The 2017-18 Ashes Series

The Ashes Urn

The Ashes Urn

On November 23rd, England and Australia will commence the 70th Ashes Series of test cricket, the biannual series that has been played since 1877, making it arguably the oldest regularly-played sports rivalry in the world.

The Ashes is called that because the winning trophy is a replica of an urn that contains the ashes of cricket bails that were burned after an embarrassing loss by England in 1882.  

The Ashes is a series of five test cricket matches.  A test match is played for up to 5 days.  Matches can end in a tie or a win.  England are the defending champion and need only to draw the series to retain the Ashes; Australia must win the series to gain the trophy.

Each match will take place at a different cricket venue in Australia.  It begins in Brisbane.  Perhaps the most hallowed venue is the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which can seat 100,000 people. 



In America the matches are shown on One World Sports which is available on Verizon, Dish Network, Sling TV and other providers.  In New York many bars that show international sporting events like soccer will show the Ashes but the best atmosphere will be Australian expat bars like the Australian on 37th Street in Manhattan. 

Australia captain Steve Smith (left) and the England captain Joe Root (right)

Australia captain Steve Smith (left) and the England captain Joe Root (right)

A podcasting legend switches shows: James Richardson is leaving Football Weekly

This is huge news in the world of podcasting. The long-time soccer-related podcast Football Weekly is losing its host James Richardson and its producer Ben Green, both of whom have been with the show since its inception. They are starting a new podcast called the Totally Football Show.  Football Weekly is the gold standard in soccer podcasts and is one of the most listened-to sports podcasts in the world. While the loss of its lead presenter will not kill the show, it is a massive blow to the show and to its parent the Guardian.


The Guardian website launched Football Weekly in 2006 when podcasts were still downloaded onto your hard drive and then copied to an IRiver or other mp3 player, or perhaps burned to a CD-RW. The show was done with great production values and took full advantage of the podcast format, which was then still a raw and experimental medium. At its heart, like most good podcasts, it featured several intelligent, articulate, and humorous people talking about a topic that they loved and that listeners loved.  Though well paced and  smartly sequenced, the content was unscripted and felt very authentic. 


Most great podcasts are driven by personalities. The Guardian's choice of English presenter James Richardson, known previously for hosting shows related to Italian football, proved to be a brilliantly successful choice. Known by fans as AC Jimbo, he was a bona fide expert as well as funny and an excellent presenter and he added many puns to keep it just a little light-hearted.  Like many successful podcasts, Football Weekly established itself as a cosmopolitan show, which fits the potential worldwide audience of podcasts. Richardson's expertise on Italian soccer gave it a continental touch, and the show featured many international guests and which touched on soccer all over the world, despite a focus on the English Premier League. Regular contributors included Sid Lowe, and Spain-based expert of La Liga and Rafael Honigstein, an German football expert.  Regular contributors also added coverage of Argentinian, Brazilian, Dutch, French, Scottish, and Russian football.  


I have listened to every episode of Football Weekly and have often looked forward to them more than an actual match. Football Weekly is one of the podcasts that drew me into the medium. Now I listen to podcasts daily on a variety of subjects.


I will almost certainly follow Richardson to his new show, and continue to listen to the Football Weekly as well. I feel for the Guardian though. It's going to be tough to keep the show going. James Richardson was Football Weekly, and many of its listeners will simply migrate to the new show. The Guardian is a struggling old media company that is one of the most influential sources of independent journalism in the world. They supported podcasting when it was still a unproven medium and made it a great listen. Despite the Guardian's recent financial struggles, Football Weekly was a shining light of success. I hope they can continue it but it will depend a lot on finding an equally charismatic successor.

England and Scotland meet again.

One of my earliest introductions to football was the the England Scotland match on 13 November 1999.  It was an event that drew on the passions of the two countries sporting fans in a way I'll never forget.

England and Scotland first played each other in 1872.  It's one of the oldest sporting rivalries in the world.  They played each other annually until 1989, with many historic results along the way.  In 1967 the two teams met after England had won the 1966 World Cup, and were on a 19-game winning streak, but Scotland won 3-2 and claimed an 'unofficial world championship'.

