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2019 AGM speech

Good afternoon everyone and welcome formally to the AGM of British Rowing for 2019.

Most of you were here before lunch, and will have seen from Andy’s presentation that there is a lot going on. During my ten minutes or so, I’d like to tell you why I think the future could be very bright – but I can only do so if I address some of the glaring issues that I am sure many of you have come today with a view to discussing.

I stood here last year for the first time and talked about what had been a year of considerable change. This year, I stand here not so new, and not having effected nearly as much change over the last twelve months as I would have liked. But I do believe that things are now on the move, and I am confident that twelve months from now we will be talking about a very different picture from the one that you see today.

Let me begin with the hardest bit – the deficit that you will have seen in the financial statements, and which the chair of our Finance Committee John Hinnigan will talk about in more detail in a moment. It is huge, unsustainable – and being addressed.

I am conscious that the vast majority of you in this room have heard my view on this already, and for those who haven’t, the soon-to-be-published minutes of our most recent Board meeting lay it out. But for the record today, let me make clear that I am in no doubt that unless we address the fact that the cost of running the sport today is higher than our income by some considerable margin, we are going to be in trouble. We therefore are addressing it. I have said to Andy that I can stand here today and defend our financial statements on the basis that they are largely the result of a legacy strategy, but the same will not be true next year. We have dipped below our minimum reserves, and can simply no longer afford to pursue initiatives that do not pay back in very short order. There are no prizes for running a loss-making business or for churning out programmes that don’t deliver revenue before you have driven the car over the cliff.

I talked last year about how we would soon be making a big drive for membership. I am disappointed to be standing here saying that we have not yet started it, but on the bright side, we are now in a position where we will be launching it properly by year end. We launched Clubhub – thanks to the 18 clubs who tested the pilot – and made changes to the membership package with the four new categories of membership, but our coming focus to address our financial position will not be on active members, because if we were to double their number, we would need a commensurate increase in boats and facilities, and costs would increase accordingly. Instead, it will be on people who think of rowing as their sport, and the plan is to explain to them how their support allows us to protect it. It requires us to change mind sets, from the current perception of British Rowing as an unlovable taxman and regulator, to a Trustee of the sport – whose job is to pass the sport on to the next generation in as good as or a better condition than we inherited it, which means that we are here not only to facilitate the present, but to protect the past and safeguard the future.

The “Friends of British Rowing” membership that we have soft-launched will explain to people how their signing up for £30 a year – the price of a cup of coffee a month – will help us to do that. Our aim is to get from our current 31,000 members to 100,000 members within three years.  Getting there will require some significant improvements to the user experience of the draft “Friends Of” webpage, broad and effective communication, and a lot of help from our existing members. But I believe that it is entirely realistic to believe that we can get there, with the first 8,000 members wiping out the structural deficit, and every incremental sign-up providing us with headroom that will allow us to do so many of the things that I think will make an enormous positive difference to our sport.

Moving on to other things, something else I said last year that I am saying again, I am much happier about… Last year’s line was that “Our GB Under 23s had their best-ever result at a World Championships, returning home with eight medals – including three golds!” This year I can say that “Our GB Under 23s had their best-ever result at a World Championships, returning home with eight medals – including six golds, and two silvers to boot”. It was an extraordinary performance in brutal conditions – I could barely walk half-way up the course without turning into a sweaty heap – and they and their head coach Pete Sheppard deserve our warmest congratulations. Our senior team bettered their 2018 performance at the 2019 World Champs, with two golds and two bronzes, although that was still a weaker result than we had hoped for. The members of the para team that brought home both golds deserve a particular mention, though – and on a very positive note, we qualified ten boats for Tokyo, which was a result equalled only by the Dutch. You’d have to have no eye for a boat, though, not to have realised that we have work to do to find a couple of boat lengths across the board if we are to be competitive there.

The Junior GB Rowing Team claimed two medals in Tokyo, while at the Coupe de la Jeunesse in Italy we came second, and in the GB France match we won for the eighth time in the last nine.  Junior rowing would appear to be thriving, with a record entry at the Junior Champs in Nottingham, where Gloucester Hartbury won the Victor Ludorum.

Turning to our commercial partnerships, we have added Eve Sleep (who launch formally this month) to our existing partnerships of SAS, who took the naming rights of the Ranking Points Index; and Mizuno, who became the headline sponsor at BRIC for the first time, and also launched our Inspired By range, in April. By this time next year, projections suggest that kit sales on the High Street in Korea will be adding £80K a year to our coffers, which is very welcome. Less positively, I mentioned last year that we were launching a new sales campaign in a bid to find a major sponsor, but regrettably this has not borne the fruit we were hoping for. It is a difficult market, and my own view is that this merely underlines the sense in looking at membership numbers as the solution to our budget issues.

We struggled with the weather this year in terms of racing. The Women’s Eights Head was cancelled because of high winds, which led to 23 women’s crews (of which Tideway Scullers proved the quickest) being given places at the 86th Head of the River Race, where Oxford Brookes came home four seconds ahead of Leander.  A number of other events, including the Offshore Championships, were cancelled because of conditions. Budgetary constraints led to our decision not to re-run Power8 Sprints, and while Masters went fantastically well at Strathclyde in June, with Star Club taking the Victor Ludorum, we cancelled Senior Championships as clubs voted on its change of date with their entries.  The desire to find a date that works for everyone remains, but it is proving extremely difficult, and you will have seen that the decision has been taken not to run the Championships in 2020. Instead, more time will be spent considering the options, with proper consultation. In other consultations, our independent director Liz Behnke is leading a governance review, ably supported by my vice-Chair Kate O’Sullivan, the aim of which is to ensure that we have proper accountability within the decision-making process. I hope it will have the added advantage of saving me being hit on the head by people about matters over which I have no visibility, let alone jurisdiction. We published our new school-age strategy in May, and at my recent visit to the Kitchin Society, I was left in no doubt that the progress we are making with that group is both appreciated and significant. One shout-out in particular, to quote the Chair of that Society in a recent email to me: “There are many hard-working people in Hammersmith and around the country (employed and volunteering) but in terms of effecting change in recent times, Marieke must rank as one of the most successful.”

While I am mentioning individuals, two board members stand down this month having completed their terms of service.  Fiona McAnena is not here but she has played the role of Senior Independent Director during her years on the board, and I would like to thank her very much for her contribution.    Andy Crawford is here, and will be well known to all of you as the Chair of the Sports Committee – a role he has filled with tireless enthusiasm, much to the benefit of so many.  Thank you, Andy, for all you have done.  Expected to replace him – not to pre-empt your vote in a moment, and obviously assuming such a thing is actually possible – is Nick Hubble, who all being well in a moment, I look forward to welcoming to the next board meeting. And towards the back of the room is our newest Independent Director, Karena Vleck, who was the stand-out candidate in a competitive field of forty applicants when we advertised that role last month.  Congratulations and welcome, Karena – thanks for coming today and I am looking forward to working with you. While I am on the Board, I would like to thank them all for their support and input over the course of this year.

I mentioned last year that we would be introducing a new system for awards, and again I am slightly frustrated that I am standing here now without it in place, but I can tell you that we will shortly be announcing a date, likely to be in early March, for a British Rowing Awards dinner that will celebrate the whole of the sport, along with details of how people can nominate recipients. I have slightly stuck my neck out in saying that I am convinced that the sport will support being given the opportunity to celebrate our winners and the sport’s achievements in a bigger event than the relatively small lunches of recent years that have really only included the winners themselves alongside those who nominated them, meaning that they do not get the broader recognition that their achievements deserve. I hope you will help me to be proved right by encouraging individual and club and regional involvement and attendance, because if we don’t get it in the first year, I won’t get any support to repeat the exercise and make it an annual event. Clubs have annual dinners, other sports have annual dinners, schools and companies have annual dinners: our sport should have an annual dinner where we can delight in achievement and commiserate in misfortune.  Please support that, and, when we launch it in the coming months, our membership drive. Of the 1,267 members who responded to our membership survey this year, 95.3% said that they would recommend the sport to a friend, so there is no lack of love for the sport itself! This coming one is a crucial year for us, and it will need us to pull together to make it a success. “Together we are rowing,” after all.

If we can regulate the finances in the way I have laid out, and encourage alumni support to the level that I believe possible, we would put £2m a year in unrestricted income into our coffers. With it, we could do marvellous things – not just for today’s members and clubs, but for the future; and not just for people who know about rowing already, but people whose lives could be so positively impacted by our sport. The vision is to use the sport as a vehicle for positive change, by taking it into communities and to people who would end up loving it, just as we do. That is not a charitable aim – although the launch of Love Rowing, the British Rowing Charitable Foundation, at Cutty Sark on 21st November, in what promises to be an excellent event, will be able to play a major part. It is an aim that we, as Trustees of the sport, need to have, because in broadening appeal across communities and taking the benefits of rowing far and wide, we secure its future in a competitive sporting landscape, we save it from inevitable shrinkage towards its unfair stereotype, and at the same time we inspire passion in people young and old. The knock-on beneficial effects of having the financial platform to run more effective, wider, and better supported programmes in coaching, facilities, recreational opportunities, volunteer support, and membership tools – to people, the sport, and ultimately the GB Rowing team, are obvious.

So… I’d like to ask you all for your support, and in conclusion to thank you all for coming and for listening. And with most of you, like me and the members of the board, being volunteers, I would also like to thank you for the work you do for the sport. In doing so, I will take you as proxies for all of our volunteers, without whom the sport would not function. To you, and to all of them, I’d like to say thank you very much.

 

 

 

Posted in British Rowing.


Mavens needed. Apply here.

Over the last couple of days I have posted two blogs about why the single biggest strategic requirement on us right now is to deal with the sport’s significant budget deficit, and have explained my view that the best way to do that is to dramatically increase the number of members of British Rowing, starting simply in a support capacity – the cost of which is £32 a year. I’ve tried to explain how the cost of delivering just Business As Usual means that we can’t even start to do the many things that would allow us to break the current vicious circle whereby the suspicion some have of the NGB leads to dislocation from members and adds to churn, and instead create a virtuous one, through which we can provide huge positives for active rowers and mechanisms for more casual ones, which will make everyone happy.

I was going to write today about what we’d do with the £2m unrestricted income that would result if, say, we increased our current membership of 32,000 (lower than archery, judo, table tennis, basketball and canoeing, among many others) to 100,000 people (still lower than yachting, cycling, netball, and others – and less than a third of gymnastics and a seventh of golf), but I think it’s clear from messages I’ve had on Twitter that there are so many ideas out there already that there’s not much point for the moment. Suffice to say that we could let a thousand flowers bloom, facilitating and funding the delivery of ideas around the country where it makes sense, and delivering them ourselves where it doesn’t – all of which will protect the sport for the future.

Instead – having been chided on Twitter for “writing these lengthy blogs” – I’ll keep this short and just cover what’s relevant to Henley. Apologies for people who want more detail and to follow the whole argument, but I don’t have the time to write to make these blogs a work of art, or produce multiple versions of stuff to suit every taste! I’m a volunteer as well, in case anyone forgot… 😁

I have talked to plenty of people who tell me there’s no chance on earth of getting to 100,000 members and that I will make myself a laughing stock for suggesting otherwise. I disagree, and believe that by segmenting our audience into all the different relevant groups, establishing what it is that is important to each, and speaking to them accordingly, it is absolutely possible. But either way, I’m prepared to put stick my neck out and take the risk, so we’re going to give it a go. Even if we miss it by miles, if we doubled our membership in the process, it would have been an exercise worth doing for everyone’s benefit.

But we need your help. The first target group consists of lapsed rowers, who I am convinced would be willing to help the sport if they understood what an enormous difference their £32 a year would make.  Although Henley has come up before we are really ready to make the case clearly (we agreed a strategy at the May 22nd Board meeting, and there hasn’t been time to do all the prep work, other than arrange our fantastic stand, since then), we are going to kick this off while 10 to 15,000 of them a day (less than 10% of whom, by my estimate, will currently be members) are walking past.

So… If you have had the time to read this stuff, and you buy any of the case that I am putting, then please encourage your old rowing mates (and other fans of rowing present, like the parents of juniors) to come and see us, and talk to us, and sign up to support. It would actually take very few iterations of one person finding ten people they used to row with, who each find ten people, to blow through the 100,000 target (five, in fact). In short, it is absolutely doable with the rowing community’s support.

You won’t be able to miss us by the Regatta Shop, and you can come and hear about the British Rowing Charitable Foundation that launches in November this year, and other things that we are doing. Or you can just let us know what you think we ought to be doing that we’re not (even including my failure to add sub-headings to my blogs, if you want!) and we can discuss what a massive positive difference we could make if we did this together. I’ll be there on and off all five days, and lots of members of the team will be with me. Please stop by!

I was saying to someone on Twitter that we need less than 10% of the potential audience out there to support us in this for us to make it work, and that I can’t believe that there aren’t that many people in the sport with a positive-enough outlook to give it a go. Would you and your friends be part of the 10%? What have you got to lose, by running with us and seeing if, together, we can make it work? If we fail, it’ll only cost you the price of a cup of coffee a month from now til next year… 😉

Posted in British Rowing.


The vision thing

My last two posts have been about ideas that will appear, to many, to have come from left field. Indeed, the first was posted on a Facebook group shortly after I wrote it, under the following commentary:

Admirable and a nice idea yes, but given the lack of resources for the club side of our sport isn’t this just dissipation of energy for something only the most well resourced would use?

In the bubble of Hammersmith, it’s easy to forget the struggle at club level just to keep the rent paid, the boats rowable, the volunteers supported as well as supporting BR with volunteers to run events. Having access to an international travel card is not high on most members’ list. 

