Cameroon's Olympic delegation has confirmed that seven of the African nation's 37 athletes have disappeared from the Olympic Village. Drusille Ngako, a reserve goalkeeper for the women's soccer team, is believed to have been the first to disappear in July, escaping the compound while her teammates travelled to Coventry for a final training match against New Zealand. Swimmer Paul Ekane Edingue, scheduled to compete in the men's 50-meter freestyle, disappeared with his personal belongings next, followed by five eliminated members of the men's boxing team: Thomas Essomba, Christian Donfack Adjoufack, Mewoli Abdon, Blaise Yepmou Mendouo and Serge Ambomo. The news comes after the Ethiopian team's 15-year-old torch bearer Natnael Yemane, a member of the London Organizing Committee's International Inspiration program, disappeared in Nottingham on June 27.
The Guardian speculates that the athletes were motivated to escape the Olympic Village for economic reasons and aim to remain within the European Union. Such disappearances are unfortunately not unusual at international sporting events. After 26 athletes sought asylum during the 2006 Commonwealth games in Melbourne, Australia, nine athletes from Sierra Leon, Tanzania and Bangladesh disappeared from the 2009 tournament. Not all seek legal residence, however, and in 2011, 15 Ethiopian athletes disappeared from the All African Games in Mozambique, a regional hub for illegal immigration. They were rumored to have fled to South Africa in search of employment.
The Olympic games are also known for numerous political defections. Deutsche Welle tracks the first incident to 1948, when Marie Provaznikova, then president of the International Gymnastics Federation, refused to return to her native Czechoslovakia. In a similiar protest against the Soviet Union, nearly half of Hungary's Olympic delegation defected in 1956 after the failed revolution. The small island of Cuba, however, gets the gold for most defections as low wages and political oppression pushes many talented athletes to seek new teams abroad. Though Cuban coaches have attempted to prevent player-loss by forcing teams to leave competitions early, a national soccer team member managed to file for political asylum as recently as April 2012. Making news for his bronze medal in the men's all-around, U.S. gymnast Danell Leyva is the son of two Cuban athlete defectors
Whether foul play or a transnational job search is at fault, the International Olympic Committee remains in the dark. When asked about the disappearances, IOC spokesman Mark Adams told Reuters: "We are unaware of it."
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Soccer hooliganism in Israel took on a particularly violent tone on Monday when, after a game in Teddy Kollek Stadium, hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem supporters assaulted cleaning personnel in nearby Malha Mall. According to Haaretz, it "was said to be one of Jerusalem's biggest-ever ethnic clashes." Mohammed Yusuf, a team leader for Or-Orly cleaning services, described it as "a mass lynching attempt." Witnesses also stated that "mostly teenage supporters flooded into the shopping center, hurling racial abuse at Arab workers and customers and chanting anti-Arab slogans, and filled the food hall on the second floor," and that the "attackers also asked Jewish shop owners for knives and sticks to serve as weapons but none consented."
Eventually, the mall's security director deployed a group of guards "in an attempt to restore order, but they were outnumbered." He called the police, who evacuated the mall at about 10:30 pm, but they made no arrests because "no complaint was filed," even though there is CCTV footage of the brawl.
Yellow- and black-clad Beitar fans are notorious for their hatred toward Arabs. They frequently chant "Death to Arabs" during matches, and last year fans recorded themselves teaching racist chants to their children. The suspect in a recent price tag attack claimed that "he vandalized the school to avenge the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team's loss to two Arab teams two weeks ago." The team, which used to be sponsored by Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, has been described as "magnet for right-wing extremists" and criticized for not hiring Arab players.
FP looked at the history of sports-related political violence last summer.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
FIFA President Sepp Blatter isn't the most-respected sporting figure around, and he seemingly doesn't know when to shut up. Just as the furor in the United States at the decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup was dying down, Blatter happened to remind the world of another problem with Qatar's bid.
Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, which apparently doesn't matter to FIFA because, hey, those pre-game speeches are only about racism. God forbid any other minority group be persecuted. Here was Blatter's solution for gay fans worried about attending the event:
They [gay fans] should refrain from any sexual activities."
Former NBA player John Amaechi, who famously came out in 2007, told the BBC 5 radio that, "It's not about people having sex in public and being sanctioned for it, it's the fact that Qatar was one of 79 countries to sanction executing gays at the United Nations." Here's what FIFA's official mission says, under "What We Stand For":
...Unity. We believe it is FIFA's responsibility to foster unity within the football world and to use football to promote solidarity, regardless of gender, ethnic background, faith or culture."
Whoops, forgetting something?
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
The global reaction to Qatar's winning drive to host the World Cup in 2022 can be summed up in a word: incredulous. For a more nuanced take, David Goldblatt has a smart piece for the Middle East Channel weighing the pros and cons of holding the world's top soccer tournament in a tiny sheikhdom with plenty of money and moxy but little history of athletic excellence. Definitely worth a read, but in the meantime, check out these great photos from FP's Doha correspondent (disclosure: my wife) of Qataris celebrating the victory along the corniche Friday:
For the full effect, check out the video, too.
Sandy Choi for FP
FIFA today announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup and … Qatar … would host the 2022 Cup. Obviously this is shocking news across the sporting and football worlds.
So why Russia and Qatar?
Russia, actually, makes a certain amount of sense. In the end, it seemed like the choice had come down to Russia and England. (The reports that England finished fourth out of fourth for 2018 bidding are stunning, and if true, really demonstrate an … interesting mindset on the part of the FIFA commissioners.) Russia is still largely untapped by football. The Russian Premier League is not yet at the level of La Liga, Serie A, or the English Premier League, but it certainly qualifies as a middle tier European football division.
