Yes, They Could! The Paralympic Pioneers

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The 2016 Paralympics begin tonight. The “Parallel Olympics” began in 1960, sprouting from a movement that used sport to physically and mentally rehabilitate soldiers maimed or disabled in the Second World War. The story of Dr Ludwig Guttmann and the Games inaugurated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital is well-known, and is largely remembered as a common ancestor to the subsequent successes of disability sport.

Disabled athletes have however competed at the very top of elite sport for almost as long as the Modern Olympics. In an era where disabled people were often hidden from view, these pioneers demonstrated that paralysis, amputation or illness were not to stop them reaching the peaks of their fields, and in some cases the athletes’ disability served to harness their potential. Some, like Lis Hartel, built a legacy that inspired future athletic and therapeutic achievements. Others, such as George Eyser, are more enigmatic. Yet all of these stories remind us that disabled people have long resisted the societal imposition of limits upon themselves, and they still hold the power to challenge this notion today, as new stories are told in Rio over the coming weeks.

 

Ray Ewry – “The Frog Man”

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Ray Ewry, The Frog Man. Source: npr.

“Ray Ewry wasn’t even supposed to walk,” writes Eric Adleson, but this American, born with Polio, won (at least) eight gold medals, a record that stood until Michael Phelps came to town. In fact, he never lost. Ewry competed in standing jump events, which sadly have long since fallen off the Olympic Roster. He leapt 1.66m in the standing high jump in Paris 1900, whilst also winning the standing long and triple jumps, leading Parisians to christen him “L’Homme Grenouille” – The Frog Man.

Aged eight, the orphan Ewry was wheelchair bound with ascending paralysis, and in an attempt to regain proper leg function, his therapist prescribed a series of exercises that extended and contracted the leg muscles. In this way Ewry learned to walk again, and year after year his legs grew stronger. By the time he had graduated from high school he had moved to crutches, which he was able to abandon the following year. The therapy he was prescribed holds many similarities to the modern elite training technique called plyometrics that increases explosive power in the legs. Ewry set out solely to walk again, but became stronger than everybody else.

 

George Eyser – Amputee Turner

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Source: wulibraries.typad.com. Courtesy of Smithsonian Image Collection

The 1904 Olympics were held amidst the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” World’s Fair in St. Louis. A commemoration of this great leap toward Manifest Destiny unsurprisingly became a disturbing parade of all that had driven United States expansion over the previous century. Amerindian, Filipino, African and Islander peoples were paid to “perform” their expected backwardness, exhibited like living artifacts to give lip-service to white American exceptionalism.

Central to the Expo was the “Philippine village,” wherein residents of the (US) occupied territory were made to live out – on display – a day-in-the-life of a rural Filipino. The great Haitian Jean Price-Mars, attending the festival, recalled seeing “two young [Filipino] Blacks…surrounded by an excited crowd that was subjecting them to all sorts of indignities.” James E. Sullivan’s Olympic showcase mimicked these proceedings, hosting a duet of “Anthropology Days” at St. Louis 2014, that took untrained, unsuspecting participants from the fair and made them compete in a series of events, and they inevitably struggled, even at so-called “savage-friendly” events like the javelin.

Sullivan proclaimed this farce to be evidence of white supremacy, whilst the massive medal haul achieved by the US (no wonder, when they provided 523 of the 630 Olympians, and were only challenged in 42 events) was heralded as proof that the USA represented the ideal of civilisation. Only six women competed, as the Olympics continued to clamp down on women in sport, and the sporting disaster drew on for over three months. It was crowned by the Marathon when the first man, Frederick Lorz, travelled by car for eleven miles, and competitors were deliberately denied water on the course because the organisers wished to test the limits of the dehydrated human body.

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Eyser’s Prosthesis. Source: theolympians.co

Amidst the chaos, German-American gymnast George Eyser won three golds, two silvers and a bronze. He had one leg; legend has it that as a child, he lost it after a run-in with a train. However Eyser, born in Danisch-Nienhof, was entrenched in the German “turnverein” culture of the 19th Century that encouraged gymnastic practice (or “turning”) as a means of achieving Germanic physical potential, and cemented itself in US society thanks to the millions of German migrants that arrived in the USA after 1848. Eyser was not a rich man – he worked as a bookmaker for his entire life – but had acquired an advanced prosthesis that enabled him to perform his craft. He competed in these Olympics as a member of the Concordia Turnverein, run out of St. Louis, and won the Rope Climbing and Parallel Bars outright, and tied for gold in the Horse Vault.

Eyser’s achievements are often forgotten among the trainwreck that was the “strangest” Olympics. A Wall Street Journal article even subsumed him within it, using the fact that a one-legged gymnast won three titles to suggest the entire Olympiad was as illegitimate as the Marathon. Although nearly all of Eyser’s rivals were based in the USA, the competition was not weak, and he collected his haul of medals by defeating some of the finest gymnasts of his generation. Eyser was the first amputee to compete in the games, but his actions after 1910 are barely known.

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The Concordia Turnveirein. George Eyser is in the centre. Source: theatlantic.com

 

Olivér HalassyThe Greatest Halfback

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Olivér Halassy. Source: waterpololegends.com

Hungarian water polo halfback Olivér Halassy also ended up on the wrong side of public transport, losing his left foot in a streetcar accident, but came to be considered as the greatest halfback of his era, winning a silver and two golds as part of the fabled Hungarian water polo team of the 1930s, and scoring twenty goals along the way. These mighty Magyars also won three European titles, and in 1931, hours after their victory, Halassy jumped back in the pool and won the 1500m freestyle. The foot is an important tool in water polo to help stay afloat, to quickly change direction and to launch out of the water.

His final gold came in Berlin 1936, where Hungary, complete with a disabled swimmer, overcame the much-fancied, regime-backed German outfit who aimed to demonstrate able-bodied Aryan superiority. These performances posthumously earned Halassy a place in the Swimming Hall of Fame, but unfortunately his life was cut short in 1946. Late one evening, on the way back to his Budapest home, Halassy was shot dead by a Soviet soldier, leaving bereft his heavily-pregnant wife.

 

Karoly Takács

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Karoly Takacs. Source: Wikipedia

Two years after Halassy’s death, Károly Takács followed in his countryman’s footsteps and won gold in London 1948. In the 1930s, Takács was a world-champion pistol shooter and a sergeant in the Hungarian Army. However, in 1938, a defective grenade exploded in his pistol hand rendering it useless. Takács was hospitalised for a month, during which his hand was amputated up to the middle of his forearm. Upon release, he secretly began to train his remaining left hand in the art of pistol shooting, and a year later, he unexpectedly appeared at the World Championships. Legend has it that there he proclaimed “I didn’t come to watch, I came to compete.” He won. Nine years later, at the first Olympics held after the Second World War, Takács won gold with a world record in the 25-metre rapid fire pistol, and retained the title four years later in Helsinki.

 

Lis Hartel

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Lis Hartel and Jubilee. Source: Horse Nation.

The Danish equestrian Lis Hartel came from a family of hippophiles – she was a horsey person. In the early-1940s, Hartel became twice Danish dressage champion upon her unfortunately-named steed Gigolo. In 1944, whilst pregnant with her second child, Hartel contracted polio. The child, Anna, was born healthy but Hartel, aged 23, was left paralysed below the knee for the rest of her life, and also suffered damage to her thighs, arms and hands. After gaining enough strength to walk with arm crutches, Lis Hartel learned to ride again with the family horse, Jubilee, chosen for the task by her parents for her quiet temperament.

