How did the world come to know the giant jailer from Bermuda?
Trinidad, 2007. Minnows Bermuda were up against the might of India, who were to bat first. The kid Malachi Jones raced in to bowl to talented opener Robin Uthappa, and the batsman pushed at a ball best left to its own devices. The ball glanced the edge of Uthappa’s bat and skidded to Leverock’s right. Flying through the air, belying his 280lbs, Leverock snatched the ball, cat-like, from the sky and tumbled to the ground victorious. He decided to do a victory sprint in celebration of the greatest moment in Bermudan cricket. “Then Irving Romaine tried to lift me up – I thought I was going to crack my back.”
The Men’s Cricket World Cup has always been the worst of the world cups. It’s known mainly for its torturous meander to the important matches, its boycotts, its predictability, and its inevitable submission to the elements. But, such is the nature of this wonderful game that despite all this, it still produces sublime sky’s-edge drama that is the very essence of sport itself. Of course, you can get all that (and quicker) at the World T20 (Carlos Brathwaite v Ben Stokes still sends shivers). But there used to be something wonderful and unique to the Men’s CWC that would break the doldrums of those month-long group stages.
The Associates – the smaller, lower-ranked, unlikely cricketing
And the greatest associate player of them all was Kevin O’Brien Dwayne Leverock. And yes, it’s because of his size. You see, “Sluggo”, as he is affectionately known, is both an absolute unit and an all-round sportsman.
“He’s big and because of that he attracts a lot of attention, but it does not deter him.” – 2007 Bermuda coach Gus Logie.
Back home, Russell Dwayne Mark Leverock worked in a jail and lived above a curry house. But in St Vincent, 2007, he shot to fame in a World Cup warm-up match against England. Ball in hand, Sluggo strode to the crease, all 20 stone of him, looking the very model of an amateur associate. And facing him down, grasping firm the heavy bat that was the scourge of bowlers everywhere, was Kevin Pietersen, the template of the 21st century batsman – a mercenary that would travel the world playing cricket as if he were a rock star.
Cricket favours the batsman, and all the odds were stacked
against Sluggo. Dwayne recalled that Pietersen “was chuckling at certain deliveries”,
but the joy of Leverock’s appearance is entirely in its deception. The magic of
spin bowling lives within the combination of control and wit to steal a batsman’s
wicket, and often render them foolish. Pietersen, aloof, chased Leverock’s
delivery up the pitch, seeking to dismiss this associate turner back to the
bleachers, where he belonged. But, like the great wizard Murali, Dwayne read his
He’d learned well. Guiding the ball higher and wider than usual, he evaded Pietersen’s violent, vain attempt to clobber the ball. Stumped, Pietersen was done. Like a judoka, Leverock had turned the England giant’s strength against him. The harder they come…
“Pietersen’s delivery. I saw he was trying to come down the wicket an I thought I would toss it up higher and wider. He came down the track, tried to drive, missed and Dean took off the bails.”
It was because of his size that Sluggo went viral – but he was most certainly not the side show suggested by the still shots that accompanied the headlines. “I heard it was on the back page of every paper in England.” Watching him in action, you could see his ability. An amateur, yes – but one who had studied his art with the graft of a professional and had, at the age of 35, been granted the opportunity to prove himself at the highest stage. But what he did next left no doubts.
“I’m not going to do anything extravagant,” he said, prior
to the start of the competition proper. “I’ll just do it to the best of my ability.”
The thing about Leverock is that, no matter his size, the man is a fine athlete. Before his 2007 heroics he was a striker for Bermuda’s PHC Zebras football team, and he once visited Humberside to play Hull City. He’s also a fierce competitor. After he made his first international 50 with the bat against the Netherlands in 2006, he was so frustrated with his dismissal that he argued with the umpire and then whacked his bat in the dressing room in frustration. Over his career he took 34 wickets in 32 Internationals – batsmen found it tough to score off his miserly spin, a mark of his discipline and guile.
Then to Trinidad, for the World Cup. The biggest stage of all. It is testament to Leverock’s finest hour that absolutely nobody talks about how in Bermuda’s first match, against a Sri Lanka at the height of their powers, he dismissed a batsman even more prestigious than Pietersen – one of the greatest to ever grace a sporting arena, Kumar Sangakkara. The Bermudans, unfortunately, were ripped to shreds by Sri Lanka’s sublime roster of bowlers. Leverock, out last, was fittingly outfoxed by his hero, Murali.
Next up was India, who batted first. Bermuda were obliterated once again, but who remembers that! This time, the stills of Sluggo’s diving catch could not mask the talent on display. In that moment, Leverock’s legacy was secured.
