24 Aug 2008


No one quite knows what to do with Russia. Different countries seem content to have differnet ways of dealing with this enigmatic country. Through complacent and short-sighted energy policies we have become increasingly dependent on Russia to supply us with energy. Its a nice thought isnt it, that every time a British family pays off their (ever increasing) gas bill, most of that money goes straight into the hands of a militaristic minded dictator who is keen to spend it on more tanks, weapons and military potency.
Some people (the Germans and Italians for example) have taken the view that Vladimir Putin is a decent, fair-minded reasonable man, someone we can do lots of business with. And do lots of business with him, they have done. Gerhard Schroder in particular did some very lucrative personal business the moment he left the German presidential office.
Yet understanding Putin is like understanding the new Russia. The two are virtually as one. Putin was a KGB man for several years which tells you all you need to know about his way of doing things. Truth-seeking journalists get murdered, opposition activists get poisoned and people do what they are told. Force, bullying and intimidation are effective methods for imposing control.
But beyond Russia's borders Putin is stirring up something much more dangerous. For South Ossetia today, read Ukraine's Crimea tomorrow and the Baltic states the day after that. All of them fragile democraices with significant Russian speaking minorities. All he needs to do is give them Russian passports, cook up an allegation of needing to protect them and then its a free hand to send the tanks in.
And what will the west do? Going by the feeble dithering over Georgia, probably very little. A little mild condemnation perhaps or some hollow threats to impose a mild diplomatic sanction or two. But absolutely nothing of real substance whatsoever that will deter Vladimir Putin from thinking he and Russia can do what it likes.
Putin has very effectively created a wedge between Europe and America. George Bush is as impotent as Condeleeza Rice is woefully ineffective. Gordon Brown shrinks into the shade of another awkward foreign policy dilemma while David Milibland is too preoccupied by a whiff of prime-ministerial power for himself to be getting on with his very serious and urgent international responsibilities.
But think of the international precedent that the feeble dithering has set. What if Russia becomes emboldened and starts to offer arms to countries like Syria and Iran? Closer links with China, or say Venezuela. What exactly is the West's strategy, if there is one? It is about time one or two leaders stood up and clarified it.

16 Aug 2008

The Olympics

Why I love the Olympics
Sometimes in sport, as in life, less is more. Something that only comes around once every four years retains is rarity value. Footballers might score goals every week, twice a week even and get paid more in that time than the average Olympian might hope to take home in a year. How easily and cheaply we lavish them with terms like 'hero' and 'star' for the little they do. They don’t sacrifice years of their life to stake everything they have on one moment, one performance.
It is the human stories of the Olympics that are the most compelling. You can see the elation and the agony on the athletes’ faces. The drive and the suffering of those who might have overcome nasty injury or horrendous bad luck. It really is near impossible to meaningfully digest the lengths they go to in solitary and single-minded pursuit of the ultimate goal. And when or if they achieve it, conquering the ultimate summit, their expressions and words betray that their lives will never ever be quite the same again.

The devotion, the hard toil, the precision of well-honed skill, the unwavering self-belief. The epic nature of the competition. The power, the subtlety and the unexpected drama. The painfully fine line between success and failure. The gracious winners and the losers who take defeat manfully on the chin without swearing or harassing the officials. The modesty, humility and wonderful sense of perspective.

The shock, the astonishment and the excruciating twists of excitement. The watery eyes and the swelling chests as they stand proudly on the medal podium while the national anthem pounds away. Sometimes the real tears of relief and joy.

I love the way that the spotlight of attention falls on sports like cycling and rowing, which most people would not normally bother to watch or get excited about. Sportsmen and women motivated by so much more than money, driven on by the glory of achievement. Of course there are the controversies and the cheats, but overall the Olympics have a satisfying sense of sporting purity and open inclusiveness.

Yet perhaps the best thing about the Olympics is that these people are genuine, down-to-earth heroes. Relatively ordinary people who are relatively unknown and under-appreciated trying their absolute best. When interviewed they nearly all speak with refreshing openness and engaging honesty.

So lets pay tribute to those who put in so much hard work and sacrifice to represent their country and make us feel proud and uplifted.
Forget Big Brother show offs, drug-taking minor celebrities or Bentley-driving, under-achieving footballers. These Olympians are the real role models young people can look up to. They are people worth celebrating.