“They told her she would be lucky if she improves to walk on crutches again,” recalled her daughter Pernille Siesbye on Eurodressage. “She was lifted in the saddle and first guided in walk for her to get a feeling for the movement again. Step by step my Mum became more independent and finally rode on her own.” Horse riding requires strong leg and core strength for balance, and Hartel fell badly on many occasions as she struggled to adapt to her disability. Jubilee learned “that she had to react only to weight and back aids,” because Hartel now “rode with her back and by-gently shifting weight, because she was unable to use her legs in any way.” Hartel commanded Jubilee with very soft, subtle arm and leg movements. She did not have the strength for further force, but it suited the tasks of dressage and the gentle nature of Jubilee.

Soon they were competing again, but Hartel had to wait until 1952 to reach the Olympics. Before then, equestrian was only open to male military officers; a prohibition that was lifted for Helsinki for dressage, but not for jumping or eventing, which the Olympic committee still deemed too dangerous for women and civilians. Hartel entered the arena as one of the first four women to ever compete in Olympic equestrian. Her routine captivated the crowd, who were unaware of Hartel’s paralysis until she finished her routine and had to be carried off her horse by the gold medallist Henri St. Cyr. Hartel claimed the silver, becoming the first ever woman to medal in equestrian. She repeated the feat in Stockholm four years later.

Her greatest achievement (in her own eyes) was yet to come. Upon retirement, she founded the first Therapeutic Riding Centre in Europe, and through her advocacy work with the Polio Foundation, she is now “widely credited with inspiring a worldwide effort to better peoples’ lives through horses.” Hippotherapy has since been accepted as a highly effective therapeutic treatment for those with muscular afflictions such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, and has also been used for psychotherapy. The rhythm of horse riding replicates pelvic movements when walking, strengthening posture and thighs. Hartel died in 2009, but left a legacy that includes the rehabilitation of thousands, the demolition of equestrian’s glass ceiling, and the growth of dressage as a Paralympic sport. Her efforts live on also through the actions of the Lis Hartel Foundation.

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Lis Hartel receives her silver medal. Helsinki 1952. Source: simplymarvellous.wordpress.com

Yes, They Could

The greatest Olympic moments – Jessie Owens, Ali, Carlos and Smith, de Lima in the Marathon, Kathy Freeman – they were not only sporting conquests but also triumphs over personal and societal pressures that stifled them. The wonder of the Paralympics is that every moment forms a public challenge against a world that denies the abilities of the disabled. Channel 4 calls them the Superhumans, but this article isn’t just to celebrate the remarkable individuals discussed above. Rather, the stories of Ewry, Eyser, Halassy, Takács, and Hartel demonstrate that people with physical disabilities have countered the derision of ableism for a very long time – long before the worthy events at Stoke Mandeville took place – and the Paralympic movement owes much to these pioneers.

The Ghosts of Stadiums Past

 

I moved to Manchester in 2007. It was not long after Man City fled from the old Maine Road in Moss Side to the wastelands east of Piccadilly, to take up residence at what we used to call The City of Manchester Stadium, before oil struck the town.

Getting the 111 to uni in 2011, you could see where Maine Road used to be from the top deck. There was a big pile of dirt, a large empty space where I suppose you could still kick a ball without twisting an ankle, and in the distance lay the first sparkling new homes to be built on the site of the old stadium. It was only later I learned that it was there that the Wembley of the North used to stand.

Man City play Portsmouth at Maine Road in January 1936

The Wembley of the North: Man City v Portsmouth at Maine Road in January 1936. Source: Wikipedia

There seems a particular sadness riding around football these days as West Ham, once said to be David Cameron’s favourite club, say goodbye to the wild and rusty venue known by some as the Boleyn Ground, and by others as Upton Park. West Ham fans have been busy in the press sharing their memories. East end emigré Mark Joyce told the Guardian that “going to the football was part of a wider routine of visiting family and going to the area.” Fellow fan Billy Bowring also contributed to the newspaper’s remembrance, with fond recollections of the old place.

My favourite memory is a pervasive feeling of collective support, a fevered passion and atmosphere. It was invariably in the face of impending defeat, but an important principle of support was enacted in every game; regardless of the score you stay to hear the final whistle. When I picture that atmosphere, I see a night game under the lights with thousands of Hammers huddled against the cold but in loud voice.

It was a fitting send-off, broken bottles aside, as the Hammers came from behind to defeat a tardy Man United 3-2.

An old stadium harbours so much more than goalposts and fossilised pasties. The pitch holds the echoes of great moments, crafted by players that Hammers fans lauded and made shrines of them in their bedrooms, their names ironed into the backs of their shirts. The seats in the stand become your seats. Year after year, returning to the same spot, seeing the same old faces, sitting through rain, snow, wind and Stuart Downing. The ashes of loved ones, indebted to the club for the memories, the friendship and the camaraderie, are scattered on the field every year. The place where you release someone’s ashes, that is where they remain. You say hello every time you pass. It’s reasons like this that explain why when Moseley RUFC left their old Reddings Road haunts in Brum, the fans came down and queued so they could take a square of the old turf home with them. In the same spirit, Hammers fans are now buying up the old seats at the Boleyn, which I’m sure will fit right in with their other furniture.

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Highbury, now providing luxury homes to fans of Jeremy Corbyn

West Ham’s decision to up sticks puts Upton Park at the head of a long list of old grounds abandoned in recent years. There was the Dell, Southampton’s courageous old stadium that looked as if it had been designed without a ruler. Now, as Oliver Gara tells us, it’s “a large set of apartment blocks and in keeping with the old ground, space in many of the flats is extremely limited.” Then there was gloriously mismatched stands that overlooked Leicester’s Filbert Street, before everybody’s favourite champions relocated to the ferociously-named King Power Stadium. Wimbledon’s Plough Lane is now fittingly an allotment. Highbury was a bit different, nestled behind some Islington homes like some magical back garden. You went down somebody’s alleyway, and there was Thierry Henry. Best of all was Barnet’s Underhill stadium, surrounded by seven stands, and where if you were defending the north end, you had to beware as your backpasses might have trickled back toward you. The bees’ new ground, “The Hive,” is disappointingly flat.

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Filbert Street. The most striking stadium of all time. Source: Leicester Mercury

The ground formerly known as the Olympic Stadium will be West Ham’s new home, to the dismay of Leyton Orient. As an ever-present at the Paralympics, I have incredibly fond memories of the place – Jonny Peacock defeating Oscar Pistorious, the howl of the Weirwolf, and nearly being run down outside by Dame Tanni Grey, who was clearly very late for something. I tell you now in moments like that it can reach stranger-hugging levels of excitement in there – so I’m sure Hammers fans will he able to quickly fill the new place with echoes of a glorious past, especially if Dimitri Payet sticks around. But I think it will take more than that to recapture the soul of the Boleyn Ground.

Surrounded by luxury flats that sprung up in the ‘redevelopment’ of Newham, and a cavernous park dedicated to the Queen (as it was high time something was named after her), there is something dissociated about the Hammers’ new place. Old grounds sit in the heart of a community – while Upton Park rested between shops, pubs and houses, the new stadium has a gigantic Westfields in which you can soak up all the pre-game atmosphere you can buy. Nothing says Matchday like a Vanilla Latte and a morning of sock-shopping.

That is fuel enough for this week’s outburst of nostalgia (although that’s no excuse for bringing Marlon Harewood on the pitch last night). Mark Joyce believes “things will move on but for me and hundreds and thousands of others for whom West Ham is synonymous with Upton Park, something irreplaceable is being lost.”

