Category Archives: Sport

Tour de France 2014 – coming soon to a road near me

In another very satisfying case of things coming full circle on followthehumming, my diary entry for 4th June, 1986 describes the outline of that year’s Tour de France and the prospect of Frenchman Bernard Hinault taking on American team mate Greg LeMond. Here we are 28 years later, and – despite living in Yorkshire – I somehow find myself living on the route of the first stage of this year’s Tour.

In ’86, both Hinault and LeMond rode for the same team – La Vie Claire. Hinault had won the race the previous year and had publicly promised to support the Californian this time around. The events that unfolded during the course of the 23 stages that followed provided one of the Tour’s most unforgettable races.

Despite his promise, the Frenchman appeared torn between supporting LeMond and racing away to claim his own record sixth Yellow Jersey. In an unforgettable stage ending in L’Alpe D’Huez, Hinault broke away in a self-destructive solo attack, only to be reeled in by LeMond before the end. The two riders crossed the finishing line together hand-in-hand and wreathed in smiles. It seemed as if peace had broken out and LeMond’s title was all but sealed – only for his team mate to declare later that night that the race was not yet over.

In the end, LeMond won the General Classification and the first of his three Tour titles, while Hinault took second place and the polka-dot jersey for the King of the Mountains. Their fascinating story is told in full in Richard Moore’s excellent book, Slaying the Badger.

With about a month to go until this year’s Tour gets under way, the difficulties of having two potential winners in the same team are featuring once again, with current Yellow Jersey holder Chris Froome declaring that he would prefer Australian Richie Porte as his Team Sky number two, instead of 2012 winner Bradley Wiggins.

So much has changed since the era of LeMond and Hinault that it’s reassuring to know there are events like the Tour which still have a timeless quality about them. I’ve written before about the way sport can provide a sense of continuity in a world desperately clinging to the coat tails of Moore’s Law – and cycling’s greatest race certainly fits that bill.


Wimbledon: normal service is resumed

WimbledonDiary date: 2nd July, 1985

If my diary has it right, I think I may have watched more of the 1985 Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships than I have of any tournament since – including the one that’s happening right now.

The reason? I was waiting.


The first year of my course in French and Scandinavian Studies had come to an end and I was about to head off for the Summer to work as a cleaner on a Gothenburg dockyard. While I waited anxiously for departure day and the trip to Harwich to catch the ferry, I sat mesmerised by the goings-on in SW19 and tried not to think about how little Swedish I could actually speak.

Somehow, that little patch of grass in London was like a haven of stability just as everything was about to change – reassurance that things would turn out for the best.

So, in honour of the hallowed turf that helped keep my nerves at bay, here are five Wimbledon men’s service-related facts of the kind that might have kept me occupied for at least a minute or two of my maiden voyage across the North Sea.

Meanwhile, I’m off to catch that ferry.

1. Height equals speed

As a top player, more centimetres in height generally equals more speed on your serve. In fact, the link is so strong that an analysis of Wimbledon statistics from 2009 showed that the height of a player in centimetres is almost exactly equal to his average first service speed in kilometres per hour!

2. Aces high

More aces are served in the men’s singles at Wimbledon than at any other slam tournament – the US Open comes next, then the Australian, then the French. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of Wimbledon aces shot up from about 1,900 to around 2,900. The number of aces per tournament has grown steadily at all the other slams too.

3. Speedy slams

In 1999, the average men’s first service speed at Wimbledon was about 15 mph faster than at the French Open. But by 2009, things had evened out, and the average first service speed at all four grand slam tournaments was almost the same at around 116mph. The record for the fastest serve ever at Wimbledon belongs to Taylor Dent and stands at 148mph.

4. Falling  faults

Despite the general increase in service speeds – particularly at the Australian, French and US Opens – the number of double faults has fallen sharply in recent years. In 2001, the double fault count at Wimbledon was about 1,600. By 2007, it had halved to about 800.

5. Second try

The average men’s second service speed has been steadily increasing since 2000 in all Grand Slam tournaments except Wimbledon, where it has remained relatively steady at about 97 mph.

Just for the record, while I was waiting for my slow boat to Gothenburg back in 1985, Boris Becker beat Kevin Curren to win his first ever Grand Slam title, and in the Ladies’ final, Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert-Lloyd.

(Data courtesy of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney and; Image credit: Spiralz)

Revisiting the Munich Massacre

Almost immediately after I left for university, my parents began the process of moving to Munich, where Dad was starting a new job. By this week in 1985, he was already living in Germany, so I made my first trip to see how he was getting on.

Dad at the Olympiapark in Munich

Then – as now – I was a fan of the Olympic Games, and more than anything else I wanted to visit Munich’s iconic Olympiapark, with its sweeping, transparent canopies and miles of exposed metal ropes. The park was as memorable as I expected, but the atmosphere of the place was also suffused with the aftermath of what had become known as the Munich Massacre.

