Where’s My Minority Sports Report?

Whilst watching the wheelchair rugby final of the Invictus Games, it occurred to me that in this current media climate dominated by violent headlines of war and beheadings, it is the sport also known as “Murderball” that can be the most uplifting thing shown on TV. Allow me to explain:

Mention the 2014 World Cup, and for most it would be the men’s football championship that springs to mind. This is despite the fact that England spectacularly fulfilled everyone’s expectations of mediocrity, whereas the women’s national rugby team romped to glory in a 21-9 victory in the final. World Champions, and yet the media decided that the men who could only achieve one draw deserved more screen time. Consider that it is also the second time England have won the women’s rugby world cup, and 1966 somehow seems even more distant than it did before.

Waterman and the IRB women's World Cup © West Somerset Free Press
Nolli Waterman and the WRWC trophy.    © West Somerset Free Press

In fact I have to admit that this is something that I myself would have remained largely unaware of, were it not for the fact that we both grew up in the same town and shared several classes at school with England international Danielle “Nolli” Waterman.

Considering she and her team-mates were representing the entire nation, it is nothing but a shame that their accomplishments received more space on the front page of our local broadsheet, The West Somerset Free Press, than from a large portion, if not all, of the national newspapers.

Print media aside, coverage of the women’s rugby team fared much better on television. Not only has Nolli featured on the Clare Balding Show, but earlier today she also appeared with team-mates Maggie Alphonsi and Heather Fisher on Sky Sports’ Game Changers, a sporty Saturday morning kids show.

Great coverage they no doubt deserved, but that which again, I was only made aware of through Nolli’s own advertising on twitter. In addition these were also both on dedicated pay to view sports channels, of which BT Sport is still up and coming, and seems to advertise to non-subscribers predominantly through their coverage of, you guessed it, men’s football.

To be fair, it has to be said that sport isn’t my main passion, and not something I would normally seek out in terms of media coverage. Obviously there are those who do, and will no doubt have been made aware of the Rugby world cup long before myself and those others who rely only on more general media coverage. Whilst it can certainly be argued that the media is only a reflection of what the mainstream audience want to see, I would instead argue that it is in fact a vicious cycle: the mainstream audience often cannot want to see what it has not been made aware of by the media.

Just as London 2012 and the Women’s Rugby world cup has shown, there is nothing like getting behind athletes representing your nation at international events to get the adrenaline pumping, and interest growing.

Something which can also be said of disability sport. The BBC’s coverage of the 2008 Paralympics was limited to the red button, and four years later it was outbid by another broadcaster. Whilst it cannot be said that Channel 4’s coverage of the games at both London and Sochi were severely lacking in any way, it also cannot be said that their legacy goes much further than The Last Leg.

A Glasgow 2014 opening ceremony tent getting more air time than disability sport.
A Glasgow 2014 opening ceremony tent getting more air time than the games themselves.

A satirical news programme which, despite originating from the 2012 Paralympic Games, still concerns itself more with whether its twitter followers considered the 2014 Commonwealth Games to be either #notshit or #abitshit, than the fact that it is the only major competition in which able-bodied and disabled sports are competed side by side.

Whilst this fact was mentioned, even a show in which three presenters have only four legs between them still seems to cater to, rather than educate, a largely unaware audience. Meanwhile disability sport has continued to be played throughout the past two years as it always has done, even if it is still doing so in the background.

Not to say that male footballers aren’t skilled athletes, but the amount of coverage they receive also gives them an unfair advantage off, as well as on the pitch. Whilst players for the England women’s rugby team are only just now becoming paid professional athletes, sportsmen who have been receiving large paycheques for their entire careers somehow still feel the need to supplement these with advertising deals. Not to begrudge them these opportunities, but it makes you wonder if their World Cup experience would have turned out differently had the England goalkeeper, Joe Hart, not spent his run up to the competition appearing in no less than three separate television commercials.

The broadcasting of women’s and disability sport is far from adequate, and I would say that it is Wheelchair Rugby that can help bridge the gap that needs to be crossed.

GB's Kylie Grimes in action
GB’s Kylie Grimes in action.

Wheelchair Rugby is perhaps the only sport that has something for everyone. It is a full contact sport in terms of wheelchairs crashing into each other, and the fact that these chairs/battering rams act as a barrier between player contact means that the contact can often be more aggressive than its grass pitch counterpart.

Not only are there rules and classifications ensuring that those on the pitch are of mixed (dis)abilities, but while predominantly played by men, it is also a mixed sport in which both male and female players compete with and against each other, side by side.

In addition, like any disability sport, the athletes have already achieved so much before even entering the pitch. To me, sport is all about personal achievement; I enjoy archery because it is one of those sports where it doesn’t matter how many others are on the shooting line with me, I am always competing against myself. By overcoming obstacles many of us would have trouble imagining, pushing themselves to higher and higher standards is nothing new to those who participate in Murderball.

