Horses have never really liked me ... this one has just caught on.

Horses have never really liked me … this one has just caught on.

Last week I was invited by collaborators to attend the Nomaoi horse festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima. This festival dates back 1000 years, to the warring states (sengoku) period, and appears to have arisen from some kind of training ritual. It was cancelled in the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake but has otherwise been held every year, even during the war (as far as I know). It is a big event for the towns of Soma and Minamisoma, and I and other collaborators were invited as guests of our local project collaborator. He arranged us excellent seats for all the events, souvenirs and a formal dinner, so overall it was an excellent event. It’s a major tourism event for the town, but it’s also clearly of huge importance for the town itself, with (I think) this year 504 horses and riders participating, and probably an equal number of footmen.

Summoning the beasts

Summoning the beasts

The ceremony lasts three days, but I only saw the second day. This day starts with a parade through town by the samurai, all mounted on their horses and wearing their ceremonial armour. They are arranged in groups according to their sponsors: the most important sponsors are the three shrines that are the focus of the day, but other groups – suburbs, companies, etc. – can also sponsor a squad. The squads are arranged in the style of the armies of old, with a general, colonels, etc. Higher orders wear flags on their backs, and ride ornately decorated horses. They stop at regular intervals along the parade to announce their purpose, and occasional small dramas of military life are played out (with comedic overtones) during these moments.

A peasant's last sight

A peasant’s last sight

This parade is surprising for the amount of activity it involves – in addition to general’s conferences, there are occasionally lieutenants charging up and down the line, drummers announcing the arrival of a new squad, announcements of names and faces over a loud-speaker, and occasional tumbles – I saw one man thrown from his horse, and the people opposite me nearly got run down. The riders are all ages and sexes and all classes – I saw one of my collaborators (an internal surgeon) on horseback, followed soon after by a heavily made-up girl who would probably be judged to be pretty low-class by the locals (I’m not a good judge of these things). Very elderly men rode by on plodding draught horses, followed by children on ponies. The trappings were largely traditional, with the stirrups, saddles and girth all apparently modeled on the ancient fashion. We’ll come back to that …

After the parade we returned, with military precision, to our base camp for a 10 minute rest, and then headed to the racecourse. Here, the braver warriors gathered to race each other around a 1000m circuit as a huge crowd watched. This racecourse would also be the venue for the final battle, so I was to spend several hours here in our covered tent, enjoying my obento lunchbox and my free beer, and watching warriors try to kill themselves.

The battleground and warriors in transit

The battleground and warriors in transit

I say “kill themselves” because the races were incredibly dangerous. I watched 6 races, with 6 participants per race, and out of the 36 participants identified the following events:

  • 3 fallen riders
  • 2 hospitalized riders
  • 4 escaped horses
  • 1 injured horse

Fun for all the family! The riders fell because they were hurtling around a tight track on horses without proper stirrups, with massive flags strapped to their backs. The horse fell because it tripped over its rider. No one was wearing a helmet. This is the most dangerous festival I have ever seen in Japan, by a long shot, and with an injury rate of 1 per 12 participants would have to be one of the most injury-prone sports I have ever seen. It was at times quite hideous to watch.

Finally after the races were (mercifully) finished we got to enjoy the final battle. This battle is a mad scramble to catch flags falling from the sky, in which all the (surviving) samurai gather in the centre of the racecourse and charge after the flags. The flags are, of course, hurled aloft by fireworks, shot out of a kind of mortar, that explode with a huge roar high above the gathered horses. Standing on the hillside, I could look behind me to some of the resting horses and see how they panic when the fireworks cracked. Horses and fireworks mix so well, why not start a battle with a massive explosion? And then do it 10 times? The warriors compete for 40 flags, fired into the air over 10 bouts. I left after 4 bouts, and in that time I saw two warriors fall from their horses – and when they landed they were still wrestling over the flag they had caught. Now that’s commitment …

Capture the flag, samurai style

Capture the flag, samurai style

This festival is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining event, well worth taking the opportunity to view. It’s edgy, exciting and historical, and everyone gathered there is really involved. I strongly recommend, if you’re in Japan at the end of July, making a trip to Minamisoma to experience this unique Japanese event. Just don’t participate if you value your life!