Stephen Hawkin said “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet” – club rowing doesn’t have that luxury, we need to get our feet onto firmer ground

Following that criticism, I published another idea which, it might be similarly argued, doesn’t help pay the rent and keep the volunteers supported. So today, I’m going to try to explain why such ideas are relevant to current members who might, on the face of it, be keener that we address more down-to-earth issues that affect them day by day.  In short, what role do these apparent flights of fancy play in any vision for the sport?

Let me start with the dream. When I arrived at British Rowing fifteen months ago, what I wanted to do was to use the power of our sport as a force for wider good. As anyone who has been involved with rowing immediately understands, it is absolutely brilliant for three of what I believe to be the key issues that we face as a country – obesity, mental health, and discipline in young people – and I arrived wanting to spread the love. The grand ambition was that we could change the country for the better using rowing as a vehicle – a concept that I thought would capture the imagination of a big-ticket sponsor as well as everyone else. “Want to impact the nation positively in these three key areas? Let us show you how a partnership with rowing, which you’ve never even thought about, is the perfect way to do it,” struck me as a pretty good pitch. I had images of rowing centres all over the country, and everyone catching the bug.

OK, I was looking up at the stars. But I hadn’t been in the role more than a few weeks when I realised that while this was a nice aspiration, a lot needed to happen before we could even start. There were, as the quote at the top makes clear, some fundamental things we needed to address, and while the team I joined was working hard to try to address them, it was hampered by lack of resource. I discovered that while I had laboured under the illusion shared with many that BR had plenty of staff and plenty of cash, I was wrong about both; and I arrived to learn that it costs us about £400,000 a year more than we have to spend, just to deliver Business As Usual.  On that basis, the chances of us doing any new things on a long wish-list were bleak. But they are not impossible: we just have to get the finances sorted out first.

We have three main sources of revenue: Government, commercial, and membership. We work hard to protect (and grow) the first two, but the Government money (which is what makes everyone think we are a wealthy sport) is restricted income (which we can only use on the National team); and commercial income is much harder to come by than a decade ago (for a number of reasons I can expand upon another time). So of the three, only membership income is really in our control.

When I say ‘in our control’, the current position is that generally, people look at BR much as we all look at the DVLA: it issues us with a licence, and while we want to be on the road, we pay it our dues. We find the rules it imposes irritating, and are firmly of the belief that we could drive just as safely if they didn’t exist. We forget that if speed limits didn’t apply to us, they wouldn’t for anyone else either, and we give the licensing authority no credit for reducing accidents, making life safer, sharing best practice, and ensuring that standards are upheld. The day we stop driving, we will not pay any car tax on a voluntary basis, and we feel that whoever “they” are – those faceless people in Swansea who may never have been in a car, let alone driven with the roof down and felt the wind blowing through their hair – we owe them nothing.

Sound familiar? I bet it does. But the thing is, British Rowing isn’t actually like the DVLA at all. To understand why not, we need to consider for a moment what the National Governing Body is for.

I suspect if you ask the question of 100 different members, you will get a multitude of different answers, but my guess is that the majority would say that as the admin side of a membership organisation, it is here to look after its members: the 32,000 people who are currently members of British Rowing should be our focus, and everything we do should be about them.  This is basically the view expressed in the quote that I put at the top of this blog, and to the extent that a major requirement of us is clearly that we facilitate life for the people who do the sport, I have a lot of sympathy with it. Indeed, the first question I was asked when interviewed for this role was, “who are our most important stakeholders?”, and my answer was, “the members”.

But for the members to be our most important stakeholders is not the same as saying we are here to act on their behalf. Take a deep breath here, but we aren’t. In my view at least – and I’d be interested to hear what people think – the role of the NGB is to act as the Trustee of the sport, and while the two things clearly overlap, they are different. The fact that the composition of the 32,000 changes by nearly 30% a year as 10,000 people leave and 10,000 others join should be enough to prove that.

So, while managing licensing and safety and all the sharing of best practice and all the dispute resolution stuff I’ve written about before are tasks we have in common with the DVLA, my view is that we also differ from them fundamentally in that the key duty of British Rowing and its directors (as I see it) is to pass the sport on to the next generation in an as good or better condition than we inherited it.  The DVLA cares nothing about the past, not a lot about the future, and absolutely nothing about whether people prefer to drive or take the train – even if one day the road infrastructure falls apart in consequence. In contrast, an NGB has a duty to ensure that its sport survives and thrives, which means doing more than working for the people who are taking part in it right now.

The dual role it gives us, of having an obligation to past and future rowers as well as current ones, is not much thought about – but it does have interesting financial implications. In a competitive world, any sport that is not growing will shrink; and a sport like ours – already unfairly deemed “posh” – risks becoming anachronistic (in the way that racquets, fives or Real Tennis are) if we do not keep working to broaden our appeal. But if the work we currently do already costs us more money than we make, and cutting any of it has worrying implications for the future, then we need to increase our income – or we will fail in our principal job of protecting the sport.  Without either putting up current fees (which nobody wants, and which – as I have written before – is a fast way to oblivion) or cutting programmes (ditto), there is (given the income streams laid out above) only one way to do that: by increasing the number of people who are members.

The drive for members, then, is the key strategic requirement upon us right now, because we have to solve a financial quandary that didn’t exist in a fairly recent (but too distant) past when we had fewer regulatory requirements, deep-pocketed sponsors and more government money.  And that drive has two lines of attack: persuading past members of the importance of their support for the sport (by demonstrating that our role is not purely functional, and so neither should membership be); and addressing some of the strategic reasons why 10,000 people fail to renew as members every year.

The emotional argument for the former group is briefly touched on above. We act for everyone who has rowed and will row – we preserve the relevance of the past, at the same time as we look to the future – and we need to explain why the current broadly-held mindset that “rowing is fine without BR, thanks very much” simply isn’t true.  I’ll try to expand on that tomorrow, when I write about how that cohort – so many of whom will be at Henley next week – can help.

But the latter group need something more tangible than a story about their past: some will need a basket of benefits that money can’t buy elsewhere; and for others, we need to address the structural (rather than tactical, frustration-based) reasons that they leave (and in some cases, never even join). Two recent conversations tell their own story: the first was with a coach who finds it increasingly difficult to persuade boys at his school to row rather than play rugby, because not being at a leading rowing school, they think they have no chance of ever winning anything in our sport. The second was with the father of a schoolgirl who was loving her rowing but was giving up because, as a keen dancer, she simply didn’t have the time to commit to as much training as her school required.

While the “all or nothing” nature of rowing is part of its beauty for many, it isn’t for everyone. There is a vast swathe of people who are interested in something, but ‘something’ isn’t really on offer. Accordingly, membership of British Rowing is taken up as an obligation by those who can do the ‘all’, and dropped the moment they can’t.  It is clear that we need to provide something alongside the current framework that is attractive to those who would enjoy rowing less intensely, which means competitions that are more casual, rowing that is more social, and opportunities for engagement that currently don’t really exist.

That’s why mooting ideas around rowing passports and ladder racing help current, grassroots, members who row passionately every day, and clubs – including those in both categories who don’t want to participate: because if those ideas mean we can hold on to some of the 10,000 people who will churn away from membership of BR this year, and encourage back a percentage of those who have done so annually for the last 30+ years, then they will help us put the sport on a secure financial footing. That would provide the platform that will allow us to do everything else –  a platform which right now simply doesn’t exist.  In short, this stuff is a long way from being ‘a dissipation of energy’: it is tied in directly to the very things deemed important in the opening quote – to the extent that it is a vital component in delivering them.

Tomorrow, I’m going to write about how I think we can do this, how clubs and current members can help, and what a positive difference we can make if, together, we succeed. But for now, I’ve gone on long enough.

Let me know what you think. You can mail me @britishrowing.org, comment below, or come up and chat at the new British Rowing stand at Henley, which you will find right next to the entrance to the competitors’ enclosure and next door to the official regatta shop. I will be there for most of the five days (other than over lunch) with lots of members of the team, and I’d encourage you to come along and talk to us.

Thanks for reading.

 

Posted in British Rowing.


Ladders

Following on from my last post about a rowing passport, I want to run another idea past people. As I tried to make clear on the last blog (but clearly failed at least as far as followers of WeRow on Facebook were concerned, who rather bizarrely seemed to think that my writing to ask people’s views on something was an indication of the fact that I was out of touch and incapable of thinking about anything else – in need, said one poster, of going to do some work experience somewhere!), my asking is not an indication of anything other than just wanting to get some views. It does not mean that this is launching tomorrow, or that it is currently taking up a lot of anyone’s time. It is just something that I personally think makes a lot of sense for the sport, and I’d like to know whether enough people share my view to warrant us spending any time in delivering it.

First, the background: as you will know, we have a wonderful programme of regattas and Head Races, put on by clubs and volunteers all over the country. But competition as it currently doesn’t suit everyone. Some people say they don’t want to compete at all, which is fair enough; and for others, competition is quite a miserable experience. It’s usually a military operation, nearly always requiring travel (sometimes some significant distance) – and for that and other reasons, many people don’t get to race that often.

In addition to that, it’s my suspicion that there are at least some instances of people saying they don’t want to compete, when what they actually mean is that going to a regatta to get beaten hollow, or starting low down in a Head, isn’t necessarily a lot of fun. I can attest from the time I once subbed into a crew that went off below 200th in the HoRR that racing isn’t quite the same experience when you have to sit around for ages to start, and then thrash through the wake of dozens of other boats for the privilege of being able to starting a few places higher in a year’s time.

So, that’s the background. Here’s the idea.

How about we set up a ladder system of racing, like a squash ladder or a chess ladder, for every boat class and every region. The rules would be few and far between, and could be tailored to suit the geography, but at a very basic level you could challenge any crew that was, say, ten or fewer places above you on the ladder, to a race over any distance or time. The challenge would have to be accepted within, say, a fortnight, or the verdict goes to the challenger by default.

All that is then required is an agreed result, and a reporting mechanism. Two crews report the same outcome, and the system automatically adjusts. So, Crew A that is 283rd challenges Crew B that is 276th to race over a minute, and wins. Crew A goes to 276th on the ladder and Crew B drops a place. Crew B is gutted that they are slower starters and is confident that they come through in a longer contest, so re-challenges Crew A to race over three minutes next week. There’s no need for any intrastructure other than a reporting mechanism: no umpires, no stake boats, no finish line. Just an agreed challenge, and an agreed result between two crews.

I like its simplicity, the fact that there is so little to set up, and the way that despite both those things it could dramatically increase the opportunities to race. But there are ten other reasons why I would love to see it done, which I lay out below.

  1. The first is that it plays to behaviours that already exist. No-one who has ever been in a crew can deny that two crews that come alongside each other naturally change pace and draw a little firmer. Before you know it, two crews that were paddling along at steady state find themselves at 28 just because there was a little bit of needle, with coaches wildly objecting that they’re meant to be at 20, and asking the cox what’s wrong with them. We’ve all been there. This formalises what’s in many rowers’ blood.
  2. Second, everyone knows (aside from the times that people aren’t meant to be racing but sort of do, as above) that clubs and crews do pieces against each other all the time. The pity is that right now, they try to hide it from the NGB because it’s deemed to be frowned upon. Both of those things seem odd to me. In my view, it’s just a bit of fun, and we ought to celebrate it. So why not put a framework around it that allows people to do so?
  3. Third: no-one is obliged to take part, which is great because not everyone will want to – but not doing is likely eventually to encourage others to get involved. Say you’re in the 3rd VIII of a big club, and you have no interest. You fall down the ladder until you get into a position where you are surrounded by other crews who don’t care either, and there you stay without anyone bothering you. But when you move on and another set of people take on the title of the club’s 3rd VIII, they can have a bit of fun moving up. It’s a bit like the University Bumps Races, just without the carnage.
  4. Fourth, which is sort of connected to the third, it sits alongside the existing competition framework without in any way disturbing what is there or causing anyone or any club to change their routine. We could rank it on the basis of the Head of the River Race, or by using PRI – but it wouldn’t really matter where you started, because crews would soon find their level. There would be ups and downs, but the downs wouldn’t mean that you were somehow massively inconvenienced in some future competition. And if you fell off towards the bottom of the ladder because you aren’t taking part, then you aren’t taking part. Nothing wrong with that.
  5. Five – and this is a really important one – it means that everyone at every level of the sport can win something. At the moment, for many people, competition is competition for its own sake: you compete, but you know you aren’t going to win anything or do more than advance a few places in  next year’s starting places. But with a ladder system, a crew 300 places down the ladder can be the biggest mover of the month, and win something accordingly.
  6. Sixth, with a decent reporting mechanism (something a bit like Tinder, although obviously I have no idea how Tinder works), it would be simple, and fun. Every month we could see (and maybe give prizes for) all sorts of things: the crew that rose most, the one that threw down the most challenges, the best overall club performance (divided by the number of boats the club has) – you name it. There would be plenty of scope for a bit of bragging and a bit of joshing, and with a forum built round the reporting mechanism, plenty of opportunity for an OMG here or a WTF there as results came in. To point 5 above, imagine the lowly crew of a small club helping their club snatch the overall club title from a major club on the last day of the month, by moving up 10 places to take the club average to the top of that months’ league. It could be the talk of the town. 🙂
  7. Seventh, it would allow people to get involved more casually (and as I will try to explain in a blog tomorrow, finding ways to that is important for the future of the sport). How many people do we all know who can’t commit to the number of outings needed to be in a club’s leading crew, but who could go out occasionally? Club A’s Occasionals, Club B’s Alumni, or even Virtual-Club-Comprising-Mates-Who-Just-Borrow-A-Boat-Occasionally, could get on the ladder and have some fun. We could welcome all sorts of people who have hung up their oars, back to the sport. (By the by before I get on to the eighth… I know reason 7 can work from my own experience: I set up Crabtree Boat Club in 1996 by hiring an old VIII and a boat rack in Thames RC, and telling mates that they could go out in a composite crew if they signed up – and I did that because the crew of mates that I took down to HRR for a couple of years (as “Free Press”) always had to race in the Ladies’ Plate because of the pedigree of the oarsmen, even though we only ever managed to get together on the Monday. (Unsurprisingly, success for us meant we’d led at the end of the island!) From those humble beginnings, Crabtree is now a thriving club.)
  8. Back to my reasons…. Reason number eight is that it can be adapted according to what works locally. It doesn’t need BR to lay down loads of rules, but it does need a central reporting mechanism and it does need promotion and prizes to add to the fun. I realise that it works better as described in some places than it does in others, but that emphatically does not mean that it can only work on the Tideway. On the contrary: clubs that are close to each other but not on exactly the same piece of water in different parts of the country (say, Runcorn and Warrington) could set up ‘fixtures’ with neighbours, invite them down for some very knock-about fun racing in a boat that they can lend, and who knows, maybe then have a barbecue of a summer’s evening – only to have a return match. It works in cricket. Why not in rowing?
  9. The ninth reason ties in a bit with the concept of the rowing passport, which eventually I’d like to see ending up with people much more easily able to interact with others in rowing: namely, that crews from one region’s ladder could potentially travel to race crews on another, with BR looking at prizes in cross-regional competition in what you might describe as “Power8s without the cost”. In my perfect world I’d be putting a couple of boats in the boathouse part of 6, Lower Mall and inviting people down to the Tideway to throw down a few challenges to comparable crews, without them having to load up their trailers and bring their own kit. Book in with ours and come and have some fun. Why not?
  10. And my tenth reason is that you can have ladders across so many different sectors. Schools ladders and club ladders and sculling ladders and eights ladders. You could have divisions from which crews could be promoted and relegated. You could do all sorts of interesting stuff, with the focus being on people at every level just enjoying it. But you don’t need any of that just to kick it off. We could produce and put out a reporting mechanism (which today is technically relatively trivial, but ten years ago couldn’t have been done), publish the bare bones of the rules, and then see what works.