The World Cup itself was a torrid affair, even for men’s cricket. The ICC had strangled the joy out of that most joyous of cricketing regions – the West Indies – with high ticket prices and embargoes on all the pitchside fun that was intrinsic to the festival of Caribbean cricket. Worse was to come. After their shock defeat to Ireland, Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer was found dead in his Jamaica hotel room. The rest of the tournament was surrounded in grief and intrigue. The final ended in farce in Barbados darkness, with yet another Australia win. What sparks there were came from the (then) associates Ireland and Bangladesh, who performed brilliantly and disposed of Pakistan and India respectively, and, of course, by Dwayne Leverock – the man who showed the world that the talented and athletic can come in many shapes and sizes.
Bermuda, unfortunately, quickly fell from grace, overtaken by teams with better resources and strength-in-depth. Sluggo retired in 2009 – Bermuda’s great servant bowing out after the team failed to qualify for the next world cup. “It is time to take a backseat especially with the youngsters coming through,” said a tearful Leverock. “I want to try to give them an opportunity to play and maybe I can spend some more time with my daughter.”
For this 2019 World Cup, the number of participating teams
has been slashed to 10. All those who qualified are from highly trained and well-resourced
cricketing nations. Yet the tournament is still horrifically long – every team
will play at least nine matches, in the ICC’s never-ending quest to extract every
penny they can out of sub-continental television rights – is that not, after
all, the true spirit of cricket? In a world of pay-walled coverage and the
hacksawed chimera of “The Hundred,” it’s hard to think otherwise.
And so we have to endure a six-week slumber to the semi-finals
without the joys of the Associate Nations, who always surprised their doubters
with their undeniable talents. Against that backdrop, we might have to look at
Leverock as a relic of a time gone by, a time when cricket was for everybody.
“It has meant so much to me to have people recognise me for
who I am as an athlete,” he once told the Bermuda Sun. “I always have time for
youngsters. It’s a nice feeling to sign autographs and give them advice on
Why do the men’s world cup teams of 2018 look the way they do? Where do their nicknames come from?
I’ll start with England. England wear a red change kit because of a Haitian called Joe Gaetjens.
(Yes I know it’s from the cross of St George, go with me on this).
Until the 1950s England wore blue jerseys when faced with a lilywhite opposition. England traditionally wear white and blue as these were the colours of the FA. Aside from the occasional red sock for a bit of variety, white and blue were the order of the day until one famous afternoon in Belo Horizonte.
The 1950 world cup, England v the USA. The Americans wore white, so the Three Lions put on their familiar blue. The English, in their first world cup and one of the favourites, were widely expected to demolish the team of semi-pros and Sunday leaguers, who drafted in a Scot, a Belgian and the Haitian “Ti-Jo” Gaetjens to strengthen the team.
Gaetjens, from an elite Port-au-Prince family, came to the US in 1947 to study accounting at Columbia, and caught the attention of the US selectors playing for Brookhatten, who took him with them to Brazil. 37 minutes in, and Ti-Jo dived in to deflect a Walter Behr shot into the back of the net. That was enough to defeat England. Oh Spenser St John, Graham Greene, Hesketh-Hesketh Prichard – your boys took a hell of a beating!
After this embarrassment, the accursed blue kit was binned. The next time a change kit was needed, England appeared in their now-fabled lucky red outfit. Of course, England got worse afterwards, and things did not change until The Magical Magyars of Hungary disintegrated England’s defence twice in a row (6-3, 7-1). Fortunately, England were wearing white on those days, so the red shirt was spared the dustbin of history.
Gaetjens returned to Haiti soon afterwards. In 1964, he was arrested on (tenuous) suspicion of anti-Duvalierist activity, and sent to the infamous Fort Dimanche torture camp. It was there he died.
England aren’t the only ones who changed their look for superstitious reasons. Japan used to wear red and white in mimicry of their national flag, like most other countries do. Things went so wrong during the early 90s, that the Japanese went blue. Things got better, and now blue is here to stay, celebrated by their current nickname, the Blue Samurai.
Three Leopards on the Shirt…
England also got their nickname from the FA. The Three Lions adorn the traditional English crest first adopted by the association after its boozy founding in the Freemasons Tavern pub in 1863. The “leopard” as it was known was first used by Henry I, but trebled by Richard the Leopardticker a few decades later, because he had a thing for big cats.
England’s latest nemeses, the Belgians, themselves are the first lot to be known as the Red Devils. Before Salford, and before Man Utd. After a brief dabble with white uniforms, they stuck with red, and after Pierre Walckiers gifted them their luciferian moniker in 1906, the name and the kit were set in stone.
Not to be outdone, the Spanish are known as the “Red Fury” – La furia roja. This is as much a reflection on their traditional style of play as it is their jerseys – a lesson lost on their class of 2018 who suffocated themselves and half of their audience with their centre-passes-to-right-passes-to-centre play. Completing this furious tricolour are yellow and blue. Red and yellow are the Aragonian colours that comprise the flag. I’m not certain where the blue comes from, perhaps from the Castillian shield. But it has to be blue.