The Olympic athletics are mostly done and dusted, and Usain Bolt, having won 100m and 200m gold, has proclaimed himself “the greatest athlete to live.” This status can’t have been earned through sheer numerical power, since on numbers alone Bolt would be well down the medal list – five gold medals at two Olympics is nothing special and certainly can’t eclipse Carl Lewis’s nine gold over four olympics. It can’t be the act of retaining a title over two successive olympics, since Ian Thorpe did that, and in any case it’s not really comparable with sports like Judo where one can only compete in one weight division at one Olympics. By the measure of defending golds in at least one event for which one is eligible to compete, Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho are far superior – they have defended gold at three olympics and seven and nine world championships respectively, and Kaori Icho has not lost for 150 or more matches. It can’t be through achieving perfection in one’s sport, since Nadia Comaneci did that in 1976 when she scored a perfect 10 (in fact she won seven 10s in total in that olympics). Ms. Comaneci also went on to win five golds, defend her beam performance at the next olympics, is credited with her own special moves, and is the only person ever to receive the Olympic Order twice). It can’t be for being the youngest person to break a record – again, Nadia Comaneci did that and, according to her wikipedia entry, it’s now impossible to legally break that record. Bolt didn’t break any records until he was 21.

I guess gymnastics just isn’t that special. That might explain why Japanese TV insisted on showing the 100m final even though no Japanese person was competing – imagine how little time they would have to showcase Japanese athletes if they had to broadcast the final of every event! In fact they don’t, so it must be that the 100m and 200m are really special.

This confuses me. I don’t understand what’s special about sprinting. It’s obviously impressive and important – like all athletics – but does it compare with any of the other major events in the Olympics? Compare it with synchronized swimming, for example, which is a genuinely impressive sport in which great talent is combined with challenging physical technique as well as artistic merit. Could Usain Bolt sprint in perfect lockstep with the rest of his Jamaican team? Could he do push-ups while holding his breath? Could he hoist one of his other team members into the air for a perfect backflip with a peg on his nose after doing hold-your-breath push-ups for 30 seconds? Come to think of it, could he even complete a 100m race while maintaining a perfectly fixed smile? Synchronized swimming often gets a bum rap, but if you look past the rigid smiles and scary make up, it’s actually a sport that requires amazing talent, focus and attention to detail, and the women who do it obviously have impressive backgrounds in swimming, ballet and gymnastics.

So what is so special about sprinting? Putting aside for the moment the fact that all of these sports are a complete waste of time and space, is there anything about sprinting that makes it different to weight-lifting, hammer-throwing or the marathon? Do you have to do it from childhood, like gymnastics? Does it require skills from multiple disciplines, like rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming? Is there a risk of death if you do it wrong, as in diving, gymnastics or horse-riding? Does it require a special and intense team spirit to complete even the simplest of moves, like volleyball?

I think the Daily Mash puts Bolt’s achievement into a little more historical perspective:

Helen Archer, from Stevenage, added: “Usain Bolt just ‘practices’ running every day and, one assumes, eats a lot of macaroni and stays off the tabs.

“Perhaps the Pope should commission a new ceiling from him. Let’s see what that does to his ego.

“Once he’s finished, perhaps he could point at it in his trademark style.”

I think that puts Bolt’s “legend” status into a little perspective. Imagine if Einstein, receiving his Nobel prize in 1921, had said “I’m the greatest scientist to live.” Even rock stars tend to eschew this kind of stupidity. Freddie Mercury just said “I always knew I was a star,” but he never managed to get to the point of observing the obvious truth, that he was the greatest performer ever to live.

It’s probably a reasonable truism to live by, that if what you’re about to say outstrips Freddie Mercury, Oscar Wilde and Mohammed Ali in its arrogance, you shouldn’t say it. I’ll give you that tip for nothing, Usain Bolt. In exchange, could you tell me why I should value sprinting more than synchronized swimming?

Twelve days into the Olympics and 75% of Japan’s gold medals are due to women winning combat sports: one judo and two wrestling. One female wrestler, Kaori Icho, has completely dominated her sport for the last 12 years – she is the first Japanese woman to win three gold medals in a row, has won the world championships seven times, and has not lost a bout for more than 150 matches. During last night’s coverage the commentators were saying that they have never seen her lose, and don’t know how she would react.

