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My Summer Highlight? Speedway.

My Summer Highlight? Speedway.

Right.  Speedway.  What’s that about then?

Four motorbikes race around an oval track? Gotcha. Sounds simple enough, kind of like Days of Thunder on two wheels.

And they hit 70mph on the straights..? Ok, that’s fast. They’ll need to brake pretty hard when they go round the bends, I’m guessing.



Any spurious aspiration I might have had to try the sport is dashed as it turns out Speedway bikes have NO brakes. It’s at this point that I’m starting to think that this hasn’t been thought through very well and/or it’s a sport for the self-destructively inclined. Once you actually watch Speedway though (and you really, really should), you’ll see that somehow it all just works, in a strangely effective combination of awesome acceleration and a whole lot of sliding.

That’s how you solve the ‘no brakes’ conundrum, you see.  Riders appear to be doing a kind of controlled skid around the whole course and races are seemingly won and lost on the back of risk taking, AKA how long a rider waits to take his foot off the pedal at the end of each straight.

There are crashes of course, as you’d expect. Most are due to wheels clipping each other as riders come round each bend. I was lucky enough to have my first taste of Speedway recently and one of the more heart-in-mouth moments came when a bike got clipped and its front wheel wobbled around crazily as the rider fought to regain control, reminiscent of an angler trying to hold on to an electric eel, while at the same time sliding on some loose gravel at high speed. This time the rider brought his steed back in line in time to avoid a fall, but there were a few who weren’t so lucky, spinning out on corners and into the barriers.

I’m no petrolhead.  I don’t watch Formula One a lot, rallying, or many motorsports in fact, but back in July I went to the British Speedway Grand Prix in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, something a bit different and new. I’ve lived in the city for years and seen (from a distance) the noisy, colourful crowds that fill the streets of the city when the Speedway comes to town. Of course, I’ve seen up close the hysteria associated with Wales playing rugby at home in the Six Nations, with its sea of pure red, replete with the rampant roaring of spontaneous singing.


This was in the same vein, but with an international flavour. It’s fair to say that Eastern Europeans, and the Polish particularly, REALLY like their Speedway.  The fervour for it among their fans matched anything I’d seen in rugby crowds.  The numbers were smaller, but those coming from Poland, Russia, Slovenia and across the UK are really dedicated and more than passionate about their sport. I never used to know what the attraction was, but now I do, and am so glad I took the time to immerse myself in this strange new world.

Though the Speedway itself started at 5pm, the vuvuzelas and chanting filled the air for hours before and the streets around the Principality Stadium were full of oversized flags and novelty wigs as far as the eye can see. There is a varied crowd too, with plenty of families and children in the mix, which meant that the atmosphere was boisterous, while feeling friendly and safe. Even as a newcomer, I felt drawn into the occasion before I’d even entered the stadium.

As we went in, I still had my doubts about the sport itself though.  I didn’t know the rules and I didn’t know the riders. I’d been put off some motorsport racing partly by the length of the races, so when I heard there were 20 heats, my heart sank. But this is part of what makes Speedway so watchable. Every race is short and concentrated, and you’re never left waiting long for the next one. And having a lot of races means you start by fairly arbitrarily backing riders based on skill and daring exhibited over the qualifying heats, forming temporary emotional bonds with previously unknown Eastern European sportsmen.

Woff InterviewTwo-time World Champion Tai Woffinden is interviewed before the races start

The rules are simple.  The track is simple. There’s little to learn. You’re left to simply pick your rider and urge them on to victory, to cut their corners as fine as possible, push the limits and just collectively revel in the intensity of it all.

So, you don’t need to be a motorsport fan to enjoy Speedway. You can enjoy the energy, noise and excitement without prior knowledge and age ain’t a barrier either (the family sat in front of me ranged from three to fifty-three).

The Grand Prix will be back in Cardiff next summer and I urge you to give it a go – you might well just fall a little in love with it as I did, and crave another dose.


Why do cheaters cheat?

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Why do cheaters cheat?

