23 August 2008

Beijing 2008

It has been an exceptional Olympic Games, both as a success story for hard-working British competitors and as a whole event. Highlights for me:-

- Swimming. Rebecca Adlington, David Davies and Jo Jackson have helped put to bed mumblings of British underachievement in the Olympic pool over the last two decades, but most of our participants set personal bests and British records in their swims. If they've swum their event faster than ever before, you can't ask for too much more. On top of that, the phenomenon that is Michael Phelps will single-handedly make sure that the balconies in London's pool will be jammed solid every day of the 2012 Games, and I intend to be among them.

- Cycling. The chaps in the velodrome have dominated the event from start to finish and Chris Hoy has made his own spot of Olympic history amidst a thrilling array of gold medals. This proves in particular that serious investment in facilities and training will be repaid with medals and victories many times over - cycling is one of the Olympic sports for which our Government has put its hand in its pocket. Reap what you sow.

- Handball. It's on at the moment, only via the red button, and it's an absolute beast of a game. I wish I'd heard of it when I was ten - I'd have found somewhere to play it.

- Water Polo. This too is on the red button, and I have played this. Keeping control of a heavy football with one hand while being disallowed from standing on the pool's floor and having your shins gouged by the sharp toenails of a crafty opponent is some feat.

- Rowing. Exceptional entertainment and athleticism, not to mention British success. That bloke Redgrave has made rowing an addictive Olympic sport for all of us, for life.

Lowlights, meanwhile...

- Athletics. I feel for Christine Ohurougu, as her legitimate and hard-earned gold medal will be forever tarnished by the nagging feeling that she escaped a life ban for missing three drugs tests, but ultimately this rusted gold medal of hers is likely to be the only one from the so-called focal point of the games, track and field. In Moscow, Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona, the team representing our country in athletics was essential viewing, blessed with charisma and personality as well as talent (think Ovett, Sanderson, Thompson, Christie, Gunnell) but we don't have that star quality any more, and certainly not the talent. Hopefully a new generation is set for London.

- Gymnastics. Clever, admirable and athletic, but not sport. And if any of those Chinese girls are over 16 (the legal age for Olympic gymnastics) then I'm still 12.

- Rhythmic Gymnastics. Kill me now.

- Diving. Despite Tom Daley's progress to the final in the individual 10m board (and his dignity in dealing with a petulant 26 year old partner slagging him off after the synchronised event), this too is not sport. Although it is a damn sight more entertaining than gymnastics and I'm hoping beyond all hopes that this 14 year old lad does everyone, but most of all himself, proud.

- Anything involving horses. At least it's sport, but it's still not spectator-friendly. I still suspect that the horse does the majority of the work too. And those trainers who've been doping their animals deserve not just lifetime bans, but a criminal prosecution.

- Basketball. One end, basket. To the other end, basket. Back to the first end, basket. Etc.

- Sailing. I think I'd enjoy this more, especially as the British team are very good at it, if I understood just how many races each class had to go through, what the scoring system was and how each class of race differed from the other.

- Football and tennis. It's a commonly held opinion but indisputably the correct one that these two sports do not belong in the Olympics, simply because they do not represent the pinnacle of their participants' ambitions. Footballers want to win the World Cup. Tennis players want to win the Grand Slam titles and, if forced to think of their country, the Davis Cup.

We can predict what is now going to happen to our competitors - Rebecca Adlington will get an OBE (she's 15 years too young to be made a dame, like Kelly Holmes or Ellen MacArthur) and hopefully she'll exercise some principle and decline it because her local council, basking in the glory of their (part) funding helping her to success, are closing the pool she trains in. Tom Daley will be feted as the lad who'll make London's dreams come true and he'll be followed for four years and all diving competitions in which he partakes will get disproportionate national coverage. Chris Hoy, frankly, should get a knighthood, but he won't because he is a cyclist. Paula Radcliffe will claim she'll only retire when she has an Olympic gold, meaning she'll still be doing the marathon at Bamako 2040, when she is 66 years old. And the London games will go helplessly over budget, with the corporates snaffling up the readies which should be helping our athletes maintain Team GB's pride in 2012.

Well done to all our medallists and competitors.