As with many things the rivalry diminished over time, particularly from the English perspective, with England developing new rivalries with Germany and Argentina.  The annual match was abandoned in 1989 and they have played 5 times since.  However, for Scotland, a chance to beat their southern neighbor remains a tasty chance for a boost in national pride.

In the qualification for the 2000 European Championship, both England and Scotland finished second in their groups and were fatefully drawn against each other in a two-match play-off to determine which team would go to the European tournament.  It was a meeting of two bitter soccer rivals with high stakes.  

I was living in Moscow then.  I went to see the match at a popular bar for expatriates that showed sporting events called Chesterfield.  The bar was packed.  England fans were on one side.  Scottish fans were on the other.  The atmosphere was electric.  It was almost like attending a live match.  Each pass of the ball, tackle or move was greeted with cheers or shouts on either side.  The hall shook with the rhythm of the game.

The outcome was somewhat anti-climatic.  England scored in the middle of the first half with a Paul Scholes goal, and the midfielder added a second late in the half and England held on to win.  The result effectively secured England's qualification. The goals were obviously met with huge cheers from the English side and stunned faces on the other.  Late in the match, the Scottish fans, more or less understanding England were in control, sang their national anthem in defiance.  English fans retorted "two-nil".  By the end everyone was pretty drunk and naturally there were minor crowd scuffles filing out of the overcrowded venue though nothing major.

Today's match is part of the qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.  After the contentious Brexit vote, the match has heavy political overtones.  Hopefully, though, the match itself will provide greater drama than 1999 game.

On this day 25 years ago Carl Lewis and Mike Powell were gods

One August 30, 1991, there took place one of the greatest athletic battles in history.  In the final of the men's long jump at the Athletics World Championships in Tokyo, two men both jumped further and further, farther than anyone had ever jumped before.  By the end of the day a world record had been set which still stands today.

Carle Lewis jumping for the University of Houston

Carle Lewis jumping for the University of Houston

Carl Lewis had emerged as a sprinter and long jumper in the early 80s.  By the middle of the decade he was no longer jumping against competitors, he was jumping against Bob Beamon's record of 8.90 meters set at altitude in Mexico City.  Pundits thought he would eventually break it.  Several observers thought he actually did break it when he apparently jumped over 9 meters, over 30 feet, in 1982 in Indianapolis.  The jump was invalidated by a foul called for Lewis' toe just over the take-off line.  Lewis disputed this and said there was no mark left, and several witnesses agreed, but the track was raked over and the foul stood.  Nevertheless Lewis made a jump that day of 8.74 meters and in 1983 8.79, the second longest jump ever.

Lewis continued to attempt to jump past Beamon's record throughout the 80s but never succeeded.  Perhaps what he needed was a competitor.  And that person emerged in the late 80s in Mike Powell.  Powell took silver in the 1988 Seoul Olympics at 8.54.  In the Spring of 1991 he jumped 8.63 meters to set up a compelling match up with Lewis at the 1991 World Championship in Athletics in Tokyo.

In the long jump there are legal jumps and there are measured jumps.  Legal jumps are eligible for the record books.  Measured jumps are not, usually because the occur during a wind above the limit of 2 m/s.  Measured jumps however are usually eligible for that competition.  There's also the factor of altitude; people believe jumps at a high altitude such as Beamon's jump in Mexico City have an advantage.  Jumps at altitude are considered legal but are marked with an (a) for altitude by the sport's governing body the IAAF.  Tokyo was at sea level but the wind was gusting inconsistently.

The National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, site of Powell and Lewis' epic battle.

The National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, site of Powell and Lewis' epic battle.

Carl Lewis immediately set a high bar with a jump of 8.68 in the first round, farther than Powell had ever jumped.  Powell responded with a jump of 8.54.  In the 3rd round, Lewis jumped 8.83 meters, though it was wind-aided.  In the 4th round Powell followed with a massive jump, which appeared near the world record.  However, the red flag went jump--Powell had just barely stepped over the line.  Powell furiously protested but replays confirmed the official was right.  Then Lewis followed with a massive jump of his own, this one at 8.91 meters, but again wind-aided.  It was still the longest any person had ever jumped.  To win the competition, Powell would have to break the world record.