Definitely not purple.
Whereas in Britain that colour is associated with royalty, in Spain it has distinct republican connotations, and the Spanish performance was treasonous enough without accusations of wishing to abolish the monarchy.
In contrast to Spain’s rigid rules, their conquerers, the Russians, cannot quite decide what suits them best. They are currently on a red, flag-themed number, after dabbling with whites and blues as well as a recent flirtation with the traditional colours of maroon and gold. It’s probably why they keep the nickname simple – “Sbornaya” – or “team”. It’s similar in that way to Die Mannshaft of Germany, or the Melli of Iran. Go team.
Some go even simpler than that – Costa Rica are dubbed Los Ticos, or, “The Costa Ricans,” whereas Iceland go with the loving “our boys,” appropriate for a team that brought 10% of the country with them. Others nickname their teams after their colours. Sweden are known as Blågult or “blue-yellows,” Peru and Poland? They’re both known as the “white and reds.” Argentina? La albiceleste, the blue and whites.
Many nicknames and kits reflect or extend the team’s role in nation-building and patriotic excitement. Portugal are the “team of the five” (Seleção das Quinas) reflecting the five shields on the national crest. Serbia’s “White Eagles” follow the lead of the double-headed eagle that came to Serbia from the Byzantine days.
Some teams are less traditional, and are instead monikered as if run by the Tourist Board. Egypt are the Pharaohs – no brains strained on that one. Morocco are the Atlas Lions, adopting that now-regionally extinct creature. Tunisia hark back to Hannibal as the finely-named Eagles of Carthage, and the Koreans represent as the Warriors of Taegeuk, the harmonious symbol that adorns the South Korean flag. Best/Worst in Show would belong to Australia’s Socceroos, were it not for the Canal Men of Panama.
The most obvious way in which football teams are conscripted to fly the flag is by dressing as a flag, further undermining the ridiculous notion that international football has nothing to do with politics. Brazil, The Canaries, they used to wear white too. Once again, their change of outfit was forged in defeat. After the soul withering defeat in the 1950 world cup final to Uruguay at the Maracanã, the plain white-T was deemed insufficiently patriotic, and so a competition was held to design a new kit based on the colours of the flag. The winning entry debuted four years later.
Brazil’s iconic blue change strip came as an accident. In 1958, against Sweden in the final, yellow met yellow, and Brazil had no alternative. The Canaries rushed to the shops and bought a set of blue jerseys, in which they won the cup. In the 1950s, as the world cup and international football rose up within a post-war era of redefining nationalisms, many teams moved towards a more patriotic model. For example, at this time Mexico abandoned their old maroon and blue combo to be dressed as a tricolour.
The Green and Gold of the Association Football Kangaroos, to use their full name, was first adopted in 1924 but later ascribed meaning – gold for the beaches, green for the land. In fact, the tradition comes from the decision by Aussie cricketers to wear baggy green caps on tour to England one year.
Some kits are not only an outward expression of nation, but a memory of a moment in time. Uruguay where sky blue in celebration of River Plate FC’s famous victory over the legendary Argentinian side Alumni. In Uruguay, that was a seriously big deal, as the first time a Uruguayan side had conquered the pride of Argentina. In tribute, the national team wore sky blue shirts that mimicked River Plate’s change kit that day.
Colombia, the “coffee growers,” before finally turning patriotic, have often flattered the great teams of their age with mimicry. In 1938 they donned sky blue in honour of Uruguay and Argentina. In the 70s, the went Dutch Orange.
Peru’s adored red sash is a piece of cultural history. It is said to be inspired by Peruvian schoolboy football, where so many teams once wore white that the away team would wear sashes over their kits to identify each other.
Despite the unimaginative nature of a great many team nicknames, some bring joy. Denmark became known as the Danish Dynamite in honour of their spine-tingling ’80s vintage, whilst Switzerland exude cool arrogance with their moniker, the A-Team. Nigeria, once the Green Eagles, renamed themselves the Super Eagles after a painful defeat to Cameroon in the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations Final, to give the team that extra edge.
By far my favourite nickname belongs to Senegal, the Lions of Teranga. It’s a title that stretches beyond simple nationalism into culture and the collective spirit that marks the best of international football. Teranga, a Wolof word, reflects hospitality, giving, caring and looking out for one another. Cisse’s lions accordingly look after one another, and reflect grace in victory and in defeat.