For Hammers fans, the place that made them unique, their home, is being left behind and replaced by the heartless symmetry of yet another modern stadium. Unless they rename it Football McGroundface, it’s not going to be a place that easily harbours affection. But in many ways big clubs outgrow their old shells and need to move on. The old terrace-turned-all-seater can be a cramped, uncomfortable experience for today’s fan, and you can’t beat paying £40 to watch James Milner kick a ball from behind a load-bearing iron bar. The corporate boxes are not cavernous enough for today’s portly billionaire.

The Boleyn Pub

The Boleyn Pub, in front of the Boleyn Ground. Source: Mapio.net

But it’s more than that. Inner-city stadia can prop up a local community – matchdays can inject cash into the neighbourhood through Saturday afternoon trade provide an injection of cash, and put entire areas on the map. After City left Moss Side, many of the shops began to struggle, and the comfort of being spared the occasional old-fashioned football riot was little compensation. The pubs slowly boarded themselves up as the wasteland watched on. The demolition of Maine Road left a gaping hole in the community, and it took nearly a decade before any recovery came, brought with the opening of the first houses. Newham Council hope the new homes built in Upton Park will herald a new start for the area, but local traders are wary. Local publican Ron Bolwell said to BBC that “our rates are very high and our rents are high,” and the loss of matchday boozers marks trouble ahead. Osman Mustafa in Queen’s Fish Bar hopes the construction workers will prop things up, but said, with resilience and resignation, “after that, I don’t know. It will affect us terribly.”

There is optimism among the West Ham faithful, who feel the move into their grand new stadium could help foster good times ahead for the club. Bowring is hopeful, but hopes “that this move isn’t at the expense of the people and the history that have made this club something I’ve always been proud to support.”

I’m not one for sentimental nostalgia – I’m the first to throw a shady look at the ‘football was better in the old days’ crowd – but the closure of an old ground can be a loss of a community asset, replaced by something that offers far less to fans and neighbours of a club, and you get the impression that Sullivan, Gold and Brady would rather play the robber baron and cash in on the Boleyn’s assets than spend any worry on pondering that which will be left behind. It’s the corollary of the factory town whose factory has been boarded up, or the coal mining community who have no other option but to turn to the Sports Direct Depot for work. When a Hipster Burger Co. opens on your street, and your rent starts creeping upwards. When Herman Tillke designs a racing circuit. When anything moves to Milton Keynes. When a language dies. It’s the acceleration of things beyond your control, things you used to rely on, that are replaced with precarity and mediocrity. It’s the half-finished, snail-paced, shiny apartments built on the rubble of the Wembley of the North.

In a few years, some new students will sit the top deck of the 111 will look left at Claremont Road (before Crownchy Fried Chicken – the True Crowning Glory), and they might wonder why the houses look a bit different here, and why there’s a blue road here named after an American craft beer.

 

(Title Image – The Kippax Stand, Maine Road, being demolished, sourced from Urbanghostsmedia.com)

“Cultural Challenges:” From Haka to Cibi, Stories of Rugby’s War Dances

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Te Rauparaha’s Ascent

Te Rauparaha was on the run. The Chieftain of the Ngati Toa iwi (Maori society) was retreating from a meeting that had gone spectacularly wrong. The Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto groups rejected his request for aid, and instead demanded his life. A taua was formed, guided by a Tohunga (“scholar/priest”) who cast tracking spells to help home in upon their target.

These were the musket wars of New Zealand in the early 19th Century. Te Rauparaha arrived in Motu O Puhi, the village of the iwi Te Wharerangi, his famously hairy neighbour, who granted him asylum. He hid the fugitive within a kumara (sweet potato) pit, and on top sat his wife Te Rangikoaea, for it was said that the sexual organs of a woman could act as a ward to the malevolent spells cast by the Tohunga.

Hidden from view, Te Rauparaha could hear everything as his enemies arrived in the village. They were suspicious. Te Wharerangi attempted to mislead them; Yes, Te Rauparaha was here, he told them, but you are too late, for he had long since left for the Rangipo desert. The confidence of the hidden chief was failing. He whispered to himself, over and over;

Ka mate, Ka mate

(I die, I die)

Eternities passed under the feet of Te Rangikoaea; Te Rauparaha could do nothing but wait.

Ka mate, Ka mate

Finally, the voices grew distant, and with them, the iwi in the kumara pit grew optimistic in turn.

Ka ora, Ka ora!

(I live, I live!)

His trust put in Wharerangi and Rangikoeaea was rewarded. As he climbed from his cage, he was reborn.

Tenei te tangata puhuru huru
Nana nei I tiki mai
Whakawhiti t era
A upa….ne! Ka upa…ne!
A upane kaupane whiti t era!
Hi!

(This is the hairy man* who fetched the sun and made it shine again! One upward step! Another upward step! Another, another…the sun shines!)

These were the words said to be composed by Te Rauparaha as he emerged from the pit, and to honour his saviours, he put these lines into a ceremonial haka; the enduring dance of Maori folklore, the “symphony of the body,” and he performed it for his hosts that afternoon.

The Natives Dominate

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New Zealand Natives, 1888. Source: rugbyfootballhistory.com/allblacks

Nowadays, “Ka Mate” is known and performed the world over. As the oldest “cultural challenge” laid down by the New Zealand All Blacks, this haka has become one of the most famous symbols of Maori culture across the globe. The haka, alongside the pre-match challenges of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, have become an emblem of the vibrancy and endurance of Polynesian and Melanesian culture over the past century. Rugby (not just Union but League and Sevens also) has been the vehicle for this, and the coordinated challenge is but one of its expressions.

But the movement of modern sport across the planet is a story inseparable to the imperial spread of Europe; rugby union, the sport of the “gentleman” and the pride of Apartheid, has perhaps been affected by this more than any other. Its relationship with the Islanders of the South Pacific is one of tension, marginalisation, resistance and renewal.

From its English roots, rugby union travelled the world, but it did not move at random. It followed cricket to the settler colonies of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada**, travelling with imperial officials who had picked up the game during their gentlemanly training at Oxford, Cambridge and the public schools of the Southeast.

It even followed cricket to the Southern Cone, outlasting the bat-and-ball sport in Argentina and Uruguay, albeit enduring here too mostly as an elite, white endeavour. Exported for the ‘gentleman’ of colonial high society, this sport more than any other was ostensibly for white men only, but in all realms the hand-egg was picked up by the colonised with varying degrees of popularity. Even in South Africa, rugby has always been played by black Africans (most famously Steve Biko), but apartheid ensured that this participation remained invisible.

Joseph_Warbrick,_rugby_player.jpgJoe Warbrick. Source: Wikipedia

The Maori of Aotearoa took up the game soon after its arrival; brought to the colony by Charles Munro, who brought it home from Christ’s College London in 1870. Eighteen years later, the New Zealand Natives were formed by Maori Joseph Warbrick, who wished to create an all-Maori team to tour Great Britain. However, five Pakeha (white people***) were selected due to problems with player availability and prior commitments (work and study) from first-string Maori. In Britain the Natives wore black and performed the first haka in rugby (said to be Ka Mate, on occasion), met with “great curiosity” by British crowds and the confoundment of those who had turned up to watch a team they expected to be comprised of “savages.” Said one Scottish reporter in 1888,

“They are not unlike Europeans…that is their resemblance is great when one remembers that they were a savage tribe no further back than their generation.”