Guzzling a few grapes in the supermarket and not paying for them…

Illegally streaming a TV show…

Taking performance enhancing drugs.

Quite different actions and hard to compare, but all against the rules. And we all know it. The first two might be considered by some to be ‘victimless crimes’, or at least crimes against people who can afford to be stolen from.

You may well have done something similar to the first one yourself. And I’m sure many people you know have done the second one. In fact, a recent survey suggests that a third of football fans in the UK had illegally streamed matches in the past year.

Stealing and cheating are crimes as old as humanity itself. And of course, there is a spectrum of criminality, both legally and morally. To take the illegal streaming example, I’ve heard people justify it by saying that they’re not taking a physical ‘thing’, so the company doesn’t have any less stock to sell.

A weak argument I think, as each person who doesn’t pay is depriving the supplier of income. Some may also complain about high costs, but high costs or a business being wealthy aren’t reasons to take something without paying.

I think that ultimately people believe that they won’t get caught and so there won’t be consequences.

Cheating in sport isn’t quite the same, but what makes people flex their moral fibre is interesting. The grape-pinching and show-stealing are both crimes where the effect of your individual action in isolation is relatively small, and also the company affected doesn’t have a face that you have to, erm, come face to face with.

In sport though, you’ll probably know the person or people that your cheating has affected. You’ve stood opposite them or seen them next to you as your unearned advantage takes you past them in the podium pecking order.

This means that you can’t convince yourself that cheating is victimless because you can literally see the victim. So what makes some sportspeople cheat?

At the elite level, small margins matter. Millimetres and milliseconds can make one player a millionaire, and another an also-ran. Players and coaches are understandably always looking for the small gains, the incremental improvements.

If a supplement is legal, can make a difference and, perhaps crucially, the rest of field is taking it, it makes sense to take it. Otherwise, you might find yourself at a disadvantage. The same applies to the tweaks made to a bike that squeeze the most from a race. I’m sure that some cheating starts off as stretching the limits of what’s allowed. Pushing what’s acceptable and hoping not to go too far (or at least not be found to be doing so).

Winning in sport can bring wealth, fame, adoration and respect, among other accolades. These potential prizes can make it tempting to bend the rules or blatantly flout them, but at what age does that kind of decision come into play?

At school, you hope that that the focus would be on fun and fair play. Young kids playing sport in school aren’t generally cheating in the systematic way that some adult professionals do, but are the building blocks for this temptation put in place early on?

A survey of 1,000 children aged 8-16 found that over half would be prepared to cheat to win. I was shocked by this, but then I’m neither a sportsman nor very competitive.

Is a proclivity for cheating defined by personal values, opportunity or pressure? It’s probably a combination, but it’s important to reinforce the importance of fair play at an early age. My recollections of P.E. at school were of a world where winning was key. In more recent years, wider efforts have been made to promote sport for fun, particularly in a world of widening waistbands that needs everyone to get active.

Whether we participate to compete or just for enjoyment, is there enough emphasis on playing the RIGHT way? I want my sporting idols to play fair because they think it’s right, not simply because they might get caught.

There are ever-increasing numbers of stories about fairness in sport, from drugs to financial impropriety. Efforts are being made by governing bodies to address them and though the task is sizable, it will bring about improvements.

But it’s important to remember that a desire to play sport in the right spirit is one that can, and should be encouraged and developed from an early age, at the very start of a child’s sporting journey.

Volunteering: Return on your Investment

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Volunteering: Return on your Investment

Volunteers are a lovely bunch, aren’t they? Very nice I mean. Like, AA man nice (for those who don’t recall the old ad:


They are those selfless Samaritans who give so much in so many areas of modern life, across a range of communities and sectors, from offering practical assistance to charities, to helping educate and care for others. A huge amount of time is given over to volunteering. Many evenings are relinquished when full days have already been worked and weekends given over to benefit others.

And the reasons for doing it are varied. For some, it’s helping out with an activity that their child is undertaking (coaching a sports team for example). For others, the work done for free supports or makes up for a lack of services that might otherwise be provided by a council or health trust (another social topic entirely…)vols

Whatever the reasons, there are millions of awesome folk across the country that lend a hand regularly. And that’s heart-warming to hear in these times when fear, mistrust and negative news is spread in much greater volume than positivity and when nations and ideologies clash, making social cohesion feel reduced or under attack.

