Sporting Outliers

This harsh Australian sun is set to beat down upon us over the next week or so, with various sporting competitions – the Australian Open tennis, for one – set to cop the brunt of it. So should we assume that he/she who can best handle the soaring temperatures will likely take out the crown?

I have always been interested in how climate shapes international athletes. Obviously, the English cricket team (the few players that have actually grown up in England) is used to cold, blustery conditions, and as we have seen quite recently, will struggle in 40-degree conditions in the middle of the Australian summer.

Having lived in England, this inability to handle extreme weather patterns extends to the general public; English people will bust out the baby oil at the slightest hint of sunlight so as to let those rare rays of sunshine wash over their pallid, pasty skin. But when the mercury rises past 30, the faint sound of ambulances can be heard across the land. In terms of cricket, however, this English weather, with his high-level of precipitation, lends itself to  “green-tops,” suitable for medium-pace seam bowling (read: mediocre bowling). Obviously, the harder, bouncier Australian wickets lend themselves to faster, more hostile bowling.

Conversely, freezing temperatures are conducive to scrummaging – and no-one can deny that Northern Hemisphere rugby countries (and let’s throw New Zealand in there because it’s cold as shit over there) tend to have a superior forward pack than the Wallabies, whose front row has always paled in comparison. On a more obvious level, Canadians are good at snow-boarding and ice-hockey, while Sub-Saharan Africans are pretty good at running long distances in bare-feet on hot soil. Weather is everything when it comes to sport; athletes are certainly shaped by the weather conditions they grew up in.

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Having recently re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal book, Outliers, I started thinking about which athletes have managed to excel in a sport – or a specific competition – where the conditions are most foreign to them. Gladwell’s book strives to explain the phenomenon of the ‘outlier’, arguing that any success story has enjoyed a series of fortunate events – combined with hard work – that has led them to the top. However, here I’m mostly interested in how certain athletes have managed to overcome a non-negotiable – such as climate – and still excel in their chosen sport.

If you take the Tour de France, for instance, you would imagine that the competition is dominated by Europeans – and the French in particular, given their home advantage. The rolling hills, warm summer conditions and home-town support all indicate a strong home advantage, but in reality, the last 20 years have seen a number of different nationalities emerge. Germans, Irish, Americans (Lance Armstrong included, I guess) and, of course, one Australian: Cadel Evans.

Cadel, against the odds

Evans is a former cross-country mountain biker who made the switch to competition cycling some 12 years ago. He grew up in Australia, where long-distance cycling is mostly reserved for 40-year-old male lycra fetishists who work in IT/accounting. More specifically, he grew up in the Northern Territory town of Katherine, a small-ish town which – and I’m going out on a limb here – is probably yet to embrace Clover Moore’s pro-bike lane policies. The arid land and the weather itself could not be less European, which is why Evans’ ascent to Tour de France glory in 2011 was such an epic achievement.

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Cool Runnings was a mid-1990s feel-good movie, somewhat based on real-life events, that tapped into society’s love for hilarious Jamaican accents. That, juxtaposed with an unexpectedly dramatic performance by John Candy, equaled obvious box office success.

The premise, mildly racist in its execution, was this: Jamaicans are basically rum-swilling, cricket-loving larrikins and therefore inherently unsuited to the technically challenging winter sport of bob-sled racing, which requires European-like precision and a steely, focused mindset. But, with a bit of luck and a white coach, they too can rise to the unlikely heights of Olympic success.

Heart-warming and mildly racist

I have no idea why the fuck these Jamaicans decided it was a good idea to create a bob-sled team (although if I watched the movie again, I’d probably discover that they were all former athletes who were not good enough at their chosen sport and thus turned to bob-sledding, which today would be one of the greatest PR moves ever and likely inspire an ESPN documentary or two). But they were never going to succeed because a) there is likely a severe lack of winter sport infrastructure on that particular West Indian island; b) there is no history of bob-sledding in Jamaica; c) the weather there is (quite obviously) hot and therefore not conducive/suitable to winter sport activities.

For some reason, humans (read: white people) have always been interested in whether black people, with their “fast-twitch fibres,” “muscular structure,” “bone density,” can succeed at what are seen as historically “white” sports. It can only be the lack of exposure to certain elements, however, that Africans have yet to dominate the pool, or the half-pipe, for that matter. Forget the academic anthropological explanations – it’s because “we” live here and “they” live there that we are good at “our” sports, and they at “theirs.” If they had the elements, their bodies would adapt, over time, to those elements. Darwin’s Theory and all that jazz.

