A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

Every year the football season ends, and every year the television and radio broadcasters roll out their trailers for the ‘summer of sport’, complete with soundtrack from Dodgy or Mungo Jerry.

You can forgive them for going a little overboard this year though, this year’s slightly different; in case you weren’t aware of it yet (although I’m not sure that’s possible), there’s the small matter of a summer Olympic Games in London to think about.

The games have become such a sporting behemoth that they have, and will, influence just about every other sporting event on the 2012 calendar.

London's Olympic Stadium

London’s Olympic stadium will be at the centre of the sporting world this summer. Photo: Phil Jones

With this in mind I’m going to add to the list of summer previews and give my take on the events in store for us in the next 3 months.

I won’t cover all the events, mainly because there are just too many to talk about, but I will give a brief overview of what I will be keeping an eye on, why it is worth your attention, and giving my prediction of how events might unfold (there’s no real insight involved in my predictions and any money lost from bets placed is not my responsibility).

Where to start then? Well we’re in the middle of the French Open tennis so that’s as good a place as any:

French Open Tennis (May 28 – June 10):

Why? – The potential for numerous pieces of history to be made. Rafael Nadal can set a record of seven titles in the Paris suburbs and join Bjorn Borg on 11 major titles. Novak Djokovic could become the eighth man to win the career grand slam, whilst simultaneously completing the ‘Djoko Slam’ of holding all four major trophies at once, and keeping alive his chances of completing the calendar Golden Slam. Federer could become only the third man to complete a second career grand slam were he to win, and Maria Sharapova could complete her first if the Russian gets her hands on the women’s title.

Who? – Nadal and Sharapova. I’d be stupid to bet against Nadal really. If Djokovic makes the final I’d still back Nadal, but he’d be less of a certainty to win. If he’s up against Federer though, then I can’t see the Swiss getting anywhere near the trophy. On the women’s side it just seems like everything has come together for Sharapova to triumph – the Williams sisters are both out, as is Francesca Schiavone and world number one Victoria Azarenka, Na Li hasn’t been too convincing either. I’d keep an eye out for Sam Stosur though.

UEFA European Championship Finals (June 8 – July 1):

Why? – It’s England in a football tournament, no matter how much we say we don’t expect anything, we can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. The Euros tend to provide more entertainment than the World Cup, less meaningless games and the football is generally of a higher quality. Any tournament with an Irish presence is better for it as well.

Who? – I’ll be very boring, play it safe, and say Netherlands v Spain in one semi, Germany v France in the other. That means the final could be a repeat of Euro 2008, but I’ve a sneaky feeling the Germans might just get their revenge and win their first tournament since Euro ’96.

Andy Murray at Queen's 2011

Andy Murray faces a potentially career defining summer in 2012. Photo: Carine06

Queen’s Club, Aegon Championships (11 – 17 June):

Why? – It marks the start of the British sporting summer, it means Wimbledon is just around the corner and there are few finer sights than watching a load of professional athletes slipping around at the back of a slick grass court.

Who? – If Murray’s fit then I’d take him to make it three titles in West London. He humiliated Roddick there last year and the American is worse now than he was then, suggesting that Murray’s only real competition will come from Big Willy himself, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Olympics Athletics trials (22 – 24 June):

Why? – The cream of British athletic talent all fighting for their place at a home Olympics. There’ll be some surprises, athletes who come from relative obscurity to book their place in the Olympic village, and there’ll no doubt be the odd high profile one who misses out too.

Who ? – I’m going to go for James Dasaolu to make headlines for all the right reasons. I interviewed him last summer during another period of rehab from injury, even at that stage his only focus was getting fit for the Olympics in his home city of London. The second fastest Brit over 100m last year, he’s already bagged an A standard qualifying time this season – all he’s got to do now is finish in the top two in the trials for his dream to become a reality. I also reckon a certain Mr. Chambers will fail to qualify for the individual event, his form this season doesn’t look good and I think the emotional roller coaster he’s been on over the past few years may have finally taken its toll.

Wimbledon Championships (June 25 – July 8):

Why? – Because it’s Wimbledon. Centre court has played host to some of the greatest finals of all time in the past five years and as is the way with any major tournament in this era, there are records to be broken. Federer could finally equal Pete Sampras’ record seven titles, or (depending on how events unfold in Paris) Novak Djokovic could march on to the third piece of the Golden Slam, Nadal could potentially win his twelfth major title or (whisper it) Andy Murray could win his first/second major title (OK 2nd is a little ambitious).

It’s not just the men’s draw that entices though, Sharapova will most likely be the favourite on the women’s side but those Williams sisters always save their best for the grass of South West London. Petra Kvitova won’t give up her title without a fight and Victoria Azarenka will be determined to reassert her authority on the women’s game. Throw into that the unpredictability of the women’s game at present and you may as well pick the quarter finalists out of a hat.

