NRL

If they are paid, and they too are part-time, there should not be an expectation that calls will be made correctly all the time, however, we want them to have the knowledge of full-time professionals without paying them to be because we want the right decision. Clearly, there is a disconnect since, unlike players, referees do not receive the admiration and support of the stands. As such, should we take into account that the referees will cop flack from the crowd for every call regardless of it being right or wrong? If we pay them full-time, why are we not paying our athletes full-time wages? If we are paying our athletes professional wages, and they still make mistakes, should we pay referees full-time as well, and if we do, should they make the same as the athletes?

So many questions and so few words to fit in one article especially since this all comes down to a single point of origin. Whether or not referees are paid enough is a matter of opinion but they are paid less for a job that has arguably higher stakes. Even with video reviews, many would argue that it makes the job easier but it also makes the line even thinner to walk for those that are also obligated to keep the game moving at an enjoyable pace for viewers.

Players couldn’t and still can’t handle refereeing themselves and fans are still as unhappy with the results over 100-150 years later. As a result, we still have a completely inconsistent set of expectations for those charged with the sacred duty in ensuring adherence to the laws and spirit of the game while having them do so for a fraction of the pay.  If we need referees, who will do it for free? The answer is very few since even the lowest levels and youngest ages of competition in most sports are given some financial incentive.

Spencer Kassimir

Slingshot or not: Do the posts need updating in rugby league or union?

Fifty years ago, the NFL changed its uprights to the slingshot shaped ones we know today. Are the rugby codes in need of an update?

Spencer Kassimir

Fifty years ago, the NFL changed its uprights to the slingshot shaped ones we know today. Are the rugby codes in need of an update?

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©orderinchaos

We all know that a ball grounded against the posts is a try in union and no try in league and usually don’t care why. According to my colleague, Dr. Kevin Ball Ph.D. of Victoria University, a less frequently known fact is that grounds utilised by both rugby union and rugby league teams that don’t change the uprights are out of spec with one of the codes. This is because the width for union is 5.6 but only 5.5 for league. This may not sound like much but it is essentially enough for a union player to have successfully made an attempt at goal instead of bouncing off the posts.

But otherwise, why would we want to change our beloved H shaped goalposts?

For those followers of either codes but not the gridiron, it has been 50 years since the NFL switched to the “slingshot” model. Two Americans, retired sports writer/editor Joel Rottman came up with it while staring at his fork along with colleague coach Jim Trimble while having lunch in Canada. Why? Because it would make the game safer and would prevent players from gaining advantage by using the posts to set a pick.

From 1966 onward, the Canadian Football League has used the new shape and from 1967, the NFL has as well. After all, the two were having that fateful lunch in Montreal so why wouldn’t the CFL get it onto the field first?

But, more importantly, the history of how these came to be requires some explaining. Unlike in most countries where professional sport dwarfs that of all others, college football still reigns supreme in America. This was even more so the case in 1920, when the NFL was founded. It used the classic H shaped goalposts and placed them on the goal-line just like in both rugby codes. This is because that was what college football did and college football did it because the origins of the sport are in pre-split rugby. Still this was a long time after the most influential event that split the North American games from their English counterpart. In 1879/1880 the scrimmage/scrummage ceased to be contested and, as a result of ball hogging and boring games, a three down restriction was brought in two years later.

But still, it was not long after that in 1927, the NFL followed suit with college football and retreated the goalposts to the back of the end zone as a way of reducing kicking attempts. This was not to last and in 1933, the NFL decided to make its own rules and moved the posts back up to encourage more kicking due to ties.

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©Unclekevy

But the next step was not entirely linear to the “gooseneck” shape we have today. Until 1967 as exemplified in the AFL-NFL Championship Game (in hindsight referred to as Super Bowl I), the design was changed to that the bottom half of the H was recessed but the top crossbar and top half protruded forward to sit over the goal line.

For those that say the Y shaped NFL style is just too much, maybe this is something rugby folk should be looking at.

