Sunday, 30 January 2011

Why East London and not Crystal Palace must have an athletics legacy

When Sepp Blatter revealed that Russia had won the race to stage the 2018 World Cup, my first reaction was that the likes of Seb Coe had played a crucial role in ensuring this country would never again be trusted to stage a major international sporting event again.  The promises of London 2012 and the much lauded Athletics legacy had been ripped up in favour of providing a Premier League football club with a stadium on the cheap.  It was a shameful and embarrassing indictment of this country’s ability to ever successfully execute all of the lofty assurances.

In many ways it was a scandal that London should even have been awarded the Olympics of 2012 in the first place.  The humiliation of Pickets Lock 2005 and the IAAF Athletics World Championships which were awarded to London were still fresh in the minds.  The farce that unravelled as the Championships were then forfeited after it was determined that the cost of the project couldn’t be justified.  This should have ensured that it would be a quarter of a century or more before this country would be considered to stage a crazy golf championship, let alone the largest sporting event in the world.

Somehow the IAAF president Lamine Diack was convinced to vote in favour of London as opposed to the rival Paris bid.  This was despite the fact that Diack himself is of Senegalese origin, therefore closer to the Francophone interests who could have expected him to support the Parisian package.  Diack has since condemned the proposals to renege the promises of 2005 with proposals of allowing a football club to takeover the Olympic stadium after 2012.  He says that Britain’s global reputation will be finished if Tottenham are allowed to demolish the athletics track and create a football only stadium. 

Putting my Arsenal bias aside, which can be incredibly difficult at the best of times, I have a tendency to agree with him.  Their half baked proposals to redevelop Crystal Palace National Sports Centre are a poor attempt to appease those concerned by the possibility of the promises of 2005 being broken in 2012.  So far the only credible voice from the world of athletics has come in the shape of Darren Campbell who argued that Tottenham’s bid should be considered.  The crucial difference between Stratford and Crystal Palace, as any visitor to London will tell you, is that the latter lacks the transport infrastructure of the East London terminus. 

I also think that after the ill feeling of the old Wimbledon FC who became Milton Keynes Dons, there is little appetite in football to back a club to move so far away from their natural catchment area.  Admittedly moving to a different borough in London is not quite the same as moving to a different city, there is still a feeling in the game that the lessons of MK Dons in 2002 must never be allowed to happen again.

West Ham appears to be the lesser of two evils, they have promised to retain the athletics track in a stadium revamp which would see the capacity reduced from 80,000 to just over 60,000.  On the face of it a perfect marriage in which a club in the same borough as Stratford gets to inherit the stadium while still ensuring the assurances of an athletics legacy in East London were met, and not torpedoed to a poorly located (and connected!) suburb of South East London.   But if recent opinion polls have supported West Ham’s bid for the Olympic Stadium, they may find they are about to encounter an unlikely barrier to their aspirations from a forgotten local neighbour.

Barry Hearn, Chairman of Leyton Orient, is concerned that West Ham taking up residency 2 miles away from their own stadium will entice supporters from the O’s to the Olympic stadium with cheap tickets and other incentive based membership schemes.  He would prefer Tottenham to win the bid, as they have a longer season ticket waiting list and are less likely to dramatically reduce their ticket prices in order to fill the stadium.  A realist however, he senses that recent momentum is behind the West Ham proposal.  Hearn is now considering the possibility of pursuing West Ham’s move with legal action, which with appeals could delay any move by as much as five years.

Its difficult not to feel sorry for Orient, they are London’s second oldest football club and were the original interested party in the stadium back in 2008, but ruled it out when the idea of 25,000 seater stadium was scrapped.  It would be ridiculous to even consider the idea of Leyton Orient playing in a 60,000 stadium, one only has to look to Scotland where Queen’s Park play their domestic football crowds in the National stadium at Hampden Park, a ground with a capacity of 52,000 while Queen’s Park average attendances of 750!

