That's a lot of relays
The proliferation of mixed relays at the Olympics, the reactions to Peng Shuai's disappearance and F1's dirty political laundry.
Welcome to the latest edition of SSWOS, the Sick, Sad World of Sports, where sports is the mechanism by which we learn about the depths of shithousery and assholery and dipshittery of the human soul.
I hope you find it fun or informative but not both. If you want more of this particular species of brain worms, follow @scksadwos.
Subscribe now. It’s free!
That’s a lot of relays
We're familiar with traditional running and swimming relays, as well as more convoluted takes, like track cycling’s madison. There’s been a recent - and to me, somewhat baffling - trend to introduce relays, especially mixed relays, in other sports.
Triathlon experimented with a team mixed relay in 2009 and got it into the most recent Olympics:
The Triathlon Team Mixed Relay format showcases racing at its most thrilling, with the individual sport combining with pure team spirit. Athletes must complete a super-sprint triathlon - 300m swim, 6.6km bike and 1km run - before tagging off to a teammate, always in the order female-male-female-male. Among the most exciting aspects of these races for spectators is the athletes’ dramatic sprint and dive after being tagged by their teammate, as well as the intensity and speed from start to finish, the tight back-and-forth lead changes and team pride that this innovative racing format elicits.
I don’t often say1 this but what the fuck are you talking about? The dramatic sprint and dive? What? Do you really think that’s what people watch?
Anyway, I guess this is relatively trivial to explain because it gives World Triathlon another gold medal to award, so extends their prestige and power, but does so in a manner befitting the modern aspiration for short format events with equal air time for men and women.
At the 2020 summer Olympics held in 2021 in Tokyo, swimming debuted the mixed medley relay and athletics the mixed 4 x 400m relay. Unlike triathlon, teams were free to choose their running order2.
Neither swimming’s nor athletics’ programs have changed much in the preceding decades, so the novelty was a breath of fresh air. But it’s just that, novelty, and largely because it wasn’t clear who had gotten their strategy right. Once everyone works out the optimal strategy, which they should by Paris, it’s going to go stale because everyone will do the same thing and the chaos is mitigated.
The latest is a cyclocross relay:
Details of the planned test of a team relay event at the 2022 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas have emerged.
According to Wielerflits.nl, the race will consist of six riders - one elite male, one elite female, and two male and two female riders from the U23 or junior ranks. The riders who compete in the event must also take part in their respective fields at the World Championships.
The race will be six laps long, with each rider completing one lap of the 3km course alone and tagging in the next rider at a transition zone. Each nation can determine its own starting order, and the final rider will determine the winner.
This follows on from the UCI introducing a mixed time trial relay at the 1999 mountain bike worlds, increasing teams from four to five in 2017 and then six in 2019. The road equivalent was instigated in 2019, replacing the team time trial that the UCI have been desperately trying to find a home for since the mid-00s and may have finally given up on.3 Relays are clearly a Thing for the UCI.
The winners of a cyclocross relay are going to be either Belgium or the Netherlands, with third - at some distance - going to one of Great Britain, Hungary or the United States, which are the only other nations with brand name riders.4 It’s not that much different in track5 or swimming or triathlon. Is depth of national talent really that much of a selling point in nominally individual events?
When sports have made format changes, the suits have generally favoured keeping focus on things like narrative and star athletes6. A relay steals focus from individuals and is a marginally more confusing format to follow. I assume that administrators see this as being offset by the image of countrymen and countrywomen working together to achieve a common sporting goal - something that was quite rare outside of equestrian, racquet sports, curling and some sailing formats.7
Much of the change in sport over the last couple of decades has been driven by homogenisation, so one thing we can count on is the herd behaviour of the suits. It may well be as simple as that: if triathlon or swimming has a relay, and a mixed one at that, then cyclocross or pentathlon8 needs one as well, because It’s What Sports Do.
Surely skiing can’t be far behind.
Following the FIS Cross-Country committee meetings in May, the FIS Council approved the race calendar for the upcoming season. On the list of events is the newly approved Mixed Relay (4x5km) and Mixed Team sprint, both to debut Sunday, March 13th, 2022 in Falun Sweden.
Ok, fine, what about speed skating?
Open water swimming?
The grace, the beauty of sports
Very normal things
I’m reluctant to dive too hard into the Peng Shuai story, as it is potentially quite dark and likely that any jocular takes will age like milk, so it’s best left to actual journalists. Nonetheless, the situation remains extremely weird.