No they are not the prettiest but they are 1) safer in reducing collisions at the line 2) prevent players from using them to their advantage and 3) do so without changing the distance needed to be kicked.

However, if the goal is to reduce the amount of goals kicked, we could simply move the current H or even the broken H shaped design to the deadball line.

It is hard to find someone that follows rugby union to say that a game of aerial ping pong that is then won entirely off of penalty goals is more exciting than hard fought tries scored. The National Rugby Championship (NRC) has attempted to change the strategy of coaches in Australia by assigning different values to the goal after try (usually two but now three) and penalty kick (usually three but now two). Whether or not this grows beyond the comp has yet to be determined but it may just go the way of that white card experiment.

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Old NFL goalposts @Packervilleblog

In rugby league, this means that there would be at least eight more metres to kick when trying to break that tie to win in the final seconds of the game. Some find the status quo exhilarating but others would argue that it is 80 hard fought minutes reduced down to who is arbitrarily lucky enough to have the ball in their hands as the buzzer sounds. With a ten-metre retreat, and just two markers off the ruck, it is understandably frustrating since, unlike union, this provides a major advantage to the kicking side.

But what about the Y shaped goal? If we are so keen to keep the goal over the goal line, would it serve a purpose? It provides only one post to come in contact with or to use for advantage and, by design, it is recessed into the in-goal area, which would allow defenders to line up in front of it. Since we are this far down the rabbit hole, there is always the option of suspending the uprights as they do in the Arena Football League (also AFL) though, even with tethers strapping them to the ground, it is likely they will sway in the wind!

It is unlikely that any of the above ideas will ever be put into practice unless a game is being played on a field designed for American football but it is important to note that, though its intended design and use in the CFL is still being felt today as they still sit on the goal line, Rottman and Trimble’s slingshot only maintained its purpose for eight years in the NFL. For all the eight seasons from Super Bowl II through to Super Bowl IX, the wishbone sat up front like it’s Canadian cousin. After that season, the NFL decided there was too much kicking and decided to move them back behind the dead ball line. The idea reducing the number of posts in half for safety while maintaining a goal line stance were no longer needed. As such, if we in the rugby codes are serious about reevaluating the goalposts it is crucial that we establish what we would like to achieve in any sort of changes and, as such should keep this final piece of the puzzle in mind as it has remained unchanged for more than half a century on the gridiron.

Spencer Kassimir

Why are there no athletes with intellectual disabilities in Pyeongchang?

The winter Paralympics continues to amaze with extraordinary feats. It is now time for people with Intellectual disabilities to take part.

Tom Weir

The winter Paralympics continues to amaze with extraordinary feats. It is now time for people with Intellectual disabilities to take part.

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The Winter Paralympics will, for all those watching around the world, continue to push the expectations of what we deem humanly possible. Such is the level of performance on show, the caveat of “for the disabled” or “for people with impairments” isn’t required in the previous sentence. We are fortunately past the time when the simple act of people with varying impairments playing sport was sufficient to garner praise, or even worse, have platitudes thrown around such as “how fantastically brave.” Elite disability sport is now admired against a generalised yardstick of excellence, and is not found wanting. Attitudes and rights for people with disabilities have changed hugely over the last 30 years; feats of athleticism, I would argue, have been a vital part of the reason why.

That sport has the power to change minds and perception of impairment is now openly acknowledged by disability sport organisations. The British Paralympic Association today use the nomenclature of being “a movement,” and openly discuss their intention to use large scale events as a battering ram to advance public perception of people with impairment, through the increasing visibility and excellence of world class sport. This drive for increasingly higher levels has been criticised in some quarters for excluding many of the more severely impaired athletes, alienating the wider disability community, and not providing enough grassroots opportunities. (These problems are often bundled together in the idea of the ‘Paralympic Paradox.’) These not inconsiderable criticisms aside, the fact remains that the Paralympic Games now are a highly visible force changing perceptions of disability. This has occurred however only for those allowed within the tent; namely those with a definable and classifiable physical impairment. Amongst the athletes competing at Pyeongchang there is still no place for those with an Intellectual Disability (ID). It requires a quick delve into history to explain why.