That makes it all the more important to remember that there are around 15 million people in the UK regularly (monthly or more) giving up their time for others, and this altruism often spans boundaries of age, race and religion, which in turn breaks down barriers and can bring people closer together.

Back to the ‘niceness’ though. I’m not about to dispute my opening statement, but we do need to add something to the mix. You see, much of the conversation you’ll hear centres on thanking volunteers for what they give and about how the hours they put in contribute to improving lives for others. And of course they should be appreciated; it goes a little way to repaying them for all that they give. It’s important too, as volunteers are so vital to communities that we simply cannot risk losing them due to them feeling under-appreciated.


But volunteering is not a one-way street. It’s easy to see it as a simple process where volunteers put time and energy in, and others reap the rewards of their efforts. But there’s more to it. Much more. Volunteering brings with it a host of benefits to the volunteers themselves. It is often highlighted that through volunteering you can grow in confidence, learn new skills and make new friends. All of this is true, but there are further well-being boosts, that are less well appreciated.

As an example from the world of sport, a survey by Join In provided some great facts and figures showcasing the benefits to be gained from giving. Volunteers reported having 10% higher self-esteem and were 15% less inclined to worry than those not involved. Their scores were FOUR times higher for the level of trust they felt in their community and EIGHT times higher for the influence they felt in their community.

Even if you were to be a bit cynical (which I am, to a fault) about the quantifying of emotional responses, it still paints a clear picture of how volunteering makes you feel better about yourself and more connected to those around you. Volunteers don’t so much GIVE their time as INVEST it. Because there is a very real, highly valuable return on that investment to the volunteer, the organisation and the community. It’s a win-win-win.

Given that volunteering is beneficial to all parties; charities and community groups could maybe think about not just asking people to give up their time, but rephrase it as offering people an opportunity to be involved and be part of a team. This is important as not only does this give greater recognition to the volunteer, but it also acknowledges the gains to be made, both practical and emotional, from giving your time to a good cause.

Paid staff are often seen as the organisation itself, and the volunteers as a support, valued but separate. We need to ensure that the definition of an organisation includes everyone who contributes to, and benefits from its success, and that includes some of the most important people of all – the volunteers.

Giving Exercise an eSporting Chance

Giving Exercise an eSporting Chance

Jet Set WillyNew Zealand StoryChuckie Egg. All sources of great pleasure for me.  For many, these words are nonsense, but for some, they bring back great memories. They are, of course, classic computer games.

Correction: WERE computer games.  And, more specifically, impossibly difficult computer games from the ’80s.  I have been a gamer myself ever since my dad brought home an Amiga 500 computer in the late ’80s and I am still one today, even as I slip inexorably towards my elderly 40s.

old games.jpgEvidently I am not one of those who believes that gaming is just for kids and, although there is criticism leveled at the hobby (from normalising violence to simply being a waste of time), it is an activity that brings pleasure to millions every day.  That said – like much that is fun in this world – it is important to enjoy it in moderation.

Despite the gamer stereotype of being someone hermit-like, shunning both companionship and natural light, gaming can be a very social activity.  Groups of friends can get in a room and band together to take down virtual armies or compete in football tournaments (once they’ve argued endlessly over who gets to be Barcelona).

Whether you do it solo, against online competitors or in a group of mates, there is a lot of appeal to the gaming life.  And that appeal is broadening too.  Gone are the days of it being predominantly a male pursuit. Many more women and girls are playing (some stats suggest they outnumber men now) and the advent of mobile gaming has extended that reach further, with a game to suit almost any taste or time frame.

So, good news then? Well, yes, for the gaming industry certainly and for gamers themselves, who can enjoy a vast array of console or phone-based fun. Got a few hours at home to spare?  Or five minutes on a bus?  There’s a game at your fingertips if you want one.  But I must steer this rambling towards a semblance of a point.  And that is about the potential muddying of the waters between gaming and sport.