More than any this though, wheelchair rugby is generally just as thrilling as team sports get. Take a look for yourself, and see what even €100million can’t buy:

It’s now the 21st Century, and surely it’s time for decent coverage of sports that don’t deserve their description of “minority”. The advent of Sky Sports’ Sportswomen show last year was a great step forward, as is Game Changers introducing the younger generation to sports in all it forms, but one in which other broadcasters and newspapers need to not only follow, but also expand upon.

Thankfully things are also changing for the better in terms of disabled athletes. Last year at the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year awards, Hannah Cockroft became the first wheelchair athlete to be nominated outside of the Paralympics, a far cry from 2000 when Tanni Grey-Thompson was unable to accept her trophy due to the stage not having the most basic of disable access.

Surely it’s only deserving that the women’s England Rugby team be given the Team Of The Year award at this years ceremony in December, something which could, and indeed should, be the latest chapter of greater coverage of even greater sports.

Film Review: ‘Senna’, and death by passion.

I hardly doubt I’m the only person to have seen the documentary Senna and immediately recommended it to other people. I did just that the first time I watched it, and will continue to do so again now, having watched it yet again.

‘Senna’ documents the highs and lows of Ayrton’s formula 1 career.

Although not a documentary enthusiast, I can easily tell that Senna is a film that stands out in a cinematic genre that is something of a niche market. Both UK and US acadamies may have an entire category to find the Best Documentary each year, but when perusing cinema listings, it’s fair to say that those generally on offer are too few and far between. Those that do get through are highly entertaining as well as informative, but just as often this entertainment is derived from the way in which their stories are told.

Not that this is a bad thing however. Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Stroy Ever Sold is a fascinating insight into the world of product placement and cinematic marketing, but much like Super-Size Me, it hinges on his themes and ideas being told through the eyes of his exploits as much as the subject itself.

Senna however, is completely the opposite. As the name suggests, it documents the career of Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna, beginning with his early races, but only briefly. It describes his European karting origins and the Monaco ’84 Grand Prix in which he earned everyone’s attention, but goes on quickly to cover his rivalry with Alain Prost, and confrontations with the politics of the sport, personified by FISA president, Jean-Marie Balestre.

The film foregoes the traditional narrator and instead uses voice overs from interviewees including members of his close family, but most often McLaren boss Ron Dennis, and ESPN commentator John Bisignano. Although it may seem that a British film relying heavily on a commentator’s voice is missing the legendary Murray Walker, it has to be said that the association of his voice, along with the lovable mistakes that often came with it, would here be somewhat detracting.

More than just the voice overs however, the real highlight of Senna is what we see on screen, all of it taken from contemporary footage that includes race coverage, interviews, home movies, and even largely unbroadcast material from drivers’ pre-race meetings. With so much immersive footage, and even the titles designed to blend in with the race coverage graphics, it is hard not to feel as though you are watching the events live as they happen.

But such a compelling film is nothing less than such a compelling man deserves. Driving identical cars during their seasons together at McLaren, and both possesing natural talent, it was often only the driving styles of Senna and Prost that came between them. Known as ‘The Professor’, Prost raced with his head, calculated positions meticulously, as well as, as the film tries to show, the enforcement of the rules, in order to win his four world championships. Senna meanwhile, drove with heart and passion.  At the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, despite, or perhaps because of all his prior setbacks, he wouldn’t let even a faulty gear box deny him his first home win. Something he proudly achieved, and had to be physically lifted from his McLaren and driven to the podium in the medical car afterwards.

With determination such as this, it is perhaps no surprise that a mid race car crash would ultimately be the cause of his death. Senna was one of two drivers who died during the ’94 San Marino Grand Prix weekend, after Roland Ratzenberger also suffered a fatal crash during qualifying. The first death at a Formula One race meeting for twelve years it was something which shook the sport, but not Senna’s convictions. “I can’t quit” he famously told Formula 1 Doctor and close friend, Professor Sid Watkins.

Nineteen years later, perhaps the biggest tragedy of his death is that he crashed on such a tame corner. Although Formula 1 lost a great talent, and Brazil lost a national hero, Ayrton Senna was a sportsman and a driver who raced with a courage and conviction that should be celebrated. He reached the pinnacle of the motor sport elite, won three championships, set five records that still stand today, but never forgot his humble origins; he named kart racer Terry Fullerton when asked “who is or has been the driver you got the most satisfaction of racing against…past or present?

Formula 1 has always been glamorous, but in today’s world of spectacle and technological achievements, it seems hard to imagine that any driver would be able to compete with Senna in any aspect of the sport. Whether such talent and determination was worth dying for is debatable, but for Ayrton Senna, nothing less was worth living for.