So, those are my ten reasons why I think this would work. What do you think? Is this bonkers, or is it a good idea? I’d love to know your views. So, let me know your opinion, either by mailing me @britishrowing.org, or commenting below or on Twitter – or by coming to chat next week at Henley Royal. I’m going to be on the new British Rowing stand that will be by the entrance to the competitors’ enclosure, next to the regatta shop. You’ll find me and a number of the BR team there ready to chat to you about whatever you want to talk about.

Finally – to repeat, before anyone again goes nuts that this just shows that I’m out of touch, or wants to know why I’m not doing something about people answering the phone! I’m just throwing it out there, and am happy to hear the reasons why it wouldn’t work. Personally, I like it; can see how it could be a lot of fun; and would love to see us develop it and roll it out. But right now it’s just an idea, and other than me writing this blog, it hasn’t taken up anyone’s time. With this and the rowing passport, I’m exploring ideas without being under any illusion that everything works for everyone. And tomorrow, I’ll write about why in my view it’s important for the future of the sport to be doing that. If you disagree, you know where to come and find me to complain next week!

Posted in British Rowing.


Anyone interested in a rowing passport?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m on a bit of a mission about membership. I’ve touched on it in various blog posts, and later this month it will be the main subject of a board meeting.

You probably also know my theory that if people who think of rowing as being their sport really and truly understood what British Rowing does – and why, and how – a vast number of them would want to be (or become) members (as opposed to dropping membership like a hot potato the moment they don’t need a race licence or insurance).

But equally, I’m not naive enough to believe that the question “what’s in it for me?” can sufficiently be answered for everyone with “it safeguards your sport, and with it your memories”, and a lot of the thinking we are doing at the moment revolves around what tangible things would persuade lapsed racers and other non-member rowers that it is worth having a BR membership card. 15% off in Cotswold, nice though it may be for people who love a bargain and happen to be short of a woolly hat, doesn’t count.

Of lots of potential ideas, there’s one in particular I’d like to run past you, because it would require buy-in from clubs – and we can’t progress it til we have some concept of whether we’d be likely to get it. There is no obvious way of testing it or beginning to implement it without just starting to roll it out, and we can’t start to roll it out without knowing that at least some clubs would do it. This Catch-22 could be solved by taking up time and money conducting surveys from HQ, but I thought a cheaper and quicker alternative was just to ask people if they’d be interested on this blog. So, here we are.

Imagine you’re abroad, and you want to do some exercise. What are your options, other than to go for a run?

The answer is, not many. Given the chance, you’d probably get out on the water – perhaps pop down to a local rowing club and ask if there’s any chance you could take out a sculling boat. Maybe jump on an ergo, if not. But generally we don’t do that, because we know the likely answer. Too complicated; not sure about insurance; don’t know how to gauge your standard; no time to work through the difficulties; you’re not a member here… Sorry, mate – no. Oh well. A run it is, then.

It seems to me a shame. And it struck me recently how fantastic it would be if a BR membership card were passportable, such that showing it at a participating rowing club in another country would allow you to use their facilities. No need for lengthy explanations or complicated requests: just, “I’m a member of British Rowing. Here’s my card to prove it.” I know I’d love it. Would you?

I’ve been exploring this idea for a while now with my counterparts in international federations, and it is fair to say that a number of them like it. The President of Danish Rowing is particularly keen to kick it off straight away, and has spoken to his colleagues in the other Scandinavian countries. They are all getting together at a meeting in early July and they want to put it to that meeting that we pilot it.

If we did, Scandinavian rowers who find themselves in the UK could rock up to a club, identify themselves as members of their domestic set up, and use the British club’s facilities if they were free; and vice-versa. The hope is that (a) it works, and other Federations join, starting in Europe but then moving further afield; and (b) that eventually it leads to the sort of tours more usually seen in cricket and rugby, where British clubs travel with a view to borrowing equipment and having some fun against local set-ups.  Enabling clubs to travel without having to take a trailer of boats would potentially help to foster a wider sense of community which I would imagine would be welcomed by all. And I bet would be a lot of fun.

The obvious issue is that this is not BR’s gift to give: they aren’t our clubs to open up.  What we can do is facilitate it happening (facilitation being, by the by, among the first things – in my opinion, anyway – in any list of reasons why we exist). But we need clubs to say that they would be up for that kind of reciprocal arrangement: that they would welcome, for example, a Swede who arrived and said, “I’m over from Stockholm… any chance I can jump in a boat?”

So here is the ask… If your club would be interested in participating, please drop me a line.  I will collate a list of clubs that are interested, and we can pilot it through them.   The Scandis will do the same, and a list of places that are happy to open their doors in this manner will be made public. We will see what happens, and refine accordingly. A logical extension of an expanded programme would be that we more easily match people and clubs to reciprocal standards (maybe even using PRI, although let’s not get into that…), and who knows – maybe even twinning clubs or creating groupings in due course.  I know of a couple of other European Federations outside Scandinavia which would be interested in getting involved, and I am sure that if we got it going and it worked, more – both in Europe and further afield – would follow suit. Reciprocal membership of participating clubs, organised centrally.

If it works, it may even be that we can create something similar across regions of the UK. No threats here for those who think the idea is bonkers, and no compunction to opt in; but an “ergo finder” mechanism that allows people to train when they aren’t at home might be welcomed by many (other than just me!), and on a similar note we would like to explore whether there is something we might even do about ergo use in gym chains for members who are outside their home town. No promises on either point, to be clear. It would just be good to explore what is possible.

So that’s the idea I’d love to hear your thoughts about. If everyone thinks it’s daft, no problem: we can bat on with other ideas we are working on. But if you’d like to be part of it, please comment below, or mail me (at mark dot davies at british rowing dot org) so that I can go back to the Scandis and see what we can kick off.

And while I’m here, do you know where Denmark’s second biggest rowing club is?

It’s in Greece. Honest.

I bet you didn’t know that.

Posted in British Rowing, Rowing.


The trials of the weekend…

I’ve been away the last ten days, enjoying a break over Easter after hanging up my quiver at the end of my term as Chair of Archery GB.  Leaving the country sadly meant missing trials last weekend, but I returned to a flood of Twitter notifications in connection with them which cannot be answered within the site’s character limit. I am therefore taking to my blog.

The tweet that started it all off read as follows: “British Rowing seem intent on alienating their supporters. Final Trials behind closed doors, media coverage censored. Any comment ” Posted on the morning of Easter Day, it was followed just a few hours later by the first reply, of “Obviously not”, from Philip Collins. Mate, I’m sure your mama told you: you can’t hurry, love. You’ll just have to wait. It was Easter Day and I was on holiday. Sorry for not being there to respond 24/7.

After that, plenty of others waded in. Someone from  Canada commented that, “Don’t see what benefit this has. With times posted – are other nations seeing some innovative technique, boat, oars or rig? They aren’t. Great idea – let’s keep making rowing less accessible to the mainstream sports fan. An already expensive Olympic sport with niche viewership,” while from closer to home in Wallingford, another posted, “Agree. Missed opportunity to showcase to potential domestic audience our excellence without real sporting risk.” 47 people liked the original tweet, and two re-tweeted it.

So, any comment, markxdavies? Well as you ask, I would make three points.

As a starter – and leaving aside the fact that other sports appear to be able to run their own trials and their own training sessions as they please, with no-one batting an eyelid – I would say it is debatable whether not publishing times or allowing live videos is useful (to any future opposition) or not, and therefore whether there is any need for (or anything to be gained from) secrecy.

At the very least, it’s easy to see both sides of the case. I can’t myself see how anything massively useful could be gleaned from people seeing footage. But then, even at a club level, I can think of examples where coaches don’t want other clubs to know how their crews are going. So, as one of the respondents to the original tweet commented, you could understand why we might not want other nations to see too much about our trials, just as they don’t want us to know about theirs.

On that point, it is notable to me from a quick look at what others do, that we in Britain are not an outlier in the stance that we take. The tweeter from Canada, for example, seems not to have noticed that the Canadians appear to publish neither video of racing nor results, which puts them in line with Australia and many others. The Americans have live-streamed in the past, but appear not to have done so this past weekend (although they did subsequently publish results), and they have made explicit that they won’t be doing so either on 16th-19th May or 6-7th July. The Germans, admittedly, are a bit more open – they live-streamed audio (although not pictures) and put results out afterwards. But just as we aren’t the exemplar of transparency, neither are we the most closed: ex-NZ Olympian Eric Murray tweeted the other day about secrecy around NZ trials, saying that until recently not even the competitors were given the times and results. So, while many of us don’t understand the “secrecy thing”, it’s worth noting that international coaches all over the world take a broadly similar view on it.  Meanwhile, aside from streaming and times, it seems to me that when it comes to giving out information, we are way ahead of many other countries’ NGBs on social media – of which, more below.

But to return to the point: for what it’s worth, and speaking personally as an outsider, I would probably publish results and not myself be wary of video footage, particularly with so few opportunities available for people to see the best in the country compete. But the amount that it’s worth, now I think of it, is not a lot. I’m not a Director of Performance, nor part of a coaching team – still less a head coach; and if I were, I think I would consider it would be fair enough for me to be allowed to run my own programme my own way. I suspect I would take that view even if I were a rookie, but I’d think it particularly relevant if I had proved myself capable of coaching crews to lots of medals. Whether someone on Twitter (or indeed the Chair of British Rowing) sees (or doesn’t see) what the benefit is in my holding my cards closer to my chest than they would, is frankly worth not a row a beans. None of us are running the programme. When we are, we can make our own decisions about where benefit can be gained – and if we do so with the same track record of success as our current coaching team, then bully for us.

My second point would be around the issues of accessibility, where I hope it will surprise no-one to know that I agree wholeheartedly about its real importance for us as a sport.  Because of that view, I was absolutely delighted to see what (in my opinion) was some absolutely fabulous photography sent out throughout the day on Instagram – not just by the team at British Rowing (who also put out over 100 tweets over the weekend to keep people in touch, in addition to publishing articles), but rather gloriously from clubs that had competitors of their own. I also loved the marvellous series of interviews with competitors and all six winners, which introduced a level of accessibility which I thought myself was extremely impressive. Some of the images were absolutely stunning, and in my view they showcased the sport as well as anything possibly could. They gave you a real desire to be on the water – far more than the knowledge of whether one boat was a few seconds faster than another would ever have done, and arguably (for a non-rower) more, even, than the intensity of racing.

When it comes to the times, I would go as far as to say that it seems genuinely odd that anyone other than rowing geeks like me would actually be interested, or where the idea would come from that publishing times rather than brilliant images and fantastic videos is a better way to capture a new audience. It seems to me that times are of interest to people within the sport, and of none at all to people outside it – so the accessibility argument falls away. I am clearly missing something there, and stand to be corrected in short order – but it is worth noting that in total British Rowing shared 180 pieces of content across three channels in the build up to and during the weekend, with a reach of 848,000 people. Maybe I have lower expectations than some, but – not least in the context of our having 32,000 members – that strikes me as quite a result.

My third and final point relates to the start of the tweet: “British Rowing seem intent on alienating their supporters.” Really? Do you really think that? Do people honestly and truly believe that allowing the coaching and performance team to make their own decisions about how they want to run trials, at the same time as having the comms team work around the clock to put out images and information as mentioned above, is about British Rowing being “intent on alienating” people? That we come in every day trying to find ways to annoy people? Seriously?