Given the popular image of Japan as a sexist place, it’s genuinely surprising to see women’s participation in sport and the acceptance of women in a wide range of activities that in the west are largely reserved for men. The degree to which this process is normalized, accepted or encouraged is most evident in the olympics coverage, because it’s not just that the women are given air time – the coverage of women’s sport has been excellent. When a Japanese woman is competing in a combat sport, they don’t just flick from some irrelevant men’s sport to cover her bout – they give uninterrupted coverage on the main channel for the entire tournament, which meant last night I watched two hours of uninterrupted wrestling, and I’ve seen multiple hours of women’s judo. Furthermore, they bring a female expert from the sport into the studio to do analysis and coverage, and the male commentators show obvious deference to her expertise. The women’s soccer (the biggest contender for gold number five) is covered on the national TV channel by an excellent woman (I haven’t caught her name) from a previous generation’s soccer team, who provides analysis and detailed commentary that would make Australia’s Craig Foster proud. The wrestling has similar coverage, from a previous champion, and the same applies to other sports where women are playing. Essentially, from the top of the channel down to ordinary people in bars and living rooms across the land, women’s participation in sport is shown the same respect as men’s – with, perhaps, the notable exception of the soccer federation, which oversaw a notable blunder in which the women’s team flew economy in the same plane that the men’s team (who are eternal losers) flew first class. This extends to participation in ordinary sports centres too – quite often my own kickboxing class in Tokyo will have as many women as men participating.

It could be said that this is just an olympics sport phenomenon, reflective of the fact that the women are excelling in combat sports and combat sports are the Japanese public’s favourite activity. But it’s not limited to sport. On the train channels at the moment are a slew of adverts featuring pretty mainstream-looking non-nerdy women playing computer games, and computer gaming is seen as a completely reasonable activity for girls to engage in. It’s really common here to see young women fiddling with portable came consoles and fooling around in gaming arcades, and most gaming companies have developed games aimed at women, or are looking for ways to market their main games to a growing female market.

Another area in which women’s participation is encouraged and accepted is that most macho of western domains, beer drinking. Advertisements for beer here are completely devoid of macho images of working men, but instead have couples enjoying time together, but beyond that there are a whole slew of adverts aimed purely at women: no men in the scene, no evidence that beer has anything to do with men. I recall reading years ago that John Singleton (a famous advertising mogul in Australia) said that there were three key things that had to be in a beer ad to make it successful: 1) a man, 2) a beer, 3) a man drinking a beer. Not so in Japan, not at all.

But the most striking example of this equality of participation is in that most male-dominated of hobbies, role-playing. In my 5-10 attendances at conventions in rural Japan I noticed that about a third of the group were women, and I also noticed that women would GM games and would also be deferred to by men (including GMs!) as experts on a particular game – when I played Make You Kingdom the GM deferred regularly to a female player on rules issues. Recently, playing 13th Age in the Akihabara gaming shop Yellow Submarine, there were five or six gaming tables and every one except ours had at least one woman participating – except for one table, which was occupied by five women of about the same age as me playing Double Cross. Those women must have been in the hobby for as long as it’s been going on, which suggests that role-playing has always been popular with women. To the best of my knowledge this level of female participation in role-playing is unheard of in the west – in the UK when I gamed at a pub, there would be maybe 40 men and every couple of weeks one woman would turn up – and she would be stared at like a freak. It’s extremely hard to find women at any organized gaming events in the west, though you can get women interested if you recruit them through friendship circles, etc. But here in Japan it’s normal to see women playing. They’re still a minority, but not a tiny minority, and clearly their participation is seen as normal by the boys.

When people comment on gender inequality in Japan they tend to overlook many facets and nuances of gender relations here, but it really frustrates me when they overlook this aspect of Japanese life, or when they single out a single event like the first class soccer controversy as evidence of some deep problem – especially when that kind of controversy happened in Australia too, where women would generally consider themselves to have very few equality issues still to resolve. But in sport, in nerd activities, and in beer drinking women’s participation is both encouraged and seen as normal in this country. For role-playing, particularly, this is a fascinating and eye-opening insight into how far western gaming still has to come in encouraging openness and diversity of participation. In both the nerdy and the sporting worlds, maybe Japan has something to teach the west about gender equality?

UPDATE (12/8/2016): The last few days this post has received a lot of new hits, the first time it’s been noticed in 4 years, and this is obviously because the judo is on at the Rio Olympics. I’d just like to say that this year there seems to be a lot less of the faffing I discuss below – a lot more victories on real points, lots of ippon, and few refereeing decisions. Also Japan has won a gold and lots of bronze, which is nice. So I guess sometime in the past 4 years the Judo authorities must have had a good long think about how to make their sport more interesting. I wonder if UFC forced them to reconsider …? Anyway, if you’re reading this post now, please bear in mind that some of these complaints don’t apply as much to the judo you’re watching – whatever reason you came here after watching judo at the 2016 olympics, it was worse in 2012!!