Who? – I’m going to stick with my Roland-Garros predictions and go for Sharapova and Nadal. Djokovic just isn’t quite on the high that he was last year, and if he’s not right on the top of his game then I think Nadal has the edge over him – as shown by the two clay court finals they’ve contested thus far this spring. You can never completely write off Roger either but his recent record at Wimbledon (only QF’s in the past two years) is worse than Murray’s, so you’d have to give Murray more chance than the Swiss magician.

On the women’s side, Sharapova has been pretty consistent in 2012, generally only losing to Azarenka, and should she make the final in Paris she’ll be coming to London with the number one ranking, a more consistent serve than she’s had for a couple of years, and potentially the confidence that comes with just having won a major title.

Dwain Chambers doing interview.

Will Dwain Chambers have be forced to run at in Helsinki to confirm a place at the Olympics? Photo: maxzix74

European Athletics Championships (June 26 – July 1):

Why? – Taking place the week after the trials, it’s surely the final opportunity for British athletes to grab the third discretionary place on offer at the Olympics if they didn’t perform at the trials. There may well be a lack of big names as the already qualified athletes will take a week’s rest in preparation for the games, but the competition is sure to be intense with so much at stake for those who do make the trip to Helsinki.

Who? – Who knows? It all depends what happens in Birmingham the previous weekend, who will have guaranteed their place and who will still be desperate to impress the selectors?

Tour de France (30 June – 22 July):

Why? – A sporting highlight every year for me. I can understand why people may find it boring and I can understand why some may be disillusioned with the regularity with which drugs cheats are highlighted in cycling. But I’ve been watching it since I was young, when I didn’t know what EPO was and when channel 4 gave me coverage in bite sized chunks at 6:30pm every evening. I remember Tom Steels blinding past me in 1998 to sprint to another stage victory, and I remember sitting having dinner in Lausanne, watching Marco Pantani ride past on his way to winning a post Tour criterium. Much has changed in the world of professional cycling since those days but much is reassuringly the same, Gary Imlach’s hair and the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are synonymous with the Tour de France, bringing an air of class to proceedings come those three weeks in July.

Who? – Without wishing to sound too myopically patriotic, Britain’s riders genuinely have the potential to make history at this year’s Tour. Bradley Wiggins has what will probably be his best chance ever to grab himself the yellow jersey in Paris, and Mark Cavendish doesn’t look to have much serious competition in defending his green jersey. Doubt comes in the form of Wiggins’ main rivals for yellow, whom we should know more about after this week’s Dauphiné, in which Brad is looking to defend his title from last year. There will also be doubt over Team Sky’s ability to support both Wiggins and Cavendish in their separate goals, the squad as a whole is looking good though and if any squad is capable of winning two jerseys, then I’d suggest Sky are the team to do it. With that in mind I’ll go for Wiggins in yellow, Cavendish in green and Cadel Evans and Pierre Rolland rounding off the podium places.

Test Series v South Africa (July 19 – 20 August):

Why? – The top two ranked test nations in the world going head to head. England desperate to hang on to top spot and Graeme Smith’s South African side desperate to wrestle it away from them. Eight of the world’s top twenty batsmen will be on show (four each), seven of the world’s top twenty bowlers (4-3 to England), the world’s best all-rounder, this series has it all.

Who? – Take your pick really. Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world, Vernon Philander is chasing him for that moniker and James Anderson would like to have a say in the matter too. Andrew Strauss could become England’s most prolific century maker of all time, Kevin Pietersen always likes to put on a show against his former compatriots, Ian Bell loves batting in the English summer and Jacques Kallis is a match winner with bat or ball. Were it any other year this would be the most anticipated sporting contest of the summer.

Olympic Games (July 27 – August 12):

Why? – The biggest sporting occasion in history, in London. Do I really need to add anything more?

Who? – Too many to mention and that’s why I love the Olympics – wherever you look there are stars being born. The obvious star is a certain Jamaican sprinter, Yohan Blake will push Bolt all the way for the sprint double but I think Bolt will still win both and add the relay title to cement his place in sporting legend.

Elsewhere I think Jess Ennis might just falter, but I reckon Phillips Idowu, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford could all have a golden summer.

In the hockey I think the GB women could go all the way to the final. They beat the world number 1s Argentina twice recently, however the Argentinians were missing their star player in Luciana Aymar, so I’ll hold fire on predicting a definite gold. The GB girls are more than capable of delivering it though. For the men I think the best they can do is fifth, since winning the European Championships in 2009 and a silver in the 2010 Champions trophy, they seem to have been on somewhat of a downwards spiral of results – I’ll go for a German victory over Australia in the final.