Moreover, there's a sense that football is growing in popularity in the country, and there is money to be made in the market. Logistically, brand new stadiums, and enough viable locations for them, are something FIFA salivates over in the bidding process. Russia can provide that. Despite being heartbreaking for England (and the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and the Netherlands/Belgium), Russia has the potential to host a strong Cup.
The 2022 decision is more mystifying, but there are a few legitimate enticements Qatar offered. The idea of hosting the Cup in the Arab world is a plus, and by all accounts Qatar's bid presentation was astonishing -- promising to build 9 completely new stadiums, renovating three others, then donating them to third world countries after the tournament, and guaranteeing a Green Cup. But there's a reason why FIFA labeled Qatar's bid "high risk."
(Puzzling, England was recognized to have the best presentation, but that didn't factor into the 2018 decision. The corruption questions are already swirling -- and have been for some months. The New York Times' Jére Longman wrote up a good overview on Nov. 30. )
Qatar presents two major logistical problems that FIFA faces. Qatar is alleging their new stadiums -- open-air, a FIFA requirement -- will be equipped with advanced air conditioned technology, allowing for adequate playing conditions. But where will the players train? 12 stadiums isn't hardly enough. Unless the plan is to build a giant air-conditioned dome above the country, the heat factor -- consistently over 100 degrees farenheit in summer -- is a massive challenge.
Additionally, Qatar's lack of viable summer activities outside the games -- compared to its competitors -- is sigificant, and will deter a large amount of fans from making the trip. That is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the tournament -- promoting diversity and celebrating the fact that, for at least two months, we can put aside our differences and celebrate an event with universal interest. That's not possible with empty stadiums.
As a devoted United States soccer fan, greatly interested in the domestic (I actually watched the MLS playoffs in the last two seasons, and can say the 2009 championship game was arguably the most epic sporting event I've seen) and international game, this is a crushing blow to take. I am old enough to remember the passion of 1994, and young enough to come of age in an era where soccer took off in the United States. While there's no risk that my interest in soccer will wane, there is a chance that many casual followers will, if not tune out, be less engaged with the sport. It's impossible for me to separate that fact from my analysis -- I, like all other U.S. soccer fans today, feel gutted.
It had long been expected that the 2022 tournament was the United States' to lose, and for good reason: the 1994 World Cup was the most successful in the history of the competition (by far), soccer is growing leaps and bounds in the country and its domestic league has just finished its 15th year and is expanding. The country with the most tickets bought for the 2010 World Cup (besides host-country South Africa) was the United States, again by some margin. No infrastructure construction is required (and a number of new stadiums will be built anyway in the next 12 years), there are a huge amount of viable locations to host games, and, despite its struggles, the United States national team has proved itself a legitimate player in international tournaments. (Lest we forget that the United States, in the 2009 Confederation's Cup in South Africa, beat future World Cup winners Spain 2-0, ending their 35 game unbeaten streak?) Furthermore, the United States has qualified for the last six World Cups, a feat that only powerhouses Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain can match.
Qatar is 113th in FIFA's world football rankings. There's no history nor tradition of the beautiful game in the country. It has never qualified for a World Cup, finished 8th in the Asian Football Confederation's final qualifying round for 2010 -- and will receive an automatic bid for 2022. It has very little infrastructure in place, and that which will be built will be constructed by migrant laborers with very few rights. As recently as 2008, Qatar was in the lowest country tier in the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report.
FIFA also made another, more practical, mistake -- the United States is a huge market, the growth potential of the sport is enormous in the country, and there's, ultimately, a massive amount of money to be made. The Arab world already loves football -- there are few regional viewers to gain.
Finally, following the 2010 and 2014 (South Africa, Brazil) Cups with two more question marks is a gamble. Now, China, rumored to have interest in hosting the 2026 Cup, will likely not have the chance to do so until 2036 (the same confederation can not host two Cups in a row). And if there are any slipups in the run-up to either 2018 or 2022, you can bet that Brits and Americans will be screaming, "I told you so."
On the bright side, I'd bet everything I have on the United States getting the 2026 or 2030 World Cup.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
While everyone in Washington and probably most global capitals is obsessing over WikiLeaks, the sports world is eagerly awaiting this week's big event: FIFA's decision on who gets to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. (To give you some perspective: World Cup was Yahoo's second-most popular search target this year, after the gulf oil spill.)
Today, the 2022 bidders -- Australia, Japan, Qatar, South Korea, and the United States -- are giving their final presentations in a last-ditch attempt to persuade any remaining fence-sitters that their country deserves the nod, and tomorrow FIFA will announce the winners.
The 2018 Cup is destined to go to a European country; the most interesting contest is for 2022. Soccer blogs, which have been buzzing with gossip and speculation for the last year or so, seem to think it's going to come down to a choice between the United States and -- believe it or not -- Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf emirate whose seemingly quixotic bid to be the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament has captured the imagination of millions of Arabs all over the world. (Disclosure: My wife's company does some small-scale work for the Qatari government in this area.)
Unfortunately for Qatar, FIFA's bid evaluation report rated the country's facilities as "high risk" due to the fact that few of them are built. The extremely hot weather in June and July, when the Cup would be held is another major concern. In response, Qatar is sinking billions into its bid and has promised to build stadiums deploying innovative outdoor cooling technology and then donate them to developing countries. Doha, the capital, is festooned with banners (reading "22" and "Expect Amazing") promoting the bid, and seemingly every shopping mall in town has a booth handing out free bumper stickers and other paraphernalia. Expectations are high.
And that's what worries me. Qatar has made an amazing go of it, and it would be an inspiring win for a region that has too few of them, but I'd be extremely surprised if the United States loses. Ultimately, FIFA's goal is to make as much money as possible, and Qatar can't hope to match the size of the U.S. market. But you never know. Politicians, not technocrats, are the ultimate deciders here.