On Thursday the Yahoo Japan news service began a countdown to the first Olympics ever in which no male competitor won Judo gold. Watching the olympics from Japan means I have been exposed to a feast of judo competition, and it has been very exciting. It has also, however, been extremely frustrating and at times boring, because there seem to be a few serious problems with the way judo bouts are conducted. The frustrations boil down to basically two main complaints: almost everyone wins on penalties rather than technique; and judge’s decisions are extremely opaque. There’s something vaguely wrong with winning gold medal because of accumulated penalties, rather than anything you actually did, and it’s also frustrating to watch someone hurled to the ground by a moderately well-applied throw, only to have it come to nothing. This is especially frustrating because one well-applied throw (ippon) wins the match no matter how many not-quite-so-good throws the opponent has applied, even if the effective results of the throws are in both cases essentially the same. In essence, the points awarded to a move are based not on how much it damages the opponent but on how well it was applied.

Having a history in kickboxing, this seems like a very strange idea to me. You don’t win knockouts in kickboxing by kicking someone more beautifully than they kicked you. A knockout should be objectively determined by the opponent’s inability to continue fighting, not by a dubious judgment about whether the technique was better applied than the previous move. Also, one should be able to lose a fight through accumulation of minor infringements, especially since the minor infringements incurred during the Olympic bouts largely seemed to be “stalling.” It doesn’t just make the fights sometimes boring to watch, it makes the end of the fight frustrating, I don’t think it encourages players not to stall, it doesn’t reward the best players, it puts too much weight on split-second decisions by judges, and I think it reduces the amount of technique put on display. I think judo could be made more interesting and pleasurable to watch (and maybe better to participate in too), though enacting a few changes to make it flow a bit more like boxing…