It is typical imperial logic deployed to credit the Maori’s *lack* of savagery with the influence of Europe. And so it was thought in New Zealand that bringing the team under ‘official’ administration would help improve the team, especially after reading frequent criticisms of ‘foul play’ from English officials who turned a blind eye to infringements from their own. But after a tour that lasted over a year, after 78 wins, 6 draws, and 23 losses, the Natives returned home as the best team in Aotearoa. They formed the backbone of the first New Zealand internationals ideas, including the preposterously (but tellingly) named “Originals” who toured the UK in 1905.**** The All Blacks, the greatest team to play rugby union, this sport almost synonymous with settler colonialism, was founded by Maori: the haka, the black jersey, and the innovative, creative style of play, were the legacies of those pioneers.

But it was not to last. As rugby arrived in New Zealand, the Maori were defending the last vestiges of their land from British squatters and soldiers. The land of Te Rauaparaha had long been extorted from him; he himself had tried to resist the rising tide of squatters and spent his final years in jail. As the Natives were formed, the use of Te Reo Maori was being marginalised and removed from schools. Polynesian culture was being slowly deleted from New Zealand life. The All Black Haka endured, but was far from unaffected. Perhaps that is why Ka Mate became the standard haka of the All Blacks; Te Rauaparaha’s celebratory dance of cheating death and rebirth symbolising the persistence of the Maori in trying times, although there is much in its story of mortality and uprising that could happily find its home on the rugby field.

Maori became sparse in the All Black ranks. They were purged completely, in fact, whenever the All Blacks went to South Africa, for the Apartheid state would not allow any non-white players to grace a Springboks game. Those of Maori heritage maintained a nationwide team (The New Zealand Maori) who would play at home whilst the Pakeha were in South Africa.

The Famished Sea Eagle

In the early 20th Century rugby continued its journey east. Missionaries, settlers and traders from Australia and New Zealand landed in Fiji, bringing rugby with them. It swept across the archipelago, and leagues were swiftly set up. However, they were to be segregated by race until the 1930s. In 1939, the Fijian national team (now integrated and largely Melanesian) embarked on a tour to New Zealand. The captain, Ratu Cakobau (later the first indigenous Governor General of Fiji) went to the local spiritual chief to ask for a dance to match the haka. He was given a Cibi (pronounced Shimbi); like Ka Mate, not strictly a battle cry, but instead a Fijian celebratory dance to laud warriors as they  returned home victorious from battle.

Fiji’s style of rugby (especially in Sevens) replicated the ethos of these dances; aggressive, skilful, quick and creative. It is true of all Islander rugby; the spirit of the challenge laid down is carried through the match. In Tonga, as with the haka, performants of the Sipi Tau are encouraged to lay down their challenge with passion and innovation, as they cry out the words;

Teu lea pea tala ki mamani katoa
Ko e ‘Ikale Tahi kuo halofia
Ke ‘ilo ‘e he sola mo e taka
Ko e ‘aho nit e u tamate tangata

(I shall speak to the whole world
The Sea Eagle is famished unfurl
Let the foreigner and sojourner beware
Today, destroyer of souls, I am everywhere)

For Siale Piutau, to perform the Tipi Sau is to replicate the pledge of the first Tongan King to God, as such combining the warrior tradition of the dance, the Christian missionary origins of Tongan rugby, and the call to the ancestors (familial ancestry, and the ghosts of Tongan rugby past) for their strength and experience. It is the transfer of warrior culture to the rugby field, for it is said the war cry of the Islander is to call forth the honour and pride of Polynesia and withstand all that threatens that enduring tradition, altered through the years, but never diminished.

Let me become one with the land

It is this adaptive, creative element of the dance that many self-titled rugby union “purists” ignore when they deride the cultural challenge. The haka bears the brunt of their repeated criticism, despite its overwhelming global popularity. Scroll down any comments section (I dare you) under an article on New Zealand rugby and you will find voices calling the challenge anything from “unfair,” to “outdated,” from “uncouth” to “savage.” Trolling or serious, these purists indulge in descriptions of savagery and cannibalism; they do not want Pacific culture in rugby.

It would not be tolerated were it to come from another culture, they tell us.

It is only because these cultures are “primitive” that the “PC” World Rugby permits them, they tell us.

It’s ridiculous, in a way, to call it outdated and old-fashioned. The haka is constantly updated. Ka Mate is younger than Jerusalem (sung by England cricket), and the haka has only recently been truly resurrected by the All Blacks. For decades the predominantly Pakeha team performed it with less fervour than a rotund goldfish. Check out this infamous 1973 attempt.

In the ‘90s, led by Maori like Carlos Spencer, the haka became more than a routine. It was more than an evocation of tradition, but like the Sipi Tau, a celebration of the proud past of the All Blacks, one the most successful teams in the history of sport. It’s true of all codes. When the NZRL Kiwis took on Leeds Rhinos this autumn, Kylie Leuluai and Ali Lauitiiti, playing for Leeds, joined their countrymen in a special haka, in a shared celebration of heritage.

The challenge continues to evolve with the times. Samoa and Fiji have both recently updated their challenges to the Tiva Sau and the Bole respectively. The former aimed to inject more aggression into the cry of the Manu Samoa, the latter ensured that the Fijian challenge is now a bona fide Melanesian call-to-arms, rather than the pre-emptive victory celebration of the Cibi. The haka in rugby is no longer limited to male teams (there have always been mixed and female haka in Maori culture); the dominant New Zealand Kiwi Ferns (League) and Black Ferns (Union) perform a haka before every match. In 2005, the All Blacks debuted “Kapa o Pango” (All Blacks), written especially for the team, to reflect its modern multi-cultural makeup.

Kapa o pango kia whakawhenua au I ahau!
(Let me become one with the land)

Hi aue, hi! Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei!
(This is our land Aotearoa that rumbles)

Ponga ra! Kapa o Pango, aue hi!
(Silver fern! All Blacks!)

This new dance was not without its controversy; Tana Umaga, All Black of Samoan descent, leading the haka, drew his arm from the sky and moved his thumb across his throat, beckoning in vital energies to fuel the oncoming effort. It was, instead, misinterpreted by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “violent throat-slitting gesture,” and the Telegraph in all its glory compared it to a “back-street alley” intimidation. The western world could not remove interpretations of savagery from its gaze. Following repeated calls for its removal, the gesture was dropped from Kapa o Pango in 2007.

The purists returned, now arguing that such changes made the challenge ‘inauthentic.’ If it is not traditional, they said, what is even the point? If the dance is not from time immemorial, why can’t anyone perform the haka? Why can’t England perform a Morris dance before a game? (They always go on about Morris dancing).

Short answer is, there’s nothing stopping them. England started singing the old slave song “Swing Low” in 1988, when a group of public school boys from Douai School, Woolhampton belted it out one afternoon in Twickenham. Nowadays, they all sing it, and nobody really knows why (I’d rather they busted out a Morris dance, to be honest).

Long answer: shouts of ‘inauthenticity’ are a symptom of a wider, continuing, lack of understanding of the significance of the Pacific war dance in rugby. The appropriation of the haka, these days, knows no bounds. If you can stomach it, check out the “Hakarena” by Matt Dawson (who, not for the first time, falls foul of a Days of Dial-Up blogpost). Maori and Pakeha alike were unimpressed.