One final note: It would be a great irony if Arab leaders' sniping about Qatar's alleged support for terrorism and general troublemaking in the region, as revealed in the WikiLeaks cables, tipped the scales against the Middle East's first real shot at hosting the Cup. I think the decision has probably already been made, but you never know...
Clive Rose/Getty Images for Qatar 2022
There's not much to add by way of commentary here. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who plays for a minor-league soccer team in La Paz, was caught on tape giving a blatant kick to the groin of an opposing player who had committed a hard foul on him earlier. Somehow Morales didn't get a red card and went on to score a goal in the game, presumably because no one really wants to play defense on someone with presidential immunity.
Sept. 11 protests over an Islamic community center a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site drew an unlikely ally: British soccer hooligans.
This isn't particularly shocking, given that many hooligans have long been tied into European right-wing political organizations. The most infamous among them were militant followers of Red Star Belgrade in the early 1990s. Headed by future-Serbian war criminal Arkan, the Delije were notoriously violent fanatics, and later became a backbone of Serbian paramilitary units in the Balkan Wars.
The small protest contingent were members of the English Defense League, an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim organization. (They style themselves as a "Counter Jihad" movement.) The make-up of the group itself is actually quite amazing. The New York Times quotes a piece on the EDL's website referring to a London Al-Quds Day rally:
More and more lads started to arrive at the pub, Pompey, Southampton, West Ham, Arsenal, Tottenham, Millwall, Chelsea, Brentford, QPR all drinking together, a bit of banter, but no hassle whatsoever. Top lads all there for their country.
For the record, these are some of English football's fiercest rivalries: (Pompey) Portsmouth-Southampton, West Ham-Millwall, Arsenal-Tottenham, Queens Park Rangers (QPR)/Brentford (and to a lesser extent, Chelsea.)
The Times piece also provides a number of videos of EDL rallies, which are well worth a look to get a taste of what the group is like. Matthew Taylor of the Guardian secretly investigated the group for months, and produced this video in May. A choice bit as quoted by the Times:
As we moved outside for the E.D.L. protest -- during which supporters became involved in violent clashes with the police -- a woman asked me for a donation to support the "heroes coming back injured from Afghanistan." I put a pound in the bucket.
"Thanks love," she said."They go over there and fight for this country and then come back to be faced with these Pakis everywhere." The woman also used another racial slur, using language we cannot repeat here.
Some right-wing U.S. protesters have gone to great lengths to prove they aren't bigots; I wonder if they'll denounce this British group showing up at their rallies …
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Looking for a new hobby? You may want to give bog snorkeling a try.
The latest out of Wales is that a bog snorkeler may have set a new world record time for the sport by more than eight seconds. The Telegraph reports that race participants "must swim two lengths of a 60 yard muddy, water-filled trench using flippers but no recognized swimming strokes."
While the event was won by a Welshman, competitors came from as far away as Australian and Poland to compete. The winning time was one minute and 30.06 seconds.
If bog snorkeling alone isn't enough for you, why not try the bog snorkeling triathlon? Also set in Wales, the triathlon consists of a 7.5-mile run, two lengths of the bog swim, and 19 miles of cycling. Last year, a Brit won the race in a record two hours, 21 minutes, and five seconds.
China may be surpassing the United States in energy use and is catching up in the race for the world's biggest economy, but there's one superlative Beijing is trying to avoid: world's fattest country.
Starting this week, the city of Beijing has resumed mandatory daily workplace calisthenics, after a three-year break. Radio broadcast exercise regimens first began in 1951, but were suspended in 2007 so broadcasters could spend more time reporting on the 2008 Summer Olympics, held in Beijing. According to the media blog Danwei, Radio Exercise Set #8 will be broadcast on FM 102.5 every day at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Four million workers in the city are participating.
The Guardian interviewed several Beijing residents who supported the move, claiming it will benefit the city's younger workers:
"They are not lazy, they are just too busy. They have a lot of pressure at work and don't have time to exercise otherwise," said retired engineer Yang Jinrong, 55, as she took a break from playing badminton with her husband in a city centre park.
"Of course, the radio exercises will do young people good. Like they say on TV, 'Life lies in movement'," said Li Zhigang, 50, dropping to the ground to demonstrate the lotus yoga position.
Mr Sun, a 30-year-old who works in marketing, said he hoped private sector firms would adopt the drills. "I think this [resumption] is really necessary, because people's living habits are very bad now. They sit in the office the whole day," he said.
"I have my own exercise plan, but I never put it into practice because I am too busy."
Each exercise session is only 8 minutes long, meaning Chinese citizens might still need to hit the gym in order to offset the calories consumed at the country's 3,000 Kentucky Fried Chicken branches (apparently, Yum Brands opens one new KFC in mainland China nearly every day). How do you say Double Down in Mandarin?
In a summer full of sports news, from the World Cup to LeBron James, the event currently taking place in Cologne, Germany is particularly unique: all its participants are gay. The Gay Games, organized by the Federation of Gay Games, is a quadrennial gathering of LGBT athletes, featuring competitions in everything from bodybuilding and bowling to squash and swimming to cultural exhibitions in cheerleading and music. This year's Games began on July 31 and will end with a marathon, finals in badminton, basketball, soccer, and volleyball, and closing ceremonies on Saturday, August 7. Around 10,000 athletes from more than 70 countries are participating, although the majority of participants come from Germany and the United States.
The first games took place in San Francisco in 1982, founded by openly gay decathlete Tom Waddell, who died of AIDS in 1987. According to the Games' official website, 1,350 athletes participated in 11 different sports during the 1982 event. The New York Times published the results of men's wrestling, however, with a policy against the word "gay," referred to them as part of the "Homosexual Games."
