22 August 2009

She didn't go "Ooooh!" when the starting pistol was fired

Doesn't the prospect of gender testing sound horrific? And yet that is the indignity that an 18 year old girl from South Africa, who happens to be a naturally gifted athlete, is having to go through in order to prove that she earned her 800m gold medal at the World Championships fair and square.

The IAAF hasn't said outright they think she's a geezer, but they have said she may have "a rare medical condition that gives her an unfair advantage". They may as well have said "we think you're a geezer" after all, for all the difference it makes.

All very worthy of copy and gossip, but the reality for this teenager is rather grim. Caster Semenya is undergoing a gender test right now that involves gynaecological examination, hormone measurement and various question and answer sessions.

What on earth will they ask her in these Q&A sessions? Maybe they'll enquire as to whether she reads on the bog, insists on doing the cooking at barbecues, likes Sex And The City or has ever got lost via her own map reading. If it weren't so tragic, it'd be funny.

Anyway, one hopes that once she has satisfactorily 'passed' her test and gets to bite that slab of gold as an innocent competitor, she sues the IAAF for every penny she can get.

Though gender tests can apply to any athlete at all, in the real world they will only be used to establish whether a person in a women's event is really a woman as there would seem to be no obvious reason for a woman to pretend to be a man in a man's event. The first time I heard of them was when Trivial Pursuit asked the question: Who was the only female competitor at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal who did not have to undergo a sex test? I bet you know the answer.* This was, worryingly, at a time, when gender testing was compulsory. The parameters have since been relaxed, and now they only occur following a complaint or via suspicion.

It doesn't help this talented teenager at all, but the only positive thing from all this I can think of is that it will have Harriet Harman hopping mad.

*Princess Anne, because it was felt to be unseemly as she was the daughter of the host country's Head of State.

21 August 2009

"I need three Cs to study Forestry at North Cheshire College..."

I was pleasantly surprised by yesterday's A-level results. Not necessarily because they were very good, although the usual congratulations to every student who did well, but because there seemed to be fewer and fewer whinges from society's ivory towers.

Maybe the complaints were aired, but I was just reading and listening to the wrong (or right) news outlets and missed them all. This debate has been going on forever, really. The night before I ripped open my results envelope in August 1991, I remember a Newsnight debate on the difficulty or otherwise of the exams, thereby puncturing the hopes of every keen-eyed, ambitious, conscientious student in the country. I found my A-level exams to be rock hard, thank you.

I can honestly say I've never been more nervous in my life than when I collected my A-level results. Bright students did A-levels, but even among the intelligentsia at school there was a bottom end and a top end, and I was at the bottom end of the sixth form pecking order, praying for a couple of Ds. There were people in my year for whom straight As (no A* grades back then) were inevitable and who had already begun to plan for Oxbridge. The only immature adolescent consolation I took from this was that none of them were any good at football.

When I took my exams at 16, the results were sent in the post. At the time our area had the world's slackest postman, which meant I didn't get my results until two o'clock in the bloody afternoon, by which time I had climbed every damned wall in the house. The first telephone call I got from a schoolfriend was at 9am sharp, asking me how I did, and I had to say "I don't know yet, the bloody postman's not been" several more times, each time sounding less and less tranquil.

At 18 though, you had to go to school for the results, because the teachers needed to be on hand to dish out advice and help (and tissues) if the grades that greeted you weren't quite what you needed. I lived ten minutes from school by bike and duly cycled in first thing that morning, waiting patiently in the common room with a couple of others while we heard the teachers shuffling paper behind a closed door nearby. We listened out for the odd tutting noise or an "oh dear" but no such clues were forthcoming.

The wait seemed to last forever, and at one point my head of sixth form emerged from the room of truth to answer a call of nature, muttering to me "You've done well in your French, I think". He acted surprised by this, the twat, as he'd made assumptions about my lack of dedication to my studies, whereas I'd worked my arse off to get anywhere near my required grades. Still, the news, however haughtily delivered, offered me hope that it wasn't going to be a bad day after all.

Eventually, the handful of us who had gathered were given our papers and we all retired to different corners and areas of our common room to open them alone. As I recall, we all did as well as we could hope for and soon were congratulating one another. My conditional place at Darlington College of Technology to train as a journalist was secure. I did fail one exam, courtesy of an N grade.

I've never discovered what that meant. Neutral? Nearly? Neither?

It was a very hot day and at this point we realised we had all turned up a bit early. Out of the window we saw a big load of our classmates gathered on a grass verge, nervously chatting as they sat and waited for the call. I wandered outside with my envelope in my hand and one lone voice from this group of 30 or so teenagers said: "Have you got yours?"