I’ll end, then, with the two finalists. France’s blue kit originates from the old days when they were another walking flag, and their name, Les Blues, naturally comes from that. Adorning their crest is the Coq Gallois, that roosting symbol of French sport. It is an ancient French symbol, restored during the revolution, to mark the daily triumph of light over dark. This was, of course, absolutely, 1000% the inspiration behind Griezmann’s celebration as he put France 2-1 up.
The Croatian Blazers also come tricoloured, but with a twist. I’ve no idea why they are called the Blazers, but their infamous chequerboard design originates from the crest on the flag. Upon its advent as an independent nation, the new Croatian football team eskewed traditional kit design and brought the šahovnica, the chessboard, to the fore, so they could stand out as different. And although the Croatians fell short in their first world cup final today, they have certainly stood out.
Big C, The Guyanan leader, who in 1976 took his team of Caribbean cricketers to a scorching England. Tony Greig wanted to “make them grovel,” put them in their place, expecting to be met with the flamboyant, futile “Calypso cricket” caricature of the Windies team. Instead came Lloyd, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Gordon Greenidge, a drilled athleticism and an anti-colonial fire. They dominated the world.
Let’s now talk about Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. The reggae stars who strummed and wailed the soundtrack of ’76. Marley and Richards ran into each other in London that year, and were in awe of one another, united by their mission to show the planet the fire and the passion and the brilliance of the Caribbean.
There are countless others, in music, sport and elsewhere, who have taken Caribbean culture across the globe and forced people to stop, take note – take it seriously – and be moved. Grace Jones, Arthur Lewis, Usain Bolt, Merlene Ottey, Brian Lara, Stafanie Taylor.
Let’s now talk about the Jamaican Bobsled team. Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Chris Stokes, Michael White. They are part of this. This is their story. It is not “the real Cool Runnings,” because the story is so much bigger than that, and because the film itself plays a big role in this tale.
This is Fire on Ice.
We all know this story. At least we think we do – of the Winter Olympians who’d never even been on ice before. The bobsled team had more to avoid the embarrassment and subsequent misery risked by the Olympic underdog – the fate suffered by that other Calgary hero, Eddie the Eagle, who was banned from competing again after the Games. The Jamaicans, however, had also to fight the aged, libellous “Calypso” portrayal of Caribbean people as fun-loving and casual, incapable of brilliance and with a culture borrowed from elsewhere.
This attitude was centuries old. It was rooted in the white masters who saw their slaves as docile, in the blackfaced Uncle Toms of the American theatres past, in Songs of the South, and in the academic dismissal of Caribbean culture as inauthentic, impure. Marley and Lloyd fought constantly against the tame (unthreatening) Caribbean marketed to white tourists and consumers, reminding the world that the islands were full of rebels, innovators and freedom fighters – no sideshow. So too did this task fall to the bobsledders, vulnerable to ridicule just for daring to slide.
The stakes were high. It was not the taking part that mattered, it was the competing.
The Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation was founded by two US businessmen in Jamaica, George Fitch and William Maloney. They saw the talent of the Jamaican sprinters and the skill of the drivers in the pushcart derby, and envisaged the whole thing on ice. They got a team together. Helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes was to drive the sled, with Michael White as brakeman. Devon Harris and Chris Stokes made up the four-man, with electrician Frederick Powell in reserve.
Unlike in Cool Runnings, the team were able to practice on ice before the Games, training at Lake Placid. However, they arrived in Canada with dreadful equipment, no money, and no confidence – three very important things in bobsleigh.
The team got fundraising quickly, selling t-shirts, merch, and even an official song. Hobbin’ and a Bobbin’, sung by Powell, and hit Canada hard. The track skidded hard into the herby stereotypes of Jamaica, subversive as hell, selling the lie to fund the fire. But it was a risky ploy, as it gave their onlookers too much credit.
The team started in the two-man, with Stokes and White taking to the track under the strict gaze of media mockery. The (more-sympathetic) LA Times aptly summed up the attitude.
“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.”
The attention, the reggae and the flamboyant PR overlooked the achievements of reaching Calgary and competing. Fastforward to day 1 of the four-man, 27th February 1988, and Stokes, White, Harris and Chris Stokes slid down the track without a hitch, remaining focused amidst the media storm.
And it seemed that the FITB would get their wish, after Dudley Stokes lost control and crashed the sled on day 2. Forget the Hollywood finale for a second – the applause was sporadic, the sled was carried off by some anonymous maintenance staff, and the media consumed their perfect Calypso Conclusion to their side show.
That was that, then, it seemed. The team, broke, were not done yet. Nor was Fitch, who continued working with them for four more years.
They continued to work hard, and proved to fundraisers and the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation that they were worth supporting to Albertville 1992 and beyond. As Lillehammer 1994 approached, they were a force to be reckoned with.