This year's games include participants from less-than-gay-friendly countries including Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Zimbabwe. According to The Guardian, many of these participants have had to use false identities due to fears of persecution at home. Thorsten Moeck, a member of the organization committee, told The Guardian that the Games are an attempt to signal "that the exclusion of gays and lesbians, especially in the sporting world has to end." Moeck pointed to Mexico's participating soccer team, who are among those keeping their identities secret, noting that the Cologne Games are a "unique opportunity" for them to be part of a gay community.
While the gay rights battle in the U.S. has centered most recently on DADT and marriage equality, Amnesty International released a report on Sunday showing that 76 countries consider merely being gay punishable by law. In seven of these countries, same-sex acts can warrant a death sentence. That number contrasts with only 53 countries whose anti-discrimination laws apply to sexuality and 26 that recognize same-sex marriage.
It seemed for a while that there would be no repercussions for North Korea's national soccer team after their dismal performance in the World Cup earlier this summer. Of course, this being North Korea, the team -- and especially its coach -- have not gotten off lightly. In a six-hour "grand debate," the entire squad (minus it's two Japan-based players, who surely must think themselves two of the luckiest people on the planet) was berated by Sports Minister Pak Myong-chol, and were then forced to publicly denounce their coach. The manager, Kim Jong-hun, was accused of "betraying the young General Kim Jong-un," the son and heir apparent of Kim Jong-Il. He has reportedly been forced out of the Worker's Party and forced to work as a construction laborer.
It's not like North Korea ever had a chance of success. They were pitted in the "Group of Death" with Brazil, Portugal and Côte d'Ivoire, arguably the toughest group in the whole tournament (regardless of Brazil's early exit and Portugal's dull 1-0 loss to Spain). Holding Brazil to a 2-1 scoreline in their opening match should have been enough of a moral victory for Kim Jong-Il, but he doesn't see it that way. (Shocking.)
North Korea's subsequent 7-0 decimation at the hands of Portugal, the first ever sports program live broadcast on North Korean TV (and almost certainly last ever), surely raised the ire of Dear Leader. Of course, if he wanted to pin the blame, he should look in the mirror. Reportedly, it was his demand that the team play more aggressively that created gaps in the side's defense.
Perhaps, though, this is a sign of progress. A South Korean intelligence source told Chosun Ilbo, "In the past, North Korean athletes and coaches who performed badly were sent to prison camps." We'll see.
Michael Steele/Getty Images
Life can be hard for a psychic cephalopod. One day your countrymen are threatening to turn you into calamari for correctly betting against the national soccer team, the next day you're being denounced as a symbol of western imperialism:
[T]he Iranian president accused the octopus of spreading "western propaganda and superstition." Paul was mentioned by Mr Ahmadinejad on various occasions during a speech in Tehran at the weekend.
"Those who believe in this type of thing cannot be the leaders of the global nations that aspire, like Iran, to human perfection, basing themselves in the love of all sacred values," he said.
One would think that at this point, national leaders would want to stay on Paolo's good side.
PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images
The members of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team officially gave up in their attempt to attend the sport's world championships in Manchester, England last week.
Players were stuck in New York, battling a diplomatic traffic jam that touched at the heart of tribal sovereignty issues. The team--consisting of a 50-person delegation from tribes in both the United States and Canada-- was supposed to arrive in Manchester, England last Monday to play their first highly anticipated match against England on Thursday. But by the weekend, the team was still grounded in New York, camping out in a Comfort Inn. Yesterday, some players began to return home to upstate New York and Canada.
"While we are deeply disappointed that we could not bring our talented team to the world championships, there simply was no way we could accede to the recommendation that we accept either American or Canadian passports to travel," the team's chairman, Oren Lyons, said in a statement.
The Federation of International Lacrosse considers the Iroquois Confederacy to be a full member state, like the U.S. or Canada, with a lacrosse team ranked fourth in the world. The problem is that the United Kingdom does not and will not accept the players' Iroquois-issued passports. The United States also refused to honor these passports, until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally intervened to allow for a special one-time waiver to travel without United States passports.
What's really at issue here is the sovereignty of tribal nations. The U.S. government has a trust responsibility with the tribes, meaning that it has to look out for the welfare of tribal members. This relationship is a result of various treaties between the tribes and the U.S. government, as well as a a historic perception of 18th and 19th century Americans that American Indians "were not able to look after their own affairs." The general trust concept has since become standard policy and law.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is principally charged with maintaining federal trust responsibility, which includes the protection of Indian trust lands, the provision of basic services for tribal members, and the protection of tribal sovereignty and the rights of self-governance. According to Thom Wallace, Communications Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the sovereignty of tribal nations is constantly being brought into question around the country. Along with its work with the Iroquois Nationals (NCAI President Jefferson Keel wrote British Prime Minister a personal letter last week requesting that the team members be able to travel with their own passports), the organization is also involved with the Carcieri Supreme Court case, advocating against a 2009 ruling that made it harder for Native Americans to set their own rules for the use of tribal lands--including a parcel owned by the Narrangasett tribe in Charlestown, Rhode Island.
Wallace noted that the Iroquois Nationals' situation attests to a trend in improving relations between the U.S. government and the tribes. "The fact that Secretary Clinton moved so quickly to grant a one-time travel waiver to the team on Thursday is an important indicator of the support this Administration has for working on issues important to Indian Country," Wallace said. However, NCAI is continuing to work to emphasize the importance of Indian Nations as sovereign ones through dialogue and policy development. "The effort of every Administration needs to be focused on this legal obligation."
President Keel's letter to Prime Minister Cameron also emphasized the historical importance of lacrosse to Iroquois culture: "As you are aware, the game of lacrosse is indigenious to Native Americans," he wrote. "In the view of Native peoples, denying entry to game's historical and cultural emissaries is a troubling scenario." The once every four years Championships is a rare recognition of tribal sovereignty.