Powell celebrating his record jump of 8.95 meters.

Powell celebrating his record jump of 8.95 meters.

Great long jumps occur when the jumper gets everything right, and a little luck.  The run up, a perfect take off right at the line, good height, a decent landing, good conditions, and (if you care about the record books) a wind below the limit.  These factors came together for Bob Beamon in 1968.  And they all came together for Mike Powell on his 5th round jump.  It was immediately clear that it was huge jump.  The board showed the jump was legal, but Powell nervously awaited the measurement, and burst in elation when the scoreboard read 8.95 meters, 5 cm past the world record.  It was legal and at sea level.  After 23 years Beamon's record was broken.

But the competition still wasn't over.  Carl Lewis still had two jumps left, and few onlookers doubted he had the ability to go even further.  His 5th round jump was a legal 8.87, which is still today the 3rd longest jump in history.  His final jump was 8.84, again legal and the still the 5th longest jump in history.  Altogether Lewis and Powell had combined to make three of the five longest jumps in history and 5 of the 10 longest measured jumps in history.  (5 of the 7 longest at the time).  Powell had set the world record, while for his part Lewis had made 4 jumps over 8.80, the best long jump series ever.

After 1991 no person would ever jump further than 8.74 meters.  Lewis and Powell would face each other again in an much anticipated rematch at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.  Lewis won gold at 8.67 meters, while Powell's silver jump of 8.64 would have won every subsequent Olympics.  Since then no jumper has challenged Powell's mark.  Powell himself would make wind-aided jumps of 8.95 and 8.99 (the longest measured jump in history), both at a course in Sestriere Italy, famous for wind and altitude conditions favorable to athletes.  

Given the era they competed in, there will always be questions about whether Powell and Lewis' jumps were doped.  According to the testing of the time both were competing legally.  Carl Lewis has admitted to testing positive earlier in his career though Mike Powell has never come under direct suspicion and his vigorously defended his record has legitimate.  It's clear today's jumpers are jumping well short of Powell, Beamon and Lewis.  The young talent Jarrion Lawson made 2016's best jump at the US Olympic trials of 8.58 meters.  Hopefully one day he'll emerge as someone who can contend with the record book.  But for now Powell can rest easy.


My favorite Rio Olympics moments: Henderson and Bartoletta win long jump golds

I'm a fan of the long jump.   It's one of several athletic events that literally helps define the limits of human ability--how far a person can jump.  The event has produced some of the most dramatic sports events in history, including Bob Beamon's record-shattering Leap of the Century in the 1968 Mexico Olympics and the titanic duel between Carl Lewis and Mike Powell in Tokyo in 1991 (I'll be blogging about that event next--it happened 25 years ago Tuesday).  Famous long jumpers such as Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Joyner-Kersey are ranked as among the greatest athletes ever.

So the long jump was one of the events I looked forward to.  Both the men's and the women's produced satisfying climaxes that were decided in the final two rounds.   The men's final took place on August 13th.  It didn't get a tremendous build-up, and perhaps that's justified.  None of the contenders' personal bests were anywhere near the world record.  4-time long jump gold medalist Carl Lewis called the men's long jump the 'worst event in the world' because he felt the standard was very low.  Mike Powell's record of 8.95 meters was considered safe.

The men's final was on August 13th and had a competitive field including the London 2012 winner and 2015 World Champion Greg Rutherford, American Jeff Henderson who had the best jump of 2015 at 8.52 m, and American Jarrion Lawson who still has the best jump of 2016, 8.58 m, set in the US trials.  Other contenders were Chinese athlete Wang Jianan, South Africans Ruswahl Samaai and Luvo Manyonga as well as Swede Michel Torneus who had a jump of 8.44 earlier in 2016.   