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London 2012 Paralympic Games ©Thomas Davies

From 1948-1976 the Paralympic Games (the the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’) were purely for people with spinal cord injury; owing largely to the domineering figure of their founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann. ID was first part of the Winter Paralympics in 1992; with demonstration events in cross country and alpine skiing. The Barcelona summer games did not include ID athletes, instead a special event for ID athletes was held in Madrid, and at a price, also afforded the Paralympic name tag. Biathlon was added as a further demonstration event in 1994; before Atlanta 1996 and Nagano 1998 saw full medal involvement in a limited number of events. However in 2000, following a cheating scandal where it was revealed the Spanish basketball team had knowingly cheated the classification system in order to win gold, ID athletes were expelled wholesale as an impairment category. Dr Bob Price, head of the British Paralympic Association at the time, described it as an incredibly reluctant move, but unavoidable as the classification system was simply not robust enough. Re-admission was not to come until London 2012, following extensive work to improve the classification system, a crucial part of which is the requirement to quantify that there is a sport specific impact of the impairment, not just the presence of an impairment generally. Athletes with ID have then returned to the Summer Games; but in only 3 of the 21 sports (athletics, swimming and table tennis) in small numbers, and have yet to re-feature in the Winter Games, although it is hoped Cross Country Skiing may be included in 2022.

This exclusion means that ID athletes are missing out on the benefits of the Paralympic Games; for themselves as athletes by not having the highest level to compete at; and for the public perception of Intellectual Disability more generally. That it would be dangerous for ID athletes to compete, or that they would not be capable of the levels of excellence required, can be debunked by the Special Olympics Winter Games which shows that athletes were capable of competing safely, successfully and sufficiently swiftly. (The 2013 Special Olympic World Games incidentally was held in Pyeongchang.) Whilst the Special Olympics have a high profile, especially in America, they are fundamental different in ethos. Their focus on wider inclusion, to some observers, comes at the expense of the ability to significantly change perceptions on disability. And despite both being part of the ‘Olympic Family,’ Special Olympics and Paralympics have shown a reluctance to work together, understandable particularly on the part of Special Olympics, who would not wish to potentially lose their top athletes to other competition. So will ID athletes ever be a full part of the Paralympic games?

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2015 Special Olympics Opening Ceremony ©Eric Garcetti

Enter INAS-FID (The International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability) the most important sport organisation most people have never heard of, who since 1986 have been organising elite competition for athletes with Intellectual Disability. INAS has been integral at developing the eligibility and classification system for ID athletes, and pushed for inclusion in the Paralympics. It was INAS that organised the Madrid 1992 games that were to be so important for the initial inclusion of ID athletes. Following the exclusion of 2000 it was the work of INAS (with considerable support from the IPC) that established sufficiently robust classification systems to allow re-inclusion in 2012. Whilst only athletics, swimming and table tennis are currently in the summer Paralympic Games, the 2019 INAS World Games in Brisbane will showcase a greater number of sports, some of which are prime candidates for inclusion in Tokyo 2020, Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028. As for the winter sports, that the 11th INAS World Alpine and Nordic Skiing Championship have been held in February 2018 in Zakopane, Poland strongly indicates cross country skiing is ready for inclusion.

An invitation to the top table of disability sport really matters; for every athlete with a medal round their neck it is another blow to negative perceptions of people with Intellectual Disabilities. Come the Games of Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 it can be expected that more athletes with ID will be on the Paralympic podium; and the eyes of the world will fall, however briefly, on just how physically able athletes with Intellectual Disability can be.

Further reading:

For more on the issues around classification of ID athletes: Burns, Jan. “The Impact of Intellectual Disabilities on Elite Sports Performance.” International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 8, no. 1 (2015).
Brittain, Ian. The Paralympic Games Explained: Second Edition. Oxon: Routledge, 2016.

Tom Weir

Too Much Change in Sport: The Case of Basketball

Over the years, Basketball has turned itself into a global phenomenon. Is it time to take it that one step further?