E-sports is becoming really big business. The top players and teams compete in competitions around the world and are well rewarded for their efforts.  Not only that, but millions more watch their travails online, following their wins and losses on a global stage. What we have is millions of fans watching teams, who are sponsored by international brands, playing games.  Sounds in many ways very much like football or other traditional sports.

But, for all the fun to be had gaming (or watching others gaming), it is still a sedentary activity.  That’s why moderation is important.  A balance needs to be struck between engaging in gaming and sports/physical activity, to keep those ever-widening waistbands in check. But is a grey area is developing?

BT Sport recently announced it will be broadcasting a hugely popular FIFA gaming/eSports competition. There’s nothing new about broadcasting gaming competitions, but it’s normally online and this is not only on a mainstream broadcast channel, but one that is dedicated solely to sport.  If this was to prove popular then e-sports could get further coverage, and it would certainly be cheaper to show than many existing sports.

My concern is that if gaming is seen as a sport in a traditional sense, then there is a danger of diluting and damaging the physical activity message. In the US, eSports are already overtaking traditional sport in terms of viewing figures (one eSports final outranked both the NBA Finals and the World Series in 2014). And this is backed up by player numbers too. That same year, in the US, there were 67m monthly players of popular game ‘League of Legends’, compared to 24m playing basketball regularly.

If we as a society want children to engage in more sport to live healthier lives, then it doesn’t help to have any confusion over definitions. I realise that not all sports are very physical, but gaming is already extremely popular and the issue of children being stuck to screens needs to be mitigated, not made worse.

cscreen glue

Unfortunately this move to bring gaming onto a sport channel strikes me as the thin end of the wedge.  I can see it happening more and gaming becoming seen in the same ‘sport’ category as the physical activity we seek to advocate so strongly. Would you have a section on full fat cream cakes on a TV show about slimming?

As I said, I am an avid gamer, but I do some exercise as well.  But then, I grew up in a world where video games weren’t omnipresent and there was a greater emphasis on active play. It is the popularity of gaming that has propelled it into the same league as sport and led to it being on the same bill, but it is very different beast.  Watching football on TV won’t necessarily inspire a child to play the game for real, but it might.  Watching someone playing a football video game however, will, I fear, only ever serve to inspire a child to sit on their sofa for hours and hours on end.

More than Medals

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned.  It has been ten weeks since my last post.  I feel I need to apologise, either for leaving you bereft of my witty repartee or for inflicting my efforts on your poor eyes once again. Since I last put digit to keyboard we’ve had the little matter of somethings called an Olympics and a Paralympics.  You may have heard of them.  It’s fair to say that the Games had a somewhat downbeat preamble, with plenty of discussion about the costs of putting on such a huge, expensive event against the backdrop of a significant wealth divide in Brazil.

On a sporting front however, ambitious targets were set by Team GB following London and it’s fair to say that most people (certainly most fans) were not expecting the medal haul to come close to four years ago.  Many assumed that ‘playing at home’ was a big factor and that an overseas competition would mean a drop in metallurgic returns.

But no, this wasn’t the case.  Both Olympic and Paralympic athletes scoffed in the face of such foolish notions and went on to bring home a beauteous bounty of podium places and broken records, both personal and for sports as a whole.

At the end of August I attended one of several ‘I Am Team GB’ events and it was a big success, with a real buzz of excitement.  There were far more visitors than expected and loads of kids, which was really positive. For me, the day was an opportunity for people to do three things:

  • Celebrate the achievement of the athletes (from Wales in particular) who contributed to an astonishing number of medals in Rio and maybe actually meet an Olympian
  • Try out a sport or two that they haven’t before
  • For the older among us, to be a little nostalgic about sports day, a stalwart fixture in the school calendar that many remember fondly (I think I did the long jump, but not due to ability but a teacherly desire to offer every child something to take part in)


The day was a joyous celebration for Team GB.  A lot has been made of the medals won in Rio and attention directed toward the athletes and support teams responsible, as it was in London and before that.  The improvement in GB team’s performance has exceeded expectations and people are quite rightly very proud. Success in the games ignites passion and has again caused an increase in interest in grassroots sport participation.