If West Ham did secure the Olympic stadium after 2012, there is a very real possibility that Leyton Orient would be squeezed out of existence.  On the other hand if Tottenham are allowed to fulfil their proposal, the East End of London will not have a dedicated athletics facility after 2012.  There are other important questions which need to be asked of the West Ham proposal, such as considering what would happen in the event that the club were to be relegated and were unable to fill the stadium.  A quick glance at the Premiership league table shows that this is a very realistic outcome in 2011 and would leave the taxpayer subsidising the stadium long after the Olympics stopped generating any revenue.

In an ideal world the promise of 2005 of an athletics only stadium would be fulfilled.  The reality of using a stadium once a year and staging a major international competition every 15 years would be impossible to justify, particularly in an existing financial climate of austerity and cuts.  Leyton Orient is the romantics’ choice, Tottenham the treasury’s choice.  This leaves West Ham as the option which neither satisfies the treasury or the romantics, but in retaining the athletics track, does at least induce the support of powerful voices from the world of athletics, including Lord Coe himself.  West Ham’s bid does not make financial sense, nor does it fill me with confidence that football fans will enjoy visiting a stadium where fans behind the goal are 45 metres from the action.  However Diack has pointed out, quite rightly, that until 2000 Wembley was one of the most celebrated stadiums in the world and had a track around the pitch which accommodated not only Greyhound racing (until 1998), but also motor racing events as well.

West Ham must be awarded the Olympic stadium in order to preserve Britain’s reputation on the global stage as a nation who can be held to their word.  For all the hand wringing of England’s failed 2018 football World Cup bid, there can be no possibility of Britain ever being taken seriously for any future major international events if the promises of 2005 are broken post 2012.  East London must have an athletics legacy, not in Crystal Palace but in Stratford. 

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Time to gooooo: Theoooooo

Admittedly as I write this I am emotionally drained.  I cannot find the words to best surmise my utter horror at watching my Arsenal not only make a meal of a broken and bruised Ipswich, but to somehow contrive to actually lose to them.  And indeed it is true that as a unit, the team just didn't perform as we know they are capable of.  There were moments of the Arsenal we know and love, but these were mere footnotes in an otherwise lamentable display.

I watched with a friend and the brunt of his anger was Arshavin, who again put in another sub-standard performance.  Its been a few months now since I felt that we were watching the beginning of the end of Andrei's Arsenal career.  I'd be surprised if he were still here next season.

I put it to my friend that regardless of how Andrei's Arsenal career concludes, he has actually already served the purpose of his purchase.  In January 2009 we were in serious danger of missing out on the Champions League for the first time since 1997, an unthinkable prospect when you consider the financial constraints the club works within since leaving Highbury almost five years ago.  Arshavin almost single handedly dragged us from the abyss that is Thursday nights on Channel Five and the miserable land of the Europa League and helped us to secure a top 4 finish.  That contribution probably paid £15m and then a sizeable chunk of interest on top as well.

One only has to look at the farce taking place at Anfield to see where a season out of the Champions League can lead to.

So yes I get frustrated with Andrei just like most other Arsenal fans, but I can never be too angry with him as he will always have a special place in Arsenal's history as being an important purchase at a critical milestone in our quest to go from biggest club in London to biggest club in the world. 

My frustrations, and general outright anger now, relate to a player whose arrival to the club had me very excited because he was well regarded for his age.  The one who would eventually replace the iconic Thierry Henry as the greatest player to ever pull on the famous red & white shirt.

Make no mistake about it, when Theo is a substitute coming on in a game in the 65th minute as teams are tiring, he can be an exceptional introduction.  Yes even a match winner.  His pace scares the life out of defenders and he does display moments of quality finishing in and around the box. 

My problem has been how the club would evolve him from this almost niche category he has managed to box himself into.  The aspirations of everyone around the club must surely have been to move him on from the impact player, to one who starts and influences matches from early on, and is consistent enough to last the 90 minutes. 