You know, if someone had tweeted, “Brilliant stuff from the team. Thanks a lot for all the info you’ve put out. Hopefully in future years we will get times as well, and maybe even live streaming, because lots of us in the sport would be really interested in both,” I might have quite a lot of sympathy. We are keen to find (and are actively exploring) ways to give more visibility to the top end of the sport for the members as a whole, so the comment that I was asked for would have been something on the lines of, “yup, right with you there – we’re working on solutions”.

But as it stands, not so much. The negativity of people believing that we’re “intent on alienating people”; of introducing hashtags like “StalagCaversham”; of responding to one of those 100 tweets which happened to contain a typo that mistakenly turned Newcastle into “Newscastle” with, “It is actually spelt NEWCASTLE, but you have probably never been there nor heard of it” – all these I think are deeply depressing, since you ask my view.  Maybe it’s just Twitter. But the hashtags I’d sooner be after are #PullingTogether, and #thankstotheteamforajobwelldone.

 

 

 

Posted in British Rowing, My articles.


Moving Senior Champs

It’s been a difficult week.   We announced on Wednesday that at a meeting the day before, the Board ratified the change of date for Senior Championships to the weekend of June 15th. It would be inaccurate to say that that was the cue for a lot of incoming, because I had had a lot of incoming ahead of the meeting itself. Many sensible points had been made, and many suggestions mooted. In the event, though, the change happened anyway – to the general charge that British Rowing wasn’t listening. How could people love the Governing Body, I was asked, when we make decisions like that? “From the geniuses who brought us PRI,” posted another on Facebook. “What a bunch of morons.”

What’s interesting about this is not the emotion and passion of the comments, which I think is something all of us share. What is interesting is how clear it is that people do not understand the role of the Board, or me, or British Rowing as a whole. It is hardly surprising, in that context, that everyone thinks we are berks.

The meeting on Tuesday was not about choosing a date. Everyone round the table has a different view of which date would be best, and the opinions of the directors absolutely reflect the diversity of suggestions in the thread I was copied into on Twitter. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that a tiered championships might be interesting, or that the National Championships could potentially be fantastic as a series, over a number of weekends – a bit like the Six Nations. Piggy-backing onto other regattas by taking a few racing slots at each, such a format would ensure that high-quality crews turned up to race in places that they might not otherwise attend; would give more people the chance to see some of the best crews in the country; allow us to build a narrative that  might attract media interest (or at least, broader involvement than those present on just one day); and – who knows – even pull in larger crowds. It would mean that we (British Rowing) could have a presence at events where we would otherwise never be seen, which would connect us more to the membership; and perhaps in the process we could talk to a lot of people about what it is we do. That might be a good idea.

Or it might be complete nonsense. There are probably a dozen logistical reasons why it doesn’t make sense, and quite possibly some political ones as well. I have no idea. I haven’t suggested it before, and it wasn’t on the table on Tuesday. I haven’t considered it at enormous length, because it isn’t up to me. If it was, it wouldn’t need to go to the Board and I could just decide. But it’s not, and as I can’t, I’ll just submit it as idea when we conduct the consultation we have announced into the whole calendar. The relevant people can decide if it has merit then. For now, it doesn’t really matter.

But here’s the point: every single member of the Board had thoughts of their own – probably less crazy than mine. Some would love Senior Champs to be part of Squad Trials. Some want it on a Bank Holiday in May. I know there are voices in favour of it being after Henley Royal, and others who think it could stay where it is. It’s not surprising that each of us has a view: we’re all people with opinions about rowing – same as you and everyone else.

But we didn’t spend time discussing all those views on Tuesday, because choosing dates for competitions is not part of the Board’s role.  What we did instead is what the Board is there to do: taking our remit to act in the best interests of the sport, we debated whether the process and governance around a proposal that had been put to us by the Sport Committee (whose remit it is) was sound. The Sport Committee consists of the volunteers responsible for events and competition, and is a set of people who are unarguably expert in delivering the sport week in, week out. Our job at the Board was to establish that they had considered all reasonable alternatives, and we grilled the Chair of the Sport Committee accordingly. We put to him every point that had been sent to us in advance, in order to satisfy ourselves that each had been considered and that for each, there was an answer. When we ran out of questions, we voted. Not on the date, but on whether we accepted the recommendation – a decision that we based on whether we felt that the volunteer Committee with the relevant remit had done its job.

My point is not to deflect blame, or indeed to give credit (since there are some in the sport who are delighted with the announcement, as I know from the fact that the need to move from October is probably the single most mentioned topic in comments directed at me on Twitter, after PRI). It is simply to point out who has ownership of what, which is not something I have decided but is a structure that the sport (and its members) have created. So when people rail at the National Governing Body, they miss the fact that we act within the framework of the sport as it is laid down by the members, and as it is explained on the website in the corporate handbook for the sport.  Volunteer committees, which comprise Chairs who come up through the regional system (and which any member is in a position to get involved with, if they think that what happens is wrong), make decisions like this – not the British Rowing executive, and not the Board. “The geniuses who brought you PRI” (I’ll defend that one another day) and the people who chose a weekend in June for senior championships, are two different sets of people. To lump everything you aren’t happy about together simply as “bloody British Rowing” is fundamentally to misunderstand the structure of the sport.

To be clear, I am neither attacking nor defending the choice of date. The reasons why it was picked over other options will be detailed in the March edition of Rowing and Regatta, where the Chair of the Sport Committee can explain to you, as he did to us, all the reasons why alternatives which had been considered were rejected. The Board itself – as I made very clear to them as we started to consider the issue – was not there to give an opinion on the specific date chosen: we were there to examine the governance and process by which the proposal had been made by the set of people that the sport tasks to make it. We also had to decide whether the final outcome was in the best interests of the sport, which meant considering not just the way the date was chosen and its impact on other events (which every date would have), but the Sport Committee’s view that if it wasn’t that weekend in June, there would be no Senior Champs at all in 2019, and maybe not in 2020 either – as well, of course, of what the wider implications would be of rejecting the advice we were being offered.

In the end, we decided on balance that the proposal should be approved, so the date will move as a trial for a year. Whether people like the outcome or don’t like it, though, they need at least to understand why and how decisions for the sport are made.  It makes no sense for the NGB to be held to account for areas that don’t sit within its remit, particularly when it is the structures of the sport – as determined by the membership – that dictate what does and what doesn’t.

Posted in British Rowing.


BBC News, 16 Jan 2019

I reviewed the papers this morning for the BBC, and then did a couple of interview pieces at the top of the hour. This 3-minute piece is the one we did just after 6.

Posted in Britain, Politics.


Membership’s for life, not just for Christmas. But for Christmas is a start.

A busy schedule has stopped me from following up on my first rowing blog for ages, but two things in the last 24 hours have made me realise that it’s about time I did, so here I am.

The first was an e-mail I received from someone who had questioned why he needed to be a member of a club as well as British Rowing in order to compete, and had received an answer from someone who said that club membership counted for something, but joining British Rowing was a waste of time and money. The second was a tweet that I had from Jordan Lake Crew in North Carolina, telling me the news that as a result of my last post, they were going to buy their founder, a Team GB alum, a British Rowing membership for Christmas.

So I’m back to expand on one of the topics I touched on in that post – namely, why should anyone bother to be a member of British Rowing.

To state the obvious, this is therefore not a post about racing membership. Across sport there are people who think of their National Governing Body as being a tax on enjoyment, and a regulatory burden – forever handing out rules and tweaking stuff that doesn’t seem to need to be changed – but even if they resent the cost, they pay the fees because they want to compete. They might need persuading about the value of their card, but they do actually have one in the first place.

In the other categories of membership – row, coach, and support – people see wiggle-room, and sometimes take it. Their thinking is on the lines of, “hmmm… I don’t think I need their insurance, so I can get away with not having to sign up. Perhaps I used to race once, but not any more. Now I just want some fun. So the NGB is not for me.” They aren’t card-carrying members, and don’t see why they should be.

But whichever of the four membership categories you are in, the same question arises – and it is that question I’d like to address.  You all know it, because you’ve all asked it: “What has British Rowing ever done for me?”.

The answer, if you’re a single sculler on a piece of water unused by anyone else (for any activity), who doesn’t talk to anyone else about anything you’ve done on the water, is nothing whatsoever. If you’re that person, then keep your £31 safe in your wallet, or spent it wisely over the next year. Maybe buy yourself a cup of coffee every month.

But what if you do more than that sculler? What if you row socially but don’t race, and you don’t need insurance because you’ve got it from somewhere else?  And what if you used to row back in the day, but long ago gave up? Why shouldn’t you be allowed your monthly cup of coffee, too?

Let’s start with the first group – those who row, but don’t need a licence to race, and for whatever reason don’t need the insurance that comes with membership. These are people who have no interest in competing, but just want to go out for a paddle – for a host of different reasons. If you’re in that category, you can also save your £31. But you take more of a risk.

You do so in the hope that nothing ever goes wrong. That there’s no dispute in your club that requires you to call in any external help. That there’s no canoeist who swears at you; no unseen swimmer who threatens you with legal action (more a distress than a financial issue, and no insurance covers that); no argument between you and the parents of any of your club’s juniors about something that seems trivial at the outset but then escalates suddenly and needs a pair of fresh eyes. No advice on safeguarding (which for all the right reasons is an ever-more-complex minefield); no help with planning issues which might allow your club to improve its facilities; no support in fights against the sudden introduction of parking fees outside your clubhouse, or worse, eviction from your boathouse. No support or advice when governance issues arise and a dispute leads to factions threatening everyone’s fun and perhaps even your club’s existence.  No help improving safety or opportunity to learn from potentially life-threatening incidents that happen elsewhere on our waterways. In short, you do so in the hope that all of these issues continue to be things that just happen to other people (as they all have in recent months), and never to you.

Like insurance, the £31 a year you might pay for help in any of that sort of situation is £31 wasted while the sun continues to shine – except that, also like insurance, the fee remains low for everyone because it is not used by everyone who takes it out.  Still, you might not be into such a socialist notion. Rowing family, shmamily.  If that’s your view, you should hold on to your cash.

And what about those who today don’t even row? What does British Rowing possibly do for them?

I would argue that it safeguards their sport for the future.  And in doing so, it safeguards something that is far more personal to them: their past.

If there is one thing that we surely all have in common, it’s talking about the races, the outings, the experiences, the camaraderie, the coaches, the freezing mornings, the moments. Hell, half our friendships are with people who shared the experience, so we all do it: stand at a bar and tell (repeat?) a yarn about the two feet that we won by, the selections we missed, the seat races we won or lost, the glories we enjoyed and the agonies we suffered. All of which remain as relevant and as bright today as they were 30, 40, 50 – sixty years ago, because today the sport of rowing remains the same sport that it was then.

And? How long can that continue? In a world where the IOC can put international rowing on notice as it did in September at the World Championships (of which, as previously promised, more another time). In a world where school coaches are flagging how hard it is to attract youngsters to the sport. In a world where there’s increasing competition to hold on not just to aspiring athletes who have a choice between pursuing glory on the water or riches elsewhere, but also former participants who are increasingly tempted into  different masters pursuits. In that world, a sport that isn’t moving forward, developing, attracting people and expanding becomes a sport like lacrosse, or Fives, or Racquets, or Real Tennis – “posh” sports that most people have never heard of and would never consider taking up.  Is that where we want rowing to be, thirty years hence?

I doubt there’s a person among us who wants their children or grandchildren to be looking at them quizzically about the sport, a generation from now, like it was something that mattered back in the day. Oh yes, they’ll say – that sport that was in the Olympics til 2028 but then fell out; that lost its government funding as a result; that withered to a few public schools as it lost its relevance and failed to attract young people. Was it fun, Grandad?

Is that so unlikely? I honestly don’t think it is. At least, not without a centralised body fighting the fight, making the case, setting the structure, and facilitating development. Do you want to be the last generation to stand in your club blazer at Henley and re-live your days in a boat? Oh. OK. I guess you might be right. I guess twelve cups of coffee in a year is a lot more satisfying…

I can talk about programmes and work streams another time. I can tell you what we’re working on with regard to coastal rowing, as the likelihood of it being included in the Olympic programme grows. I can tell you more about ideas we are trying to scope out and get to work, such as ‘passporting’ of BR membership to allow you to use facilities in other jurisdictions; about how we are trying to demonstrate to big-ticket sponsors that rowing is a vehicle for them to make a difference across the whole country in the three biggest problems that it faces; and about what ‘money can’t buy’ stuff we are trying to add to the package of ‘members benefits’. But to be honest, all that stuff is fluff when put against the big reason why £31 a year to become a supporter of British Rowing is a price worth paying for everyone who looks at rowing and says “that is my sport” or “that is my son or daughter’s sport”: namely, that it secures the sport’s finances, and in the process safeguards the future. Which means we can carry on arguing about everything else! 😉

So if you think of rowing as your sport but you aren’t a member of British Rowing, please do consider how important it is to the sport that you should join. And if you are a member already, then here’s a challenge: it’s 21 days til Christmas, and Jordan Lake in North Carolina have bought the first ‘support’ membership of BR for someone close to them who they know loves the sport here and wants it to thrive. How many more of those can we do to kick off a programme of membership that will secure the sport?

One thing’s for sure: it’s got to be a better present than a pair of socks…

Posted in British Rowing, My articles, Rowing, Sport.


Theresa May will win. Here’s why.

In a world of complete political chaos, where quite literally anything could happen on an hourly basis, surely only a muppet would try to predict the outcome…? Well….