The year before, Cool Runnings came out – the film that shaped how most of us remember Calgary. Sure, it’s full of Calypso imagery – sprinters running on a dirt track in the National Championships (remember this is Jamaica, world leaders in track and field), and all the fish-out-of-water antics.
That, however, is not the point of the film, and nor is it why it is significant. Cool Runnings is a story of four highly-trained sprinters who learn how to slide the bobsleigh, and slide it well, by “feelin’ the rhythm” of Jamaica, by being true to themselves. And they proved everybody wrong.
Nor does it matter that the four-man crashed due to pilot error (and not mechanical failure as in the film), and it doesn’t matter that they were not on world record pace when it happened. What mattered is that it changed completely how Calgary was remembered – the team was no longer seen as a freak show, an anomaly, like Eddie the Eagle (who had to wait another 20 years for his film), but they were that team from the tropics that could conquer the ice with the fire in their bellies and the skill in their bones.
Oh, and in Lillehammer they were the equal of anyone. As Bob Marley sits on nearly every playlist in the West, and as modern cricket mourns the loss of the uncompromising brilliance of Lloyd and Richards’ dominators, so too is Jamaican bobsleigh known for pioneering, and overachievement.
In Lillehammer they came 14th – the 14th best sled in the world, and they beat the USA.
“If we were the jokers, and we had beaten America, what was America?”
21st Century Pioneers
The Jamaican bobsleigh team, had persevered, survived, and flourished. In Salt Lake City, 2002, Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown broke the start record for the two-man bob.
Sadly, it took twelve years for the Jamaican team to return to the ice – now crowdfunded by everybody who feels the Winter Games needs the Jamaican bobsleigh team. Yes, the media once again went wild with Calypso imagery, and were not without disparaging voices. A BBC commentator at Sochi 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 crashed).
Who cares, they qualified by right to Sochi, slid, and competed in the two man, piloted once more by Winston Watt. His old partner in crime, Lascelles Brown, is now a two-time medallist, having taken Canadian citizenship in 2005.
Antonette Gorman and Captain Judith Blackwood then took the baton and started a women’s team. Portia Morgan and Jennifer Cole went further and took a sled to the World Cup Series, and in 2018, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian arrived to Pyeongchang to drive the sled in the two-woman bob, backed by brakewoman Carrie Russell.
The first Jamaican women’s sled at the Games was dogged by familiar problems of funding and equipment. Their coach, Sandra Kiriasis, quit a week before the competition started, and took her sled with her! The women were now in Korea without equipment, before beer company Red Stipe stepped in and bought it off Kiriasis for the team to use. “Cool Runnings II” everybody shouted. But Red Stripe know something (and aim to profit heavily off it) – the world needs the Jamaican bobsleigh team.
It’s about representation. The Jamaican bobsleigh team is about, in the words of Fenlator-Victorian, “breaking barriers.”
“It’s important to me that little girls and boys see someone that looks like them – talks like them, has the same culture as them, has crazy curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin – included in different things in this world.”
They finished 19th. Sliding alongside them were the Nigerian team – the first African bobsled team. On the top of the roster stood American Vonetta Flowers, the first black gold medallist at the Winter Olympics, sliding down the hill with Jill Bakken.
This is the legacy of the Calgary sliders, and all those who have followed them over the last thirty years. The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team are audacious representatives of black ability in unfamiliar territory, and undoubtedly part of the lineage of Marley and Lloyd, and beyond to Toussaint and Dessalines. People who get the world to stop, look up, and take the Caribbean very seriously. They are trailblazers – they are fire on ice – and in 2018, that fire is spreading.
Skeleton – that gentle pastime, wherein you throw yourself down a claustrophobic strip of ice, head first (of course), steering yourself past 80mph with intricate wiggles and taps of your feet.
At some point it became a British pastime. The ice mountain has become a modern-day medal mine, starting with Alex Coomber’s bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002, in the first ever Olympic women’s skeleton.
Coomber had started something. Shelley Rudman claimed silver four years later in Turin, before Amy Williams took the big prize, dominating the ice at Vancouver 2010. Then Lizzy Yarnold turned up, matching Williams’ achievement with gold in Sochi. Fast forward to Pyeongchang, she’s at it again, now with Laura Deas for company. Yarnold defended her title with a mighty final slide, joined on the podium by Deas who took bronze. Britain’s skeleton women are world beaters.
Not bad for a nation that is seemingly allergic to winter, where a patch of snow shuts everything down. Yet the British sliding tradition goes back way beyond Coomber, to the very origins of the sport.