However, let’s contrast the responses:
There’s some praise for the strong stance of the WTA in the comments here but I think we need to take a SSWOS check on that. Nobody turns down that much money unless there’s an even greater threat. I wonder if the players had threatened to walk away from the tour unless they had taken action? The WTA would be screwed either way but at least they come out looking strong in their main markets, despite losing a number of events and significant prize pots across China.
There is the outside chance that the WTA actually believe what they’re saying but its unlikely given *gestures broadly to the scope of human history*.
That’s more like what we expect.
The ITF is responsible for the Women’s World Tennis Tour, which acts as a bridge between amateur and juniors ranks and the professional tour run by the WTA. The ITF is also the governing body recognised by the IOC, which is in a delicate position given the Beijing winter Olympics are a few months away.
Somehow, this is even more gutless and devoid of information. I didn’t really expect anything else though. While I’m not convinced sporting bodies have the responsibility - or capability - to protect individual athletes from the exercise of political power or why athletes should be given special protections the rest of us plebs aren't afforded, the IOC could do a better job of pretending, so as to avoid the flak.
Unrelated but the timing is auspicious, the US are staging a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Games. This means a bunch of suits won’t turn up; the athletes are not impacted. No one will care because the suits will not be missed.
However, the boycott is typical of the needling we see between China and the US every so often9, despite the fact that they are very much joined at the economic hip. Much of this action seems to be cover for a blend of fairly obvious anti-Chinese sentiment pervasive in the west, as much as justifiable concerns about how China operates.
News from around the grounds
I muted our friend Duncan Mackay.
The moral relativism of F1
I found the hand wringing around the F1 circus heading to Saudi Arabia a bit puzzling. Lest you think this is going to be an outright contrarian take that we should not and never should be concerned about the machinations of the governments paying for grands prix, to be clear: I usually find myself being puzzled when I think fans of a given sport haven’t really reckoned with how the sport actually works, and how different that is from the sport’s mythology. Identifying that gap is going to be a recurring theme of this newsletter.
The argument goes that
The Saudi government is paying to host the grand prix.
The House of Saud will use the pixie dust of a Formula 1 Grand Prix™ to clean up their international image.
By Liberty Media, owners of F1 and the equally problematic Atlanta Braves, taking a grand prix to Jeddah, they are enabling the regime’s aims.
This is bad because we should be holding the Saudis to account for their actions and not letting their pivot from oil to tourism distract us from just how awful they are.
Prima facie, that’s a fine argument but the hand wringing is less evident (although not entirely absent!) for Azerbaijan and, at the gross risk of whataboutist moral relativism10, is completely absent for countries responsible for historical atrocities well in excess of anything the Saudis have achieved, like Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States, some of which have not been reconciled to this day.
Each grand prix is a political statement that, at the very least, acknowledges the sovereignty of some regime over a territory, generally in exchange for government (although not always, and not always national government) money. It’s right there in the title and that confers some legitimacy to the government commissioning the event.
For grands prix in western Europe or the Americas or Australia, this is not controversial. For grands prix elsewhere in the world, it can be an issue. Like China and the US playing footsie across the Pacific, sometimes this sentiment is borne out of the latent racism of F1’s predominantly European audience and sometimes it is justifiable and often, it is both.
What makes Saudia different? In other words, why do some people want the line drawn here? F1 does not have a fantastic record in this regard.
The world championship was first contested in 1950. Britain and France still controlled a sizeable portion of the world via their empires and would for at least another decade. The United States had just levelled several countries in the war, most notably Japan, and operated on a racially segregated basis. Belgium still claimed the Congo, site of some of the most horrific colonial abuses. Italy fought with the Nazis until their surrender in 194311. They should all be cancelled, not by today’s standards, but almost certainly by those held at the time. That just leaves Switzerland, who bailed out of motor sport entirely in 1955 after the Le Mans disaster, and questionably Monaco, ruled over by aristocrats as a tax haven for the wealthy.
That was just the beginning:
The 1948 grand prix season involved three Argentine races, each named for either Juan or Eva Peron.
The 1951 season goes to Spain, then under the decidedly undemocratic control of Francisco Franco. World War II had ended six years earlier, so its not like people didn’t know fascism was bad and that their regimes should not be enabled. And yet, according to Pirelli:
This was something that Francisco Franco wanted to happen at all costs, reasoning that flat-out racing would somehow unite the passionate hearts and minds of the Spanish people. It was an interesting theory.
Apartheid South Africa joined the calendar in 1962 and was removed after 1985 when a mix of conscience and international sanctions forced the hand of organisers. The South African GP briefly returned after the fall of apartheid.