  1. Move to multiple rounds: A single five minute round, with a subsequent three minute “golden score” round, simply encourages stalling and thus the accumulation of penalties. Wrestling for five minutes is enormously physically demanding, and attempting even one serious throw (or getting out of one serious attempt at a hold) can take it out of even the fittest of people. A 30 second break between two three minute bouts would discourage stalling, since it would enable the fighters to take a break after herculean efforts, but it would also give them an opportunity to consult with their coach, regroup mentally, and consider weak points in their fighting. This would make moves in the second round much more effective. Given most bouts go to a three minute golden round at present, all bouts could simply be set up as three, three-minute rounds with no golden score, and the audience would get to enjoy not just fresh fighters in the second and third rounds, but changes of tactic as the fighters consult during breaks
  2. Knockouts should be objective: It should not be possible to score a knockout win if the opponent is not actually knocked out. Holding someone down for 25 seconds, doing a particularly beautiful throw, all good things but completely irrelevant to victory. A knockout should be either a submission hold forcing the opponent to tap out, or a choke that knocks them unconscious. Anything else should just be points in the bag, and there should be no points for holding someone down for 25 seconds – what’s the purpose of that? Players should only be holding each other down on the ground for the purpose of getting a submission hold – if they can’t get one on after a judicious period of time the referee should break them up and restart the fight. That will stop this kind of silliness.
  3. Move to a boxing-style points system: Rather than having categories of points that don’t interact (ippon, waza-ari, yuko), throws and failed submission holds should be scored on arithmetically accumulating points (1 for a partial effort, 2 for a beautiful effort), and any bout that doesn’t end in a knockout should be judged on the sum of these points, like boxing. This shift, more than anything else involving penalties, will put an end to stalling, because if players know that two imperfectly-executed throws will count as much as one beautiful throw, they will try harder to use techniques instead of fiddling with one another’s collars for three minutes while they try to put on that perfect match-winning throw. It’s a simple fact of fighting that every attempted attack sets you up for a counter, and if you know that by putting yourself out there you make it easier for your opponent to win the match with just one throw, you won’t act until you’re certain. The result of all this faffing around is the accrual of penalties, and fights won on penalties. A point-style system won’t stop this kind of silliness, but it will at least encourage application of judo techniques during the actual bout.
  4. Penalties should not win fights: except in extreme cases, obviously, but penalties should only make the difference in a close fight (except perhaps safety penalties). I personally think penalties for stalling should not exist (except in the most egregious of cases), because fighting can be a thinking woman’s sport, and people shouldn’t be penalized for having a counter-attacking style or for taking their time against an opponent with longer reach or different techniques. No one wants to watch a fight with no moves being made, but no one wants to watch a fight where the competitors are going through the motions to avoid a penalty even though they’re both dead on their feet.
  5. Take the judging away from the referee: The referee can’t see all angles of the battle, but it’s the referee who currently decides whether a move is ippon or waza-ari or yuko. Sure, the ringside judges can interfere but to a large extent judging is currently done by the referee. I think this will just lead to bad decisions. A panel of three judges, watching from different angles, should decide all points-related issues, and the referee should adjudicate on the fighting stuff – whether to break up foes who have gone to ground, whether a move was unsafe, etc.
  6. Ditch the prissiness and bullying: Several times I watched a fight actually being interrupted so that the referee could tell a contestant to do up their belt. This seems amazingly prissy to me, and it’s a mark of a sport that is obsessed with its traditions. These athletes are at the top of their field in the world, they train really hard and work with extreme discipline to get into this event, where they get in trouble for even a few seconds of time wasting no matter how exhausted they are – but the referee can stop the fight to worry about their belts. I think that’s plainly quite insulting and it strikes me as a hallmark of the kind of bullying that is endemic in the “traditional” martial arts. I also notice that the ringside judges point at each other when they are discussing a disagreement, and some team coaches clearly have a very bad attitude towards discipline – I watched one telling scene where a French woman won her bout, and upon reaching the edge of the mat received a blistering earful of abuse from her coach. That’s not how you inspire athletes and its not how you make a sport into a spectacle. So ditch the fussing about uniforms and tradition, and treat it for what it is – a sport that should be conducted in a way that makes it fun for participants and viewers alike. Speaking of which …
  7. Mouthguards and groinguards should be mandatory: I watched a German woman in a state of panic after copping a hand to the face, because she wasn’t wearing a mouthguard. I can’t believe that she was allowed within reach of the olympic stadium without a full set of protective equipment, and the idea that she could be competing in a sport at this level with no protective gear is astounding. I can’t find the rules online but it appears that at least some federations have banned mouthguards, which is hard to comprehend. I’m pretty confident that this is unnecessary, and martial arts newsgroups certainly have reports of wrestlers who wear them in sparring (as do many judoka, I think). So why not in competition? This is another classic symptom of bullying in sport and it should be stamped out immediately.

So in essence, move to boxing-style judging systems, make knockouts objective rather than subjective, remove the judging role from the referee, and ensure that the fighters get regular breaks and an opportunity to consult with their coaches. And don’t insult them by fussing about their belts – it’s childish and patronizing. Maybe with those changes judo can become as fun and engaging as the other great combat sports – boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts.

And, speaking of which – today is the first day of women’s boxing in the Olympics, which is nice. But why aren’t kickboxing and MMA in there? If kickboxing became an Olympic sport, Thailand would be in the top 10 countries every time!

I’ve been enjoying the Olympics from the vantage point of my air-conditioned couch, and because I’m in Japan I’m getting to see only the sports that interest Japanese viewers, so at the moment it’s wall-to-wall Judo and swimming. Of course, having something of a soft spot for China I’m quite happy to see them coming up in the world of olympic sports, and this year’s sensation is Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old swimmer whose performance has sparked controversy. An American high up in swimming circles claims she must be a drug cheat, because not only did she beat a man in one leg of her medley (and not just any man – an American man), her times have improved rapidly in just a year or two, and her freestyle leg was just so much faster than her other legs.

Of course this has pissed off the Chinese delegation and Chinese media no end, though to her credit Ye Shiwen has responded in a level-headed manner both in and out of the pool. But she might be surprised to hear that she has found some strong defenders in the Australian press. The Sydney Morning Herald has an article disputing all the main claims of the American coach, and suggesting that both Australian and American achievers could be accused of drug cheating if judged on their performance alone. About Ms. Ye swimming faster than an American man (Lochte) in her freestyle leg, he points out that she didn’t actually beat his medley speed overall, and in any case four other men in Lochte’s race did beat Ye’s time in the same leg – they were all swimming their hearts out to catch up with Lochte, which is what Ye had to do in her freestyle leg to catch the leader.

John Leonard’s other big complaint is that Ye shaved five seconds off her previous best at this Olympics. The Herald’s article tears this complaint apart:

It wasn’t an insinuation Rice had to deal with when she clocked her world record in 2008, which was at the time an absurdly fast result.