Travel regulations have intensified in the post-9/11 world, and not only for tribe members. According to the AP, new U.S. passports contain embedded radio-frequency identification chips. While the Iroquois passports look like U.S. passports, they lack these chips. According to Wallace, tribes have been working with the Department of Homeland Security to address airline security and identification issues. Tribal IDs are currently accepted by the Department of Homeland Security Transportation Security Administration for both domestic travel and at the Mexican and Canadian border crossings.
Meanwhile, the Nationals will continue their fight to travel abroad with their Iroquois passports. Other international tournaments are upcoming, including the Federation of International Lacrosse's World Indoor Box Lacrosse Championships in the Czech Republic next year.
People may be fixated on the World Cup right now, but there's also another big tournament going on -- Wimbledon! And all the racket swinging has inspired this week's quiz question:
Which country has the most women tennis players among the world's top 200?
a) Australia b) Czech Republic c) Russia
Answer after the jump …
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
While stoppages and barricades stymie the "Freedom Flotillas" en route to Gaza, the "Speed Sisters" -- an eight-woman speed-racing troupe breaking onto the driving scene in the West Bank -- are revving up to shatter barriers at high speeds.
These unfearing females -- comprised of Christians and Muslims from ages 18 to 39 -- competed last Friday in the "Speed Test," a car race in the West Bank city of Ramallah that makes the typical NASCAR loop look like child's play. Thousands of fans attended the event to cheer on the seventy helmet-clad contestants as they navigated through treacherous obstacles, spinning loops, and serpentine pathways. And these eight women, gripping the wheels with fingerless gloves that accentuate their brightly painted fingernails, may have particularly piqued the crowd's interest: they are the first female team to enter the Speed Test. The Speed Sisters follow in the footsteps of the one female contestant -- now the group's coach -- who raced in the first competition five years ago.
While racing, many of the Speed Sisters wear t-shirts emblazoned with the British flag to pay homage to their sponsor, the British consulate in East Jerusalem. It is the consulate's personnel that facilitated the creation of the women's team, and its budget that subsidized about $8000 worth of training, coaches, and car refurbishing -- all part of a campaign to foster development in the West Bank and other communities of Palestinian refugees. But even with a financier, the women's road to the finish line is a bumpy one: they share a donated hatch-back that pales in comparison to the other high-powered BMWs and Mercedes on the track, and they face doubt and skepticism from their male counterparts.
Regardless, this strong female showing in a male-dominated arena is inspiring in such a conservative Muslim society -- especially one in which mounting political strife can often preclude a focus on social equity.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
It's hard to imagine being criticized -- much less punished -- for taking World Cup spirit too far. Indeed, excess seems to be precisely the name of these games. For anyone who thinks their face-paint masterpieces are prize-worthy, the award for over-the-top aficionado has already been claimed by Sasa Jovic : armed only with a backpack, world map and, of course, his national flag, this Serbian ultra-fan embarked on a 10,000 mile walk to Pretoria to catch his home country's match against Ghana. The Serbs lost 1-0. No word yet on whether Jovic arrived in time to witness defeat.
As it turns out, however, not every patriotic display is quite so praiseworthy. Thirty women were ejected from Monday's Netherland-Denmark game for "ambush marketing" (a very "serious offense" according to the South Africa Police Service). Their fateful mistake? Too much color-coordination. The fans were caught cheering in identical orange mini-dresses distributed by the Dutch brewery, Bavaria. Under Fifa's strict marketing rules for the Cup, only official sponsors are permitted to advertize at matches-and Budweiser is the only beer on tap at these games. The women, two of whom were summoned to Court on Wednesday (and then released on bail), insist they were just showing Dutch pride, but Fifa claims they were illegally paid to don Bavaria apparel.
The only question left: which is worse, paying your customers to flaunt your logo, or bribing foreigners to root for your team?
David Cannon/Getty Images
The first African World Cup was always going to be a unique event, and the first four days of the tournament have been full of the good, the bad, and the Green. Particularly noteworthy (and relished by this observer) was France's dismal performance in a 0-0 draw against Uruguay last Friday.
Because it's the French national team, headed by universally-hated Raymond Domenech, Le Blues were not lacking of excuses. Captain Patrice Evra blamed his team's lack of performance on communication problems, and more specifically, the deafening noise of thousands of vuvuzelas:
We can't sleep at night because of the vuvuzelas. People start playing them from 6 a.m. We can't hear one another out on the pitch because of them.
Somehow, Uruguay wasn't similarly fazed because they apparently possess superhuman hearing. (Credit to the South Americans, they executed their gameplan perfectly and nearly came away with all three points had Diego Forlan's strike in the 73rd minute been on frame.)
Evra's complaint was one of a string from participants about the ubuqiutous South African trumpet/kazoo/noisemaker of death. Even the best player in the world, Argentina's Lionel Messi, expressed disapproval of the instrument, saying "It's impossible to communicate, it's like being deaf."
I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound. I don't see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?
Indeed, it would be stupid to ban the quintessentially South African element of the competition because of player complaints. If FIFA had wanted a dull tournament, they'd have mandated every team play in the Italian, anti-football style. Vuvuzelas don't provide either team with an advantage, and add distinctive flair -- or, better put, a distinctive buzz. (Perhaps worringly for spectators, South African shops are now reporting running dry of "vuvu-stoppers:" plugs to protect fans' ears from the noisemakers.)
Thankfully, not all have highlighted the vuvuzelas as the biggest problem of the tournament so far.