When she goes inside 24 hours, everyone can have a laugh at how wrong I got it. But here’s a contrarian’s view: I think Theresa May is going to win.

Here’s why.

There are three groups of people in the Britain today: Leavers, Remainers, and people who want some kind of compromise deal. You may argue that no such thing as a compromise can exist, and the inherent contradictions of Brexit mean that you either leave clean or you stay in. But compromises are generally what politics is all about, and so a compromise is what we have.

Like all compromises, it pleases no-one. But other than the obvious point that by definition it is closer to each side than each is to the other, it does have one thing going for it in political terms: in being a Brexit deal, it can claim to be Brexit – and that will be enough to satisfy some. Leading Brexiteers will scoff and say it is Brexit in Name Only, but as it ends free movement, it does a job. By no means all who voted Out did so out of fear of immigration – Tory Brexiteers in Parliament who oppose the deal will argue that “reclaiming Sovereignty” was the key – but for many in Labour-leaning constituencies, immigration and its surrounding perceptions about jobs played at least a part.  Wherever Jacob Rees-Mogg and the ERG sit, therefore, it’s unarguable that Theresa May’s deal delivers some of the things that some of the people who voted to leave had in mind when they did so. Put simply, the deal clearly isn’t the exact status quo, so it can’t be Remain. Which means it is Brexit – of sorts.

What that means in turn is that it squares a circle for some MPs: those who themselves think we should remain, but whose constituents voted to go. That group – which includes a not insignificant faction in the moderate wing of the Labour party – can back the deal, tell their constituents that they have voted for Brexit, and get something closer to remaining (which they would like) than a departure on WTO terms (which they dread). Long story short, while it is easy to suggest that adding disgruntled Tories to the Opposition benches means that the maths are strongly against the deal (particularly if you’re an ERG MP and are talking your own book…), there is nonetheless still a fair probability that Labour MPs who oppose Brexit (of which there are many) will demur from the Corbyn viewpoint and vote with the Government (or abstain). And there is an equally strong possibility that those who do so will outnumber the unhappy Tory Brexiteers. On that basis, the deal will go through.

In that scenario, Theresa May will have been saved by the Opposition – an intolerable position for the Tory Right – so she would suffer a Vote of Confidence, which at that point she would probably lose. But… Though she would then fall, the victory for her Tory Right opponents will be Pyrrhic: Brexit would have gone through in a format that they hate. Which means that in reality, they have to act sooner than that, and try to oust her before the deal comes to the House.

But… If that happens, would they win it? Many Tory MPs fear the implications (which are that it adds to the risk, as they see it, that Corbyn ends up in Number 10), and 159 would have to vote against her. Even the ERG believe that they only have 80 or so who would vote with them on the deal, and it seems unlikely that more would vote with them on a confidence vote. Worse than that for the ERG: the Prime Minister needs only to win a Vote of Confidence by a single vote to continue, and if she does, she will win a 12-month stay of execution before anyone can challenge her again. So a challenge before the deal is voted on could actually mean that she could win the Brexit vote with Labour support and then not be at risk of being ousted by disgruntled Tories because it’s a year before they can vote again. No wonder opponents are still hesitating to call for the wielding of the knife.

So the key to it all lies in how many people in parliament (or more specifically, Remainers in the Labour party) think that they can get a second referendum if this deal is voted down. If enough of them do – and there’s certainly an argument to say that they don’t fear the chance of no deal enough – then the May deal will be defeated. And if it is defeated repeatedly, she will go. But Remainers also know that it is far more likely that she will be replaced by a harder-line Tory Brexiteer than by a Remainer – and that as a consequence, the chance of us falling out of the EU with no deal will become more likely than the chance of a second vote. Picture yourself as a Labour Remainer, and imagine which way you would bet. They seem to me far more likely to conclude that the best deal that they can get is the deal that is on the table: a customs union half-way house that retains much of our current EU trade.

None of which is to say, of course, that there will not be some seriously rocky moments. If Gove resigns, as many think he will, life will be extremely uncomfortable for the Prime Minister. But important people resign and the world goes on. Nine Cabinet Ministers have resigned this year, and I bet most people can’t name two of them. What matters is who wins the votes (of Confidence, and on the deal), and while resignations will influence where a few people come out on those, the basic facts laid out above don’t change because Michael Gove is no longer in the Government.

So all in all, it may be an unusual view, but I think May is going to win. It may take more than one vote, but this deal or something very close to it will pass the Commons either after she wins a Vote of Confidence, or before she loses one.  But either way, I’d bet that the deal that’s on the table will go through. The idea either that we fall out of Europe without a deal, or that we vote again, is for the birds.

Posted in Britain, Politics.


AGM speech

Although I said that my next blog post would outline the reasons why, in my opinion, people should want to be members of British Rowing, I thought I would post the speech I made at the AGM today for those members who are interested but were unable to make it. It preceded the formal part of the AGM and constituted the welcome and introductory remarks.

It’s an honour to stand here for the first time as Chairman, and I’d like to start by paying a particularly warm tribute to my predecessor in the role. Annamarie has left me extremely large shoes to fill. Not just for her ubiquity at rowing events; not merely for the astonishing depth and breadth of relationships that she has across the sport both domestically and internationally, or the wisdom and knowledge that she brings to every discussion; but also for the obvious affection in which she is held across the sport. We owe her a very large vote of thanks, and it is, I am sure, to our huge advantage that she remains so deeply involved in rowing at an international level. Annamarie, thank you.

This has been a year of considerable change for British Rowing, not simply with my own appointment and other changes at Board level that were driven by the adoption of the Sports Code of Governance, but also at the Performance level too. We bade farewell, after an extraordinary 21 years, to Sir David Tanner, whose impact on British Rowing would be hard to exaggerate. I was amused to meet him at GB Rowing Team Senior and Under 23 Trials on my first day in the job back in April, demonstrating his love and passion for what we do in being there before the start, even though he was no longer in charge.  There will not be a person here who is not aware of his remarkable achievements, and our new Director of Performance, Brendan Purcell, has – like me – a tough act to follow. I am delighted to say that my initial engagements with Brendan – in Lucerne at World Cup 3 and in Plovdiv at the World Championships – suggest to me that we have just the person to take us forward from here. His style will be very different; and he is already having a very positive impact. Our results at a senior level – two bronzes and one para gold at the World Championships, when we had a target of 4-6 Olympic-class medals – have this year not, it is true, been as good as we are used to. But our team is young and margins are small. I am confident that our vastly experienced coaching team knows what it wants to address.

Below the Senior team, the GB Under 23s had their best-ever result at a World Championships, returning home with eight medals – including three golds. That in itself is impressive; but it is even more so, given that the standard of racing this year was incredibly high.

The Junior GB Rowing Team also had an outstanding World Championships, bringing home three medals – two gold and one silver.  I know that Brendan and Andy are very pleased with the excellent relationships between athletes and coaches across both the Under 23s and Junior squads.  Well done to them all.

In Cork, Ireland back in July, Great Britain won 11 medals across the weekend at the Coupe de la Jeunesse, thus winning the title for the 15thtime since the event’s inception in 1985.  Meanwhile, Great Britain’s junior rowers retained their title in the annual J16 match against France, winning nine of the 13 races in Vaires-sur-Marne.  That is our seventh win in the last eight matches.

In addition to our crews, our commercial partnerships have performed well this past year.  In SAS and Mizuno we have two excellent partners who are helping grow our reputation in the sponsorship market as an NGB worth backing.

SAS’s investment in British Rowing has grown by several hundred thousand pounds since this time last year.  Their cash sponsorship has enabled them to appear on GB Rowing Team racing kit and boats, while their expertise and world-leading software is now helping British Rowing become a data-drive organisation.  What does that mean?  It means we will soon be a governing body with a fit-for-purpose approach to data management and analysis. That will allow us to make decisions based on fact and insight rather than opinion, which is an increasingly important thing in today’s high-tech world.

Mizuno is one of Japan’s leading trading companies, and their support over the last 12 months has not only made the GB Rowing Team the most professional-looking team on the international circuit, but has increased income as well.  We receive a substantial amount of free kit from them each year – kit that we would otherwise be buying – and we are now starting to generate a good return from our Mizuno merchandise range (including a very large order from Korea, of all places!).  From nowhere a few years ago, retail and licensing is starting to feel like an area that could become a good, sustainable income stream.

Meanwhile, we still strive to find a major sponsor, and an exciting new sales campaign is about to be launched. So I hope to be in a position to bring good news this time next year.

My predecessor talked last year about diversifying and expanding the rowing offer, and this year saw the inaugural Power 8 Sprints and Commonwealth Beach Rowing Sprint Championships. Both were fun, well-organised, and in terms of those who were present, undoubtedly a success. As Power 8s are being reviewed by the Board at its next meeting, I would not wish to pre-empt wider analysis with any further anecdotal judgment. What I will say, though, is that this diversification and expansion is important not just because it allows us to grow the sport from the bottom up by attracting new audiences, but because of the extent to which it safeguards the future of the sport from the top down. The need for flexibility at an international level is, I think, widely recognised when it comes to the absence of rowing as a sport from the Commonwealth Games programme, but it is far less recognised in the context of the Olympics. A recent presentation to International Federations by the IOC President Thomas Bach underlined that we would be wise to remain alert to the threat of changes in the programme, and any analysis of new events which does not include this as a consideration would be incomplete.

Which is not to say, of course, that we do not face a challenge in needing to test, develop, and grow these new formats in a financial environment which is difficult. Some of you may have seen my recent blog about our current financial position, and others who haven’t will undoubtedly be looking at the financial statements in your AGM pack with at least a raised eyebrow. For those who have done neither, let me lay out in bald terms where we stand financially and what we are doing about it.

The combination of our budget deficit and our investment in new formats means that we will overspend this year by around £750,000, and as the Chairman of our Finance Committee John Hinnigan will report shortly, we are unlikely, as things stand, to break even over the four-year period of the current cycle. There is a case for ensuring that we do so by cutting programmes, but that would – in my view – be damaging. I am well aware that the absence of regional reps has been keenly felt across the country, and my strong belief is that we must – and can – address our budget shortfall by growing our income lines rather than by cutting our costs.

The way we will do that in the coming months will be through a concerted drive to increase our membership – not incrementally, but by effecting a step-change. Doing so will not be a trivial exercise, but it is certainly not impossible. We can do it by openly explaining where we are at, why we exist, and what we are trying to do – three things you would think are obvious, but three things that are not as widely understood as they need to be. As a National Governing Body we are seen to be regulators who tax our members’ enjoyment of a sport that would exist quite happily without us. In fact, we are guardians of a shared passion who safeguard the sport not just for today but for successive generations – here to enable clubs, to protect the framework, and to ensure the future. In the coming weeks we will lay out in more detail exactly what that means, and why it doesn’t happen by itself.

If we are successful, we will encourage the many, many thousands of people who consider rowing to be their sport to see the relevance – aside from race licences and insurance – of being members of British Rowing, and in doing so we can turn around our financial position, invest significantly, and start to create a virtuous circle which will be transformative for the sport.

The vast majority of people here are volunteers.  Of course, that does not make us unique, as nearly every sport needs a large and passionate group of volunteers to operate. But the sport of rowing in Great Britain would not survive without you and the thousands of people like you who give up your time and spend your money week in, week out, year in, year out to run clubs, competitions, events; to manage membership; to coach… The list goes on…

It is impossible to single out anyone, because each person makes an important contribution; so I would like simply to say thank you to all of the volunteers here today, and to everyone across the country who willingly and freely not only keeps rowing going but develops it for future generations.

Later this year, we will be starting work on a new Volunteer Strategy for rowing, in the full knowledge that volunteers play a critical role across the sport. We want to understand how both British Rowing and our 550 affiliated clubs can be more effective in how we attract, retain, support and celebrate them. We will draw upon recent national research and consider how these learnings can be applied to our sport, whilst also considering the unique challenges and opportunities associated with volunteering in rowing.

The 2018 membership survey closed yesterday, and we received 1,150 completed responses. We asked our members questions about their type of involvement in rowing, and how they feel about the sport and the key activities British Rowing has undertaken – as well as their view of the membership offer and how it can be improved in the future. We will now analyse this information to see where we can improve our operations and offers. I know Andy and the team in Hammersmith will be communicating this to the rowing community at the beginning of the New Year.

Now… let me move on to the Competition Framework, which as you know is the national structure that supports the way competitions are organised and run. You almost certainly don’t need me to tell you that it’s the architecture and system that underpins the racing scene in this country and, as such, it is incredibly important to the sport.

Let me briefly cover the background, just so that we are all starting on the same page…

Since the 1940s, a rower’s competitive status has been determined by the number of events he or she has won at regattas.  Various changes and additions have been made to this framework over the years, most recently via a formal competition review led by Ann Colborne in 2002, which led to a tweak in the points system in 2009. But even after this, there was a growing sense within the sport that a more fundamental overhaul was needed.

In June 2014, Council agreed a proposal for the NCC Competition Review Working Group to develop a new Competition Framework.  This working group included Guin Batten, Phil Clements, Fiona Dennis and Tim Walton, along with British Rowing staff.

Under the new Framework, it was proposed that rowers would get ranking points for racing and beating crews.  The higher up you finish in an event, and the more crews you beat, the more ranking points you get.  The more ranking points you have, the better you are at beating crews in your event. So the purpose of creating the new PRI was to create a more accurate reflection of a rower’s and crew’s ability, in order to allow them to be more matched in competitions.

We formally launched the new competition framework and PRI in April this year, happy that years of hard work from volunteers and staff could benefit rowers across the country.

