Monday, February 18, 2013

Save wrestling, ditch wiff-waff

It’s a common argument in politics: if you don’t want a service cut, suggest something else that should go instead. The money only spreads so far; everything saved must be balanced by something being lost.

That is the problem facing the International Olympic Committee. Seven sports want to be admitted to the Olympic family for 2020 but in order for one of them to come in, something else must leave. Last week the IOC decided that wrestling would be the sport up for execution.

When the IOC meets in September to decide the programme for 2020, the seven candidate sports — squash, baseball/softball, roller sports, climbing, wakeboarding, karate and wushu — will be pitching for a place at the top table at the expense of one of the world’s oldest competitive sports.

Few of us, in Britain anyway, really understand wrestling as it is contested at the Olympics. It’s a long way from the showbusiness that is American simulated wrestling or what we remember being presented on ITV by Dickie Davies, but it has its roots in man’s earliest impulses. Ever since we came down from the trees we have wanted to grapple.

There are cave paintings 10,000 years old showing men doing pretty much what Greco-Roman Olympic wrestlers do. The heroes are always at it in Homer, while it was introduced into the ancient Olympics in 704BC. Naturally, Baron de Coubertin wanted it as part of his revived Olympics (although he was squeamish about them doing it naked) and so it has been part of every Games with the exception of 1900.

Now it is to go and it feels like the Olympics is losing part of its soul. I would feel the same if modern pentathlon, a sport invented for the Olympics and which was also under threat, had been chosen. Much as I believe that squash should be at the Games, I don’t want it there at the expense of a core Olympic sport.

So, the politicians would say, if I want squash in and don’t want to lose wrestling, what would I cut? Personally, I’d get rid of golf or tennis, both of which feel wrong as Olympic sports (no one’s going to claim that a gold medal means as much to Andy Murray as a major title or that Rory McIlroy would take one over a green jacket at Augusta), but since money and sponsorship matter so much these days to the Olympic Movement they are probably safe.

I quite like the suggestion by my former colleague John Goodbody in the Sunday Times yesterday that the IOC could make room in the Summer Olympics by moving some of the indoor sports to the less congested Winter Olympic schedule (why not do weightlifting or badminton as a winter sport?) but I also can’t see that happening.

Instead, my choice would be based on universality. The medals on offer at the Games should, as far as possible, be available to as many nations as possible. That is one of the attractions of squash, which would give good medal chances to Egypt (just 12 Olympic medals since 1948, only one gold) and Malaysia (six medals, none gold).

Wrestling medals have been won by 54 different countries since 1896 and at London 2012 it was one of the most diverse sports, with medals won by 29 countries including Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Puerto Rico.

Only athletics (41 different countries won medals) was more universal. And what was the least? Ignoring synchronised swimming (3 medals) and hockey (5), both of which only have two contests, it is table-tennis. Just five nations won medals and China took all four golds and two silvers.

In fact, China has dominated table-tennis since the sport appeared on the Olympic programme in 1988. Of the 28 gold medals won in that time, Chinese ping-pongers have taken 24 (South Korea three and Sweden one). China has also won 15 silvers and eight bronzes. It effectively gives them six or seven medals every Games.

How can the IOC justify retaining such a one-sided sport? Surely if the Olympics are about the world united in sport, it is time (and with apologies to Boris Johnson) for wiff-waff to be cut from the programme.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Thoughts on gay marriage

Gosh, it is tough to be an Anglican Tory at times. Today being one of them. But as the opponents of gay marriage try to get all Christian Conservatives labelled as frothing loons, I hope it is understood that not all of us - not even a majority of us - are so uncaring. Anyway, here are a few random thoughts of my own:

I didn’t get married in order to have children, although it was part of our hope for the future. Plenty of people, after all, are magically able to have children outside of marriage, not least Joseph and Mary who were merely “espoused”, or engaged to be married, when Mary discovered she had been made pregnant with the Spirit of the Lord. The religious right always seem to miss that.

Nor did I get married for tax reasons and much as I could do with some extra money these days, it is not the hope that George Osborne might bless our union with a few quid that keeps me married.

I married for love, crazy unorthodox fool that I am, and the belief that it was important to solemnise that love in a religious setting, surrounded by friends and family, and to make a public pronouncement of our long-term commitment to each other. We had moved past the pilot episode and decided to give it a full series. Marriage gave a solid base to our lives, but it could not have been laid without love.

Marriage these days should only be about love. It is no longer about the financial advantage of uniting families or the transfer of a woman, along with other chattels, into a man’s care. It is an adventure embarked on by equals.

Which is why it baffles me that there is such vehement opposition to extending this beautiful ceremony and status to those who love each other but are of the same gender. What actual harm is caused by letting gay people marry?

The opponents talk a lot about gay marriage “undermining the institution of marriage” but never go farther and say why. How is their marriage or that of any other straight couple made less valid by two gay men or women expressing the same commitment to each other?

Surely the institution is reinforced by more people wanting to make that commitment? Is it not, instead, the two million unmarried couples who are undermining the tradition?

Or how about those couples who divorce and then remarry and then divorce and remarry again? The Katie Price principle. Are they not undermining the institution of marriage more than a couple of loved-up gay guys?

Why are the Peter Bones and Gerald Howarths of this world not campaigning to ban procreation outside of marriage and outlaw divorce? It would be outlandish but at least consistent with their argument.

And what about those who get married and either cannot or choose not to have children? Are they not violating that principle that Charles Moore and the rest of the anti-gay brigade keep banging on about that marriage is all about the kiddies?

Yes, there is part of the wedding service that talks about the hope that the union will be blessed with children, but that can be as easily glossed over, or edited out, as the “wives submit to your husbands” bit that my wife insisted we excise.

Marriage has evolved to reflect society but the root purpose of it, the thing that drives many of us instinctively to wanting to make that public statement, has not changed and that is the same innate impulse whether you are gay or straight.

I do not believe that churches should be forced to offer gay marriage, although I am disappointed that this is not to be an option to individuals within the Church of England. I know plenty of Anglicans, including priests, who would be happy to see a gay marriage celebrated in their church.

The rights of those who have religious objections must be respected. It confuses me, though, why a gay couple would want to get married by a priest who does not wish them well.

The opponents are on stronger ground when they complain that the Bill does not recognise the consummation of a gay marriage and thus will not allow for divorce on the grounds of adultery. This is an odd error of drafting or a great failure of imagination.

Since hardly anyone these days — surely — is a virgin when they get married, is it not just assumed that straight marriages are consummated? No one has to provide evidence that they had sex after marriage and it can hardly be tested in a court. Similarly, when people divorce because of adultery they are rarely found in bed with their lover. It is either admission or enough circumstantial evidence of an affair that gets them and why can those assumptions not be made for gay couples?

David Cameron is to be admired for making this stand of principle. He did not need to do it. I doubt it will win him many extra votes in the gay community and they may be offset anyway by those who escape to Ukip over this. There was no campaign of pressure that forced him to this point, he simply went for it because it is right.

In doing so, the Prime Minister has shown much more courage than two previous Labour Prime Ministers did. I have always thought that the introduction of civil partnerships was a cowardly fudge that somehow sent out the message that gay people couldn’t make the same commitment as straights. It is time to correct that distinction. To do so would be the kind, and I suggest, Christian thing.