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Benjamin Markovits · Success_ What It Takes to Win at Sport · LRB 7 November 2013

Benjamin Markovits · Success_ What It Takes to Win at Sport · LRB 7 November 2013

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Published by Marienburg
Benjamin Markovits · Success_ What It Takes to Win at Sport · LRB 7 November 2013
Benjamin Markovits · Success_ What It Takes to Win at Sport · LRB 7 November 2013

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Published by: Marienburg on Nov 27, 2013
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Benjamin Markovits writes about what it takes to win at sport
 When I was seven, my father took a job at Oxford and moved us from Texas. We stayed two years. He signed me up to the local football club, Summertown Stars, and sent me to the localChurch of England school, St Philip and St James. I was already a competitive, sport-obsessed child, and responded to the sense of cultural difference by exaggerating it. During aclassroom discussion – I can’t remember about what exactly – I quoted the great Green Bay Packers football coach, Vince Lombardi: ‘Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.’ My teacher, Mrs Hazel, asked me if I believed that. I said I did. She turned to the rest of the class:‘But we don’t believe that, do we?’Many of the frustrations a foreigner feels trying to adapt to a new country can be dismissedas homesickness or misunderstanding. And yet there did seem to be a core of difference between the two countries, which Americans of my parents’ generation complained about(the weather, the central heating, the ice cream) and the British took pride in. Here’s a crude way of putting it: the measure of character, in Britain, was your capacity to put up withsomething; in America, it was your ability to sort it out. And yet I can’t help feeling, as anaturalised Brit who spent about a third of his childhood in England, that this country haschanged – and that what’s happening in sport is a way of measuring that change.For one thing, the British are winning again, and they’ve had to come to terms with this fact.Tim Adams in the
 called it a ‘national conversion from doubt to faith’. By commonconsensus, the transformation started ten years ago, when England won the rugby world cupunder the guidance of Clive Woodward, who went on to become ‘director of eliteperformance’ at the British Olympic Association (he retired in 2012, just after the summergames). Two years later, the England cricket team ‘took back’ the Ashes after eight straightdefeats to Australia. The Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy  won a couple of ma jors and became the number one golfer in the world. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. Thencame the London Olympics, about which there was a lot of national grumbling, until they started. Britain ended up third in the medals table, behind China and the US. Andy Murray  won the US Open in tennis. Justin Rose won it in golf. This summer, Murray won Wimbledon and Chris Froome followed Wiggins to victory in the Tour de France. The cupran over.There’s plenty of material for a different story, too. Woodward followed his world cuptriumph with a poor Six Nations tournament and a winless tour of New Zealand with the
British and Irish Lions. McIlroy has flatlined since winning the PGA in 2012. Murray spenthis crucial developmental years in Spain (which currently has more top 25 players than any other country), partly because of the failure of his older brother to progress under theguidance of the LTA. England’s Ashes success is also a measure of Australia’s decline, and theteam choked badly on the verge of winning its first big title in the 2011 world cup finalagainst India, showing the sort of loss of nerve England usually reserves for penalty shootouts in international football tournaments. Yet – football aside – there does seem to bea new degree of confidence in the air.‘You can say what you like,’ at least three people said to me around the time of the royal wedding, ‘but we do put on a good show’ – a line supposed to demonstrate two of the receivednational characteristics, class and modesty. Then Margaret Thatcher died (her funeral wasanother good show) and there was a lot of talk about the way the country had changed sinceshe became prime minister, a year before I joined Mrs Hazel’s class. Arguments ran alongpredictable lines: the privatisation of industry, the role of the unions, immigration, education,the economic and cultural gap between North and South. Several columnists (on both sidesof the political divide) attributed Britain’s recent sporting success to Thatcher’s influence, andthe culture of money-oriented competitive individualism that characterised her time in office.The London Olympics had been a good show too. The opening ceremony was one longadvertisement for Britishness, another rather immodest celebration of modesty, and thegames themselves bore out the virtues people once liked to associate with the British