Now, I would have to be deaf not to have noticed that the changes have not been universally popular, and issues have been raised. But there are also plenty of people who tell me that the new system works well.

So this is what we are doing.  As I said we would when I was asked about this at the start of the summer, we are reviewing where we are at on the basis of a summer’s data. When I say “we”, I don’t mean British Rowing, and I don’t mean the people who designed it. Instead, to get an entirely impartial opinion, we have asked SAS to undertake an independent review of the algorithms within PRI so that we have complete empirical analysis of its impact, conducted by independent mathematicians.  We expect their analysis and the results in the coming weeks, and we will act on any recommendations they make. Similarly, we will proceed as planned if their report validates the system as it stands.

I know that traditionally this address concludes with the announcement of the British Rowing Medals for 2018 – the Medal of Merit, which is awarded to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to regional and club rowing, and the Medal of Honour, which recognises the highest levels of service and exceptional commitment to the sport of Rowing in Britain and internationally. Both these Medals are in the gift of the Chairman – but, I must admit, I am not entirely comfortable that that should be the case.

It concerns me that the impact of such a system is that it has an in-built bias towards people who I happen to know, or people who know people I happen to know – a fact perhaps best illustrated by the fact that 80% of the nominations that I had this year came through one person! I think that a system that disproportionately recognises those with an ‘in’ is likely to be inherently biased towards the south-east, and to too small a cohort of potential recipients. So, I am today announcing a change to the system, to be brought in from next year, which will mirror the honours system used nationally.

Although the details are to be ironed out, the basic principle of the new system is that people can be nominated and seconded on a dedicated form that is rubber-stamped by the relevant regional chair, then to be considered by an Honours Committee that will be constituted in the coming months. That Committee will consider all nominations, and decide where, on the scale of potential recognition, a given nominee might fit – just as nationally, a panel decides whether someone should be eligible for an MBE or a Knighthood. I have gone back to all those who have nominated people to me directly this year and have asked them to nominate next year under the new system, which I believe should be welcomed for its greater transparency, and which I hope will encourage people throughout the sport to get involved.

There is, however, one obvious recipient of our highest award, the Medal of Honour, who I think would be unquestioned under any system – and while I may have known her for 20 years, she is just as well known to everyone in this room and throughout the sport.

My predecessor as Chairman of British Rowing, and previously Deputy Chairman and Lead Safeguarding Officer between 2002 and 2013 (during which time she oversaw anti-doping, governance and equality policies), she has been actively involved in rowing for over thirty years, after taking up the sport at university. She enjoyed a successful international rowing career representing Great Britain at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (in the women’s eight). She also competed in the World Championships between 1991 and 1995 and was World Champion in 1993 (in the lightweight coxless fours) and World Indoor Rowing Champion and World Indoor Rowing Record holder between 1992 and 1995 (for lightweight women). She was the first female board member of The Boat Race Company Ltd, working with the universities’ sponsors and men’s clubs to bring the Women’s University Boat Race to the Tideway in 2015. And she has been a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta since 2002.

She has done a host of things outside the sport, but was awarded the CBE for her services to rowing in 2015. There is no more worthy recipient of the British Rowing Medal of Honour than Annamarie Phelps.

 

Posted in British Rowing, Rowing.

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Six months in: it’s the membership, stupid

It is exactly six months since I took over as Chair of British Rowing (the appointment having started on 1st April 2018), so I thought it was a suitable moment to do what I have been saying I will do for ages: start to put down a few thoughts about how I see the world.

The period since spring has been busy. We’ve only had three Board meetings (May, July and September), but in addition to those I’ve been to quite a lot of events – regattas at Wallingford, Maidenhead Juniors, Marlow, Henley Women’s, Henley Royal, the British Masters, the Europeans at Strathclyde, the North of England Sprints, World Cup 3 in Lucerne, Power 8s in Bristol, the British Offshore, the Commonwealth Beach Sprints, and the World Champs in Plovdiv – and have accepted invitations to visit one region and two clubs. There have also been Regional Chairs’ meetings, a morning down at squad trials, and the ‘day job’ of sitting down with the Exec to talk about strategy and vision.  On top of all of which, I was on my way to the U23s in Poznan, but only got as far as Luton airport. What a lovely place to spend five hours that is, before they cancel your flight. I can recommend it to anyone. 🙂

With all that, I have had a lot of conversations with a wide range of stakeholders, and lots of thoughts arise. I can’t cover them all in one post, so I will aim to return to them in the coming weeks. And for now, I’m just going to talk about our finances.

It’s been quite notable to me that of all the subjects that are raised with me by people when I go around, British Rowing’s finances are not high on people’s agendas. Perhaps this is because people consider us to be a rich sport, as a result of their knowing about our UKSport funding. What few seem to realise, though, is that that funding is ring-fenced for very specific purposes; and in terms of our day-to-day finances, we have for some time been running a budget deficit. It isn’t an insignificant one either. In fact, when you combine the deficit with financial investment in new ideas like the Power 8s (of which more another day), we are, in round numbers, spending £750,000 a year more than we have coming in.

When you consider that we have around £5m in reserves, and a reserves policy that requires us to hold £3.75m in order to allow an orderly run-off of our obligations, you don’t need to be a mathematician capable of dissecting PRI to work out that the position is unsustainable for very long. Were we to keep spending at that level with the same income, then in a couple of years, we’d be going bust.

Hoorah, I hear the cynics say. What did British Rowing ever do for us anyway? (More of that in another post soon, too…) But for now, let’s accept for a moment that BR going bust is not a great idea. What, therefore, to do to make sure it doesn’t happen?

Well, we could stop spending. But there are not many spending lines on the budget that can be cut – certainly not of a size that will make a dent in our overspend, even if we take out investment (a bad idea I’ll address in a future blog) and just look at the budget deficit represented under Business as Usual. The biggest easily deletable line is Rowing and Regatta magazine, and I was delighted that the Board was unanimous, recently, in agreeing that cutting that (when we want to build an ever-stronger community, and communicate more, not less, with everyone) is not a good idea in the absence of a lot of groundwork being done first.

Other than that, there’s not a lot of fat that can come out: in fact, you could argue that many of the programmes that we absolutely have to run as an NGB (safeguarding, etc.) are already run on a shoe-string. In short, if we have to solve our budgetary position by cutting stuff, no-one is going to be happy – least of all me.

Now, you didn’t need to be Einstein to work out the maths; and you don’t need to be Keynes to get the economics.  If we can’t cut spending, then we have to grow the income lines, and “income lines” means one of two things: either sponsorship, or membership income. And in the absence of much of the former (again, more on that another time…), then it has to be the latter that grows. And there are only two ways to grow your membership income: a good way and a bad way.

The bad way is obvious, and a route to oblivion: put membership fees up. Short term gain, long term disaster. Upset everyone, see people leave, have fewer people to get subs from, put subs up again: the vicious circle you create is obvious. It’s the simplest way to destroy the sport, squeezing ever fewer numbers of people for more and more money, and it’s not what we have any intention of doing while I’m in the seat. The path we follow has to be the good way – and for that, we need members’ help.

The good way, obviously, is to increase the number of people who are paying a sub in the first place: that is, significantly grow the membership of British rowing. Is that realistic? In my view, it is – for one simple reason: there are, I  believe, literally tens of thousands – perhaps even hundreds of thousands – of people out there who readily say that, “rowing is my sport” – but who don’t pay a sub that proves it.

Of course, the obvious question is, “why the hell should they?” – and I am afraid that that, again, is a subject I will leave for another time – although in this case, next time at least (so you don’t have too long to wait!). But for now, suffice it to say that this is our challenge, as I see it: to engage with, and persuade to join us, a lot of people who love the sport just like members do, but who for whatever reason are not at the moment members themselves.

What sort of people? Well, folk like the 20,000 or so individuals who we know are currently members of a rowing club somewhere in the country, but not members of British Rowing – some of whom pay several hundred pounds a year to wear a tie and have access to a clubhouse that they don’t actually use.  Or, the literally thousands of people who are members of the Stewards Enclosure at Henley, who also pay vast subs every year in exchange for tickets that they leave in a drawer (yep, me too), who need each only pay the cost of one Wednesday ticket a year to British Rowing to safeguard the sport. Or the multitude who don’t fall into that category, but are nonetheless former rowers – oarsmen and women who were members while they raced but who look at membership as a tax and a race licence, when it is so much more than that (wait for the post!! ;)). Or even the throngs of parents who go and cheer on their children at regattas all over the country, who have got “the bug” too late (in their view) to get out on the water themselves, but who compete through their kids and extol the virtues of the sport. They currently would not even consider why they should join up, not least because there isn’t really a membership category that fits them.

I think it is our challenge to explain to these people why they should be – no, why they will want to be, once they have had it explained – members of British Rowing. To the explanation itself, I will turn another day. But if we succeed in persuading them, we will wipe out the deficit that hangs over us, and we will take the sport forward in a pile of different ways which I hope to get to on this blog over the coming weeks and months.

For now, one last thought. British Rowing is just about to embark on a comms programme around a new membership structure that details how we will be moving from the old categories of Platinum, Gold and Silver to Row, Race, Coach and Support. It will explain how as well as being a modern makeover, the new categories will allow the NGB to speak to each defined group about things that matter to them. In other words, it’s an enabler to offering more bespoke comms to members going forward.

But for me, the most important thing about the new structure is not the new membership cards (which are great) or the significantly improved management that will result from it (which it definitely will). The most important thing is that the new structure will introduce a mechanism by which we can engage with all these people that I have detailed above, and bring them into – or back into – our sport. With that, and with your help in selling the reasoning in the coming months to all the people you know who fall into the categories (and more) that I have mentioned above, we can wipe out our financial deficit – even get to run a surplus – and not just secure the sport, but build it an ever brighter future.

Of which, more anon.

Posted in British Rowing, Rowing.


The weekend’s British Masters

I walked into Holme Pierrepoint last Sunday morning for the first time in nearly 25 years. And it’s fair to say that the immediate impact was to feel as if I’d been stung by a bee.

Just setting foot in the place carried me back to sitting a set of finals papers between outings –  what does studying its budget tell you about the European Union was one of the questions I recall – but it was some of the more calamitous moments sitting in a boat that really made me shudder. I took a fin off an eight there once in windy conditions. And I’d forgotten all about it until the weekend.

But unhappy memories were soon banished by a day at the British Masters Rowing Championships that put a smile on so many faces, and handing out medals on the pontoon to one delighted crew after another would have been enough to send anyone home with a spring in their step.

Among all of them, though, one stood out. As I handed a gold medal to the winning cox of a IV+ from Minerva Bath Rowing Club, I thought I was unlikely to find anyone more chuffed and emotional about victory for the rest of the day. But how wrong I was: by the time I had got down to the stroke man, the level of delight had reached a whole new peak.

I have no idea what the background story was, but clearly, the win meant an enormous amount: his sheer ecstasy could not, I think, have been bettered if he’d just won the Olympics. He kissed his medal and pumped his fists with more raw passion than I’ve seen in many years.

Well done that crew – and everyone who took part. But particularly well done to the volunteers who organised everything. You made a lot of people very happy!

 

 

 

Posted in My articles.


Reflections on the NHS

When I left school, our Head Master made a memorable speech based around three thoughts, one of which had to do with the benefit of experience. He made the point that as you go through life, you will find that everyone has a view on things – particularly institutions – but usually, every opinion they hold is based on hearsay. He told us what a privilege it always is, whether you have loved something or hated it, to be able to base your opinion on the solid foundation of having actually known what it was like.

I thought of his advice this week after I had spent a week in hospital, getting my first experience of the NHS since I had a minor operation as a 7-year-old. Very rare visits to the GP aside, I have had no personal interaction with any part of our health service since 1978 – other than the natal wards, which seem to me to be such a ring-fenced part of the service that I am not sure that they count.

The conclusion I have drawn is that the NHS does one thing unbelievably well, with the pity being that it is true in both senses of the word: crisis.

The efficiency of the operation that I witnessed when things were going pear-shaped was awesome to behold. From the much-maligned 111 service onwards, it was impressive. The paramedics called ahead after they had picked me up: this was a cardiac situation, they explained, not one for A&E. That meant they were going either to Hammersmith Hospital or to St. George’s – so which should it be? The answer came back that St. George’s was busier. To Hammersmith we went.

On arrival, everyone was ready. An entire team took me in, cleared me up, and sorted me out. From start to finish, it had been seamless. There is no doubt at all that between them, they saved my life.

But having immense admiration for everyone involved cannot mask the obvious inefficiencies in the system which became apparent as I progressed through the next few days. Of course, because I was recuperating, I was never in any rush, and was always happy to wait for things to happen, not least because I had a comfortable bed; I was being looked after; and I had plenty to ponder on, read, or watch. But it was striking how long was every delay between any decision being taken and any action being implemented – an extraordinary phenomenon best exemplified by my discharge last Thursday. Told I could go home the night before, I was then asked to stay overnight. Did that mean leaving mid-morning, I asked? No,  they said: it will be 2 by the time we’re ready… But at 11.45, that became 4; and at 3.45, six. It meant I got a cab home when I was finally discharged.

In a similar vein – more worrying still, perhaps – the most shocking thing about Hammersmith Hospital is its lifts. I couldn’t fault my ward: it was clean, well-equipped and more than adequately staffed with people who, if they are as stressed as anecdote relates, betrayed none of their concerns. But to get from one floor to another for anything – a scan, a check-up, or even a life-saving operation – took at least ten minutes.