It all started with a wager, in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz. In 1864, St. Moritz was a spa town, popular with wealthy Victorians who headed to the alps to replenish themselves in summer. Then September came, and the British packed up and headed to London with their riches in tow, much to the chagrin of the hotelier Johannes Badrutt. So that year, he convinced his guests to return for winter. If you are bored, cold, or unhappy, he said, I will pay for everything. It is said that the British frolicked in glee at the newfound Alpine winter, gasping in amazement of the sunshine (of all things) and the frosted scenery. Badrutt won his bet, of course, but unleashed a can of worms upon the Swiss hills. The British came back every winter and, like the British tourists of today, decided to take over the town and unleash mayhem.
The legend goes that one group of tourists got hold of a delivery sled, and got on it, sliding through the icy, precarious, and dangerously downhill narrow streets of St. Moritz, terrifying all who crossed their path. Their (slightly) more sophisticated successors decided that a lowly delivery sled would just not do – they would not travel in anything less than a carriage – and so the first bobsleds were built.
The Swiss hoteliers had to face the monster they had created – the townspeople had grown weary of the troublesome tourists and so the hoteliers built purpose-built toboggan tracks to get the British off their streets. One of these became the Cresta Run, built by Major John Bulpett in 1884/5, and soon became the spiritual home of the sport and the base of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC). In 1885, they held their first “Grand National” race and, five years later, an “erratic” member called Mr Cornish decided to slide the Cresta head first. Skeleton was born.
Sadly, like many sports, sledding grew very exclusive very quickly, once codified. It’s always been a sport for the wealthy, but in those early days there were no rules or limits as to who could grab a sled atop an icy hill and throw themselves down it. In the 1920s, the SMTC saw it fit to ban women from their course.
“Mrs J.M. Bagueley 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.”
The ban remains. The Cresta’s terms and conditions simply state “women are not permitted to ride the Cresta run.” I wonder what changed their minds. In the early 20th century, there was a global backlash against women in sports, based on some preposterous notion of physical inferiority. In the Olympics, women were not allowed to run further than 200m until 1960. In the USA, women were banned from running the marathon for fifty years. In England, a similar ban existed for women in football, deemed “too much for a woman’s physical frame.”
Women have campaigned for decades to turn things around, and in recent years the situation has improved. The marathon ban was lifted in 1972, in part thanks to Kathrine Switzer, who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 – entering as K.V. Switzer – and finished in good time despite attempts to remove her from the course. Each Olympics sees an increased number of women participants, and gets ever closer to event parity – the last male-only event in the Winter Games remains the Nordic Combined.
Yet the birthplace of skeleton remains closed to Shelley Rudman, Amy Williams, and Lizzy Yarnold. Perhaps the embargo endures because of the Old Boy tradition that surrounds the Cresta. Visitors, like Matt Dawson and Ian Cowie, note the mess hall atmosphere of the place and even spot a few descendants of the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, but largely seem untroubled by the complete absence of women. Are they afraid of a little competition? Four years ago I thought this was a shame, but now I think it pitiful. Britain’s skeleton women are unstoppable – they are the headline acts of every Winter Games. Inspired by the “marginal gains” of British cycling, with less of the institutional misogyny, the skeleton set-up in Bath is the very model of a modern sporting powerhouse – professional, competitive and smooth as ice. If the SMTC doesn’t want to share their ice with such athletes, then that is their loss.
This is a dynasty whose queens are great symbols and great advocates of women in sport. Upon winning in Sochi, Yarnold came home determined to go into “as many schools as possible” and encourage girls to take up sport, and “not [to worry] about what the media image is of the perfect woman, it’s about being you and being proud of what you are.”
They are even inspiring the men (how could they not?). Dom Parsons followed in their footsteps on Friday, taking skeleton bronze. The Times connected his success to the Cresta Run “crazy aristocrat” pioneers, but he follows in different footsteps. This tradition, crowned by Lizzy Yarnold, started in 2002 with RAF officer Alex Coomber. She who slid the course at Salt Lake City with a broken wrist, which she’d injured just ten days earlier in training, and took the bronze.
On 11th June 1955, there occurred at Le Mans the worst disaster ever to befall motor racing. Pierre Levegh collided with Lance Macklin and his Mercedes departed the circuit – its disintegrated remnants rained down upon a heaving grandstand. Levegh was killed, along with eighty-three spectators.
There recently seems to have been too many disasters; some preventable, some malicious. Haunting images of worst-case scenarios realised play out continually in front of us, it seems. In the empty shells and cordoned-off zones of disasters past, there lingers a feeling of pointlessness, of lives extinguished without reason, without meaning, too damn early.
What did you have left to give us? Could you still be here had we done anything differently? In some ways, it feels like a hunger, an internal amputation, a curse of circumstance and a complete loss of power. This inert pain loiters within, and its eviction requires a strength beyond comparison.
This current feeling draws me now to the story of the Le Mans disaster, and to Levegh’s teammate John Fitch, whose reaction to the accident saved thousands of lives. Motor racing has always housed those who view safety concerns and regulations with contempt, believing them to somehow dilute the thrill of the spectacle.