But although the Team GB certainly excelled in performance terms, I do find myself wondering whether there was/is sufficient focus on the ‘Olympic spirit’.  There are many that are inspired by medals, but what will stay with me as much, if not more, are the examples we saw of camaraderie and breaking down of barriers.  The power of sport to unite people and build relationships without boundaries is key, after all –

“The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

First we had the bridge over the Korean divide.  Lee Eun-ju and Hong Un-Jong, from South and North Korea respectively, sent the world a selfie taken together during pre-Games training.  Many athletes take pictures together, but given that the two countries are technically at war, and both could easily face repercussions for this politically sensitive gesture, it was a brave and positive move.


Then there was the marriage proposal.  Well, actually there were five Olympic marriage proposals in all, but the one most will remember was Marjorie Enya, proposing to Brazilian rugby player Isadora Cerullo. The proposal was televised as Marjorie took advantage of her role managing the venue to commandeer the PA system and pop the question.  And of course, the fact that the pair are women wouldn’t raise eyebrows to many these days, but the Olympics are watched by every nation on earth and sadly there are still many for whom such freedoms are impossible to imagine, so a positive affirmation of LGB&T relationships on the world stage is another reason to celebrate.

Last up is what for me, had the most lasting impact. Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino collided during the 5000m final and both fell in a tangle of limbs.  They struggled on, but when Abbey fell again injured, Nikki stopped to help her fellow athlete to complete the race. There was no thought of personal achievement, just a selfless gesture that was instinctive and sportsmanlike.  They may have finished last, but they  both finished and finished together, and this act of kindness was reported more widely than the race result itself.


So, I’ll be enjoying the athletes’ success as they parade through Manchester and London today, as the Welsh competitors did in Cardiff recently to a rapturous reception, but I think it’s important as well to take time to remember – there’s more than one way to win.

Playing the game right is, I believe, more important than playing the game well.


The Galactico Sideshow

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Wales and Portugal have had quite different journeys at the European Championships in France.  Aside from a narrow loss against England in their second game, Wales have won all of their games at the competition and have gone from being solid to spectacular as the competition has progressed.  Portugal have shown flashes of inspiration and their attacking potential, but you still feel they haven’t flourished as yet. But then Wales more than coped with all of the flair Belgium could muster.


A first ever semi-final for Wales should be the main story here.  But the press love a personal confrontation, a gladiatorial clash of titans.  Or, in this case, Galacticos.  At Real Madrid, Bale and Ronaldo are on the same side, though talk of them not getting on too well seems to rear up from time to time. And that helps fuel the story of confrontation, but as with the press in the UK, I’m sure a lot of this is maybe a little bit exaggerated to sell Spanish tabloids.  To get to where Bale and Ronaldo are, you need to focus on your own performance and your contribution to the team.

Yes, I’m going to talk about teamwork again.  The press is already putting a lot of focus on Bale and Ronaldo right up until kick off, and you can see why.  Everyone knows their names.  They’re the star players.  So their respective teams’ success will depend on their performances tomorrow night.  Or will it?

Watching Portugal, you sense that Ronaldo is the self-elected focal point for the team. He tries to get involved wherever he can, that’s for sure.  A laudable commitment, but it means that he wants to be everywhere, winning every ball and hitting every shot, and when a potential pass to him doesn’t materialise, he doesn’t always react like a real star should (but as sadly many do).


Watching Bale is very different.  He very obviously has a higher level of skill than his teammates (as well as most on the planet). His composure on the ball, turn of pace and eye for a pass mark him out.  But he operates as a team member first and foremost.  The fact that he has superb individual talent is a bonus.  I haven’t yet seen Bale grab a game by the scruff of the neck and win it by himself, but that’s his role.  He has scored and assisted more than the others, but more as a result of adding a little finesse to a well-drilled unit, than waltzing past a whole opposition team single-handed.