There were two lifts in my wing. One was not working at all, and the other regularly went on the blink. Hospital porters would lean on the doors to ‘help’ them close, but at least one in three attempts to move floors would result in an automated voice saying that the lift was out of service. Once it recovered, a few seconds later, it would creak up and down, full to the max and opening at every level to expectant crowds. They would have to await its next pass, at a minimum, before they could get in.

What point is there in having world class cardiac facilities on the first floor of a building that you can’t get to because there isn’t a lift up? It seems the most basic and obvious thing in the world,  and – you would think – not terribly expensive (in the context of the overall budget) to put right. But it was clear that this was not some recent breakdown: everyone knew that they had been like that for years.

It’s odd that nothing has ever been done about it, and the fact that nothing has suggests that it isn’t an unusual phenomenon. Unlike the issues of bureaucracy, it has an obvious – and easy to implement – solution, which isn’t even that expensive. Like a lot of things in the last fortnight, I’m still trying to work it out…

Posted in My articles.


Thoughts, a week on…

I was discharged last Thursday in the end. It might have been a day earlier – on Wednesday they came to tell me I was free to go, but changed their minds moments later so that I would still be under observation when I moved from liquid to tablet antibiotics – but what was one last night in a hospital ward, when five nights earlier might have been a final one on earth? I spent it alongside John, an 81-year old who lives by himself in Hounslow but has struggled since a recent fall, reliant on a walking stick deemed by the physio to be too short for his 6ft 2inch frame.

The last ten days have without any doubt been the most extraordinary of my life. As I got into bed at home on Thursday night, Miranda and I looked at each other in complete wonder. It was, we agreed, as if literally nothing had changed; and yet, of course, everything had.

It’s a strange thing to walk about the world,  realising things that might be absurdly obvious, but somehow never really cross our minds. What is striking is how diametrically opposed some of them are. Last week it was whether I was lucky or unlucky; this, it’s the contrast between meaning something to people and honestly not mattering a jot.

On the one hand, the unbelievably touching response I have had from friends all over the world has been genuinely humbling. People I felt no particular reason to believe I meant very much to have pointed out that I’ve been missing something in plain sight. I’ve had messages from friends I haven’t seen for years, and a series of the kindest and most emotive notes which have been hard to read without a tear in the eye. Learning that you are more important to people than you thought is a privilege you never expect to get.

At the same time, though, there’s a curious sense of your own irrelevance to the bigger picture.  Having drifted in and out of consciousness for as long as I did, I’m very aware of how easily I might just not have woken up,  which means I now walk around constantly realising how everything that is, just is: things are still there, whether I were here or not. Every piece of news I’ve heard, every object I’ve focused my gaze on, every sports result I’ve either delighted in or grimaced at, every mark reported from each school test: I haven’t been able to stop myself thinking that all of them would have happened just the same. I just wouldn’t have known any better.

To be here and therefore to know is one reason I consider myself unbelievably fortunate, but these last few days, I have come to understand that the fortune runs much deeper than surviving something odds against.  The realisation of it is the strangest feeling of all, and its articulation sounds ridiculous, but neither makes it less true. Speaking from my own perspective and not the family’s, and obviously knowing that I got out the other side, it is this: if I look back ten days, I am honestly not sure whether – given the chance  – I would change anything that happened.

Generally-speaking, you only get to see life from a different perspective by going through a sustained – possibly never-ending – period of hell. A ravaging disease; the loss of a limb; a terminal illness; the death of someone close: these are the things that change our lives, from which people bravely take the positive of a new sense of proportion.  In my case, the legacy of what happened is that I need to take aspirin every day. It seems to me an unbelievable trade.

Only one thing was missing when I got back on Thursday – the most excitable part of every ‘Welcome home!’ these last eleven years: our old dog Pomme had died peacefully the day before.  I sat down on the very kitchen bench that I had crawled off five days earlier, her empty bed just a few feet in front of me on the floor, and for the first time, the enormity of everything that had happened hit me. I realised that she had been there when I left, but now wasn’t; while I nearly hadn’t come back, but was now home. And everything else just was.

 

 

[A year on from this, I am fund-raising to build a lift up to the cardiac unit at the Hammersmith Hospital that saved my life. If you would like to contribute to that cause, you can do so here.]

Posted in My articles.


I’m still here. And on Saturday that wasn’t looking likely.

John, the anaesthetist, told me when he came to see me on his Sunday round that I had just been “incredibly unlucky”.

His reasoning was that what had happened to me was extraordinarily unlikely, and not linked in any way to lifestyle, or diet. As he explained it to me, the walls of our arteries resemble a mesh which holds back gunk, and from the age of 25, that mesh cracks. Apparently, it happens to all of us, and is rarely a problem. But very occasionally and unusually, the mesh breaks. The blood isn’t happy to find stuff tipped into the bloodstream, and it reacts as it does when anything else goes wrong: it clots.  In my case, it clotted at the entrance to the artery that carries 66% of oxygen to the heart. I had a heart attack.

‘Unlucky’ was John’s version: mine was the polar opposite. I’d take that bad luck, I told him, for the good luck of how and when it happened. I had 20 minutes from the time it started, and any of a whole host of things might have taken me minutes past that. By rights, I should be dead.

It happened on Saturday afternoon. I was walking downstairs, having been in my study and then briefly chatting to my eldest daughter, Emily, in her room, and as I reached the bottom I sensed a not-particularly-alarming pain in my chest and then suddenly felt very ill. I lay down on the bench alongside our kitchen table for a moment, but then, realising that I might be about to be sick, decided it would be wise to move towards the loo.

Only, I couldn’t really move. I crawled off the bench, and on all fours made minimal progress. I lay down on the floor in the foetal position, suddenly feeling terrible.

It was the Fours’ Head in London this weekend, and as a result we had three Cambridge oarsmen staying with us in the house. One of them, Piers, walked into the kitchen as I lay on the floor. I heard him say, “are you all right?” and I replied, “You know… I really don’t think I am…”

I sat up on the floor, as Piers called Riccardo, his fellow oarsman and a third year medic, and told him I didn’t look great. When Riccardo appeared, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with my chin to my chest and my eyes shut. I had started to sweat – a lot. I could hear him asking me if I was all right, but I couldn’t answer. I sat there, sweat dripping off me, eyes shut, head down. “Mark, are you all right?” he kept asking.

Then, just as suddenly, I was fine. I lifted my head, opening my eyes as I looked up. Riccardo was crouching in front of me, and Piers was behind me. “Wow,” I said. “That was seriously weird! What on earth just happened there?”

At just about that moment, my wife Miranda came in from picking up our third daughter Alice from ballet, walking in through the front door behind our second, Lexie, who had been dropped back by a friend after a hockey match. She took one look at me and exclaimed about the colour of me and the sweatiness of me. We all said how weird the whole thing was, but by now, I was on my feet, and apparently absolutely fine. But it was odd, and someone – I don’t remember who – suggested that we call 111 to ask them what it might have been. Something had clearly happened, but in truth it was as much for reasons of curiosity as anything that I thought it sensible to call and find out what.

I went off and got my phone, in no particular rush, and went to call from the sitting room. I sat on the sofa, got through fairly quickly, and started to tell them what had happened. I was totally fine: I felt perfectly well now, I was lucid, I was sitting on the sofa,  and I was chatting to the woman on the other end about how strange the whole thing had been.

“Just to let you know,” she said as we talked, “I have dispatched an ambulance to your address. And I don’t want to worry you, but I have made it high priority. They should be with you within seven minutes. If you have aspirin in the house, take 300mg. When you get off the phone to me, don’t phone anyone else in case we need to call you back.”

I wasn’t particularly concerned. OK, I said. I would do that. I hung up. I took the aspirin. And then suddenly – very suddenly – I started to go downhill again. I called out for Miranda, who had gone upstairs. By the time she came down, I had slipped off the sofa, where I suddenly had felt very uncomfortable, and was lying on the floor, clearly – and rapidly – getting worse. The next thing I knew, I was aware of a flashing blue light coming through the window, and then paramedics rushing into the room.

I was lying between the sofa and an extremely heavy coffee table made of granite, so they couldn’t actually get to me. How Miranda moved it, I have no idea: we have tried to do it between us plenty of times in the past and we always need an army to get it off the ground. But somehow she and Piers picked it up to give the guys space.

I remember them putting me on a trolley and loading me into the ambulance. I remember them saying to Miranda as she got in that I wouldn’t be back tonight. I remember them then giving me a commentary about where we were all the time, and me telling them I didn’t need one because I knew exactly where we were from the bends of the roads. All I wanted, I said, was a blanket, because I was perishingly cold and shivering uncontrollably. (I later learned that my temperature had dropped to 30 degrees.) I also asked if they had a pillow,  because my head was drooped lower than my shoulders. They didn’t, but one of the paramedics – apparently fresh to the job in the last fortnight – kindly manoeuvred herself so that I could rest my head on her knees.

Over Hammersmith Bridge we went, heading towards the Hammersmith Hospital, where they told me a team was on standby awaiting my arrival. I remember the drive up Shepherd’s Bush Road, but then from Shepherd’s Bush I must have passed out because the next memory is arriving. Amazingly, even at this point I wasn’t actually sure what was happening and why: it was only as they wheeled me out of the ambulance and in through a door which had a sign over it which said, “Heart Attack Unit” that I knew for sure what was going on. It sounds so ridiculous to say it really, but no-one had mentioned the words. And I didn’t see myself as a heart attack candidate: I have never smoked; I exercise six times a week; I don’t eat much meat; and I live a pretty healthy life.

They wheeled me to the lift, where I remember one of them saying, “this is usually the slowest part of the journey”. Sure enough, we waited for ages as various full lifts came and went, until they decided that we had to take the lift down in order to be the incumbents as it came back up, or we would never get in. I recall a lift arriving and it emptying of people.

We were heading down in the lift when I flat-lined for the first time, and apparently, they twice did CPR before we were out. Miranda was in there with me, as she had been in the ambulance, but I remember nothing about it. I regained consciousness, though, as they wheeled me into room I assumed to be the operating theatre, where I was struck by the sheer number of people on hand. I remember them asking me if I minded them cutting my shirt – I had changed out of my sweaty t-shirt – and me telling them that I really didn’t mind what they did, providing they did it quickly. I remember them whipping my trousers down, but leaving them at my ankles, which I remember complaining about because it was very uncomfortable. A young lady called Charlotte introduced herself on my left and told me what she was there to do, but I don’t remember what it was. And then I heard a voice say something about the need to hit me now, and BANG! they unleashed the CPR machine on me. I subsequently learned that they did it five times in total, for four of which I wasn’t conscious. This time, I knew all about it – but as I was told later, my heart had stopped and every second was crucial, so there was no hanging around. Still, I can safely say I have never sworn so loudly in my life. It wasn’t the sort of word you want to be your last.

My next recollection after that is of lying calmly in a bed and wondering whether,  if I opened my eyes, I was going to find myself in hospital or discover that everything was a dream. I opened them slowly, and I was clearly in a hospital. It had genuinely happened.

Now, three days on, I feel fine. The people who have helped me in the hospital have been extraordinarily kind. A lady just came to ask me lots of questions to check that I hadn’t lost any brain function – obviously, a major knock-on effect when you’ve lacked oxygen – and it looks like I passed. All things being well with a scan tomorrow, I should be leaving here in 24 hours, and, they say, even back on the football pitch in the New Year.

So when John the anaesthetist came to see me on Sunday evening and said that I had been incredibly unlucky, I had to demur. Had I not been fit (he told me), the chances that the part of my heart functioning on 33% could have kept me going for long enough to make it would have been incredibly small. Had I been by myself at home, I don’t think there is any chance I would have called 111 when I suddenly felt all right again, and by the time I didn’t, it would have been too late. Had the lady who answered the phone not immediately diagnosed what had happened; had there been more traffic; had I not been at home, but more or less anywhere else – on the street, in a plane, further from a hospital – it would have been curtains. And even if I had survived, without a lot of quick thinking from a lot of people, I might have done so with a fraction of the brain function that I had before it happened, instead of all of it. So, far from being unlucky, I was about as lucky as it was possible to get.

I think in many ways, it was all far worse for the people close to me than it was for me. I was drifting in an out of consciousness (and bizarrely, dreaming very heavily when I was out), so there somehow wasn’t the time to be scared – and as I said to Miranda on Sunday, despite everything, I never believed at any point that I was about to die. “I did,” she told me, particularly when things were going pear-shaped in the lift.

Meanwhile my son Theo, who is 9, took himself off upstairs when the paramedics arrived and Skyped my parents, who are abroad. They asked him how everything was, and he replied, “well, I’m very well… But I have come to Skype from upstairs because I am banished from downstairs because the ambulance people are here.” “The ambulance people?” “Yes. They’ve come because Daddy has collapsed. Oh – I can just see the blue lights of the ambulance now heading off down the road.” It was a few hours before they got any further news. That must have been fun.

From my perspective, the whole experience has been rather surreal. It has sunk in a bit more than it had a couple of days ago, but I am not sure that it has done fully yet.  What I do know is that I count myself extraordinarily lucky to be here. Every day’s a bonus day after that.

 

[If you’re interested, you can read my follow-up to this piece, a week on, here.]

 

If you would like to donate to my efforts to get a lift made for the specific use of the cardiac unit, you can do so here.

Posted in My articles.


The cost of social housing

Ever ask your Uber driver, Deliveroo biker, barista, your builder’s casual brickie or the guy mopping up sick on the Tube platform whether they have a bedroom of their own? Or how many share their lavatory and gas ring? Of course we don’t ask. We’re British. We embarrass easily. We respect their privacy. Their culture, innit?

It’s not good enough. Booming cities bring a price, and we’re not paying. Decent social housing is the highest of priorities and to afford it will hurt.