In the first three rounds of the final, Rutherford, Henderson, and Lawson all took leads before Manyonga came out of nowhere to take the lead in the 4th round with a jump of 8.28 m.   He had fouled his first three jumps and was not among the favorites.  In the forth round, Rutherford jumped 8.26 to take 2nd.  In the 5th round Manyonga bettered his lead to 8.37 m,  with Rutherford in second and Lawson in 3rd at 8.25.  Before the final round, the BBC Live commentator Tom Ronstance wrote:  "I don't know how many long jump medals have been won in the sixth round. But I imagine it's not many."

The sixth and final round did indeed produce drama.  Manyonga fouled his final jump leaving him to wait to see if his lead would hold.  It looked likely.  But Jeff Henderson, now off the podium, followed with a final jump of 8.38 meters, taking the lead by one centimeter.  The podium was now Henderson, Manyonga, and Rutherford.  Then came the defending champion's and many pundits' favorite Greg Rutherford's final chance.  He jumped 8.29, well short of the lead but still in 3rd.  Lawson, once in 1st place, was now outside the medals.

And then came one final bit of drama.  Lawson had the last jump of the competition.  The 22-year-old had jumped 20 centimeters farther than Henderson's jump at the US trials, so he knew he could do better.  He produced what appeared to be a magnificent jump.  However the scoreboard read 7.78.  As shown in video replays, Lawson's hand touched the ground behind the rest of his body.  It is uncertain what the distance of Lawson's jump could have been but it was definitely enough for a medal and several witnesses thought it was enough for gold.  When the dust cleared, the podium was the USA's Jeff Henderson, South Africa's Luvo Manyonga, and the UK's Greg Rutherford.  The lead had changed 5 times throughout the final.

Henderson's victory had a lot narrative hooks the media love.  He grew up in Arkansas unable to afford any modern training facilities, and his test scores weren't good enough to attend any universities who were interested in him.  He attended a community college and starred on the track team and then graduated from the historically black Stillman College in Alabama.  His mother suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, and cannot remember him.  Henderson said he looked forward to putting the gold medal in her hand.  For his part, Lawson is still only 22 and hopefully has a tremendous career ahead of him.  His 2.58 mark in Eugene, Oregon this year is still the best long jump since Dwight Phillips in 2009.

Henderson holding his Olympic medal. 

Henderson holding his Olympic medal. 

The  women's final was four days later.  The field wasn't as deep as the men's--there were three primary favorites going into the final.  American Brittney Reese was the defending Olympic champion while compatriot Tianna Bartoletta was the reigning world champion with a jump of 7.14 meters in Beijing--the 30-year old had won world championships 10 years apart.  Also a favorite was the European champion Ivana Spanovic of Serbia.  Germany's Malaika Mihambo was one of a few outside contenders.  

Spanovic took an early lead with 6.95 m in the 1st round.  By the 5th round, the favorite Reese was outside the podium in 5th at a dismal 6.79 m.  Her three other jumps were fouls.  Bartoletta had equaled Spanovic's jump and was in 1st on a tiebreaker.  Mihambo was in 3rd.  In the 5th round Reese jumped 7.09 to take the lead.  Spanovic then jumped 7.08 to put herself in silver.   Bartoletta responded with a personal best of 7.17 to take back 1st place.  The podium was now Bartoletta, Reese, and Spanovic.  In the final round, all three made 7-meter jumps, with Reese improving her mark to 7.15, though the podium places didn't change.

Tianna Bartoletta in Rio. 

Tianna Bartoletta in Rio. 

Neither the men's or the women's event saw anything close to a world or even Olympic record.  For the the near future, a world record in the long jump appears unlikely.  The men's record is nearly 25 years old, the women's 28, and no current jumpers are anywhere close.  This and the lack of a record-breaking medal haul from any of the long jumpers meant the events got much less attention than Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Mo Farah or Usain Bolt (never mind negative stories like Ryan Lochte).  American TV network NBC only showed a handful of jumps in their coverage.  But in terms of actual competition and drama, the long jump delivered this year.  Hopefully Carl Lewis will revise his opinion.