It all ignores what the history and the folklore whispers, and needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Maori and Pacific rugby matters so much, to the sport and to the Oceania region. On contested terrain, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Maori have adopted the game and made it their own, and it is all transmitted through the challenge of the Cibi, Sipi Tau, Siva Tau and Haka; defiantly traditional, ferociously modern. As Dawson and others continue to misappropriate these dances, Pacific cultures have adapted the war dance once again to honour rugby players whose lives were cut short. In 2013, Samoan legend Brian Lima took to the field, barefoot and shirtless, to lead the Siva Tau in honour of Peter Fatialofa, who died suddenly aged 44.

When talented All-Black Jerry Collins passed earlier this year following a road accident in Southern France, a tribute match was held in his honour. Those who knew the Samon-born All Black in Perpignon paid their respects to Collins with an honourary Siva Tau.

These dances, that call forth the spirit of Polynesia have been adopted, movingly, as a guard of honour for those who embodied everything they meant. Nowhere has this been more appropriate when the greatest of them all, Jonah Lomu, suddenly died just two weeks ago, on the 18th November 2015. He was 40. The great winger, the gentle giant, a rugby league player in his youth who went on to transform the game of rugby union with his ferocity and his grace. The legendary All Black of Tongan descent who demolished England and tormented all who dared oppose him on another inevitable run towards the try-line. The great ambassador of Pacific rugby, who went from a difficult childhood to worldwide fame, playing through the pain of nephrotic syndrome, from Auckland to Cardiff. Said Mana ‘Otai, coach of Tonga.

“He gave a lot of hope to young Tongans, both male and female alike…He was one who could inspire others, myself included.”

“Although he played for the All Blacks, he was known worldwide as a Tongan. For Tonga, as a small island nation, that’s something Jonah has provided for us.”

The haka was performed in his honour; his old school led the cry, at his funeral on Monday, his team-mates followed. How else could you honour Lomu, the very embodiment of the struggle, endurance and triumph of Polynesia, than with the words of Te Rauparaha?

This was the man who fetched the sun and made it shine again!

 

NOTES

* The accepted translation of tangata puhuru huru is the “hairy man,” understood to be a tribute to Te Wharerangi, but allblacks.com suggests instead that it in fact alludes to the spiritual qualities of Te Rangikoaea, which Te Rauparaha believed saved his life.

** Rugby arrived in Canada incredibly early, even as it was still being codified in England. However competition from American (Gridiron) and Canadian rules Football meant that rugby never took on the predominance it did elsewhere in the Dominion. Nowadays North American rugby focuses on 7s.

***”Pakeha” is a translation of the Maori word for “of European descent.” Some have claimed that it is a perjorative word, but its use is accepted in most New Zealand publications, and there is no evidence that it has ever been used in a derogatory sense by Maori. I am therefore using it to describe New Zealanders of European descent, for both brevity and to emphasise the focus of this article is on the Maori. For more info, read this

****n 1905 the “Originals” performed the haka in Swansea, to be met by a chorus of “Hen Wlad Y Nhadau.” It is said that this was the moment when the song, penned in the 19th century, became the national anthem of Wales.

Title pic is Jonah Lomu and Te Rauparaha

 

Class of 1823: Rugby Union, a Fault Line through British Society

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It’s Rugby (Union) World Cup time, which means the English press are in the midst of their usual dilemma of getting behind a sport so heavily associated with posh boys, but enjoyed by millions of people. The right-wing mag The Spectator acrobatically found its way around this, arguing that since the game went professional in ’95 these old stereotypes have eroded away into dust. Gavin Mortimer claims, in classic Spectator fashion, that playing the “posh” card is now just the preserve of the “left” (by which he seems to mean Guardian writers and (*ahem*) Tony Blair).

The article makes sense but, like many others, completely misses the point of rugby’s class tensions. For one thing, rugby union has never been solely the preserve of posh boys, which is why it has a much larger following than, say, polo. More importantly, the argument given isn’t true; a BBC Sport report, also released at the start of the tournament, found that 61% of male rugby union players in England are privately-educated, and that professionalism has actually concentrated this divide. English schools that play union are, for the most part, the same old schools, predominantly private or grammar.

The Spectator, as well as those it criticises, are both playing the same game – using rugby union’s enduring association  with elitism to spin their own yarns about Britain’s class tensions. Think carefully about the way rugby (both codes, but especially union) defines itself against football, as the “gentleman’s game” where everybody gets along, the referees are all-powerful, where values and sportsmanship trump the diving, the “softness,” and alleged thuggishness of football.

So where does this tension come from? We have to go back to the start, to the legend of William Webb Ellis, to circumvent the loaded arguments that symbolise rugby one way or another. And why does it even matter? It’s just a game, right? Maybe, but sport is often more than just a reflection of social and cultural tensions within a society, it can provide an outlet for their expression. Conflicts in British society have often spilled over into the sport, and rugby’s internal tensions, built on class, race and masculinity, have helped to mould larger stories of the past.

The Legend of William Webb Ellis, Praeposter

Statue of the young William Webb Ellis, Rugby. Source: socialregister.co.uk

Statue of the young William Webb Ellis, Rugby. Source: socialregister.co.uk

Back before the Victorian Era, sport was for the rich. The poor toiled for six days, and on the Sabbath sport was banned. The exception was public holidays, when massive games of ‘football’ were held on common ground, often with hundreds of participants, a pig’s bladder (hence the shape of the “hand-egg” rugby ball) and very few rules. Industrialisation saw the decline of these matches, but the wealthy, under the influence of “muscular Christianity,” adopted the game and began to codify it (so beginning rugby’s longstanding association with manliness).

One such rulebook, described by the author of rugby’s legend Matthew Bloxam, told that the best players would position themselves at the front, “hacking” the opposition and advancing the ball with feet, whilst anybody who caught the ball was able to “call the mark” (as it is now known) whereupon he was free to retreat, as the opposition could not advance past that mark. One day, it is said, in a match between Rugby School and Bigside, a boy, William Webb Ellis, caught a high ball, and in contradiction to the accepted way of doing things, ran forward with bladder-in-hand. A new game was born.

This legend, first told by Bloxam in 1876, is now widely held to be false. The truth of it doesn’t matter however, its importance as a founding myth in rugby’s history is undiminished, and the Rugby Union World Cup’s big shiny trophy carries Webb Ellis’ name. Webb Ellis, the creator, was from a family of modest means. Salford-born, his widowed mother moved the family down to Rugby to take advantage of Rugby School’s fee exemption for all “town boys” who lived within 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower. It was not a “posh boy” who invented the game, by this telling of the story.

But Bloxam pointed out that the creation of the game was dependent on the hierarchies of public school, that reflected patterns of domestic labour and class domination. Ellis, an older boy, was a “Praeposter” or prefect. Were he a “fag” (a younger boy who served the every whim of the upper school), Bloxam argues, “he probably would have received more kicks than commendations. How oft is it that such small matters lead to great results.”

For Gentlemen Only

Perhaps, or was it symbolic of the fact that, throughout the 19th Century as rugby separated from football and spread, the upper echelons of rugby’s participants held the keys to the running of the game. Rugby was now very popular in the industrial North, but the richer participants dominated its administration and were now obsessed with the concept of “amateurism.” This belief, that players should take no payment, was ostensibly designed to protect the game from bad sportsmanship, but underneath aimed to keep the sport for “gentlemen” only. Rugby’s hits were harder than football, injuries were more severe, and an uncompensated working-class participant risked losing vital wages and even a job if injured during a match.