The early days were especially foolhardy, littered with carnage and the ghosts of dead drivers lying at the feet of reckless racers and gold-hungry promoters. However, as long as there have been fatal incidents, there have been those – often drivers themselves – who campaigned against repetitions.
Prelude and Disaster
Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin was old school. He was inspired by his late uncle who died before he was born, a victim of the earliest, deadliest days of motor racing. Pierre took on his uncle’s anagramed surname, Levegh, both in tribute and as a statement of his pedigree and style.
When he was not behind the wheel, he could be found playing tennis, or ice hockey, and was proficient at both. In 1955, he was 49 years old, and had clocked up more Le Mans miles than anybody else still racing. In the 1952 event he spent 23 hours behind the wheel himself in a self-modified Talbot, and nearly won – denied only by a broken crank.
In 1955, Mercedes selected Levegh to partner John Cooper Fitch in the third Mercedes 300 SLR tipped to take Le Mans by storm. It was moulded from magnesium alloy and notable for its massive air brake at the rear, added because the car was too fast to be slowed by standard brakes alone.
On the 11th June, Levegh was racing well and would shortly pull into the pits and hand Fitch the vehicle. On the Tribunes Straight, leading car Mike Hawthorn turned sharply toward the pit-entry, effectively brake-testing the lapped Lance Macklin.
Levegh, catching the pair, had not enough time to evade Macklin’s Austin-Healey, but spent his last moment alive giving a “slow” signal to the following car, team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio, likely saving his life. Fangio lived for another forty years. Macklin veered toward the unprotected pit-wall, and four people were seriously injured, run down by the runaway Austin Healey. Macklin, fortunately, escaped unharmed.
Levegh’s car launched upwards and left, careering into a concrete staircase and exploding. The Mercedes’ mighty engine, radiator and suspension sliced through the packed grandstand, massacring eighty-three onlookers, many of whom had been stood on tables and chairs just to catch a fleeting glimpse of the sportscars as they flew by.
Levegh was thrown from his vehicle, dying on impact. The rest of his mangled Mercedes ignited and its magnesium bodywork burned uncontrollably for hours. The race was forced to continue beside the SLR inferno, this white-hot monument to the agony of that afternoon, so that emergency services were not hindered by hundreds of thousands of exiting spectators.
Calm Amongst the Chaos
John Fitch was behind the pit-lane with Pierre’s wife Denise when they heard the explosion. Fitch went outside to investigate, and came across the injured left by Macklin’s car. He tended to them. He then spotted Levegh’s burned corpse lying on the track, where it lay exposed for too long until a Gendarme covered it with a banner. Fitch returned to Denise.
“It was Pierre. He is dead. I know he is dead,” said Madame Bouillin, before Fitch could deliver the news.
He then rang home, to inform his family that he had not been behind the wheel of the fated No. 20 Mercedes, as some initial reports had suggested. It was now that Fitch caught word that the death toll had already climbed to 64. It was the first time he became aware of the scale of the disaster. In response he asked Rudi Uhlenhaut, the SLR’s designer, to insist to the Daimler-Benz board that they withdraw the remaining silver arrows from the race.
Within moments of the disaster, Fitch had already begun to work towards mitigating future catastrophe. The race had been billed as World War Two on the track. England’s Jaguars taking on the Deutsche Silver Arrows on French soil.
The accident had sent the unscathed SLR, driven by the legendary pairing of Fangio and Stirling Moss, into an unassailable lead. Fitch imagined the sight of a German car taking the victory in front of a grandstand stained with French blood, and knew that the Gallic anger would reverberate far beyond the racetrack. Uhlenhaut and team boss Alfred Neubauer agreed, and six hours later so too did the Mercedes bigwigs. At 1.45am, Fangio was called in to retire.
Hawthorn, with Ivor Bueb, eventually won comfortably. It was a muted celebration, but Hawthorn’s smile as he guzzled the champagne, it is said, was enough to meet the ire of the French L’Auto Journal. “To your health, Mr Hawthorn!”
Champion of Safety
Many people realised after Le Mans that motor racing had become too quick too fast – safety standards had not developed at the same pace. Numerous nations banned circuit racing – in Switzerland, the embargo exists to this day. The fatal kink at Le Mans that had sent Levegh on his lethal trajectory was removed, and the grandstand was demolished and rebuilt. However, until the mid-1970s and the advent of Jackie Stewart’s trade union for drivers, the GPDA, safety improvements trickled through at a dreadful pace.
Fitch came to racing from an engineering background. Back then, drivers were far-removed from today’s ultra-pro baby racers, who are often placed in karts before they can walk, identified by temper tantrums on track and Instagram fun in press conferences.