"Yep, they've just started handing them out."

There was this collective squeal and everyone rushed to their feet and charged past me, heading for the sixth form door. I felt this burst of air as everyone passed, almost spinning round in a rapid circle in the way Billy Whizz's dad always did when his son sprinted past him. I followed them up, and slowly watched this large group of young people with ideas in their heads and stars in their eyes either screaming in glee or, in a few cases, bursting into floods of tears.

People who scorn A-levels, be they 1991 stylee or today, have to remember that they are taken by committed students, who have chosen to further broaden their minds when they could have opted to quit school at 16 and do something else. Having made this conscious decision, they are evidently going to work every part of their brain into the ground to try to get what they want. This is why it really depresses me when alleged academics automatically assume that the exams must be too easy if those sitting them have the nerve to do well.

Would they prefer the exams to be made so difficult that almost nobody will pass them? If so, then their capacity to criticise will just make them accuse all our teenagers of being thick and lazy instead. Damned if you do...

It's a typically British attitude to knock the achievers in society and no more has it ever been as prevalent than on results day. Hopefully I'm right in my observation that belittling of the exams and consequent devaluing of the graft put in by the teenagers seems to have lessened this year. If I'm not, then they should just shut up and find someone or something worthy of their dismal negativity.

Incidentally, yet again the papers seem to have chosen only to interview and photograph glamorous 18 year old female students (or as Private Eye calls them, "fruity girls!") about their results. No wonder boys are falling behind - as far as some media outlets are concerned, they don't seem to take any bloody exams at all...

19 August 2009

Take care and pay attention

The plan to allow police officers to issue fixed penalties for careless driving simply cannot be allowed to happen.

This isn't just because some accidents should cost the culprit a charge of dangerous driving, and therefore far more than a meagre sixty quid and three points, though that is more than reason enough in itself. No, more worryingly, it would mean a hell of a lot of innocent people would also be fined and endorsed.

Careless driving - or driving without due care and attention, to label it correctly - is one of those offences which relies almost entirely on interpretation, especially if only one vehicle was involved in the accident. Too often, however, a driver who feels he did all he could to prevent an accident will take the conviction in court because he hasn't time or funds to prove otherwise.

If the police turn up 20 minutes after an accident, they simply cannot assess who, if anyone, was at fault at the scene and issue a fixed penalty. Sometimes, simply, nobody is. Accidents happen, and I've always understood that an absence of blame is included in the definition of 'accident'. But rather than fill in a deluge of paperwork, they'll give a fixed penalty and the driver, knowing that refusal would take them to court and all the strain that goes with it, will accept it.

Careless driving has to be dealt with by a court in all cases. Other offences dealt with by fixed penalty are not interpretative offences - exceeding the speed limit, having defective tyres or lights, parking on the hard shoulder without due reason. You can observe the offence as it happens. Careless driving involves argument and debate and evidence, something which no police officer will have time, or inclination, to listen to when dealing with a car or cars caved in at the side of the highway.

I worked in courts for a long time and witnessed a lot of people who, unrepresented by lawyers, pleaded guilty to careless driving offences that didn't seem to exist once the prosecution had outlined their flimsy cases. They admitted it because they couldn't go through the process of a trial for an offence which didn't entitle any defendant to legal aid. But in court you at least have a chance to put your side of things. Diverting the judicial process solely into the hands of police officers will create more miscarriages of justice than ever before.

I also have had two serious road accidents in my life, the first of which was my fault but not to any criminal level. Fortunately, the CPS agreed with this and I received no summons. But I'm in no doubt that the cop who took my statement as my windscreen and wrecked car lay in the middle of Huddersfield's ring road would have fined me on the spot had he been permitted to do so.

18 August 2009

"Can we get out now?"

One by one, I'm hearing of swimmers who I trained and competed with as a child in the 1980s returning to the pool to fight off the onset of the dreaded thirtysomething spare tyre. And, having weighed myself this morning, it's something I'm getting closer to doing too.

Masters swimming, as it's known, is very popular among adults who were competitors as kids but then gave it up for the usual reasons of beer, exams, canoodles and, more than anything else, utter boredom. You'll not find many kids who continue swimming for the sheer enjoyment of it once they stop winning races and beating their personal bests. After that it becomes a chore, just there for fitness, and when you're a teenager there are other things to consider than mere health.