*Tuesday update: ESPN has just announced that they've added filters to their broadcast to lower the vuvuzela noise. We'll see whether viewers appreciate the change, or whether they feel they've lost some of the World Cup buzz. (It does seem like the sound of the vuvuzelas has been slightly dulled.)
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
Now the pressure is really on for the U.S. to beat Britain in the World Cup opening match this Saturday, because a free meal for the American ambassador is on the line.
Politico has released an email exchange between the U.S. and British ambassadors in which they make a wager on the outcome of their countries' upcoming "football" face-off. The terms? Ambassador of the losing team buys ambassador of the winning team dinner at the winner's favorite restaurant.
The trash-talking then spilled over to a back-and-forth between embassies, ending with a blow from the (overconfident) British: "The [American] Ambassador takes his steak like American soccer victories - somewhat rare."
Oh, England. I guess you're still struggling with that inferiority complex we embedded into your psychology back in 1950...
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As World Cup fever heats up around the world, there's huge interest in the tournament's biggest underdog: North Korea, which debuts against soccer juggernaut Brazil on June 15 in its first cup appearance since a Cinderella showing in 1966.
Kim Jong Il's squad, ranked 105th internationally, just barely qualified for the big show, and oddsmakers figure its chances of winning are about 1,000 to one.
Little is known about the players. There's Kim Myong Won, a striker known as "the Chariot" for his speed. But Kim will be restricted to playing goalkeeper due to a North Korean attempt to skirt FIFA rules. There's also Jong Tae-se, a stocky forward who was born and lives in Japan, where he is known as "the People's Wayne Rooney" for his resemblance to the English star. Jong scored both North Korean goals during a recent match against Greece, which ended in a 2-2 tie, and has vowed to score once in every World Cup game. The team's captain is Hong Yong Jo, who plays for FC Rostov in Russia.
The North Korean team has been cloistered since arriving in South Africa earlier this week. But one source of great speculation has been cleared up: The players will be wearing uniforms made by Legea, an Italian sportswear company that paid a reported $4.9 million for the privilege:
North Korea’s team is getting an amount similar to what might be paid to a low-ranking team in the English Premier League, the world’s richest soccer league, according to Simon Chadwick, a sports business professor at the U.K.’s Coventry University. Ri, in an interview in Tokyo last week, said it was hard to find a jersey sponsor as there’s “no market” for sports apparel in North Korea.
“If it doesn’t result in sales, there’s no point” for some sporting-goods companies, Ri said.
Legea will provide North Korea with branded World Cup jerseys and training gear, Nastro said. That will help raise the Italian brand’s international profile, although the marketing bet could backfire, Chadwick said.
Legea “will be working overtime to put clear blue water between the team and the regime,” Chadwick said. “It could get to the stage when people stop buying the brand if they’re being seen as propping up a dictatorship.”
As part of the deal, North Korea will get a 10 million-euro bonus if the team wins the cup.
Goldman Sachs may have taken a lot of heat lately, but they may have done themselves a great favor by releasing their 2010 World Cup Research Report earlier this month. Running a little over 70 pages, it's a remarkably in-depth summary of each country in this year's finals, including football prowess, economic state, and political situation. Furthermore, it provides a primer on the potential hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and, unsurprisingly but more than interesting, an examination of economic growth and decline vis-a-vis the international football teams of respective countries.
Some of the most noteworthy things to take away: like most of the speculation has focused on, the report predicts a European-hosted cup in 2018, and a return to the U.S. in 2022. (Also included are bid pitches from Russia, England, and the U.S.) Interestingly, this is what it says about the U.S. bid:
The sport has taken roots in the USA and the market is quickly becoming one of FIFA’s most important. They already pay one of the largest television rights fees to FIFA of any country. However, the perception is still otherwise.
For U.S. soccer fans, that perception is extremely frustrating. It is somewhat accurate: for a team that has qualified for the last six World Cups (granted, a Foreign Policy* staff team could probably qualify for the finals out of the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football -- CONCACAF), interest would appear to be lower than warranted. (Six out of six is, by the way, quite impressive: England, France, and the Netherlands can't claim that streak.)
But that's changing. Go to many bars in the District on Saturday or Sunday morning, and you'll see European football -- usually the English Premier League -- on the TV. From my own observations (be wary of perception bias), the sport with the most jerseys worn on the streets of Northern Virginia and D.C. is soccer, by far. Moreover, 24.5 million Americans play football, the second most (behind China's 26.2 million) in the world. Since 1994, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. soccer fans, but among casual or non-fans, there still remains an idea that soccer is not an "American" sport. (It should also be noted that the U.S. Women's team is the dominant global powerhouse.)
UEFA's (Union of European Football Associations) selection of the 2012 Euro Cup host proved prescient, as well. Picking in 2007, Poland won the rights to host the tournament (OK, co-host with Ukraine, but since then UEFA has suggested Poland be the sole host, which the Poles have graciously declined to accept). Poland, however, was the only bid country that hasn't suffered economic decline since -- and yes, Greece was the first bid country eliminated.
Other notable findings: the Growth Environment Scores (a Goldman-devised figure of sustainable economic growth and productivity) of respective countries loosely correlate to soccer performance, but a much stronger connection exists between the improvement of economic conditions and national soccer teams. (Algeria, which did not qualify for the 2006 finals in Germany, posted the highest GES improvement among developing countries over the last four years.) The report also argues that success is partially dependent on the number of males aged 18-34 in countries, and provides a UN chart with predictions for 2050. If the claim is accurate, the Nigerian Super Eagles are going to be really, really good in a few decades.
Lastly, Goldman offers their own predictions of the semi-finals (I won't spoil, though I will say it's what my predictions are as well), and lists the probability (with their metrics) that each country will become World Cup champions.
It's lengthy, but an extremely interesting read, and provides the best rundown of the Cup to come that I've seen. Check it out.