Black September militant at the 1972 Olympic GamesOn September 5th 1972, eleven days into a sporting spectacle which the Germans had subtitled, ‘the Happy Games,’ eight Palestinians belonging to the Black September movement broke into the Olympic village – just a stone’s throw from the Olympiapark – and took hostage nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials. They immediately demanded the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails plus the founders of the German Red Army Faction, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. There followed a stalemate over some 18 hours in which events in the village were relayed live around the world – at one point even alerting the kidnappers, who were watching too, to the fact that a police rescue attempt was under way.

After a series of failed negotiations and offers from the German authorities, the Palestinians and their hostages were transferred by helicopter to the military base at nearby Fürstenfeldbruck, where they had asked for a plane to take them to Cairo. The Germans hastily planned a further armed assault involving snipers and a fake plane crew, coordinated via the airport’s control tower.

The rescue was a disaster. The police had underestimated the number of Palestinians based on earlier reports and found themselves short of snipers, the disguised plane crew decided at the last minute to abandon their mission, and the kidnappers realised almost immediately that an attack was planned. After a chaotic gun battle and a grenade explosion in one of the helicopters, all the hostages and five of the eight militants were dead.

Reporting on events as they unfolded for ABC in America, sports reporter Jim McKay’s description of the outcome eventually came to define the terrible events of that night:

We just got the final word … you know, when I was a kid, my father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

In the aftermath, IOC President Avery Brundage took the controversial decision to allow the Games to continue, famously saying, “The Games must go on.”

The three surviving kidnappers were imprisoned pending trial, but released a few weeks later in exchange for the passengers of a hijacked Lufthansa jet – events which many have claimed were staged.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich, tells the story of the Israeli reaction to the massacre, Operation Wrath of God, which targeted members of both Black September and the PLO – including those believed to be involved in the events in Munich. Only one of the attackers – Jamal Al-Gashey – is still believed to be alive, living in hiding somewhere in Africa.

The events of the 1972 Games were a watershed for the Olympic movement in terms of heightening security concerns and complicating sporting politics. As late as the Games of London 2012, the IOC rejected a campaign for a minute’s silence to mark the 40th anniversary of Munich, with President Jacques Rogge stating that it would be “inappropriate.”

My visit to the Olympiapark in 1985 proved to be the first of many, but the stunning architecture and wonderful setting have always felt tarnished by the events of thirteen years earlier – events which originate in a conflict which sadly shows no sign of coming to a definitive end.

Lessons of the Black Ball Final

Diary date: 6th May, 1985

The impact of change over time is a consistent theme on followthehumming, but today I salute that bastion of continuity and tradition: sport. My diary tells me that around this time 28 years ago, I was sitting in a crowded room watching the final moments of the ‘black ball final‘ – the astonishing climax to the 1985 World Snooker Championship.

Steve Davis was the dominant player of the day, the unflappable defending world champion. His opponent was Dennis Taylor, the genial Irish challenger with the specially-made glasses which made you wonder why no-one had ever thought of them before. After two dramatic days during which Taylor had consistently lagged behind, the score was finally tied at 17 frames each with just one left to play. Shortly after midnight, with a wonderful theatrical flourish, the final frame then came down to the very last ball, the black. After an edgy few minutes, Davis was presented with a respectable chance to seal the match, but missed it. Taylor stepped in, held his nerve, and completed the unlikeliest of comebacks. Incredibly, the moment he was crowned world champion was the first time he had been ahead in the entire match.

Back in 1985, snooker was close to the peak of its popularity, and somehow the final had captured the imagination of much of the country. 18.5 million people watched the concluding 68-minute frame in the early hours of an otherwise unremarkable Monday morning – a figure that remains a post-midnight audience record for any UK TV channel.

In 2013, the same game has literally just reached its climax, with ‘Rocket’ Ronnie O’Sullivan beating the unheralded Barry Hawkins in the world final in the very same venue, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Apart from the cut of the waistcoats and the irritatingly prominent sponsorship, little has really changed.

While the rest of the world races on at the breakneck pace epitomised by Moore’s Law, sport draws much of its appeal from a sense of continuity and an ability to compare today with the years that have preceded it. When this is threatened – in particular by improvements in technology, equipment, training and preparation – steps are often taken to ensure the essence of the game is retained. When the increasing speed of the Wimbledon serve began to dominate to the point of boredom, the grass was made slower. When hi-tech golf clubs started increasing average driving distances, tees began to move backwards. Even when significant changes are proposed, like rugby union’s move to five points for a try, American Football’s decision to move the goalposts to the back of the end zone, or baseball’s introduction of the designated hitter, they’re almost always made to safeguard the spectacle that the original rules intended.

I’ve written before about how technological advance sometimes means fundamental change – which is why I’ve suggested that reading a book and reading on a kindle may actually be two different things. But largely thanks to the enthusiasm of fans, players and governing bodies, the world of sport generally still manages to remain joyfully exempt from any serious break with its past.