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Tennis, for mine, is rare, in that you’d think climate would play a greater role in determining which athletes rise to the top and which fall by the wayside. I guess, that given the globalisation of sport in general, with Russian-born athletes camping out in US desert-based tennis academies during their formative years – it is possible for those from the colder climates to succeed in tournaments such as the Australian Open. Additionally, tennis appears to be mostly a summer sport, with tennis players capable of adjusting to their environment more easily than other athletes, perhaps.

Kournikova. Played tennis, briefly.

But aside from cricket, where pitches, subject to weather changes, breed a certain style of play; and rugby, where muddy, wet-under-foot conditions lend themselves to a more forward-oriented game plan – I am not certain if historical weather conditions play a major part in sporting outcomes anymore. Certain climates obviously breed athletes of a certain type – African swimmers are as rare as white English 100m runners – but when it comes to the crunch, if you’re good enough to make it to the top, then you’re good enough to match it with the rest.

That said, it’s going to be fucking hot out there at Rod Laver Arena over the next two weeks.  Who do you think will take out the crown? Will it be someone from the warmer Mediterranean-style climates or, perhaps, someone from who hails from the frosty Swiss Alps? Or will it be a lanky lad from the Gold Coast with a history of minor traffic offences and a father who is shaping up as Damir Dokic 2.0?

Dave Edwards


Drugs In Sport: Who Isn’t On A Bit Of Gear?

My father came home the other night from a boozy dinner with some mates and regaled me with a reasonably interesting but somewhat spurious conversation he had with some bloke at the table.

This friend of his has had a long and distinguished career in the medical industry and has, he assured my dad, intricate and inside knowledge of what certain supplements and drugs can do to the human body. Thus, he felt equipped to make the following sweeping statement: “All elite athletes are on some form of performance enhancing drug, I guarantee it.”

The comments follow the public shaming of Olympic sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, who recently recorded positive drug tests. And this bloke, presumably rinsed after a bottle of Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon (2005) told my dad that “Usain Bolt will be next, you watch!”

Is it just a matter of time before drug authorities pick up their game and manage to stamp out all forms of doping, or will athletes continue to dodge their way to glory? Must we now take each world record with a pinch of salt, and hold off on the post-race medal ceremony until each still-sweating athlete has emptied their bladder into a vial and waited 1-2 weeks for the results to come in? Will Vincent Chase’s extreme efforts to beat a drug test catch on in the NRL, for example?

ASADA had the “audacity” to wake up Jonathan Thurston at 6am last week – and his freshly born baby, too, mind you – for a random drug test. We were all outraged at this invasion of privacy, but is this what it has come to? Instead of innocent until proven guilty, should we reverse this age-old adage entirely?

As sporting consumers, we’ve been burnt too many times before. We’ve celebrated the achievements of Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong, only to find out that they’d both been on the gear for years, lying their way into the hearts of millions and cashing in on their artificially aided success.

Even today, it has emerged that Australian cyclist Stuart O’Grady took EPO before the 1998 Tour de France, mere days after announcing his retirement to a groundswell of adulation. In his defence, I’m pretty sure every single cyclist from Lance Armstrong down to your uncle who rides to work was on a bit of performance enhancing gear in 1998. I mean, the first, second and third-placed finishers in the ’98 Tour were all found to have been on EPO.

Do we deserve better?

“Rock on, bitches.”

Following a recent ruling in the Senate, ASADA will be able to demand phone records, text messages, documents and medical prescriptions of players and others, regardless of whether those pieces of evidence are self-incriminatory. But besides all the big talk, ASADA has not given a timeframe for when its investigation into a number of NRL players and personnel will be completed. 

Some people say that you should throw the book at drug cheats, others suggest that the book should be thrown out entirely and athletes should be given open slather. Former sprinter Ato Boldon has even called for stimulants to be legalised, which to be honest, would stop all this rubbish about “1-percenters.”

Until there’s a decision one way or the other, there remains a cloud over pretty much every professional sportsman in the country. What’s more, blokes pissed on a bottle of red will continue to shoot their mouths off at dinner parties regarding the ubiquity of drugs in sport – and they might be closer to the truth than we’d like them to be.

By Dave Edwards


Blaming The ‘Fishbowl’ For Everything

The details aren’t out yet – and they don’t really need to be – but already journalists are hypothesising that Ben Barba’s downfall is due to the ‘fishbowl existence’ he leads.