*No matter what anyone says, I'd play right wing.
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If you were in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago you might have noticed the enormous security measures taken for the 46 world leaders who convened for the Nuclear Summit. A huge portion of the city was closed, sidewalks were lined with D.C. police, and streets were regularly blocked off for passing twenty-car motorcades.
South Africa will be in a similar position with the start of the World Cup next month, with 43 leaders already having confirmed their attendance. Turns out though, 43 leaders isn't seen a big problem -- rather, it's the potential of a 44th visitor that has South Africa's police department sweating. And, surprisingly, he happens to be the 44th president of the United States.
Speaking before a cabinet meeting on World Cup security, South Africa's police chief, General Bheki Cele, estimates that a visit by the U.S. president, and the subsequent crowds that would clamor to see him, would double the scale of the security requirements, saying, "that 43 will be equal to this one operation." It would be such a headache that the police chief is "praying" that the U.S. is eliminated after the first stage because of rumors that Obama might visit if the U.S. national team makes it any further.
Here's hoping his prayers aren't heard.
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Next month, 32 national football sides will compete in the first-ever African hosted World Cup --- but they might be playing in half-empty stadiums. Over half of the 500,000 tickets allotted for South Africans remain unsold, with sales significantly slowing over the last month.
I don't know why this'd be a surprise. Less than four percent of South Africans earn nearly forty percent of total personal income. Another fifth makes up the "emerging middle class," leaving seventy-five percent of the country in the lower income tier. Almost half the country is in poverty, the economy is contracting, and income inequality is in fact getting worse. I'm guessing that most South Africans figured tickets would be a luxury they couldn't afford.
This announcement comes amid a slate of bad news: the World Health Organization warned tourists of an outbreak of Rift Valley fever only yesterday, and a tragic bus accident -- allegedly caused by the bus driver falling asleep at the wheel -- claimed 23 lives today.
Aside from the tickets fiasco, the Organising Committee claims that everything is ready for June 11th. This quote from spokesman Greg Fredericks, however, doesn't alleviate all concerns: "We certainly hope that the strike season will be over." That's not exactly the voice of confidence.
To correct the ticket problem, FIFA should either slash prices even further, or free them up for more foreign fans. They've earned some good press today when they announced that workers on the World Cup stadiums would receive free tickets to two matches. Empty stands at the World Cup would be the height of embarrassment.
To be fair, it would give a break to weary ears blasted by obnoxiously (and dangerously) loud vuvuzelas.
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Despite Zimbabwe not making it out of the second round of African World Cup qualifying, Robert Mugabe has still managed to turn the upcoming World Cup, hosted by neighboring South Africa, into a domestic political scandal. What a surprise. Apparently not having had its fill of international pariahs after Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's visit last week, Mugabe's government has also invited North Korea's soccer team to stay in the country prior to the World Cup. This move has brought back a decades old grudge between the two countries.
In 1982, 20,000 Zimbabweans were slaughtered by the army in Matabeleland province. It just so happens that the army brigade responsible was trained by North Korean military advisors.
Making the hosting offer even more insensitive were the original plans to base the North Korean team in Bulawayo, the second largest city in the country, located in -- you guessed it -- the region of Matabeleland. The locals were displeased:
Groups representing Matabeleland's ethnic Ndebele minority had threatened to disrupt training sessions and games in Bulawayo, and organize protests among Zimbabweans based in South Africa.
Earlier today, Zimbabwe announced it would base the side in Harare -- but insisted the change was not "politically motivated." But it doesn't look likely to appease the protesters. Methuseli Moyo of ZAPU, a small opposition party, told the BBC:
"It should be the concern of every Zimbabwean that North Korea trained those who perpetrated the atrocities. Even if they camp in Harare, we will still organise the protests."
The North Korean side has enough problems already, having drawn Brazil, Portugal, and Côte d'Ivoire in this cup's version of the "Group of Death."
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From the captain obvious department: a study in the latest issue of South Africa's Medical Journal claimed that vuvuzelas, the obnoxiously loud trumpet played at football matches in South Africa, can cause permanent hearing damage:
Participants in the stadium study were "exposed to high-intensity sound far exceeding the current legislated average exposure and peak exposure levels for occupational noise".
Tests on the 11 after the match showed a "significant" decrease in hearing sensitivity.
Worse, the study used stadiums that simulated the noise of only 30,000 people -- many of the crowds expected at World Cup matches are expected to be three times that amount.
If you watched last year's Confederations Cup, you're well aware how annoyingly ubuquitous vuvuzelas are in South African stadiums. (And if you didn't, you'll understand if you watch even a single minute of any World Cup match this summer.)
Thankfully, a South African company is taking advantage of the obvious entreprenurial opportunity and marketing foam earplugs.
H/T Andrew Harding.
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Former International Olympic Committee director Juan Antonio Samaranch passed away today at the age of 89. While Samaranch's tenure unquestionably transformed the Olympics into the multibillion-dollar global enterprise it is today and expanded participation among developing countries and women, the former Franco-regime official also left the games with a reputation corruption that will be hard to reverse.
Here's an excerpt on Samaranch from Olympic historian John Hoberman's "Think Again: Olympics" in the July/August 2008 issue of FP:
The corruption was never worse than when Juan Antonio Samaranch, an unreconstructed Spanish fascist, was president of the IOC from 1980 to 2001. Samaranch brought with him from Franco's Spain an authoritarian style that facilitated the bribery of IOC members, destroyed any chance of curbing doping, and appointed a generation of committee members who never dared to oppose him.