Hungary made its first appearance in 1986, then notionally behind the Iron Curtain and hardly a liberal democratic regime, even now. Vettel and Hamilton protested the treatment of the local LGBT community at the most recent edition.12
The aforementioned Azerbaijan debuts in 2017.
This brings us to the Gulf states. Bahrain’s first grand prix was in 2004, the UAE in 2009 and Qatar and Saudi Arabia both debuted in 2021. These countries all sit on the same spectrum, and only degrees separate them, whether it be the Saudis’ treatment of women or murdering of dissidents or sponsorship of anti-western terrorism, Bahrain’s crackdown on opposition protests during the Arab Spring or Qatar using what is basically slave labour to build their country.15
Putting aside the geopolitics, the sport itself is hardly a shining paragon of moral excellence. The entire spectacle is a huge waste of resources, especially in times of climate emergency16. Many of the sponsors are in oil17, alcohol18 or finance19. Never mind the sport’s commercialisation and its current status as one of the premier sporting categories is largely thanks to tobacco.
All that is the above the table stuff, never mind the grift and corruption. I don’t even want to begin to think about the inevitable cover-ups - or not - of sexual harrassment and assault on the grid.
Then there’s probably something to be said for the significant and prolonged resistance of western liberal democracies to use anything but petrol-fuelled internal combustion engines to met their transportation needs which, ironically, is the entire source of the Saudis’ wealth and the power they wield over their nation in the first place.
None of this is good. In fact, this is all extremely Problematic, not so much because of the presence of Saudi Arabia but because they fit in so well. This is to not excuse or whitewash what the Saudis do or have done but to put it in its proper historical context: F1 is a grubby business, always has been and likely always will be.
Like most things in life, we need to make our own reckoning with what we’re willing to accept and what we’re not. To do that, I think you should be honest with yourself about what you’re actually doing and make an informed decision. If Saudi Arabia is it, so be it, but I think that’s a funny place to put your line.
Reader Joachim Brünhild of Wellington, New Zealand, writes:
Alright you amoral coward, where would you run F1 races?
That’s a great question, Joachim. I don’t have a great answer to that due to my aforementioned amoral cowardice. There are small steps that could be undertaken to minimise jingoism and undermine the power of the state but dare I suggest restructuring the sport so that its profitability is not dependent on gouging ever higher hosting fees out of national governments? It’s time to leave nationalism in the 20th century and embrace the hardcore nihlism of capitalist neoliberalism of the 21st century. Wait, shit.
Mail in your questions with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Sick, Sad World of Sports, Locked Bag 6969 in your capital city or berate @scksadwos.
Thanks for reading. If you liked what you read, use the Share button above. If you really like what you read, you can get every update delivered to your inbox using the Subscribe now button below.
This is a lie.
I would expect triathlon to change their rules to suit in the near future.
I like the team time trial in principle - it looks cool as hell, like the team pursuit - but I also don’t tend to make time to watch any road time trials, even as a cycling fan. The grand tours don’t run them very often, except occasionally as a short opener, which tells me there’s fundamental flaws with the format.
As an extremely talented woman under 23, Kata Blanka Vas might be able to do all legs for Hungary and still finish third, fourth at worst, losing a couple of minutes to the men, matching the elite women and demolishing the junior women. Tom Pidcock could never.
I will grant you that a podium of Poland, Dominican Republic and the USA in the mixed 4x400m relay was not on my bingo card.
Or, at least, that’s what they say.
Maybe it's more common than I thought. Am I the one being sexist? No, it's the sport's that are wrong.
Modern pentathlon has long had team events but introduced relays in the 90s - on top of team events - and a mixed relay in 2010.
They should fight, fuck or get over it.
We’re doing it anyway.
I’m not deep diving into how effective de-Nazification was in various previously German-occupied countries but we can assume it was not total.
Never mind what Orban says about immigrants.
Interesting to see Turkey return under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic after they were banned for putting a representative of North Cypress on the podium in 2011. That was apparently too far but all is forgiven now because this event is not mentioned on the Wikipedia article for Turkish Grand Prix or 2011 Turkish Grand Prix.
The prominent airtime given to Vladimir Putin was too on-the-nose even for F1.
Concerningly, these are just off the top of my head. Researching this would have been too depressing.
The 1950 British Grand Prix was held two weeks before war rationing of petrol ended. It's in the DNA.
Lied about global warming and continue to profit from global warming.
Ads for alcohol-free Heineken or anti-drink driving Johnnie Walker are still ads for Heineken and Diageo, who profit from an addictive drug that causes a lot of social damage.