Earlier that year, Rice shaved a startling six seconds off her personal best time to hit 4.31.46 at the Australian trials. American Katie Hoff reclaimed the mark a few months late before Rice countered at the Beijing Games, reducing it to below 4.30 for the first time. In contrast, people seized on the fact Ye reduced her PB by five seconds to claim the new mark of 4.28.43 as genuine grounds for suspicion.

The article also points out that Leonard’s comparison of Ye’s times now with two years ago are unfair because of Ye’s age:

To the wider sporting world, Ye is only now becoming a notable name. Yet to swimming diehards, she has been one of the rising stars for some years, even if her surge of form in London has caught most people by surprise. Beisel and Rice had been the favourites for gold.

Ye won the 200m IM at the Asian Games in 2010 (2.09.37) and the 400m IM (4.33.79), all at age 14. At the time, she was listed at 160cm tall. Now, the official Olympic site lists her 12 cm loftier at 172cm. That sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement.

To me these paragraphs also contain an insinuation of bad faith against Leonards: he clearly, as a swimming insider, knows that Ye’s times have grown with her age and body size, and should be aware of her history. So why is he making the complaints so openly now? Would he be happy to have them made against Michael Phelps or Stephanie Rice when they started their careers? Is it fair on Ye that her improvement should be immediately slated home to drugs? The accusations have already hit home, with the doping committee making an unprecedented release of her pre-olympic drug testing results to calm the waters, but it’s probably the case that the claims won’t die down.
I think that she’s probably not a drug cheat (or if she is, she’s doing the same undetectable cheating as everyone else) and Leonards and others who insinuate that she is are well aware that her performance is natural. But these people are watching their nation’s long-standing dominance of this sport sliding out of their grip as China’s performance improves. There are also insinuations of “military-style training camps” (always a marker of repression when they do it, but of efficiency when we do it), tightly-controlled sporting worlds, etc. But in fact the Chinese swimming world is quite open and employs foreign coaches, one of whom wrote an illuminating opinion piece for the Guardian, indicating exactly why China is improving its performances so fast: hard work. This coach writes:

Chinese athletes train incredibly hard, harder than I can explain in words and as a coach who has placed swimmers on five different Olympic Games teams, I have never seen athletes train like this anywhere in the world.

They have an unrelenting appetite for hard work, can (and will) endure more pain for longer than their western counterparts, will guarantee to turn up for practice every single time and give their all. They are very proud of their country, they are proud to represent China and have a very team focused mentality.

He adds that there is no special talent selection program, but that he just selects those players he sees and thinks are good. But he gives an interesting insight into the supposedly centrally-managed, state mandated programs that are always painted in such a negative light when they compete with Western athletics – in fact, like so much of Chinese “communism” they’re probably more free market than those in the West:

Let’s also not forget that this is their only avenue for income; most do not study and sport offers them a way out or a way up from where they and their families currently live in society. If their swimming fails, they fail and the family loses face … my athletes are salaried and receive bonuses for performance; I am salaried and receive bonuses for performance. We all want performance, not mediocrity, not sport for all, but gold medals – and they are not afraid to say this.

He also observes that China gives him all the funding he needs, and enormous freedom to manage his coaching programs:

If I want a foreign training camp, money is available; if I want high-altitude training – money is available; if I want an assistant coach – money is available; if I want some new gadgets or training equipment, guess what? Money is available.

I think this is the real threat that people like Leonards are worried about. As China becomes wealthy, it is pouring money into playing catch up not just industrially and economically, but in the cultural and scientific pursuits that have traditionally marked out the west as “advanced,” on the assumption that fast development in these areas will lead to results that will challenge western cultural hegemony. They don’t want to be pinned down to traditionally “Asian” sports that often have lower value (ping-pong, badminton, the traditional martial arts) but want to compete in areas that, by being traditionally western strongholds, often have higher cultural value attached to them: swimming, basketball, soccer and gymnastics. And by dint of their combination of rapid economic growth, rampant nationalism, and highly successful mix of central planning and free market ideas, they’re going to catch up fast. The doyens of a previous era of cultural and sporting superiority don’t want to accept it, just as a previous generation of industrialists couldn’t accept Japanese superiority in industry, and a previous generation of military planners couldn’t believe Japanese naval and air superiority.