Theo joined the club five years ago next week. 

I just don't see how he has evolved into anything like the kind of player he should be at this stage of his career.  His game seems to solely rely on his natural pace, which of course becomes less explosive as the match goes on.  His finishing is still a lot to be desired, it can be described as erratic at times. 

I am mindful of the fact that most Arsenal fans will of course point out that Thierry was 21 when he joined us and didn't show signs of becoming the majestic superstar until 2 years later, but I think it's worth putting this into context.  Thierry joined Arsenal as a winger who was moved into the striker's position and the 2 years he took to truly adapt to his new role were to be expected.

Theo was signed as a winger, but even from the age of 17, he was always being groomed as the heir to Thierry.  He was always being developed with the long term objective of turning this prodigious talent into somebody who could possibly become the greatest player the club has ever had.

With this in mind, I just don't feel that this standard is acceptable for 5 years of development at the club.

So why do so many Arsenal fans defend Theo so passionately?  What has he brought to the club?  What crucial goals has he contributed to our recent history?

I can recall a wonder goal against Chelsea in the 2007 Carling Cup Final at Wembley, but we went on to lose the game, so hardly a significant chapter in our history!

I know he has scored a few, I was at St James' Park earlier this season when he scored 2 goals against Newcastle in a 4-0 win.  Would we still be in the Carling Cup if it weren't for Theo's contribution?  I'm not convinced that we wouldn't be.

So what is it with Theo and this almost unquestionable faith that my fellow Arsenal fans seem to have in him which I just cannot share nor empathise with.

The simple reality is the fans are more patient, forgiving and supportive of Theo because he is English and an England international.  I really don't think that fellow Arsenal fans would be nearly as understanding if Theo had been Greek, or German, or French, or from West Africa.  No indeed I not only don't think it would happen, I know it would not happen.

I accept that this is possibly a consequence of the fact that in recent years Arsenal haven't actually fielded that many English internationals, or indeed players from England.  Well not in the first team anyway.  And as a France fan, I suppose I could be forgiven for not completely showing apathy with Arsenal fans who are England fans. 

I think its time we put our international allegiances aside and tell it how it is: Theo Walcott is not good enough to represent Arsenal Football Club.  If you disagree, ask yourself this question and answer honestly: would you still maintain this stance if he were a Slovenian international?

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Wikileaks: Colonial limbo a deliberate attempt to keep islanders from homeland

Originally published December 17th 2010

Six months ago, I wrote a piece for describing the appalling treatment of the people of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean by the British government.  The islands were purchased by the government of Britain in 1966 from Seychellois Chagos Agalega Company, with the initial intention of running them as a U.K. government-owned plantation enterprise. This proved less profitable than the establishment of Cold War strategic military bases, so the islanders were removed.

Last spring, amid the campaigning and bombast of the U.K. elections which booted out Labour and returned a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, a historic announcement was made about the establishment of a marine protection zone (MPZ) around the islands. It was controversial because it killed the hopes of the islanders of ever returning home. Many now live in poverty in Mauritius and Britain.  The islands are small pieces of land, the islanders are powerless and dispersed. They are not written about often.

When it comes to the Chagos Islands, successive British governments have engaged in ignoble conduct. When the British government produced a feasibility study which suggested the islands were inhabitable and were in fact sinking, it was swiftly followed by plans announced by the U.S. government to expand their base on Diego Garcia.

Then, on Dec. 3, the saga took a new turn.

Whistleblower website Wikileaks confirmed the worst of suspicions by releasing a document, as part of the U.S. diplomatic cables leak, that stated the marine reserve was established primarily to legally block attempts by the Chagossians to return to their homeland.  When they read the document, those at the heart of the situation became even more angry, thanks the tone of British bureaucrats.

In the leak, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office director of overseas territories, Colin Roberts, was reported to have used hugely offensive language when describing the Chagossian community as being comprised of "Man Fridays." It was shocking that even in these days, Roberts, who was also commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territories would use language that echoed a predecessor called Dennis Greenhill, who in 1966 described the indigenous islanders as being a "few Tarzans or Man Fridays." 