Matteo Portoghese

Over the years, Basketball has turned itself into a global phenomenon. Is it time to take it that one step further?

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In modern day sports, federations and authorities do not fear change. Although tradition is still regarded as important, rules and championships formulas are often put under review and adjusted. Reasons are often related to the TV networks’ needs and asks, or they simply want to shape a product, easier to be sold to a wider audience.

But there is always a fine line between flexibility and indifference to history. In the 21st Century, several sports have decided to abolish competitions whose story dated back to the 19th Century, simply because they were considered useless by coaches or too old to the International public. The British Home Championship in football, the Ashes in rugby league, or the FIRA Tournament in rugby union to name a few.

Sports authorities often tend to suppress things instead of adapting them. For example basketball in the past has been very active in changing and modernising tournaments to create a better product. A limited-contact sport played on a rectangular court, it was created by the Canadian physical educator, physician, chaplain, sports coach and innovator James Naismith, who wrote the original rule book and launched its first University program. Originally played with a soccer ball, basketball is currently ranked in the Top 10 List of the World’s Most Popular Sports and is played worldwide, though still struggling in Commonwealth countries.

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European basketball ©Matteo Portoghese

Invented and developed in the US, the game expanded to Europe and other continents, with FIBA (International Basketball Federation) being formed in 1932 by eight founding nations: Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland. Things kept evolving and there has always been a gap between how the game was played in America and how it was played in other areas. This gap was was bigger than the one between European and South American football, rugby union and cricket in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. The National Basketball Association (NBA) and the previous professional leagues developed a game whose style and gameplay grew somehow different than the FIBA one. Differentiation included not only gameplay rules (e.g.: Shot clock, game duration, referees’ attitude towards the traveling rule, etc.) but also the way club seasons were organized, and their schedule. Due to amateur and local games mostly depending on High School and College Sports, Northern American sports never appreciated promotion and relegation, while Europe and South America kept the heartland and local teams system, with regional linked to national leagues and teams transferred between multiple divisions based on their performance for the completed season. Rules of the game become unique and coherent in non-USA tournament, while college and professional leagues in the States kept their system closed to innovations from abroad. As they call World Series the series for their National title in professional Major League Baseball, they sometimes chose to call World Champions the NBA Finals winning team as well, regardless of the winner of the European Cup and the Campeonato Sudamericano de Clubes/ FIBA Americas. Championships in Europe kept P/R, and continental cup competitions looked like their football equivalent.

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European basketball ©Matteo Portoghese

In addition to this, the similarities between basketball and football in Europe included teams being often linked to multi sports club (PBC CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Maccabi Tel Aviv B.C., Panathinaikos B.C., Olympiacos B.C. dominated European Champions Cup together with proper basketball club like the Italian and Yugoslav giants). A European campaign after a National title become routine for big guns like Olimpia Milano or Ignis Varese, while the basketball played on the other side of the Atlantic remained the most viewed and loved by fans all over the world. American players became used to ending their careers in Europe, with the likes of Bob McAdoo, Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin, Darryl Dawkins, Artis Gilmore, etc. all enjoying their basketball in Italy, Greece, etc.

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European basketball ©Matteo Portoghese

But relationships and exchanges between the two sides of the Atlantic grew year after year, with a two-way connection made of coaches and players’ movement few sport can claim. This is the scenario that inspired FIBA, National and private authorities in building an NBA-looking basketball league in Europe. The aim was to maintain stability and push the big clubs from big metropolitan areas (Milan, Berlin. Madrid, Barcelona, Athens, Istanbul,, etc.): EuroLeague now operates under a league system. What have these teams become? A cross between a club and a franchise, I would say: they keep on playing in their local (national) championship but are guaranteed a place in a season-long continental championship: the regular season features a single group with a double round-robin, with he maximum number of games per team increased from 31 (old format) to 37. For instance, If you are Real Madrid or Barcelona you could have to add 37 European matches to a total of 32 Liga ACB games and playoff. The result is very similar to the NBA’s 82 games (41 each home and away) regular season.