As China continues to improve its sporting prowess, I think we’ll see more of the same, allied at times with accusations of cheating and corruption. But I think, given the sour grapes China’s growth is producing in many areas in the west, we should approach many claims about their sports programs and sportspeople with a great deal of cynicism and caution.

Kitty-chan meets Jabbito!

I went to my first ever baseball game last night, with the students and staff of my department. We watched the Giants (Tokyo) vs. the Tigers (Osaka), a resounding Giants victory (about 6-3) – or at least I guess it was a resounding victory, because I know  nothing about baseball. One of our students was a graduate of a famous baseball high school, so before we went we arranged a special seminar for him to educate the foreign staff and students (about half the department) on the ins-and-outs of this mysterious game, but sadly his lecture was shambolic and his explanations mostly confined to teaching us the Giants’ song. How that took 40 minutes I cannot fathom, since it consists only of saying “oooooooo” a lot.

It was fun, although most of the time I was talking to the people around me – just like cricket, I suppose (there’s lots of ways that baseball is like an abridged version of cricket). The woman in front of me, pictured here with her Giants-themed kitty chan scrunchie, was not interested in conversation however – she was a very serious fan indeed. Perhaps it was through the power of her regular banzai that her team won.

This trip to the baseball and some recent experiences in Akihabara have me marveling at the gender-inclusiveness of Japanese hobbies and sports, and I’ll be posting on that when I get time in the next few days…

Saturday night was boxing’s equivalent of a neckbeard giving a naked reading of Carcosa on Sesame Street. It was the chavtastic moment when the final nail was hammered into the coffin containing heavyweight boxing’s credibility. The first hint of the sport’s rapid decline was evident when Tyson returned from prison to “knock out”  a series of patsies; it looked beyond salvation when that same man turned cannibal; but briefly under the rein of the Klitschkos we could all pretend that it had regained some life. But on Saturday night, surely, the sporting public gave up on the farce that is the “sport” of heavyweight boxing, as two classic representatives of everything that is wrong with modern Britain re-enacted a classic Friday night in Guildford, while the only civilized representatives of the sport looked on in horror and barely-disguised scorn.

Of course, the brawl was just the sad end of a sorry series of events, any one of which would have seen the end of a man’s career if perpetrated in a less forgiving, more reality-based sport. The scene was the face-off between the 40 year old Vitali Klitschko (46 fights, 44 wins, 40 KOs), “Dr. Ironfist,” from the Ukraine fighting out of Germany; and 28 year old Dereck Chisora (18 fights, 15 wins, 10 KOs), whose win record is lower than Klitschko’s knockout rate. Klitschko is one of a pair – between him and his younger brother Wladimir they own all the titles in heavyweight boxing – and the talent is so thin on the ground that they have to stoop to beating up men like David Haye, the third leg in Saturday night’s sad showdown. Chisora, perhaps hoping to psyche out the un-psychable Ukrainian machine, Chisora engaged in a series of pre-fight antics that would embarrass anyone with any taste: first he slapped Vitali Klitschko at the weigh-in; then, he spat water in Wladimir Klitschko’s face during the pre-fight introductions. In between this, he refused to allow Wladimir to witness his hand-wrapping, which required some sensitive negotiations and led to a delay in the fight. The Klitschko’s response to this behavior was typically level and measured: after the slap, Vitali was heard to say “You’re fucked now Dereck, you really are fucked,” but otherwise didn’t do much (and revealed in the post-fight press conference that he wasn’t able to knock Chisora out because his right hand was injured). The video of the water-spitting incident shows Wladimir (59 fights, 56 wins, 49 KOs) licking his lips and giving a tight little smile, but no other response – this man is his brother’s prize, and there’s a lot of money at stake, so he restrains himself from taking revenge on a man who is so clearly beneath his regard.

Really, these are not men you want to anger. And it’s a sad indictment of the management of the sport that Chisora even tried: had he engaged in either of those antics before a rugby match, he would certainly not have been allowed to play, and would most likely have been banned for life. The press is talking about 6 months for Chisora, and only because of what happened at the post-fight press conference.