And this Galactico sideshow will suit Chris Coleman just fine.  The press can concentrate on a one-on-one Real Madrid dust up and Wales can concentrate on playing as they have up till now.  As a unit.  As Wales. Not as Bale & Co.

Wales didn’t go into the game against Belgium as favourites and despite their performance last Friday, they’re still the bookies’ favourites to be flying home to Rhoose on Thursday morning.  Having seen both teams play and, for all the potential danger Portugal pose, they are still somewhat reliant on Ronaldo, who is desperate to be conductor, general and national hero.

Bale gets the headlines, gets quoted in papers and is on the majority of Welsh shirts, but Wales’ amazing story in France has been built on the solid foundations of a team with palpable passion, sticking to a plan and working hard for each other.

All people are talking about is football here in Cardiff now, regardless of prior interest levels, and I’ve heard numerous tales of kids wanting to perfect a ‘Robson-Kanu turn’ in the garden or want to get hair like Bale (not sure about that one).  It’s exciting and Football has always had the participation numbers in Wales, but hasn’t really had a winning team to match. I just hope the FAW are able to cope with the explosion of interest in the sport created by Wales’ endeavours.

Of course, if they don’t make it past the semi-final tomorrow, they’ll still get a heroes’ welcome and rightly be called winners anyway, but I have a feeling that the odyssey of this special Welsh team is not over just yet.


A Dance with Dragons

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England. A population of 53 million. A team full of stars (so they say). What words spring to mind when I think about their football team as a fan? Expectation. Pressure. Complacency. Disappointment. Booing. Fighting.

I can’t choose the national team I support as it was decided when I born, all those years ago in sunny Hampshire.  So I’m stuck with England, for better, for worse. There have been good times, memorable results and joy, real joy as a supporter.  But too many of my fellow fickle fans and much of the media lambasts the side when they fail to get past a quarter final, despite this being a fairly accurate indication of their place in the footballing hierarchy.


Wales.  A population less than half that of London.  A team of Bale, Ramsey and a little known supporting cast, many from the second tier of UK football. What words are conjured up though? Hope. Adventure. Team spirit. Support. Singing.

Living in Wales for 19 years has allowed me to share vicariously in what it means to be Welsh and cheering for Wales.  It’s hard to not get caught up in.  It’s infectious.  Over the years I’ve mainly seen it through rugby. Every six nations game is an event bursting with national pride.  And, win or lose, the anthem always comes from the heart, as do countless other songs during the match and long after, songs that echo through bars and streets and homes. Songs that say, above all, ‘We are Wales’.

The cheers for England are genuine and the suggestion that their support isn’t passionate is misplaced I think, but the difference for me is that you feel that the English supporters are cheering for the team and the Welsh are cheering for the country itself.  This makes for a support that is unflinching and all the more potent for it.

The media reaction to, and interpretation of England and Wales’ respective fortunes is telling as well.  When either team wins, there’s euphoria in the press and a pinch of hyperbole thrown in to boot, but the London press never misses a chance to knock down what they so readily build up.  So if England win, but play badly, there’s criticism of the under-performing players and the result gets missed a little. If they lose (god forbid!) then there’s a full blown investigation and castigation of all involved.

Wales lost to England, their fiercest rivals, last week and the Welsh press’ reaction – as well as that of the FAW and many people I spoke to – was to praise the players’ efforts and push a message of moving on to the next game together. Learning. Growing. Improving.


And this is why people are right to say that no-one will want to play Wales in the next round.

Not because they just beat Russia 3-0, ran rampant and could have scored more.

Not because they top Group B when bookies had them scrapping for third place.

And not because of Bale. One of the best players in the world he certainly is, but other countries have their stars too.  His fellow Galactico, Ronaldo, has not seen his team reach the same kind of levels of intensity and effort, reflected in their underwhelming performances so far.

In this competition, any eleven players on their day can beat any other eleven players. But to beat a country itself is a different, tougher proposition and that is what faces Wales’ opponents in the next round.  Defeating a nation with the spirit of Wales is no small task and one no team will relish facing.

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