Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas and miscellany

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Sport Geek # 22: drugs, sexism, and bad teeth

Why aren’t there more female jockeys? Or F1 drivers? When it comes to sport and women, there is plenty of discussion of the merits of (say) women’s football or tennis versus the men’s game. But when it comes to sports where women can actually compete alongside men, have we given up?

Four years on from the Sky Sports sexism row, which started over a female linesman in a man’s world, we seem no further down the road in terms of accepting or promoting women in roles that could be filled by either sex. Three recent stories bring this home (see below for details). From Michelle Payne to Susie Wolff, the theme is the same: institutional prejudice and resistance to women competing alongside men.

The push for women’s sport to gain greater acceptance is, largely, a struggle for attention, both of the audience and the media. In the meantime, we are forgetting the struggle for opportunity. That means we cut off a huge talent pool and a diversity of personalities that would make sport far more interesting.

Anyway, to the stories of the week. No prizes for guessing what comes first… Continue reading

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Sport Geek #21: the caddie strikes back

Often we are told that the margin between winning and losing in sport is incredibly thin.

Which makes the All Blacks’ World Cup victory all the more impressive. Four years ago they should have lost the final, but for some dubious refereeing decisions (see previous Sport Geek round ups). But this time around, the gap to the rest was vast. For other teams, the margins were narrow indeeed – had England kicked for goal against Wales, had Scotland not been robbed at the last moment, things would have been very different. But for New Zealand, it just never seemed in doubt.

So, to the week’s round up. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #20: brooms, shirts and madness

No grand narrative this week – just straight into the most interesting stuff of the last week or so…

As the rugby World Cup final approaches, everyone’s still a bit hot under the collar over technology and replays. Here’s the Economist’s take on it all.

The haka – why let the All Blacks get the upper hand with a silly dance? Continue reading

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Sport Geek #19: the Joubert Ultimatum

Decisions made in real time are never perfect. Don’t second guess an operation from an armchair.” So says the over-zealous CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen in the Bourne Ultimatum.

Referee Craig Joubert probably wishes World Rugby, his governing body, had said something along those lines. Instead, they hung him out to dry.

Its bland statement says that instead of awarding a penalty in the dying moments of the match – which Australia kicked, winning by one point – “the appropriate decision… should have been a scrum to Australia for the original knock-on.” In other words, bad call. Wrong team won.

World Rugby goes on to say: “Despite this experience, Craig has been and remains a world-class referee and an important member of our team.” BFD. Joubert is the scapegoat, end of. He won’t be welcome in Scotland any time soon, that’s for sure.

What on earth was World Rugby hoping to achieve with this statement? It can’t change the outcome of the match. Australia will probably go on to the final now, and if they win, fair play to them. But that semifinal spot should have gone to Scotland. This only fans the flames of injustice.

This whole saga goes deeper than one bad call. The whole role of the referee is under threat. When the stadium is shown the instant replay, but the referee can only use TV for specific decisions, it’s a recipe for disaster. No wonder Joubert ran from the pitch: refs are not trained for this kind of immediate feedback.

Umpires in tennis are now more involved in player behaviour than line calls. Is Nadal wasting time? Is Serena making more death threats? Is Kyrgios… whatever. Football refs still have a lot of autonomy, but goal-line decisions are in place, and it won’t end there. Cricket umpires are still useful, but frequently over-ruled by technology – and it’s only going one way.

In rugby, it feels like this might be the tipping point between human decision and technology. Referees now go to the video for all manner of things before a try – a slight knock-on? A hint of a forward pass? Go to the TMO.

If referees become no more than procedural conduits for decisions taken elsewhere, we are reducing them from the role of judge to that of court clerk. Does the game lose something, other than just the flow? Or are these decisions too important (and too financially costly) to be made by one person?

A big part of sport is second guessing a decision from an armchair. Perhaps after all, Noah Vosen was wrong.

Anyway, to the small matter of some cracking things for you to read from the last week or so… Continue reading

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Sport Geek #18: yips, slides and smog

“How far should we go to stamp out violence in sport?”

When I wrote the sentence above, the pun was unintended. But as I scrolled back to edit it out and replace with something that didn’t use violent imagery, it occurred to me that it is exactly the point.

Killing, murdering, fighting, destroying – when sport is full of such metaphors, should we be surprised when violence is committed on the pitch?

It depends on the game, to an extent. Let’s start with baseball. Chase Utley’s slide take-out of Ruben Tejada last weekend is upsetting to watch. Not because you can see Tejada’s leg get broken (which it did). It’s that Utley isn’t sliding to second base, he’s going for the man. You can see the intent.

Other sports are more inherently violent. The line between what is accepted in rugby and what isn’t is very blurred. You can take a player out without the ball at the ruck. But you can’t tackle him without the ball elsewhere. You can’t take someone out like Utley did, but there are legitimate means.

Which makes Sean O’Brien’s punch look pretty silly. That’s not even close to playing hard, it’s just punching.

So O’Brien gets banned for one game, and Utley is banned for… just two. Had O’Brien actually hurt his opponent more than just winding him, perhaps it would have been more – but the similar sanctions given the very different outcomes seem odd. Diego Costa got a three match ban for stamping on Emre Can last season, which didn’t break his leg.