Empire:large-scale, good-natured efficiency. And as in the good old days, the British won: 29 gold, 17silver and 19 bronze medals – their best finish since they dominated the first LondonOlympics in 1908 with 56 golds. Those numbers tell us something else that hasn’t always been true: more often than not, when they were close, the Brits came first. Some of that can be attributed to home advantage and the cheers of the crowds. But how much can beattributed to something else? I’m suspicious of the desire to ascribe failure and success insport to character. Athletes usually win because they are better, and they are usually betterfor technical reasons that are relatively easy to measure. Winning isn’t a moral quality.In the 1980 Moscow Olympics (which were boycotted by America), the first after Thatcher’srise to power, Britain came ninth, with five gold medals, seven silver and nine bronze. They came 11th in Los Angeles in 1984 (when Russia boycotted), with another five golds; 12th in1988 (five golds again); 13th in 1992 (five golds yet again). The nadir was reached in Atlantain 1996 with one gold and 36th place in the overall medal table. But after 1996, they madetwo distinct jumps up the rankings, first in Sydney in 2000, where they came tenth with 11golds; then, after a similar performance in Athens (tenth place again, nine golds), surging tofourth place in Beijing, with 19 gold medals, 13 silver and 15 bronze.Even the way Britain won in 2012 suggests something new. In 1980, none of Britain’s fivegolds was won by a woman, and only four of its 16 silver and bronze medals went to women.In 2012, 11 of the 29 golds were won by women. Many of Britain’s biggest stars in 2012 were born outside the UK, including Bradley Wiggins (Belgium) and Mo Farah (Somalia). Jessica
Ennis, the ‘face of the Olympics’, is mixed race. Britain’s posh athletes did well too, winningtwo golds in dressage (two more than they had ever won before); the queen’s granddaughter won a silver as part of Britain’s eventing team. Britain excelled in some of its traditionalstrengths, like rowing, although the gold the British women won in London 2012 was theirfirst in the sport.[*] Britain’s success was greeted with surprise, but it was not an aberration.Something has changed.The best book I know on the relationship between sporting culture and success is
,Michael Lewis’s account of the 2002 Oakland A’s baseball team.[†] The argument iscompellingly simple: sports teams are run like gentlemen’s clubs rather than businesses, andclubs don’t base their business decisions on facts but on codes and intuitions. A club’s firstpriority is to maintain the distinction between those inside and those outside the club. Thetrouble with inside knowledge is that it is supposed to be inscrutable, to resist outsiders’attempts at rational analysis. It is cultural rather than statistical, and Lewis demonstratespersuasively how often cultural knowledge is wrong.
 presents expertise – the seasoned intuition which comes from years of first-handexperience and the attempts of scouts, coaches, managers, ex-players and commentators tomake sense of it – as a kind of bias, an obstacle to be overcome. Lewis writes about Oakland’sgeneral manager, Billy Beane, and his Yale-educated sidekick, a numbers guy called PaulDePodesta, who attempted to apply Wall Street style derivatives analysis to the problem of how to win baseball games. What’s attractive about sport from this point of view is that itgives you a yes or no answer, a win or a loss. Beane and DePodesta were putting a theory tothe test: that maths gets you closer to that answer than seasoned intuition.The reason baseball yields so well to this kind of analysis – called sabermetrics, after theSociety for American Baseball Research – is that it offers so many statistics. But the idea hasobvious applications outside baseball. We can get stats on anything – happiness, education,health, earning potential, marriage – and, properly analysed, they give us probabilisticknowledge we can use to help make choices. But what most of us want from knowledge isnot just the truth, but an intimacy with the truth. We want, in other words, something muchcloser to seasoned intuition. Beane and DePodesta wanted to think they had insulatedthemselves from such feelings, like private equity guys who break up companies because theparts are worth more. It’s just business.‘Anyone who wanders into Major League Baseball,’ Lewis writes,can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the field of play and the uneasy space just off it, where the executives and the scouts make their livings. Thegame itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you’re very good, you don’t survivein it. But in the space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won’t be tolerated … There are many ways to embarrass theclub, but being bad at your job isn’t one of them … That’s not to say that there arenot good baseball executives and bad baseball executives, or good baseball scouts

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