Samaranch, who insisted on being called "Excellency," filled the IOC with such characters as South Korean intelligence operative Kim Un Yong and Indonesian timber magnate Bob Hasan. Both have served prison time for corruption. Then there's Lee Kun Hee, the chairman of Samsung Electronics (convicted of bribery in 1996) and Francis Nyangweso, once the military commander in chief for Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s. Nyangweso remains on the IOC board to this day. Why this rogues' gallery was recruited into a "peace" and "human rights" organization remains a mystery.
In fairness, one improvement in the way the IOC operates should be acknowledged. After the 1999 bribery scandal in which IOC members were paid off to support Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games, the IOC established a technical committee comprising a small number of vetted members to oversee the host city selection process, thereby reducing the risk of bribes to less trustworthy colleagues. The one topic this committee will not address, however, is whether staging the games in a repressive society might be a bad idea. Last year, the IOC rewarded Russia's pseudo-democracy with the 2014 Winter Games. When protesters showed up during the IOC's visit there in April, they were beaten by police.
As a dislocated Brooklynite, I've been following the New Jersey Nets' faltering attempts to build a new stadium in my borough for years now -- my distaste for poor urban planning and eminent domain abuse only slightly outweighing my fantasy of one day seeing Lebron James play ten minutes away from where I grew up. The story has already drawn in an unlikely cast of characters including rapper Jay-Z and Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, but Robert Mugabe? Really?
The New York Post reports:
Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, wants to know if companies controlled by Prokhorov in Zimbabwe violate federal rules that forbid American citizens and companies, and subsidiaries set up in the United States, from doing business with brutal strongman Robert Mugabe, his regime or associates.
Prokhorov's Renaissance Capital investment bank has interests in the Zimbabwean stock exchange, banks, a cellphone company, mining and a swanky, private big-game reserve. The company is intertwined with Onexim, the $25 billion Prokhorov-controlled investment fund behind the deal to bring the struggling NBA team to Brooklyn.
Pascrell said he will ask the Treasury Department, which oversees the sanctions, to investigate Onexim. In 2008, Onexim became a 50 percent owner of Renaissance Capital, which has been actively investing in Zimbabwe since 2007.
The Nets currently play in East Rutherford, New Jersey, located in Pascrell's district, so he's not exactly an impartial observer. On the other hand, the NBA has only itself to blame if this blows up into a scandal. Renaissance Capital hasn't exactly gone out of their way to hide their business ties to Zimbabwe: there's a Harare office listed on their website.
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The controversy surrounding the pending marriage between an Indian tennis player Sania Mirza and Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, which Saba Imtiaz covered for FP last week, has grown larger -- and more absurd -- in recent days. An Indian woman, Ayesha Siddiqui, has claimed Malik is already wedded to her, allegedly having betrothed her in a phone marriage (nikah) in 2002. Malik and Mirza held a joint press conference Monday to clear up the confusion, but it seems the matter is not so black-and-white:
Over the weekend, Malik admitted in newspaper interviews he had developed a friendship over the Internet with Siddiqui in 2002 and then married her after they exchanged photographs.
But he said the ceremony was invalid because the photographs Siqqiqui had sent him were of someone else. "I was made to believe the girl in the photograph was the one I was speaking to," he said. "The truth is, I haven't, to this day, met the girl in the photographs Ayesha sent me."
Malik is cooperating with police in an ongoing investigation. Siddiqui has claimed that Malik offered money to keep her quiet, and threatened to kill her if she went public with her story.
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The Gaggle blog over on our sister site Newsweek notes that Canada's parliament has shut down for two months (?!) for the winter Olympic games.
For those of you who have gotten behind on your Canadian politics, here’s a basic rundown. Prime Minster Steven Harper, who leads the Conservative Party, was facing a lot of difficult issues: an inquiry over maltreatment of Afghan detainees, economic woes hosting the Olympics. So he announced in December that he was basically shutting down, or proroguing, Parliament until March 3, 2010, the day after the Olympics ends. And, when they come back to session next month, the agenda is basically reset: any bill that was on the table is done and gone away with. This has lead to numerous prorogation protests across the country, despite Canadians being generally known for their politeness. A one-week shutdown due to a massive snowstorm isn’t looking so insane, now is it?....
As a Canadian citizen, I generally don’t like to slam on my native land; I’ll definitely root for Team Canada come this Friday. But in terms of ridiculous government deadlock and partisanship, unfortunately, we have already claimed the gold medal.
Which makes complaining about Congress feel a bit silly.
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
As mentioned in this morning's brief, the U.S. has resumed medevac flights of injured Haitians to Florida hospitals. But I'm surprised how little attention pro football's role in the story has gotten:
The need to be ready for a mass emergency or disaster at the Super Bowl or Pro Bowl played a part in the decision, as did the fact that South Florida hospitals were getting "saturated" with evacuees and that disaster planners had no specific plan for handling the injured at other hospitals, officials said.
The situation "came to a head" Wednesday night, when the state officially requested that federal officials stop sending medical flights to Florida until a plan was presented, said John Cherry, a spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management.
The suspension of the military's evacuation flights means that the injured and sick will be treated at makeshift hospitals and clinics set up in devastated Port-au-Prince and other towns on the island, health officials said.
In South Florida, a committee preparing for the two pro football bowls at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens had concerns that South Florida hospitals were growing too full with earthquake victims — and local airports too crowded with planes — to handle a major incident at the games.
A spokesman for the U.S. Army's Southern Command also told the Miami Herald that the flights were being diverted "because of the rising numbers of evacuees and the need for the region to be prepared for upcoming events such as might result from the large crowds at the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl.''
The NFL has been touting its contributions to Haiti relief efforts during games and publicizine the Hatian family ties of Super Bowl players like the Colts' Pierre Garcon and the Saints' Jonathan Vilma. The league's efforts are certainly laudable, but it's still embarassing that the Pro Bowl contributed to Haitians not receiving medical care over the weekend.
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