If sport was to be for gentlemen only, it was the latter syllable that was especially enforced. Women’s football of all forms was met with fierce protests; matches were often abandoned due to violent protests. Women’s rugby was therefore largely played behind closed doors, but women have played some form of rugby since at least 1881. In Ireland, Emily Valentine is recognised as the first women’s rugby player, after she played for Portera Royal School’s team in Enskillen. But it was not until the 1960s that women’s rugby was tolerated in the public sphere.

Emily Valentine. Source: BBC

Emily Valentine. Source: BBC Sport

Amateurism became strictly enforced, as infringements were many. Rugby’s ruling class (including those in Lancashire and Yorkshire) feared losing control of what they saw as their game, after exactly that happened following the messy professionalization of association football in 1885 after similar tensions. Players caught taking any payment were often banned for life.

In 1895, the tension reached critical mass, over the issue of “broken time.” Northern clubs largely recruited their players from local factories, mills, and mines; physical labour that could not be done with a serious rugby injury. Broken Time would install a system of compensation for time missed from work and medical treatment. But the Southeastern self-appointed guardians of rugby were firmly against it; they saw it as a nail in the coffin of amateurism and the guarantee of a move to professionalism and all of its (largely-imagined) demons.

There was no explicit intention to go professional at this time, but the schism still came. The Northern players found an unusual ally at this juncture; their bosses. These industrial kingpins, often heavily involved in the local club, had a stake in Broken Time too – local rivalries had sprung up, and success for their club gave them regional prestige as well as bragging rights. At the George Hotel in Huddersfield, 20 clubs from Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire announced their departure from the RFU to form the Northern Union, later becoming the Rugby Football League. The heartland of popular rugby had seceded; what appeared to remain of rugby union was a sport of the public schools and universities.

Salford v Batley, 2nd November 1901, showing the early popularity of Northern Union Rugby and its importance life to in Salford. Source: Salford Reds Heritage

Don’t Mention Wales

Rugby league, it’s been said, was the sport of the “new (trade) unionism,” getting its participants a fairer deal. It quickly developed in this manner, embracing professionalism, removing the lineout and the ruck for a faster, fan-friendlier version of the game. A “people’s game,” maybe, but union never completely purged the poor from its ranks, even as it clung dogmatically to the Gentlemanly code of Amateurism. “Don’t mention Wales, it gets complicated,” writes Stuart Maconie, endorsing the Masses vs the Classes tale of league and union. Well, in this story,…you HAVE to mention Wales. Rugby Union is the national game there, especially in the (traditionally working-class) Valleys, and I can tell you from personal experience that it is ingrained into the psyche of every person born west of Offah’s Dyke. But that’s not just why Wales must be part of the story, instead, it’s because even here class politics have shaped the game, once again highlighting the complex and essential relationship between rugby union and British society.

Rugby came to Wales in the same way; via Oxford and Cambridge. Wealthy Welsh students brought it back to Cardiff and Swansea, and the game slowly migrated up the Usk and the Taff. The Welsh People’s Game, in these early days, was not immune from privileging the Gentlemen; the earliest national sides were [controversially] comprised of the Oxbridge boys. Things changed, however, after the dragons got demolished by England 82-0 (on modern scoring) in 1881. A collective embarrassment, in a way, helped narrow the class divide. In the future they picked more miners at the front (known as the “Rhondda forwards,” they began a trend of increasingly-bulky characters in the front-row).

This alone wasn’t enough to ensure league didn’t take off in Wales. It helped that the WRU turned many a blind eye to broken time payments. Distance was probably the biggest roadblock. It was simply too difficult for Welsh clubs to find enough opponents nearby; a Welsh league club didn’t have the money to travel up to the North week after week. Pofessionalism costs money, and despite the efforts of the Northern Union, investment never materialised. Although clubs in Ebbw Vale and Mythyr Tydfil formed, they were not to last. Wales was, however, far from hostile towards league; the first every international league match was held there between Wales and New Zealand, who themselves were causing controversy back home receiving payment to play, slandered as the “All Golds” by a fiercely pro-union press.

Over the following decades, many Welsh players would go on to “take the Northern pound” and join the professional league, particularly when hard times hit the mining towns. In the tough 1980s, when many industries left never to return, the Welsh union team suffered. Players such as Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs went North so they could afford to live. The success of the Welsh team has been linked to the physicality of mining; when the pits closed, they took the work and with it the primary source of conditioning. Professionalism rescued Welsh union, to an extent, but the Welsh clubs have struggled to hold on to their players, many of whom now play in the lucrative (and balmy) south of France.

The West Country, another region of widespread participation, similarly remained loyal to the old form of the game. Not coincidentally, Wales and the Southwest both had very popular forms of folk-football (Cnapan and Cornish Hurling, respectively) before all this codification began. Gloucester, a working-class club, was one of the strictest adherents to amateurism, ironically after its reputation was heavily damaged for frequent violations regarding payments prior to the schism. Union remains popular in that part of the world, increasingly so, if you look at the Chiefs and the Pirates. World Cup winner Phil Vickery is a proud Cornishman, former dairy farmer (and qualified cow inseminator, for what it’s worth).

Cornwall's county team, representing Great Britain, won silver at the 1908 Olympics

Cornwall’s county team, representing Great Britain, won silver at the 1908 Olympics. Source: Cornish Pirates

The Wrong SIde of History, Vichy and Apartheid

The two codes went their separate ways, but both went on to cross the channel. Rugby played a part in the establishment of the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. The decade prior, league was growing in popularity in southern France, but as the Vichy regime was established, the situation changed. Philippe Pétain was suspicious of the “socialist” rugby league and moved to ban the game, encouraged in his actions by French rugby union, who informed him that league was “un-French” and a “corrupter” of young Frenchmen. The Fédération Rugby Française became Vichy collaborators, and French rugby league was stripped of its assets, worth millions of Francs, to help fund the Nazi-sympathetic regime. In contrast, prominent league players such as Paul Barrière would join the Resistance.

Back in Britain, rugby union again largely found itself on the wrong side of history as the Home Nations and the British Lions frequently played the Springboks, the pride of Apartheid South Africa, during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1968, the Welsh flanker and school teacher John Taylor, otherwise known as “Basil Brush,” made himself an exception. What happened next speaks volumes.

“I wanted to be a Lion. I put all the misgivings to the back of my mind, believed all the twaddle about building bridges and that we weren’t supporting apartheid and as soon as I got there I realised very much that we were.”

He was instructed by the authorities to ignore the “politics” of it, told instead that “our rugby and our girls are great so go and enjoy them” (another example of how the “manliness” of rugby was evoked). After ’68, he refused to wear the red of Wales, or of the Lions, when facing the ‘Boks. The WRU didn’t ban him, but inexplicably left him out of the team for four games.

“I had been told very clearly that had I been English I would have never played international rugby again.”

The episode is indicative of the enduring elite dominance of union administration into the ‘70s, how it reinforced itself on racism and global politics. The case of Taylor shows that their attitude was not shared by all of its players, but the significant pressure from above to unquestioningly prop up Apartheid ensured that dissenters remained the exception. At the time of the 1974 Lions Tour to South Africa, Taylor recalled,

“’74 was the big deal. I was absolutely convinced that the rest of the sporting world was right and that there was this sort of massive arrogance in rugby that the brotherhood of rugby, the fraternity of rugby, meant more than the brotherhood of man – that they couldn’t be bad chaps because they played rugby. It was very much that sort of arrogance that I absolutely deplored in rugby. I had no doubts at all.”