One of the senior swimmers in Hull when I was a kid still ploughs up and down her local pool as a fortysomething Masters swimmer in Australia, where she emigrated any number of years ago. I recently heard of a girl who was in the year above me who has now returned to the pool having concentrated in her post-teen years on marriage, parenthood and a career in medicine. Now she's got her goggles on again and forces herself up and down the pool a few times a week.

I was a fairly good swimmer. I was decorated in 1985 by (spit) Humberside for representing them in inter-county championships (the certificate is still on my spare room wall and the tie in my wardrobe). I wore a pastel blue Kappa jumper for the presentation and had my photo taken alongside Jane Sugden, Julie Ellis and Simon Hill. What was memorable about this as far as the family is concerned is that my primary school headmaster, the utter twat he was, refused to recognise or applaud my brother's identical achievement a few years earlier, but was then observed picking up his own county decoration at a subsequent event for the ultra-strenuous pastime of crown green bowling. I have had an irrational dislike of bowls ever since.

The glory of winning races and events is fantastic but the training is relentless and thankless. Two hours at a time in pools of vastly differing temperatures (council pools tended to be too cold, school pools were like jumping into the fires of hell), doing 100m or 200m sessions against the clock until you felt like dropping down dead. It did wonders for your fitness, but if you didn't have the natural ability to go with it, then it was a rather depressing experience to go through these sessions with no real rewards at galas and competitions to show for it afterwards.

We used to have our own kickboards, the arch-shaped slabs of polystyrene which you'd hold in front of you while kicking your legs as the sole source of propulsion along the pool.

This would, after a little while, absolutely kill your thigh and calf muscles. Such boards were easily personalised, with every swimmer's favourite bands and pop stars duly written in black marker all over their board, with the chlorine eventually doing enough of a cleansing job to remove the scribbles just in time for adolescence to dictate that you no longer like Modern Romance and prefer Fields of the Nephilim instead.

The same scrawling potential applied to the pullbuoy, a figure-of-eight shaped floaty contraption which you held between your legs to prevent you kicking in order to improve and strengthen your arm action.

As it was so much smaller, you had to choose your bands carefully, as We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It wouldn't fit. My brother, a rock child, decorated his with four simple words - Quo, Kiss, Vardis, UFO.

The pullbuoy also came in a self-assembly form, involving two tube-shaped slices of polystyrene connected only by string.

This type of pullbuoy was easiest to lose if you relaxed your legs for even a moment, irritating your coach in the process as you clambered across lane ropes and disturbed other swimmers in order to retrieve it.

The real sadists among swimming coaches would also give you small black inner tubes to put over your ankles, effectively tying your feet together, then make you do 800m with the damned things on.

This was agony and also, for the smaller and less strong swimmers, dangerous in that they were very difficult to get off your feet and therefore you needed to at least be in the shallow end to do so. The nozzle of the inner tube was still present, often leaving you with a thick scratch on one of your insteps after you finished your 800m, almost comatose, and examined what physical harm it had superficially inflicted on you. You didn't own your own models, they came out of a cupboard at the back of the pool and were filthy.

Other stuff you could take to the pool with you were stroke pads, which you fitted over your palms and were designed to help you perfect the entry of your hands into the water; and flippers, which were essentially there for leg strengthening but generally only got used to help you complete a whole length of a pool underwater and impress folk.

Training was not meant to be fun, and often only the camaraderie with the other swimmers kept you going. This was more prevalent at events, where apart from a warm-up prior to the whole competition, the only swimming you did was when your race was on, and therefore you hung about on the poolside or balconies in your branded club T-shirts and tracksuits, chatting, reading, taking the mick and listening to your Walkman. The journeys to and from these events on a single-decker coach were often great fun, with relationships often formed near the back of the vehicles and some risque songs sung. Beeford fish and chip shop has never done a more roaring trade than when hoards of wet-haired Hull kids who would pile into their establishment on a Saturday night on their way back from Filey or Bridlington, demanding jumbo sausages and chips and cans of Dangermouse cola.

So, do I want to go back to training? Probably, but it would never be like this any more, not least because Masters swimming means you choose when you go and how long you stay, something which evidently not an option when you are a child swimmer. It also doesn't involve competition swimming (unless you want it to) with a lot of these childhood swimmers returning to the training regime merely to stay in shape. Having balked at what the scales told me today, I think a new pair of (XXL) Speedos may be in order...

17 August 2009

Keep the kids from the fire #2

Once was bad enough, but at Stamford Bridge the buggers got me again, and this time in HD.

I'm smiling because it was 1-1 in the 87th minute (we still lost). I received a glut of "I just saw you on telly!" texts seconds later.

I think a discussion with my agent about image rights needs to be arranged.