Equally offensively, Roberts went on to state:

"We do not regret the removal of the population."

These comments by Roberts were recorded in the cable under a sub-section entitled "Je Ne Regrette Rien."

This was directly in conflict with his boss at the time, U.K. foreign minister and Labour MP David Miliband, who remarked shortly after the House of Lords judgment in Oct. 2008 that: "...I should repeat the government's regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians' was carried out."

Another damning admission by Roberts in the document was the comment that the "environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians' advocates [in this case]," ensuring that the two sides would be at odds and presuming the islanders' claims were less significant.

During Miliband's consultation on the proposals, a submission was received from Greenpeace which strongly supported the plans to set up the MPZ. While stressing that they opposed the presence of a U.S. base, they were in complete support of the zone and felt that there was:

" overwhelming case that the British government should declare a full no-take marine reserve for the whole of the territorial waters."

Ben Fogle, joint patron of the U.K. Chagos Support Association (UKCSA) who was supportive of the MPZ, wrote in a letter last week that he had been "duped" and was particularly angry during an open letter to the Guardian newspaper when he wrote:

"I now regret my support of the marine sanctuary and look forward to joining the islanders in their campaign to return home."

The Chagos Islands officially became an MPZ at midnight on 1st Nov., just weeks before the Wikileaks releases, and much to the delight of environmentalists. The development infuriated Mauritius and led to a diplomatic spat where Princess Anne was snubbed during her visit to Mauritius by the Navin Ramgoolam, that country's prime minister.

But why did the British take this route to begin with? To help the U.S. to a military base in the centre of the Indian Ocean, a place as strategic today as it was when the U.S.S.R existed? To shut down all claims from a people who would live alongside such a base?

According the The Guardian newspaper the answer is "yes."

"In May 2009... Roberts... told the Americans Diego Garcia's value in 'assuring the security of the US and UK' had been 'much more than anyone foresaw' in the 1960s, when the plan to set up the base was hatched."

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP for Islington North and long time friend of the Chagossian cause, was furious following the revelations from the leaked documents. He said that "Colonialism is alive and well in the Foreign Office" and called it a "disgraceful abuse of the Chagos Islanders."

Six months ago, I condemned the creation of the MPZ as being an attempt to "pre-empt the forthcoming judgment" from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has been expected in the latter part of this year and is now due to take place in early 2011.

At the time of writing this, Greenpeace has yet to formally respond to the submission that the world's largest marine park was actually part of a wider ploy to deny the Chagossians their right to return home.
The leaked documents reinforce the idea that nothing the British government says in relation to the Chagos Islands can ever be taken at face value.

I am thankful for the Wikileaks revelations. My friends and I dread to consider what helplessness we would all have felt had this information come out in a few years' time. As angry as Chagossian supporters are, there is a feeling of hope that perhaps it is still not too late for the sins since 1966 to be finally addressed and for an exiled indigenous community to be finally allowed a return home.

Clency Lebrasse is a U.K.-based freelance journalist, activist and second-generation naturalized Mauritian citizen living in Nottingham, England.

Indian Ocean islanders in 44 years of colonial limbo

Originally published May 6th 2010

In 1966, England was all about the soccer, the Labour Party and the Beatles. The country had just won the World Cup and things were swinging with 1960s euphoria and happiness.  But it was also the year which marked the commencement of an exercise to depopulate the Chagos Islands, a coral archipelago in the Indian Ocean, approximately 1,600 km north-west of Mauritius. The indigenous community were soon to have their homes taken away from them in a shameful act of latter-day colonial vandalism.

The 60s were a period of heightened tensions during the Cold War. The Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 had brought the entire world to the brink of a global nuclear war. The need for military bases to spy on perceived enemies in the East was paramount in an era of suspicion and distrust. The Indian Ocean represented a strategic and important location for such a project.