(11min) Highlights of Lions ’74 tour of South Africa. Notice how it focuses on the sport and nothing but the sport. The only “controversy” mentioned was over a legitimate try not given. Also note how good JJ Williams was.

Rugby (both codes, but especially union) has correspondingly been a historically unwelcoming place for players of colour. The first black player to play for England was in union; another pioneering Salfordian, James Peters, made his debut on 17th March 1906 against Scotland. “His selection was by no means popular on racial grounds,” reported the Yorkshire Post, and he became known in the rugby world as “Darkie Peters.” In 1907 the RFU refused to select him against the Springboks, who did not want a black player on the pitch. A working man, Peters played and worked in Plymouth but was kicked out of the union for playing a single league match in the West Country. He saw out his career in the northern league.

James Peters, England's first black international. Source: England Rugby

James Peters, England’s first black international. Source: England Rugby

The first black league international was George Bennett who played for England in the 1930s. Bennett, by birth, was a Welshman, but was forced up north after ostracism within Welsh rugby by a governing body hostile to black players. The WRU, as the Taylor episode shows, did not cover themselves in roses when it came to racial equality. Until Glenn Webbe made his debut against Tonga in 1986, the Welsh team was all white. Colin Charvis would become Wales’ first captain of colour, leading his side at the 2003 World Cup. Although English league and union have become increasingly diverse in recent years, both codes have failed to make inroads amongst Britain’s significant South Asian population.

Women’s rugby union has expanded rapidly in the last twenty years, despite hostility from the IRB, who attempted to undermine the second women’s world cup tournament in 1994. Participation is increasing in both codes. 11 000 women play union in England, and up north, the women’s RFL is the largest in the world. But rugby’s association with masculinity endures, and women’s rugby receives little mainstream coverage. BBC Sport, for example, since 2012 has extended its coverage of women’s sport; football is regularly on TV (with the BBC showing all of the recent World Cup in Canada), and the Ashes was broadcast on Test Match Special. But women’s rugby has not been as much a part of this. England women won the Rugby Union World Cup last year. Few people noticed. Progress is slow, but hopefully the inclusion of women’s rugby sevens in the 2016 Olympics can provide a catalyst for change.

Local elites, global elites

“Bagehot” in The Economist said it well. “Britain’s main team sports, football, cricket and rugby, have always reflected the big tensions in society: conflicts over wealth and class, of north against south. Only rugby has been rent by them.” But this, and many of the sources here, are inward-facing. As the Lions tours to Apartheid South Africa suggest, rugby union’s history and politics have also reflected the relationship between its participant countries.

Professionalism has exacerbated the one aspect of rugby union that intrinsically favours the wealthy – increased strength and conditioning (and with it, increased injury). And to the richest, go the spoils. During the group stages Tonga’s Epi Taione slammed World Rugby for its continued concentration of  resources in the hands of the “elite” of world union: the Home Nations, and the former settler colonies of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. So spoke Taione.

“Rugby is so out of touch. It’s run by colonialists who still think they run the world like it was 100 years ago.”

The poorer unions in the Pacific Islands have to share World Rugby bursaries, and their national teams are increasingly forced to raise funds for tours, training and world cup campaigns. Before Japan’s heroics this autumn, it is worth remembering that it has been Samoa, who ran the formidable 2003 England team close, Tonga, who beat finalists France in 2011, and Fiji, twice quarter-finalists, who have brought what might be called the “spirit of rugby” to the RU World Cup, saving it from dull predictability. Yet these nations, poorer, distant, and so important to the history and character of rugby, are being increasingly pushed from a game that is ostensibly committed to increasing global participation.

Villiame Vaki scores for Tonga against South Africa, RUWC 2007

I’ll talk about them more in another blog post next week. For now though it is worth saying that, although never solely the domain of the wealthy, the class and imperial divisions of rugby, both in Britain and worldwide, have always and continue to affect and damage the game. As the world of rugby union pats itself on the back for Japan’s recent success, the increasing struggle of the Pacific Islands should be remembered.

(Title picture is of current England players dressed as “Gentlemen” (source Daily Mail), and a soggy mountain pitch in Wales)

Fire on Ice: The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team and the Art of Being Taken Seriously

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When Viv Richards met Bob Marley in London in 1976 (as documented by the great film Fire in Babylon), they found themselves in awe of one another.

I really love what you’re doing out there-No I really love what you’re doing.

What they were actually doing was far more than representing West Indian culture in the outside world, in England, or anywhere else, but they were forcing the outside world to take them, and the Caribbean as a whole, very seriously.

When the Jamaican bobsleigh team arrived in Calgary, 1988, they faced a similar challenge. We all know the story; the Winter Olympic team who had never been on the ice, we’ve all seen Cool Runnings. Not only did they need to do well to avoid the subsequent misery suffered by that other great Calgary hero, Eddie the Eagle, who was cruelly deemed too embarrassing to compete again, but against the constant portrayal of Caribbeans as fun-loving, casual folk with a culture borrowed from elsewhere.

The stakes were high.

It’s hard to say how far back this attitude hails from; but you can find it in the alleged docility of slaves in the eyes of their white masters. You can find it in the blackfaced Uncle Toms of the 19th Century USA and in the Songs of the South eighty years on. You can find it in the near-complete disinterest of foreign social scientists (with a few notable exceptions) in seriously studying Caribbean culture as it was rejected as a mongrelised, inauthentic, impure thing.

This attitude was alive and well in the great Caribbean exports of music and sport in the latter 20th Century. Against the fire and protest of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and their forerunners Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker, there was a mountain of Pop Reggae, with backing-track sound system, designed to sell a tamed Caribbean to White America and Europe.

Clive Lloyd’s West Indies came together after twenty years of repetitive defeats. The team had previously thrilled foreign crowds with flamboyant, creative play, but always fell short in the end. They were paraded, mobbed, and cheered by Australian fans after the “Calypso summer” of 1960-61. But Calypso Cricket had an expiry date, as Lloyd’s team forced a drilled athleticism and an anti-colonial fire on their opponents, and started winning. Started dominating. Humiliating their opponents. They were hated for it abroad, and England captain (and White South African) Tony Greig symbolized the disparaging attitude perfectly.

“If they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Clossy and a few others, to make them grovel”

(How he failed)

The Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation founded by two American businessmen in Jamaica, George Fitch and William Maloney, saw the talent in the Jamaican sprinters, and the skill in the local pushcart derby, and imagined the whole thing on ice. Unlike the film, they were able to train on the ice at Lake Placid, but had dreadful equipment, and reached Calgary without confidence and without the means to compete.

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Fundraising started quickly, and t-shirts, merchandise, and the official song Hobbin’ and a Bobbin’ , sung by team member and electrician Frederick Powell, hit Canada hard. Two of the squad, driver and helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes (and eventual veteran of four Winter Olympics), and his brakeman Michael White slid the two-man under the strict attention of media mockery. The overarching feeling was aptly summed up by the more-sympathetic LA Times;

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Jamaicans do not belong on bobsleds, they belong on the beach. At least that’s the common perception”

For all the attention, for all the reggae and the colour of the PR, the achievement of reaching Calgary by right was overlooked. The first day of the four-man sled competition went off without a hitch, but Stokes and White, joined by Devon Harris and Chris Stokes, remained focused despite the disparaging media hysteria.