 

Libby Purves, in The Times.

Posted in My articles.


How much do we spend?

The government is spending over £13,000 a year on every man, woman and child in the country: over £50,000 a year on a family of four. That ought to be enough, surely, to pay for policemen, soldiers, teachers, doctors, hospitals – and safe tower blocks. To finance this, the Government is borrowing over £100,000 a minute.

 

Bruce Anderson, writing in Reaction

The Trots will go too far and the troubled Tories are stronger than they look

Posted in My articles.


More money goes to NI than to EU

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics last month showed that while Scotland consumed £2,824 more in public expenditure per capita than it raised in taxes — a source of irritation to the English — the average inhabitant of Northern Ireland consumed £5,437 more public money than they paid in taxes. There has been a payment from London to Ulster of about £10bn in each of the past three years, slightly more than the UK as a whole has been paying — net — to the EU.

 

Dominic Lawson, writing in the Sunday Times

Posted in My articles.


Austerity, British style.

George Osborne’s great trick was to talk tough while putting into practice a programme which was admirably pragmatic and flexible. Whereas Ireland managed to reduce its gross public debt from 86 per cent to 75 per cent of national income between 2010 and 2016, Britain’s public debt carried on rising: from 76 per cent to 89 per cent. In short, Britain never experienced austerity.

Nick Macpherson, former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, writing in the FT.

Posted in My articles.


How the dementia tax would become a blueprint for the NHS

One of my earliest school memories is of a teacher whose oft-repeated mantra to pupils whining about the equity of any issue was, “life isn’t fair. The quicker you get used to it, the better”.

Perhaps that was easier to learn when raised in connection with something trivial; but the wider lesson stands whatever the circumstances. If the debate provoked by Theresa May’s new social care policy serves only to bring in to sharp focus the fact that life is a lottery, it will have achieved something.

But I suspect that its legacy will be much broader than that. What is being mooted over dementia seems to me likely to become the solution to what has become known as the crisis in funding in the NHS.

I am not suggesting it will be popular. The idea that you can have built something up all your life that you wish to pass on to your children, only to see its value whittled away by the need to pay for social care if you suffer from dementia, is objectionable to many.

But the harsh reality of it, as Will Hutton pointed out in the Observer over the weekend, is it means “the spoils of undeserved brute good luck will pay for the costs of undeserved brute bad luck – and the state gets resources it otherwise would not”.

Brute bad luck indeed. The hypothetical example of two families with identical houses is laid out by Libby Purves in the Times. The offspring of parents who die suddenly inherit everything, while “next door’s oldster lingers on for a decade needing care from the state”, and the children’s inheritance dwindles to a hundred grand. The unfairness of life is laid bare, but as Purves points out, “if you are wistfully hoping your parents drop dead quickly to make you richer, you don’t deserve anything.”

The trouble is that once you have accepted the premise, the question surely becomes why you single out one disease over another. As Jeremy Hughes of the Alzheimer’s Society wrote recently to the Times, “In the lottery of life, people with dementia remain the principal victims, forced to spend hundreds of thousands on care — unlike those who develop cancer.”

Dominic Lawson’s forthright response in today’s Daily Mail, arguing from tragic (and multiple) personal experience that families “laid waste by cancer” can hardly be called “the winners in the ‘lottery of life'”, is hard to dispute. But competitive diseasing and death, which would have a touch of the Monty Python about it were it not so tragic, can be looked at from the other side of the telescope. Far from being a reason not to introduce the solution mooted to address social care, the Hutton balance could surely be looked at more widely as a means of addressing more generally scarce resource.

Many will doubtless point out the cruelty if families that are ravaged by disease should find themselves stripped of their assets to pay for the care that is required to address it – a cruelty exacerbated, presumably, the more you have to lose. But if life’s a lottery, then it is hard to see how the right place to draw the line is at dementia, rather than generally at the affordability of care. It is unquestionnable that up to a point, alleviating suffering is easier, the wealthier you are. Undeserved brute luck is surely the point, either way.

Posted in Britain, My articles, Politics.

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Why everyone hates Maria Sharapova

On a day when Donald Trump has done his best to remind people of the old adage that it isn’t the original act but the cover-up that does for your reputation in the end, I see that Andy Murray has stepped in with his tuppence-worth about Maria Sharapova and her wildcard in Birmingham.  The decision by the LTA to grant her one has, he says, “been a very divisive subject. Some people think it’s absolutely fine, some people think that it isn’t.”

To a degree. But what seems to have been missing from the Sharapova debate is that while it looks on the face of it to be all about drugs, in reality it is nothing of the sort. As with Trump, it’s all about the cover up. Or more specifically, it’s about the fact that Sharapova is in that group of people that seems to think the world is so stupid that they can just make anything they like up and we will all believe it.

To recap: Sharapova was banned for two years for using meldonium – a substance which had been legal for years and then suddenly wasn’t. Too blasé to notice that the rules had changed, and clearly surrounded by a support team which like her lacked attention to this particular detail, Sharapova carried on taking it after she wasn’t allowed to. She got caught.

Had she stuck her hands up at that point and said what was true, the tennis world might have forgiven her as soon as her ban had been served. “I’m sorry. Like many others, I’ve taken this stuff for years while it was a legal substance, because it gives me a bit of an edge. In the same way that some people are sharper when they take caffeine, and therefore do so within the allowable limits, I’ve taken meldonium. I was an idiot for not realising that the legal status of the drug had changed, and I hold my hands up to that. Equally let’s not pretend that my taking it for years before that moment was for some other random medical reason lacking all credibility that I might disingenuously make up. I took it because elite sport is competitive, and as all leading sportsmen know, you take any legal competitive edge if you want to get to the top.”

But that’s not what she said. Instead, she blatantly made up a pack of lies and expected the world to swallow it. She told everyone that her taking the substance was “unintentional” and that she had not tried to use a “performance-enhancing substance”.

So the reason that people hate Maria Sharapova is not that, as Eugenie Bouchard put it, she’s a “cheater”. It’s because her dishonesty takes us all for mugs.

Posted in My articles, Sport.

Tagged with .


Burke on Twitter

Love this line from Daniel Hannan:

If ever you find yourself confusing social media with public opinion, look at what Edmund Burke had to say about Twitter back in 1791:

Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.

Source: Brexit is happening – so let’s all cheer up about it – CapX

Posted in Politics, Quotes.


US GDP/Debt ratio predicted to hit 150%!

Federal debt levels are going to surge to 150% of GDP in 30 years as a result of huge unfunded outlays on healthcare, social security and interest payments, according to the US Congressional Budget Office, which is an independent body.

Other than now (when is is 77% – double what it was (35%) in 2007) only once has the level of debt in America exceeded 70% – and that was immediately after World War II. Over the last 50 years, it has averaged 40%.

There are lots of reasons why that’s problematic, not least of which is that it severely limits the government’s ability to respond to unforeseen events and cannibalises government spending which has instead to be ear-marked for interest payments. It also reduces national income.

Posted in Politics, Stats, US politics.


Matt Ridley nails it

We can and must make an offer to the fundamentalist Muslims: abandon your political ambitions and become a religion as this has come to be understood elsewhere in an increasingly diverse and tolerant world — a private moral code, a way of life, a philosophy — and you will find the rest of us to be friends. But threaten the hard-won political, intellectual and physical freedoms now accorded to every man and woman, yes even and especially women, in our essentially secular society and you will be resisted and, pray god, defeated.

Source: Stand up for our right to criticise Islam | Comment | The Times & The Sunday Times

Posted in Issues, Politics.


The Budget debate explodes a myth

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the debate on the increase in National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed is that it lays bare the lie that people are happier to pay more tax to fund the NHS.

In December, the Guardian reported Lib Dem leader Tim Farron highlighting research from October by ITV News that suggested that 70% of people would “happily pay an extra 1p in every pound if that money was guaranteed to go to the NHS”, while almost half of the 1,000 people surveyed said that they would even pay an extra 2p in the £.

Where are these people now?  A 2p in the £ increase suggested for a sub-section of people (a sub-section, don’t forget that currently pays less than those who are employed by firms to do the same jobs, and who will still pay less even after this increase) has led to all hell breaking loose. It seems the reality is that people want more money to go into the NHS, only so long as someone else is providing it.

The extent to which that is true could be heard clearly on last night’s Question Time, where repeatedly people commented on the fact that it should be ‘the rich’ who pay more. The trouble with that is that ‘the rich’ is nearly always defined by people as ‘those who are richer than me’.

You disagree? Then tell me this: what price do you consider is a fair one for people to pay for better services and better healthcare, assuming for a moment that it is true that both are created simply by finding more money to fund them?

I’m not an accountant, but bearing in mind the personal allowance of £11,000, it seems to me that the 2% rise in National Insurance contributions for someone earning £15,000 a year will mean an additional bill of around £80 a year, or £1.30 a week. The same thing for someone earning £40,000 a year means a bill of £580 a year, or £10 a week. And if you’re earning £100,000+, your bill will go up by £1,800 a year, or just shy of £35 a week.

Can we all accept that if you are earning £100K a year, you can afford to lose £35 a week? I suspect that we can (although admittedly I know people who would debate it – the same people who don’t look at their restaurant bill twice and wouldn’t notice if they’d been charged for the wrong bottle of wine).

I wouldn’t argue with the £40,000 earners who say that they are a long way from being wealthy even if they are approaching the top band of income tax, but it seems unlikely that they would think twice about spending £10 a week on something that they really wanted. It is, after all, the price of a (bought-in-a-shop) cup of coffee a day, and a lot less than they will be spending regularly on things they would regard as less important than their health. Having to fork out £10 a week more than currently will be annoying, but hardly unmanageable.

For the £15,000 earner life is tough: they are not earning a lot, by any yardstick, and the difference here of £1.30 a week may well make a difference when finances are tight.  But there are lots of people in this bracket out there, and presumably they were included in the 1,000 people survey, where nearly half of those polled said they would be happy to pay.

The NIC debate of the last two days might be couched in terms of a broken manifesto commitment, but let’s be honest: what proportion of people knew it was before that became the narrative? How many people voted the Government in on the basis of it? The notion being touted is that the Treasury didn’t even realise, so what price the idea that the person on the street did?

The debate might also be sidetracked by arguments about how self-employed people have none of the safety net of working for a firm – although interestingly, that doesn’t exactly loom large in the ONS’s study of self-employment trends.

And equally, plenty will seek to debate whether it is ‘bad politics’, but again, that is a different argument (to which an obvious counter would be that the bad politics was making the commitment in the first place).

The reality is that the argument about the Budget explodes a myth, which is this: when people say, “I’d be prepared to pay more to fund the NHS and/or social care,” they don’t actually mean it – and we know that because when they get it, they object. They argue in favour of a hypothecated tax for social care, but this is as close to a hypothecated tax for social care as we can get: £2bn being raised from a change in NIC contributions on the same day as £2bn extra was announced for social care. And people really, really don’t like it.

So the narrative that politicians are slippery and change their minds is a nonsense when you consider the fact that the public is far, far worse. Asked by pollsters in October about a policy, people were overwhelmingly in favour.

But in March, when it has become clear that that same policy will actually affect them as individuals, on top of being paid by others, they’ve changed their minds.

 

(This article was published on Spectator Coffee House today)

Posted in Britain, My articles, Politics.


The tax take

The UK’s tax take has remained completely static since 1984-85 when it was 33.9 per cent of national income (compared with this year, at 33.7 per cent).

“As Mr Hammond contemplates reaffirming his plans for the highest tax take since 1982, he should bear in mind that such a yield eluded his seven immediate predecessors.”

Source: The power of political theatre explains Budget’s enduring mystique

Posted in Britain, Politics, Stats.

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Middle East/Africa population growth

In 1950 the population of the Middle East and Africa was equivalent to half of the population of Europe. By the end of this century, it will be eight times the size of Europe’s.

Source: Even in an age of austerity, aid works. We have to keep giving | David Cameron | Opinion | The Guardian

Posted in Europe, Geopolitics, Politics, Stats.

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Anderson, post-Burke

These days, far too many MPs seem to believe that they are a walking opinion poll. Their constituents think this, and they must be right. We need more MPs who are happy to say: “Although a majority of my constituents appear to think this, they are wrong, as I hope to persuade them. If I fail, they may choose to sack me: that is their prerogative. But I will not change my mind.” An MP who did speak in such terms might be pleasantly surprised by the respect it earned him, especially if he were from Yorkshire. “He’s a cussed bugger, right enough – but he’s our cussed bugger.”

Bruce Anderson

Source: The Lords may be flawed, but it should be heard on Brexit – Reaction

Posted in Quotes.


Trump’s Russia policy

Trump may attempt an abrupt reconciliation with Russia that would dramatically reverse the policies of President Barack Obama. It is hard to overstate the lasting damage that such a move would do to the U.S. relationship with Europe, to the security of the continent, and to an already fraying international order.

As Trump will likely discover, reality has a way of interfering with attempts to transform relations with Moscow. Every U.S. president from Bill Clinton on has entered office attempting to do precisely that, and each has seen his effort fail. Clinton’s endeavor to ease tensions fell apart over NATO expansion, the Balkan wars, and Russian intervention in Chechnya; George W. Bush’s collapsed after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war; and Obama’s ran aground in Ukraine. Each administration encountered the same obstacles: Russia’s transactional approach to foreign policy, its claim to a sphere of influence, its deep insecurities about a yawning power gap between it and the United States, and its opposition to what it saw as Western encroachment. Finding common ground on these issues will be difficult.

Posted in Geopolitics, Politics, Quotes, Trump, US politics.

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