Steve Ovett: Chariots of Ire

September 1, 2008

A blog post in 2008 noted that a film could be made of the Coe/Ovett story. This week there were press reports that the film was actually going to be made. According to the Guardian

The Perfect Distance, Pat Butcher’s 2005 book about the professional rivalry between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, is set to be turned into a movie for 2012.

Original post [Sept 1st, 2008]:

Steve Ovett thrilled a nation with his middle-distance track battles with Sebastian Coe. He has since relocated in Australia as a sports commentator with a pungent style of a Geoff Boycott

You can see on U-tube Ovett’s famous battle with Coe in 1983.

I’m not sure if this warrants a Leaders we deserve blog post. It may just suggest a ‘compare and contrast’ theme of two athletes one who became a sporting and political celebrity, and another who didn’t.

Over the last few weeks, British viewers had a rich diet of Olympic news and opinions from Beijing. From time to time the vaguely familiar gaunt features of Steve Ovett appeared. His role appeared to be to puncture the euphoric bubbles blown by the other British commentators.

He continued this role with some enthusiasm subsequently. In an interview (BBC Five Live, Sunday August 31st 2008] he repeated his view that the British Athletics performance at the Olympics had been dire. The interview was playing in the background, and I did not recognise Steve’s voice. The speaker semed to me to have an Australian accent. His argument was that the Brits had done worse than the Australians at the Olympics if you compare money invested, not to mention population.

It was quite a shock when the interviewer asked the interviewee whether he would like to take over the job of operations director for Sport GB (or UK). No, was the reply, they wouldn’t want me. (Not, what qualifications do I have for the job).

That was a bit of a puzzle, only resolved at the end of the interview. The pseudo-Oz was Steve Ovett, now gainfully employed in Australia as sports advisor and commentator.

The newly converted

Was this the behaviour of the newly converted? If so, what sense can be made of it?

Is it too simplistic to say that the fierce competitive drive during his career became a personal feud between the rough Ovett and the smooth Coe? That the subsequent rise and rise of Seb Coe and decline in Steve in the public gaze contributed to his views?

That there is a film in there, perhaps to be called Chariots of Ire?

Tessa Jowell and Boris speak as one: London 2012 is to be the austerity games

August 24, 2008

As the 2008 Olympics reaches a climax, interest turns to the London games of 2012. Tessa Jowell, wearing her hat as Olympics minister, and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, both send a similar austerity message. We examine the rationale for these actions

According to the BBC

According to the BBC

Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell has told [the BBC] that there will be no extra money beyond the £9.325bn already allocated to the 2012 London Games

In the same week, her message was echoed by Boris Johnson, who also promised that the games would run to budget. A brave claim, which seems to me to risk offering a hostage to fortune.

The messages have the merit of being clear and unambiguous. This government is not going to risk overspending the 2012 budget. But unless communicated carefully, the impression is left that the primary concern of the government and the Mayor is to avoid any doubts of being imprudent regarding the financial implications of the 2012 Games.

Raising their game: a bit of this, a bit of that

Perhaps politicians, like Olympic athletes have to raise their game to achieve the highest accolades. The statements for me, needed a bit more ‘yes and’. A bit more acknowledgment that at present many people are interested in how London 2012 will take British sporting achievements to a level that will continue the upsurge of pride in the sporting achievements in Beijing 2008.

In other words, the leader has to be more creative in handing the concerns of an intended audience, as well as getting across a message from the leader’s perspective. A bit of ‘this is what I want you to understand’. And also a bit of ‘I understand what you are really worried about, and this is what I intend to do about it’.

Janusian thinking
Creativity is often manifest by a process which puts together two sets of ideas. Arthur Koestler called it bisociative thinking. Others have referred to Janusian thinking, implying a capacity for looking in more than on direction at once.

Images of Janus suggest the process is looking in two different and contrary directions. This matches well with the notion that the creativity of a leader involves bringing together rational and emotional messages.

The evidence is that Tessa is less able to manage such two-way thinking than is Boris.

Olympic Protests and Leadership Issues

August 7, 2008
Dali Lama

Dali Lama


The post was written in 2008. It retains relevance as the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014 draws to a close.

The Beijing Olympics is launched amid a flurry of political stories. The old dilemma is a dilemma no more. It seems that sport and politics can not be kept separate. But there may be ways of them co-existing, with the help of creative leadership

The Financial Times suggested that it was always a pious hope that politics and sport could be kept apart at Beijing.