Finally, well done to the BBC for using Jake Humphrey (exceptional), Matt Baker (even though he was commentating on gymnastics, it was still Matt Baker), John Inverdale (our most engaging and natural sports broadcaster, hence why he was on 5 Live as much as he was on TV), Garry Herbert (the rowing commentator and ex-gold medallist whose voice disappears as he gets more and more excited) and that remarkable woman Clare Balding who now seems genuinely capable of reporting on any sport stuck in front of her. I know stuff involving horses is her specialist subject, but this was a woman doing the BBC's coverage of one of rugby league's Challenge Cup semi-finals just three weeks ago, and she anchors Wimbledon for 5 Live too. Cap doffed in her general direction.

22 August 2008

You can tell I don't use Facebook

If your name is any of the following...

Ross Connell
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(maiden name)
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(maiden name)
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(maiden name)
Melanie Hewitt
(maiden name)
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... and you were born between September 1st 1972 and August 31st 1973 ...
... and you ever spent part of your childhood at a primary school in Hedon, East Yorkshire, even if it was just a year ...

... please use the email address at the side of this blog.


19 August 2008

In deep sh ...

I'm reading Giles Smith's book of collected columns from The Times at the moment. He's a marvellous football writer - irreverent, droll but always filling his paragraphs of biting satire with important truths. I wish I could write like him.

He makes reference in one of his pieces to a famous court case a few years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson was cleared of illegally using the hard shoulder of a motorway during a traffic jam on the grounds that he was desperate to use the lavatory; indeed, the Manchester United manager went into rather vivid detail of the state of his insides during his evidence.

It was too much information at the time, but it reminds me of the best story I ever picked up when I was hacking in the magistrates courts in my early career.

A spot of background; the agency I worked for had a contract with the local paper which meant we issued at least one journalist per day to the local magistrates court to pick up tales of affrays, assaults, the odd burglary and numerous drink-drivers.

Despite occasional pangs of conscience when people who weren't out-and-out villains were hit by the courts, I liked doing this, which probably explains why I was never cut out to be a proper journalist. I was into the routine stuff and found myself feeling distinctly safe and unambitious as a consequence. A morning in the press box at the court was an easy and yet productive one for me - I'd wander from court to court during recesses, scribble down cases and spend the rest of the time hobnobbing with the solicitors over coffee and fags, talking about football. After all this, I'd head back to the office and write up the three or four concluded cases for the paper, giving them their quota for the day.

There were seven courtrooms in the building. Courts 1 and 2 were general criminal courts; court 3 was usually set aside for a half-day or full-day trial, court 4 was likewise though sometimes had TV licensing sessions or parking fine sessions (stayed well away from those); court 5 was sometimes not in use but was always a coroner's court on a Wednesday; court 6 was a family court (not open to journalists) and court 7 a youth court.

Most of the time I'd be flitting between courts 1 and 2 because most of the stories came from there. You'd scan the wallbound court list looking for familiar names, or cases connected with high-profile incidents and choose your court accordingly. The best cases for reporting reasons had a 'G' next to the previous date of appearance, as that indicated a guilty plea had been entered and therefore the defendant was due to be sentenced today - allowing reporters to put all of the facts into the case for the first time.

Anyway, back to my favourite case. It was a speeding case (or 'exceeding the speed limit' to make it more accurate) which normally you'd ignore as there's next to no newsworthiness in somebody doing 45 miles an hour in a built-up area at 2am prior to being zapped by a thoroughly bored traffic cop. When this speeding case was called, I was about to stand up and make a hasty exit to the other court when I saw the defendant enter - and immediately I sat down again.

He was in a wheelchair. I immediately managed to make eye contact with his solicitor who, appreciating my raised brow, mouthed "this is a good one". So I got the notebook and pen out and began whirring the Teeline across the page.

He was charged with exceeding the speed limit on the local motorway by doing 129mph.


He pleaded guilty. This meant he would be dealt with here and now. I couldn't wait for this.

The prosecutor, a willowy and auburn haired woman of serious lawyerly sexiness (I won't name her, though I'm dying to), outlined the case. Within the first ten seconds of her address, I knew this was one of those occasional stories we would not only file to the local rag as per the contract, but also to the regionals and the nationals, plus all the local radio and TV stations.