Should we ban players for their actions, or the result? It might seem obvious to say for actions, but when this is jail time, yet this gets nothing, it’s a confusing world. Sport administrators seem incapable of handling violence with consistency. Meanwhile the fans and media dial up the fighting talk.

On a cheerier note, here’s the best sports writing of the week. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #17: sackings, self-portraits and the Wuhan curse

When things go wrong for a team, sacking the coach is the usual response. By the time you read this, Stuart Lancaster may well be out of the England rugby job. Brendan Rodgers has been sacked from Liverpool this week. Jose Mourinho bravely said he was going nowhere and he’d have to be sacked from Chelsea.

The urge to sack is understandable, but often wrong. In both rugby and football, two examples of how sticking with the manager can pay off are clear: Alex Ferguson and Clive Woodward. I won’t list their achievements here – it would take too long. The point is, they both were given time after average starts.

But for club owners or international bosses, the desire to (be seen to) take action overpowers the braver decision to stick with a manager. Strangely, this is the direct opposite of the sunk cost fallacy, where projects that are clearly a bad idea are pursued because of the money already wasted on them. A similar effect is to double down after bets go wrong. Where does that instinct go when deciding a coach’s fate?

Of course, we can’t know how things would have turned out if we had acted differently. Would England still have won the 2003 World Cup without Woodward? Will Jose Mourinho turn things around at Chelsea? Impossible to say. A manager-centric view of the world would say “no” and “yes”. A player- or luck-centric view might say “yes” and “no”.

In a world where results can be influenced by luck, it seems odd to sack managers so frequently. Of course, making poor transfer deals might be reason enough, but in international sport, you can’t buy in new players, so the win-it-all-or-bust approach seems unduly harsh.

So why not act more bravely, and stick with someone? A little bit of sunk-cost thinking might help.

Meanwhile, here’s the best sports writing of the last week: Continue reading

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Sport Geek #16: Yogi quotes, 4×5≠5×4, and a nice tash

“Where did it all go wrong?” is always a good question in sport. For the England rugby team, sadly this isn’t one of the George Best variety. They were leading Wales by ten points mid-way through the second half. Of the World Cup. At home. And due to a terrible run of injuries, Wales had players out of position all over the place. Yet they lost.

So where did it all go wrong? Were Wales inspired, or did England freeze? Should they have settled for a kick to get the draw (yes, obviously in hindsight)? These questions could go on forever. Losses like this one are especially hard to bear, as you can’t work out why. It’s the complicated ones that hurt.

But before England are written off, remember that France lost two pool matches in 2011, and still nearly won the whole thing. England can move on in two ways: either work out what went wrong against Wales, and put it right; or work out what was going right, and do more of that. I’d suggest the latter might be quicker. Roll on Australia. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #15: wind-ups, genius, and Corbynomics

Sport exists in a paradox. There is “spirit of the game”, the uncoded ethics of conduct, played out in the media. And there are the rules. The two don’t always sit very comfortably.

In golf, ethics are probably more important than in any other sport. Without the hurly-burly contact of most other games, there is no room for heat-of-the-moment, getting-carried-away excuses. The competitive spirit must be kept in check.

Which makes the actions of the European player Suzann Pettersen so controversial. Close putts are conceded in matchplay golf – that’s what you do. So to call an opponent out for picking up their ball when just 18 inches from the cup is clearly bad. Her apology was a good idea (when it eventually came).

The funny thing is, I’ve watched golf matches where, as things get tense, short putts aren’t given. It’s understandable. It’s also part of the game to be able to put your opponent under pressure.

It’s also the letter of the law. Should players reject the law just because that’s what has gone before? Why should Australian cricket captain Steve Smith be criticised for the Ben Stokes appeal when he obstructed the field and used his hand to stop the ball hitting the stumps?

In the Stokes case, it was a debatable decision. So that’s what the umpires are for – to make the call. It is naive to think we can do away without referees at the top level of sport, and have players walk when out, make their own line calls, say when they have hand-balled and so on. Nice idea; ain’t gonna happen.

Which brings us to Diego Costa. Does he play within the spirit of the game? He certainly oversteps the rules of the game now and then. But is there a validity to being a wind-up merchant? England rugby hooker Brian Moore used to be praised for his ability to antagonise the French. Is Costa so different (even if his teammates also call him a cheat)?

And so to the best sports writing of the week: Continue reading

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Sport Geek #14: upsets, green cards and blood

When Serena Williams lost at the US Open, falling short of the calendar Grand Slam, I was gutted. But on reflection, it’s a good thing: it stops Serena being called the greatest of all time without question, when she clearly isn’t (see below); and it’s a great reminder that upsets are key to sport. Without them, it’s dullsville.

Which brings us to the Rugby World Cup. An All Blacks victory is obviously the smart prediction, but the 2011 edition aside, it’s been a great world cup when New Zealand don’t win.

And so to Chelsea, whose title defence is already in ruins. Nobody saw that coming. You can’t win the season after five games – but can you lose it? I suspect so.

Read / click on for the best sports pieces of the last week or so. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #13: villains, stress and YouTube

Something of a summer recap, this one, after a month’s break. Happy reading. Continue reading

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