On the eve of the Olympic Games, Reuters news agency reported that

More than 40 athletes competing in the Beijing Olympics have urged China to peacefully settle contention over Tibet and protect freedom of religion and opinion, rights groups said, raising pressure on the Games host ..The Games participants are among 127 international athletes reported to have signed a petition to Chinese President Hu Jintao, bringing sports and human rights together in a way that Beijing has often rejected as “politicising” the Olympics.

Meanwhile, human rights protesters at Liberty Square, Taipei call for an alternative ‘Peace’ Olympics.

The signs became obvious as far back as February 2008 when Stephen Spielberg announced his resignation as a high-profile artistic advisor to the Games.

His political purpose was to draw attention to the continued humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Spielberg,claimed that China was
not doing enough to pressure Sudan to end the human suffering in the troubled western Darfur region in the five-year conflict.

The Darfur issue has been kept in the headlines by Team Darfur
in a longer-running campaign by athletes concerned over the Darfur situation.

The rationale of Team Darfur is to make a difference politically in Darfur, through the publicity gained by the support of high-profile athletes.

This week we learn that a member of Team Darfur would be carrying the Olympic flag in the opening ceremony. The story was that of child rescued from Darfur who became a US citizen.

A day after China jerked the visa of former Olympian Joey Cheek because of his high-profile support for Darfur, the U.S. Olympic team announced it had voted a former Sudanese refugee the honor of carrying the American flag into the stadium for the opening ceremonies. the selection of Lopez Lomong, a 1,500-meter runner who became a U.S. citizen 13 months ago, contains almost as much provocation as poignancy.

The Olympic Flame and its Political Journey

The run-up to the Olympics has been simplified into a story of civil rights which was sustained because of the highly symbolic journey of the Olympic flame around the world. The focus of the story increasingly became the political conditions in Tibet.

Maybe it seemed a great gesture in the planning stage. But as we have been reminded, much of the ceremony and its political potential was anticipated in Hitler’s Berlin Games of 1936.

Then there’s President Bush

The President has been increasingly down-staged by the momentum of the Presidential race in recent months. This week he had to re-enter the limelight, perhaps reluctantly. His position presents a classic dilemma of leadership. Actions (going to the Games) or non-actions (staying away) are likely to bring tricky political repercussions.

Bush decided to go to the Games, while reserving his criticisms of China’s political position for speeches en route to Beijing.

The Leadership Issues

Start from the perspective of leadership as a process of influencing people towards the achievement of objectives. Negotiating, selling, threatening, and protesting, represent behaviours with leadership connections.

From such a broad perspective, we can recognise the various inter-related leadership activities within the stories connected with the Beijing Olympics.

Try as we might, it is hard to bracket out those elements which are ‘purely’ sporting. The Olympic movement has lofty aspirational goals. Even these are increasingly under threat from commercial interests of sponsors. Can we conclude that the decisions to grant the Games are being made simply on sporting considerations?

The structures around the Olympic movement are as complex as any found in global organisations of any kind. Its members influence and are influenced by the political and economic elites of the countries they represent.

This is a major way in which sport and politics mix. But then there are the multiple constituencies who oppose the policies of those in power are the world. There are constitutional as well as revolutionary oppositions.

The various demonstrations that are occurring around the Olympics are no more than the slightest of confirmations (if confirmation were needed) that we are a long way away from a Utopian world of Olympian ideals and universally shared values.

So What?

So what, you may well ask. Because the next few weeks offer a chance to take part in events that will touch almost every one on the planet. Each of us will be prompted to make decisions for ourselves. Watch the games, forget the politics? Take direct action in support of some cherished cause? Give what you can to Darfur, or Tibet, or a more local cause.

Many years ago I spent a year working in New York at a time of National upheaval over the political implication of its military policy in Vietnam. I found it difficult to square my sense of being a guest in a foreign land, not at all clear about the broader context, but someone whose friends were mostly urging me to join them in their anti-war protests. But their arguments were less convincing than their commitment to the anti-war cause.

Later, back in the UK, there were echoes of this dilemma in my ambivalence about the arguments in favour of the CND movement.

I wish I had been able to realize then that there was no right or wrong answer based on the evidence available to me. I was trying to work out what to do, when faced with values apparently pointing in different directions.

A More Creative Stance

To take a far more significant example, the Dali Lama found a resolution to the issue. He has consistently made it clear (a leadership task) what he intends to do regarding the Beijing Olympics. He welcomes the opportunity presented to the Chinese people, and will do nothing to diminish it as a sporting event. This permits him to work as he always has for the rights he seeks for Tibet.

Maybe he illustrates the creativity needed to deal with an apparently intractable problem. In which case we have a modern version of an ancient paradox resolved by rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, without compromising commitment to another and higher authority.