It was at the post-fight conference that we really saw how much British boxing has lost of the dignity it built up under Bruno, Hollyfield and Lewis. Klitschko’s promoter was asked if he would bother with any more British contenders, given the behavior of Chisora and Wladimir’s previous opponent, David Haye, who famously promised to “hospitalise” Wladimir and taunted him continuously in the weeks leading up to the fight, but then put in a terrible performance on the night, that he blamed on a broken toe. The promoter said he would look elsewhere, but was interrupted by the infamous (now retired) Haye himself, from the back of the conference, demanding a fight with Vitali. The promoter’s response, in perfect English: “You don’t get to fight anyone. Chisora showed his face, you just showed your toe.” Chisora’s promoter then suggested a face-off between Chisora and Haye, with the winner to face “a Klitschko” (like a penitent at the altar of boxing …) Haye’s response: Chisora had already lost 3 fights in a row, so why should Haye bother? Chisora took offence to this and walked up to Haye, demanding that Haye “say it to his face.” And so the schoolboy brawl commenced, and ended with Haye swinging a camera tripod around and nearly braining his own trainer. In the video you can see, while all this is happening, Klitschko standing on the podium like some gentle giant, sneering down at his defeated British opponents as they brawl with each other over their own failings, like spoilt children.

This is British boxing in the new millenium: being sneered at by civilized, educated boxers from Europe. There is no talent left in Britain that the Klitschkos will deign to face, and even if there were, on reputation alone the British are best left well outside the ring, brawling in car parks where they belong. Britain has always been one of the top two countries for heavyweights, and British heavyweights have carried the sport with a certain dignity and poise, but in just 10 years the division has been dragged into the gutter by its reprehensible promoters and fighters.

The problem for those of us who enjoy a fighting art mirrors, in many ways, the problems role-playing faced in the 80s through accusations of satanism and addiction. Those of us who enjoy boxing and understand it know that it is a thing of beauty when done properly, but for those looking in from the outside it clearly resembles nothing more than a sanctioned brawl, in which barely-civilized men pound the crap out of each other for excessive amounts of money. We ask them to trust us that this sport is more than mere barbarism, and we point to its elements of discipline, courage and respect – which we like to hope are more than just a silly myth – as evidence that it is worthy of a little more respect than mere brawling. We also want people to think it’s not a particularly dangerous sport – which compared to Rugby it probably isn’t – and we point to the strict adherence to rules of combat as evidence of this. But it’s kind of hard for the general public to believe us when they see the sports peak performers bashing each other with camera tripods and threatening “I’ll fucking shoot him.” It’s the Carcosa problem, in essence, only being played out in front of the cameras on national TV. And it has a spillover effect: as UFC is gaining popularity and professionalism, its more popular cousin, boxing, is making fighting arts look like uncivilized brawling. How is UFC going to make headway then? And how will we be able to, for example, over turn bans on women fighting (often justified on the basis that it’s “uncivilized”) when the men at the top of the art are doing their best to encourage a ban on anyone fighting?

Some promoters have clung onto another great stereotype of the sport that I think has been used to gain it respect it probably never deserves: the “rescuing urban yoof” myth, that boxing offers working class and poor kids “a way out” and offers youth involved in gangs and crime a way to reform and learn to respect themselves and others. Watching the behavior of Haye and Chisora, and comparing it with PhD-endowed Vitali Klitschko, the conclusion is obvious: education makes men better, boxing makes criminals more dangerous. Society might consider itself well-served in asking: perhaps instead of sanctioning these poor kids’ efforts to beat each other up in the ring, we should ban men like Chisora’s trainer from being allowed to teach poor kids from deprived neighbourhoods any skills that might in any way resemble what we see on display in that video? Because it doesn’t appear to have improved their respect for themselves or others, or their wit: it’s just made them bigger and nastier. Perhaps they might be better off staying away from the boxing gym and doing their homework …?

With this sad display, boxing joins the long list of activities that Britain invented or codified, but lost out on to the rest of the world through indiscipline, inequality and poor education. Other notable activities that went this way are:

  • Naval warfare (to the Japanese and then the Americans)
  • Cricket (to Australia)
  • Rugby (to the Antipodes, but increasingly, just about anywhere)
  • Soccer (to everywhere else)
  • Statistics (to India, and then the rest of the Commonwealth, and the USA)
  • The English language (to the Commonwealth)
  • Heavy Industry (to Germany, Japan and the USA, and now China)

I guess so long as they have the Falklands, the British can still lay claim to being the masters of colonialism. It’s important to be good at something, after all! But it’s a long and sad decline that Britain has gone through since the end of the war, and boxing, though hardly likely to be the thing British society will most miss, has now sadly been outsourced to Mexico and the Ukraine. What have the British got left to lose?

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