Despite strategic plans and the sport’s ability to handle change, club and international basketball first-hand experienced how hard developing and flourishing a non P/R model in Europe can be. As a matter of fact, the 2015–17 FIBA–Euroleague controversy over the control of the premier European-wide professional competition, the threats of suspension of 14 national teams, together with the duplication of continental cups (qualification to the Basketball Champions League is based on sporting merits, famous teams like Lietuvos rytas, Košarkaški klub Partizan, Alba Berlin and Bayern Munich competes in the EuroCup, while FIBA Europe Cup is FIBA’s 2nd level competition) and trophies is creating confusions among fans regarding who plays who and why. Partizan currently competes in the Adriatic League (a private venture, founded in 2001), European basketball and the Serbian league. And of course, it goes without saying that P/R and franchise system do not work very well together (see The Rugby Football Union, who opened to the possibility of getting rid of promotion and relegation in the Premiership).

Basketball is a truly global sport trying to achieve the impossible. But suspension of disbelief could help: leaving aside all the above issues, it can be a great entertaining game. Fixtures like San Antonio v Golden State Warriors, or Fenerbahçe v Olympiacos here in Europe highlight this fact. It would be great if we could have the best teams playing each other for a real and meaningful World Club title.

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James Peters- England Rugby’s first black international

An awe-inspiring tale of perseverance, talent and hard-work to overcome the odds. Here is the amazing story of James Peters.

Tom Weir

An awe-inspiring tale of perseverance, talent and hard-work to overcome the odds. Here is the amazing story of James Peters.

Peters for Bristol (richard boddie)
Peters for Bristol (Richard Boddie provided)

That the England Rugby team 2018 vintage embraces a wide ethnic diversity is barely newsworthy in an increasingly modern and post-racial sport. The West African heritage of the current team’s superstar (and captain in waiting), Maro Itoje, provides a thin thread back in history to England’s very first black player, James Peters.

A ‘pallid blackamore,’ ‘wooly haired mulatto,’ ‘honorary white man’ or simply ‘Darkie Peters.’ Various racially charged epithets were attached to England’s first International sportsman, James Peters, who debuted 112 years ago in the Calcutta Cup of 1906. Underdogs England emerged that day with a 9-3 victory, inspired by their debutante half-back pairing of Peters and Adrian Stoop, (the Stoop of Harlequins legend.) The mixed-race son of an English mother and West Indian Lion-Tamer father, Peters won five caps for England between 1906-1908, despite the disadvantage of being a working class ‘coloured’ man in an elitist game.

Peters could have been a pioneer in the sport just as baseball superstar Jackie Robinson was to prove in the 1940s, leading to the increasingly utilisation of the talent of those with mixed-racial heritage. That he didn’t says something of his own temperament and motivations; as a lover and player of the game, rather than a politician or activist. It also though asks some searching questions about rugby’s willingness historically to integrate, but that is a grand topic for a seperate time. A comprehensive biography of Peters is only now (slowly) being written, but a short biography of Peters provides a glimpse into some of the challenges he faced, from an unwelcoming hierarchy to becoming the first victim of a South African sporting boycott.

Born August 7th 1879 in Salford, the circus dominated Peters’ childhood, where he worked as a bareback rider. Following his father’s untimely demise at the jaws of his lions, Peters was abandoned aged 11, after breaking his arm in a fall. Adopted by Fegan’s children’s home in London, he proved a ‘champion athlete,’ with his love of rugby kindled by watching the local Blackheath Club.

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A young Peters (Tom Weir contributor provided)

 

Having outgrown the orphanage in 1898 he moved to Bristol, excelling for Dings, Bristol and by 1902 the Somerset County team. Despite obvious ability, Peters was to experience that talent was not always colourblind. He was ‘a pallid blackamore…keeping a white man out the team,’ declared ‘naive [displaying] some of the worst half back play ever witnessed,’ whilst a protesting committee member reportedly resigned. Yet, for every example of prejudice were those acknowledging his talent; notably Dings who deigned him an honoured guest at club dinners. His 1902 move to Plymouth, precipitated his starring role in the Country Championship winning Devon sides, and led to a growing clamour for international recognition. There were however additional obstacles beyond his ‘dusky’ skin. Peters was a carpenter not a gentleman, an unforgivable affront for some, given the animosity lingering from the 1895 schism with the ‘Northern Union’ over professionalism.