Laura Trott riding for GB

Will Laura Trott ride away with omnium gold? Photo: Rob Duin

We won’t be as all-conquering in the velodrome as we were in Beijing. I still think we’ll come away with five golds though; both pursuit teams, the women’s omnium and one each from Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton – not a bad return really!

On the road (providing safe passages through the Tour) I think it’ll be win or bust for Mark Cavendish, IF he makes it over Box Hill 9 times and is still on the front then the gold is his for the taking – if not then someone like Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd is more than capable of riding away with gold. In the time trial I think Wiggins can get a medal, probably not gold but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the podium.

For the women I’m not so au fait with the opposition, although in Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead we have two of the best road racers in the world, and Emma Pooley has previous in the time trial as well.

In the triathlon I’d be hugely shocked if there wasn’t a Brownlee on the top step of the rostrum. Don’t ask me to say which one but Jonny’s early season form and Alistair’s pedigree suggest that if they’re both fit they’ll be fighting between themselves for gold and silver. For the women then Helen Jenkins looks to be in top form so far this season, she’s not as far above the rest of the pack as her male teammates but anything less than a podium place would be a big shock.

I could keep going and going but my knowledge starts getting a bit patchy for other sports now, so I’ll let you make up your own minds as to who’ll take home the medals in the greco-roman wrestling.

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Will Djokovic have had a record-breaking summer when he gets to New York? Photo: Carine06

US Open Tennis (Aug 27 – Sep 9):

Why? – For every reason I’ve mentioned previously. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are a joy to behold, throw in Murray’s penchant for the hard courts and crowds of New York and we’ve got the recipe for another cracker on our hands. On the women’s side, Serena would dearly love to put last year’s meltdown in the final behind her, Sharapova could well be coming to New York with two major titles and an Olympic gold medal round her neck, and Azarenka could have bounced back on the hard courts she loves to be a favourite again.

Who? – We’re still three months away from the action kicking off at Flushing Meadows with an awful lot of tennis to be played in between so it’s too early to say really. All the usual suspects will be there, but I’d throw the names of Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki into the mix as well.

That’s me done for now, no doubt I’ll go into more detail for specific events as the summer progresses. I’d be interested to see how many of my predictions you agree with though, and if anyone fancies calculating how much I’d win if I put an accumulator on all my predictions then you can have a cut of the proceeds when they all come good!

What have I missed?:

Three golf majors, England vs. Australia ODI series, a summer of Formula 1, a summer of Moto GP, Royal Ascot, Eastbourne tennis, domestic T20, Paralympics, Vuelta a España, World T20.

Enjoy your summer.


Right to watch?

Clare Balding holding a microphone

Clare Balding presented from Aintree for the last time on Saturday. Photo: CharlesFred

Saturday saw the end of an era, the end of the Grand National on BBC television (well for four years at least). The loss of the TV rights to Channel 4 means that as of 2013, there will be no horse racing on BBC television. The Derby and Ascot festival have also been lost, so Channel 4 will be the sole source of racing on terrestrial television.

Admittedly I’m not the biggest racing fan you’re likely to meet, so to say that this passing on of the ‘baton’ hasn’t really troubled me, is somewhat of an understatement. Though,  as the Grand National is most people’s solitary dealing with the ‘gee-gees’ all year, I would wager that the news is unlikely to have affected all but the most ardent of racegoers. As long as the public can still watch the race on Channel 4, then I doubt they are too upset that Clare Balding has lost her most beloved presenting job.

The BBC’s inability to hold onto the coverage does highlight the wider issue of the their shrinking sports portfolio though. Not only has the racing been lost, but the athletics and Paralympics coverage has made the switch to C4, the French Open tennis is now on ITVSky have bought the BBC out of the two remaining years of their exclusive Formula 1 deal, and most recently Sky have also acquired exclusive rights to the BMW PGA Championships and the Scottish Open golf.

Cuts at the BBC have forced them to streamline their sporting commitments and prioritise where the licence fee income is spent. Reports at the time suggested that the corporation sacrificed their exclusive F1 rights to maintain their coverage of the full Wimbledon fortnight. Now this is a very simplistic view to take, but were I to be given the choice between a full F1 season live and exclusive on the BBC, but with limited Wimbledon coverage, or the situation we have now, then I would opt for the latter every time.

I appreciate there were a huge number of F1 fans incredibly upset at being forced to pay for something that they previously received effectively ‘free’. However, I believe the general public feel a greater attachment to the events in SW19 every summer, than they do to the millionaires playground of F1, a view the BBC clearly share.

In an ideal world the BBC would win the bidding for all television rights, for every sport, and still find space to broadcast a diverse array of programming to keep all license fee payers happy. This simply is not possible though, not only do the BBC work within a limited budget, they simply don’t have space to give exposure to every sport. From football fans, to handball fans, to arts documentaries fans, the BBC face an impossible task in satisfying everyone.