That a “shy, retiring” boy from the country has been swept up in his own stardom and the alluring bright lights of the evil, exotic temptress that is Sydney. That this flashy, vacuous metropolis has mercilessly corrupted the naive youngster and exposed him to demonic vices like gambling, alcohol and fast women with the loosest of morals.

Now Ben Barba obviously has some issues and it’s a good thing that they’re being addressed. It is a bold move by the Canterbury Bulldogs to indefinitely suspend their best player – presumably on paid leave – and it does demonstrate a level of understanding that many civilians could only dream for from their employers. Obviously, his high-profile status means that this will all be played out in the public spotlight, but if it raises awareness of certain issues and he can come out the other side a better person, then that’s undoubtedly a positive outcome for everyone involved.

The alluring bright lights of Sydney

But I think it’s interesting how often the ‘fishbowl existence’ is being blamed for the downfall of athletes who have come from a small town and made it big in the city.

I am not a high-profile anything, so I have no idea about this so-called fishbowl. But from what I can gather, it basically refers to everyone wanting a piece of you. It’s the incessant media attention, the constant adulation from fans in the street – and on the flipside, the unwanted scorn from punters who think they’ve got the right to tell you exactly what they think of you. Moving from a small country town in Queensland where everyone’s got your back to, as Robert Craddock puts it, the “sizzling epicentre of rugby league,” must take some adjustment.

But people have been moving to cities for years, in search of a better life, despite the inevitable hurdles they’re set to encounter along the way. In fact, Steinbeck put it best when he wrote that in the eyes of the hungry there is a “growing wrath.” In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. 

It is increasingly difficult, however, to draw parallels between the Joad family as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, and the modern rugby league player. The Joad family persisted – along with thousands of similarly hopeful Oakies – in their epic struggle across America to reach the fabled, fruitful state of California, much like the Group 14 rugby league player makes the pilgrimage from Coonabarabran to Sydney in search of a trial with the Roosters.

However, while the Joads find life tough in California – due in no small part to the animosity of locals, the oversupply of labour and the general absence of employee rights – the rugby league player who makes it to Sydney suddenly gets everything he dreamed of. Suddenly, a big paycheck comes in every week – and you’ve got plenty of spare time to figure out what to spend it on. Nightclubs in Sydney appear more alluring than the local country pub, and you cut the line to slap it up with the Polynesian doorman who says he has a brother who played with one of your new teammates in Jersey Flegg. And while women don’t necessarily know who you are, they’re nonetheless intrigued by the bordering-on-homoerotic male attention you’re receiving in the bars; blokes buying you drinks, taking their photo with you. You’re loved by everyone, as long as you’re playing good footy.

Naturally, you’ll form a tight friendship with John Ibrahim

This can all flip in an instant, though. One nasty comment – be it racist or otherwise – and the party is over. And it’s all over the Daily Telegraph the next day.

I think the first time I ever heard the phrase ‘fishbowl existence’ was when Barry Hall said he moved to Sydney to escape the pressures of playing for St Kilda in the AFL-mad city of Melbourne. But since then, I feel it has been used exponentially as something of a scapegoat; not just in Australia, too, but internationally. Young NFL recruits must quickly adapt to this new-found notoriety, as must any promising young college basketballer.

Is there any way around this? Or is this a form of Groundhog Day? Will young talented athletes from country towns continue to fall victim to the perils of urban life in an unforgiving city? I’m sure NRL clubs do try their best to ease young rural players into the spotlight – I’ve heard that many teams conduct mandatory tutorials on how to handle yourself in public, for instance – but perhaps this is just a sad and inherent reality of life, of rural-to-urban migration?

rural-to-urban migration, a tough transition

I have no doubt that Barba’s issues could have been dealt with privately while he continued to play football, but his high-profile drove the Bulldogs to proactively play his crisis out through the media. It seems that, had they not, some scurrilous journalist would have fueled the rumour mill in a tabloid column by saying ‘Barba was seen out at 3am at *insert place with pokies*’, quoting unnamed witnesses, etc. Had the Bulldogs not acted on this now, perhaps it would have all ended in the form of a public apology after a highly publicised incident, ala the Andrew Johns scenario.

It’s a shame that the “face of the NRL” will probably not lace a boot this season, but it’ll help him in the long run. But this isn’t the last time you’ll hear of a young footy player failing to negotiate the “fishbowl existence.”

By Dave Edwards