It was not the nasty East Germans of Cool Runnings (a communist, formerly-Nazi, non-existent country that made the perfect Hollywood nemesis) that were the enemies of the team; the other athletes were highly supportive of the team, as they knew the difficulties and dangers of the sled. It was the Fédération International de Bobsleigh et de Tabogganing (FITB), who feared that the Jamaicans would embarrass the sport. As Dudley Stokes lost control of the sled and Jamaica crashed out, the applause was sporadic, the sled was carried off by some anonymous maintenance staff, and the media had the perfect Calypso Conclusion to their sideshow.

Dudley Stokes, Freddie Powell, Devon Harris, Michael White, PC. Harris

The money had dried up, but George Fitch stuck with them until 1992. Yet the team were not done. As the official website of the team writes in their detailed history of the team,

“Team members saw themselves as athletes; not as showmen”

They worked hard and proved to fundraisers and the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation they were worth supporting. They earned their way to the 1992 Games, and by the 1994 games in Lillehammer, they were a force to be reckoned with.

The year before, Cool Runnings was released; the film that has shaped how we remember Calgary. Sure there is a lot of Calypso imagery; the sprinters running on a dirt track in the National Championships and all the fish-out-of-water antics, but that is not the point of the film, and nor is it why it is significant. It is the way it tells the story of four highly-tuned sprinters who learned to slide the bobsleigh, and slide it well, by “feelin’ the rhythm” of Jamaica, by being true to themselves. And they proved everybody wrong.

Of course, it is likely that the Jamaican four-man crashed due to pilot error (it was not mechanical failure as in the film), and were certainly not on world record pace, but that doesn’t matter. It changed foreign views of the event; the team were no longer seen as a freak show, an anomaly, like the unfortunate Eddie the Eagle (who worked ridiculously hard to get to Calgary), but as the team from the tropics that could conquer the ice with the fire in their bellies and their athletic ability.

And in Lillehammer they were equals. As Bob Marley’s Legend now sits on every CD rack in the West, as modern cricket mourns not the decline of Calypso Cricket, but the uncompromising brilliance of Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, and Viv Richards, so Jamaican bobsleigh is known for overachievement. In Lillehammer, they ended the Olympics in 14th place – the 14th best bobsled team in the world, and better than America.

“If we were the jokers, and we had beaten America, what was America?”

The bobsleigh team had persevered, survived, and forced others to take them seriously. In Salt Lake City, 2002, Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown broke the start record for the two-man bob. Sadly, it took until two weeks ago at Sochi for Jamaica (and Watt, in his forties) to return to the Olympic scene. And the media went wild with Cool Runnings imagery. There were a few disparaging voices as usual; a BBC commentator spectacularly missed the point, moodily noting that “they weren’t even the highest placed Caribbean team in Calgary” – that was in the two man, beaten by the Netherlands Antilles (in the four they DNF’d).

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That doesn’t matter. They qualified by right to Sochi, and got from top to bottom quickly and unscathed, and slid on a history built not only on Cool Runnings but on the achievements of Lillehammer and Salt Lake City, on Winston Watt, who kept the standard raised with four Olympic appearances, and on Lascelles Brown, who took Canadian citizenship in 2005 (for his wife) and won Olympic silver in Turin, and bronze in Vancouver. A word too, for Lieutenant Antonette Gorman, and Captain Judith Blackwood, Jamaica’s first female sliders, and Portia Morgan and Jennifer Cole, who competed in the World Cup series for Jamaica.

It is the achievements of those athletes, in the face of all those who mocked them, doubted them, that the bobsleigh became, alongside reggae and cricket, an unlikely weapon in the continuing fight for the Caribbean to be viewed seriously by the outside world.

Skeleton Women: The British habit of sliding head-first down icy slopes

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On Sunday Jenny Jones achieved sport’s biggest accolade and made history, becoming the first Britain to win (and keep*) an Olympic medal on snow. Yet she joins a growing list of British women (with Lizzie Yarnold currently leading the Sochi competition) in extreme sport who have mined out all the medals for Britain since 2002.

Until Jones, all of these medals came in the skeleton, that gentle pastime whereby you throw yourself down a thin stream of ice, head first of course, steering yourself at 80mph with intricate wiggles and taps of your feet. Alex Coomber started off the trend in 2002 with bronze at Salt Lake City, when skeleton returned to the programme after a 54-year absence. Rudman claimed silver in Turin four years later, before Amy Williams went one better and dominated the competition in Vancouver 2010.

The British phobia of winter is well-known, and the annual barbeque here on the first warm day in March is nearly as big as Christmas. So it is remarkable to find that alongside this success is the fact that the British had a massive hand in the invention of ice-sliding sports.

It all began in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz, with a wager. St. Moritz was a spa town back in 1864, popular with wealthy Victorians looking to replenish themselves in summer. As September hit, hotelier Johannes Badrutt watched his English guests packing up for London, taking their riches with them. So Badrutt suggested a bet;

Come and see the Alps this winter, and if you are bored, cold, or unhappy, I will pay for everything. The St. Moritz tourist page celebrates the moment the English discovered the winter for the first time, gasping in amazement at the sunshine (of all things) and the glorious scenery. Badrutt won his bet, and soon the British populated the Alps every winter, and like all British tourists of history, decided to take over the town.

The British tourists managed to get hold of a delivery sled, which they put to use to slide on the icy, precarious, and dangerously downhill narrow streets of the town. (Slightly) more sophisticated guests decided that a simple delivery sled would not do; some would not travel in anything less than a carriage, and so the first bobsleds were constructed.

The Swiss hoteliers had created a monster and soon their fellow townspeople were being threatened by daring tourists, sliding through the streets at difficult speed. They decided to construct some purpose-built toboggan tracks to keep the British off the streets; one of these became the Cresta Run, built by Major John Bulpett in 1884/5, and quickly became represented by the St Moritz Tabogganing Club (SMTC). The first “Grand National” race was held in 1885, and in 1890, the “erratic” Mr Cornish made the decision to go down the Cresta head first. Skeleton was born.

It is a shame how quickly skeleton and Cresta (seen as a different sport by some) became so exclusive. According to British Skeleton, it now costs £450 for each slide down the pipe. It was always a domain of the wealthy, but there was a simple romance about those early sliders, who grabbed a sled at the top of the hill and threw themselves at it. The SMTC saw it fit, in the 1920s, to ban women from their course. Their website writes;

“Mrs J.M Baguley was the last lady to ride the Cresta in a race on 13th January 1925. Ladies rode in practice after that date, but were banned from riding on 6th January 1929.”

They do not elaborate, and the terms and conditions simply state “women are not permitted to ride the Cresta run”. You have to wonder what it was that changed their minds. Perhaps it is related to the refusal to allow women to compete in long-distance running events in this era, based on some perceived notion of physical inferiority. The modern Olympic Games have since rectified this; in Sochi the sole male-only event remaining is the Nordic Combined.

But the spiritual home and birthplace of the sport remains closed; women cannot ride the Cresta. Former rugby star Matt Dawson, in his article for the Daily Mail, was astute enough to spot the presence of the descendants of the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, but didn’t notice the complete absence of women. Ian Cowie, writing in the Telegraph, simply mentions they have been banned since 1929, but again spies a Ribbentrop, and both note the army traditions and Old Boy atmosphere that surrounds the Cresta.

It is patently ridiculous that if Amy Williams turned up with her sled at the Cresta today she would likely be turned away. If they still believe women aren’t “tough enough” to ride the Cresta, they should watch the achievements of Lizzie Yarnold, Williams, and Shelley Rudman. If that is not enough, they should consider RAF officer Alex Coomber, who slid the course at Salt Lake City with a broken wrist, which she’d injured just 10 days earlier in training, and took the bronze.