Spokespeople for minority sports often claim that their sports suffer from a lack of exposure, unfortunately that is just the way of the world. Money is spent where the demand is largest, and demand is most commonly at its largest where there is a history and tradition, or when there is success to be celebrated. Take cycling for example, not traditionally a major sport in Britain; British Cycling have built a highly successful team, and as such they now have a very marketable product. If minority sports want more exposure then they need to be successful first, then use the exposure that brings to fund and drive further success. At a time when the world’s best golfers are British, and even they are complaining that the BBC are cutting their commitment to golf, why should handball expect to compete?

Mark Nicholas interviews Daniel Vettori

Mark Nicholas interviews Daniel Vettori for Cricket on Five. Photo: HNM_1977

It should also be noted that, though many people are upset when the BBC loses sports rights to competitors, there are other sports on terrestrial channels that are covered very well. Channel 4, along with Sunset + Vine, did a fine job in revolutionising cricket coverage before it moved to Sky, and ITV, with VSquared TV, have done a fantastic job with their Tour de France output.

So yes it is a shame to see the Grand National switch to Channel 4, and even more of a shame to lose other sporting occasions from terrestrial television completely, but unfortunately that is just the way it is. I would love to be able to watch test cricket on television for free, but who is to say that England’s ascent to world number 1 status would have occurred without the extra funds the Sky deal brought to the ECB?

It is these dilemmas that lead to the list of sports ‘crown jewels’ being created. The list dictates which sporting events are so important to the nation that they must be kept on free-to-air television. In its current guise the groups are as follows:

Group A – full live coverage protected

Olympic Games
Fifa World Cup finals
European Football Championship finals
FA Cup final
Scottish FA Cup final (protected in Scotland)
Grand National
Epsom Derby
Wimbledon tennis finals
Rugby League Challenge Cup Final
Rugby World Cup final

Group B – highlights only on free-to-air TV

England’s home cricket Test matches
Other matches, excluding finals, at Wimbledon Championships
Other matches, excluding final, at Rugby World Cup
Six Nations matches involving home countries
Commonwealth Games
World Athletics Championships
Cricket World Cup – final, semi-finals and matches involving home nations
Ryder Cup
Open golf championship

Source – BBC, Panel names free-to-air choices

As we can see there aren’t actually many sporting occasions deemed so important to the nation that we shouldn’t have to pay for them. Yes it’s nice for sports lovers to pick and choose what they watch, and there is a strong argument that sports participation would benefit from increased exposure on terrestrial television. But governing bodies have to stay afloat somehow, and if they can put television money into grass-roots initiatives then maybe that is a better option?

In 2009 the list was reviewed and a new one proposed:

Summer Olympic Games
Fifa World Cup finals
Uefa European Championship finals
Grand National
FA Cup final (England, Wales and Northern Ireland only)
Scottish FA Cup (Scotland)
Home and away football qualifiers for World Cup and European Championship (listed only in home nation to which they relate)
Wimbledon Championship (in its entirety)
Open golf championship
Cricket’s home Ashes Test matches
Rugby World Cup tournament
Wales matches in Six Nations (in Wales only)

Lydia Lassila wins Women's aerials event at Vancouver 2010

Events like the Winter Olympics could be lost from terrestrial television. Photo: Kyler Storm

This would have been the sole list, no Group B for highlights, just the events listed above. Notable objections were raised about the emission of the Winter Olympic Games, and the inclusion of home Ashes Test matches. The head of the ECB complained, citing the money they would lose from their current Sky deal, and the BOA were understandably unhappy at the world’s largest winter sporting event potentially being relegated to subscription based TV.

The decision on the proposed list was supposed to have been made in 2010, the general election ended up delaying that and it has now been further pushed back into 2013. The reason given for the second delay is the digital switchover. The theory is that with digital television, there should be more space to broadcast, and therefore more free-to-air channels available to schedule sport on. However, buying the license to broadcast on a particular channel, buying the rights to a sport and then producing a programme all cost money. So with terrestrial broadcasters limited in funds, the problem of being outbid for television rights will still exist.

Decisions will have to be made whether governing bodies go for the money or the media exposure, broadcasters will have to decide which sports offer the best value for money, and minority sports will have to realise that exposure follows success, not the other way round. The decisions taken will never see everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, so we should be thankful then when a sporting occasion is kept on terrestrial television for the nation’s pleasure.

The challenge now is to tackle the TV companies who think that because they’ve paid so much money to broadcast a sport, that they now own all the history and tradition that goes with it. Tradition in sport is dying out and TV broadcasters that pay the money, and therefore hold the power, can largely be blamed for it. Take Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final as an example: played at Wembley, broadcast on ESPN, with a 12:30 kick-off. That is a whole other debate for another time though.

Featured image: Silver Birch wins 2007 Grand National – CharlesFred