This chap, in his mid to late 20s, was a lifelong wheelchair user and had acquired himself a nippy Vauxhall Astra. Unable to move below his waist, the traditional apparatus for the clutch, brake and accelerator had been specially adapted into hand held controls on his steering wheel. He was spotted on the motorway by the police and cautioned for doing 129mph.

The prosecutor asked for costs and sat down.

So far so good.

Then his solicitor rose to offer mitigation. I was ready for a good yarn from him, and he didn't disappoint.

On the day in question, the defendant was driving home from a wheelchair basketball game when suddenly he felt this colossal, deep pain in his abdomen. Initially he tried to pass it off as indigestion or a spot of wind, but the pain got more and more intense. Looking down, he realised immediately with horror what had happened.

His colostomy bag, which he used as he had no muscular control of his abdominal area, had twisted and was therefore unable to be filled. This meant his own bodily waste was being forced back into his system. This, frankly, would soon poison him and his life was at risk.

Unable to stop as he couldn't get out of the driver's side of his car on a hard shoulder, he pressed his accelerator hard down on his steering wheel (I was obviously unable to use the expression "put his foot down" in the final copy), and began heading for a hospital further up the motorway, just off a forthcoming junction. He'd reached 129mph and was in acute pain when the police stopped him.

Because of the nature of his mitigation, the defendant himself was asked to confirm his solicitor's words on oath, which he did. The prosecutor, displaying characteristic lack of sympathy which the CPS always put into such extreme cases, asked a few questions before the magistrates retired to decide what to do.

On a motorway, 70mph is the limit, as you know. Generally the police will stop you if you're doing 80mph or more, but when you're clocked doing 100mph or more it's an automatic ban from the court, irrespective of your licence's previous cleanliness, unless the mitigation can indicate 'special reasons' why a disqualification should not be dished out. Indeed, 129mph would in almost all cases warrant a much more serious charge of dangerous driving, rather than merely exceeding the speed limit.

The magistrates had to decide whether this chap's predicament was serious enough to impose no disqualification - indeed, they could even go so far as to not endorse his licence at all. They also had to ponder how much, if any, financial penalty to hand out.

For me, the story was as much in the sentence handed out as it was in the awesome circumstances of the case. What I needed, ideally, was for him to wheel away convicted but without any sort of punishment at all or, conversely, wheel away with the book thrown at him in the way any able-bodied driver doing 129mph without the hindrance of a kinked colostomy bag would have had. Any sort of half-punishment in between would have been disappointing from a newsy viewpoint.

We got the former. This chap was not banned, not endorsed and instead of a fine, he got - wait for it - an absolute discharge. Sniggers all round, even though the magistrates didn't seem to notice the gag. He didn't even have to pay the £25 costs the willowy prosecutor had requested.

Result! For him, and for me. I chatted to him outside the court and got his post-case reaction. The next day, it appeared in every national newspaper, including numerous inside page leads plus the front page side column of the Daily Telegraph.

There was another day when a story of mine from the courtroom which didn't involve an actual case got on to Have I Got News For You, but I'll save that for another time.

17 August 2008

"Ah yes, the A63 into Hull!"

Top radio boys and girls night out in London on Friday, featuring luminaries such as Alex Lester, Richard Allinson, Sally Boazman, Colin Berry, Gary King, Greg James, Charlie Jordan, Simon Hirst and Martin Emery. Deluxe bloggers Clair and James were there too.

Fab company and a fab night. I found myself sitting next to Sally in the restaurant and basically spent the next hour or so being utterly charmed by her. When I replied to her question regarding where I was from, she replied: "Ah yes, the A63 into Hull!" Traffic news wherever she goes... still, at least it meant I could explain to her who Clive Sullivan was.

Kipped on the Dark Lord's bachelor sofa and was shouted awake by the man himself at 7.30 on Saturday morning, ready to have my hangover cured by a quick Resolve, a quicker wash and a marvellously slow fry-up the size of Bucharest, prior to hitting the train at 9.30 to get back home for the football.

Oh, and we won. Just in case you didn't know.

I will close this blog entry with a photograph of me and my new showbiz friend, Sally Boazman. Self-awareness and shamelessness don't become me.