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Peters (Back right) in the Orphanage team photo (Tom Weir contributor provided)

With his continued exclusion from the first 1906 home international against Wales The Western Times thundered: ‘Peters is sacrificed. Colour is the difficulty… pity for the chances of the English success.’ England losses to Wales and Ireland, combined with untimely appendicitis for incumbent half-back Dai Gent, led to Peters’ opportunity. He seized it masterfully, praised both individually and for his combination with Stoop. The following week a 35-8 rout of France was notable both for Peters’ try-scoring effort and France’s inclusion of two black players: Andre Verges and Georges Jerome, from French Guiana. Despite his successes selection against England’s next opposition, South Africa, was ruled impossible owing in part to the events around Devon’s fixture against the Springboks on October 17th 1906.

This game has spawned the most frequently repeated myth around Peters: that the Springboks refused to leave their changing room, protesting Peters’ selection, only finally persuaded out by their High Commissioner. It is a compelling legend featuring a blameless hero, contemptible foreign villains, all played out in front of the fanatical crowd. Yet the story is, at best, highly embellished. It owes more to South Africa’s late 20th century status as international pariahs than any contemporary historical evidence, (their High Commissioner was in fact in Durban!) Yet racial antipathy certainly marred the game. Springbok Bob Loubster’s memoir describes the ‘Boks attempts to injure Peters, whilst diary extracts and newspaper columns declaim how unhappy the tourists were mixing with ‘kaffirs.’ The irony that these same Springboks entered the field with a ‘Zulu War Cry,’ appears somewhat lost.

The Springboks were spared further embarrassment. Although there is no definitive documented proof of their deliberation, balance of evidence point to the RFU selection committee choosing to exclude him from international consideration. Despite being fit, in form and incumbent in the shirt, Peters was not selected for either of the two trial games. Whilst arguably Peters lost out to more talented halfbacks in final selection; Raphael Jago and Stoop; racial motives loom apparent in having denied him even a sporting chance.

PFH 2.5.1908 p.2 man of the year
Peters named ‘Man of the Year’ (Tom Weir contributor provided)

His non-selection went beyond simple sporting considerations. Scheduled five years after a bitter civil war, in which four Springboks had fought on opposite sides, the tour party deliberately mixed both English and Boer settlers, intending to symbolise the new South Africa. Playing against Peters divided opinion within the Springbok team. Had he played the chances of a unified team returning were greatly diminished. The case for the RFU excluding Peters, although never morally right, thus proved overwhelming.

Peters won three further caps in 1907 and 1908, however hardship continued to stalk him. Losing three fingers to a workplace accident in 1910 forced him into early sporting retirement. Making light of the injury, he attempted a return, only to be banned as a professional for receiving money from a testimonial by an unsympathetic RFU. In 1913 he ‘went north,’ representing Barrow and St Helens before retiring in 1914 and returning to raise his family in Plymouth. His passing in 1954 is recorded with little fanfare, logged in The Times with a short paragraph.

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James Peters resting place (Tom Weir contributor provided)

In contrast to Jackie Robinson, and other celebrated pioneering black sportsmen, Peters’ story had all but vanished. His England caps were more an anomaly than a watershed, with a full 80 years passing before England’s next black International, Chris Oti. Peters proved one of the unlikely beneficiaries of the Stuart Lancaster era, with his story used to inspire and holding particular resonance for the Vunipola brothers. England fans would hope history repeats itself with victory again over their oldest enemy, 112 years after Peters’ inspired debut against Scotland. That this is achieved by a racial rainbow of a team would, i hope, be a source of pride for Peters.

Tom Weir