Yet, then as now, the rich kids dominated the scene, exemplified by Hawthorn, who always raced in a bow tie – the public school boy with failing kidneys, hard-driving, hard-drinking – determined to live life as quickly as possible, untied by responsibility.
Others grew up with oil in their blood, coming from families of mechanics, engineers or vocational drivers. There were more women involved in the highest levels of motorsport then – Lella Lombardi, the only woman to score points in F1 (Austria 1975), learned to drive in Piedmont in her butcher father’s delivery van.
John Fitch was a bit of both. He had an ancestral engineering pedigree. His great-great grandfather John had invented the steamboat. His step-father ran a motoring company, and Fitch loved engineering from a young age. He served as a fighter pilot in the Second World War, and was shot down in 1945 (his own fault, he claimed), spending the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
He loved to go fast, but not to the point of abandon. “It’s life condensed,” he once said of racing. He was never interested in what speed he was going at, but instead in remaining in control at the limit for as long as he could hang on. That was the challenge he loved. The element of danger was of less interest to him.
His problem-solving brain sparked into life as soon as Levegh crashed. Helping the injured, demanding Mercedes withdraw, maintaining control at the limit of a most testing period. After the crash, he threw himself into developing vehicle safety standards, both in motor racing and on the streets – motivated by the memory of his team mate, of those who had died having come to watch them race, and the idea that any death behind the wheel is one too many.
In the 1960s he began working on the Fitch Inertial Barrier. These are unremarkable things, unassuming little yellow barrels filled with sand, usually found on American asphalt at highway exit points. He was inspired by the anti-strafe barrels he used to protect his tent from aerial fire during the war, and began by filling old liquor crates with various amounts of sand, before driving into them at 70mph.
Fitch’s self-described “hero impulse”, alongside his selflessness, led him to crash-test his invention himself, taking the risk for any design flaws upon his own shoulders. At the end of the decade the Fitch barrels were introduced onto US roads, and are now in use in every state. They are credited with saving over 17 000 lives, and saving over $400m-a-year – largely medical expenses.
Fitch continued to invent until his dying days. In motor racing, many drivers are killed due to basilar skull fractures, caused by a whiplash effect at the moment of impact, where the body is held in place by seatbelts, but the head is not.
Many famous drivers met their end this way, notably Roland Ratzenberger and Dale Earnhardt (who infamously refused to wear the necessary protective gear). Fitch created the Full Driver Capsule, a full body system that aimed to prevent such deaths through holding both the head and the torso in place during a rapid deceleration. A similar contraption, the HANS device, is now mandatory in most major auto racing series.
After the “Weekend from Hell” in Imola, 1994, Fitch was creating again. Responding to the deaths of Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, Fitch designed and patented the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail, designed to capture and cushion a car on impact and absorb the energy of the collision, which would ensure a more controlled deceleration and avoid the car bouncing back across the circuit, as Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey had done all those years before.
Fitch did not just stick to roads and circuits – his many inventions included a cervical spine traction device. His fifteen patents largely had one thing in common – they were responding to disasters, accidents and atrocities. After 9/11 he worked on the Fitch Survival Vehicle (never completed), which would theoretically enable escape from similar situations.
Incidents which disturbed him were transformed into opportunities to create something that might prevent or mitigate another occurrence. Regardless of whether a disaster was born of malice or cruel coincidence, Fitch believed that within engineering existed the tools for society to reduce the potential impact of future atrocities. Fitch’s efforts began in earnest after Le Mans 1955, but he himself saw his safety advocacy as rooted in his wartime experience.
In Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose notes that so many of the US 101st Airborne, upon returning to the United States, worked in teaching or construction – jobs that create and provide. Likewise Fitch was motivated by dedicating his life to safety in response to the agony of war.
“I was a wartime bomber pilot and a fighter pilot and I was involved in some fatal events…this is a payback in a way.”
John Fitch died in 2012, aged 95, 57 years after his teammate Pierre Levegh had perished. It can be said that by the end his heroism was no longer an impulse, but a fitting description of a man who refused to be derailed by dark moments that threatened to envelop in despair all who lived through those days. A man who refused to let lives lost through disasters be lost in vain.
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”
“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
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.
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.
Olivér Halassy – The Greatest Halfback
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.
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 handin 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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 a woman could ward off 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 Te Wharerangi and Te 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
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.
Joe 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*** 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 international teams, including the preposterously (but tellingly) named “Originals” who toured the UK in 1905.**** The All Blacks, the greatest team to play rugby union, were 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 was 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 Sipi Tau 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. 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 in 2015 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 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, and at his funeral, 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!
* 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
****In 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.
That 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
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.
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 Tydfilformed, 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).
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.
The first black league international was George Bennettwho 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 womenplay 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)
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”
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.
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.
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).
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.