The U.S. government enlisted the assistance of its British allies to source a base where they would be able to monitor the activities of enemies in that region. The search first identified the uninhabited Aldabra Toll, but unfortunately for the Americans they were also home to rare breed of turtles. Fearing a prolonged battle with ecologists, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson ruled the option out before recommending the use of the Chagos Islands, despite the fact that they were at the time home to a population of 2,000 people.

The agreement between the U.K. and U.S. for the Americans to use the island of Diego Garcia as a joint military base was finalized in 1966 and is due to expire in 2036.

The Chagos Islands were originally used to exile sufferers of leprosy who had contracted the disease in Mauritius in the mid-18th century. It was during the same period that the French, who had been the first to lay claim to the islands, commenced a project of coconut plantations with the help of African workers transported from Mauritius. The British took control of the islands following the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.
In 1903, the islands were separated from the administration of Seychelles and administered from the governor general of Mauritius, which remained the arrangement until the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory in 1965 -- just three years before Mauritius was granted independence.

This particular episode has been the source of much speculation in Mauritius. The first prime minister of Mauritius and self-proclaimed "father of the nation," Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (the biological father of the current PM), is alleged to have agreed to a deal during the London conference of 1965 which resulted in the Chagos Islands being sold to Britain for around £3 million.

During the New Year's Honours list of the same year, Seewoosagur was awarded a knighthood and became Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. It may be coincidence, as there is no definitive evidence to prove that Sir Seewoosagur agreed to the sale of the islands in return for the knighthood, but that hasn't stopped the rumours. In more recent years it has become a source of embarrassment for the Ramgoolam family and indirectly haunts his politician son, Navinchandra, to this day.

In any case, with the islands under British control, they were subsequently leased to the United States in return for a discount on the Polaris Submarine Nuclear deterrent, believed to be £11 million. The lease was to be for a period of 50 years with a further option to extend the agreement.

The U.S. government did not wish to deal with a "population problem" and found a British government only too happy to oblige. Between 1967 and 1973, the islands were depopulated during a series of measures before the final inhabitants were rounded up and left to fend for themselves after being dumped at Port Louis harbour, the capital of Mauritius.

Most live in poverty in Mauritius and Britain to this day.

In 1982, the British government attempted to offer a "full and final settlement" to the in compensation for the islanders' loss. However the journalist John Pilger, during the groundbreaking television documentary "Stealing A Nation," argued that the islanders were deceived into believing that the compensation was for the hardship they had suffered since their exile from the Chagos Islands, and not a formal agreement for them to renounce their claim to ever be allowed to return to the islands again.

Then, at the end of the 1990s, under Britain's 30-year disclosure rule, secret documents were finally released which served as the catalyst for the legal battles that have dominated the last 10 years.

Firstly, Lord Justice Lewis said there had been an "abject legal failure" and overturned the 1971 order that banned the Chagossians from ever returning to their islands.

Then the Labour government Foreign Secretary Robin Cook decided not to appeal the decision which was in keeping in line with the new pre-9/11 "ethical foreign policy" which the Blair government had adopted when they took office in May 1997.

The image of a triumphant Olivier Bancoult, a leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group, outside a London court appeared to signal a bright new dawn in this sordid tale.

But in June 2004, the British government enacted two orders in council, a little-used decree which bypassed Parliament and at a stroke overruled Lewis's supreme court decision. In the words of Pilger, dictatorships also do when Britain did but "without the quaint ritual" of going court. It was determined that the Chagossians had been fraudulently described as "migrant workers" to make the American military occupation enforceable.
Finally, the Chagossians secured another landmark legal victory in May 2006. Bancoult told the BBC:

"We have won a historic judgement in our favour to allow us to return to our homeland. Our next step is that we will go to our birthplace as soon as we can. The right of the people who have been banished for so many years has been returned."

But the British government didn't back down, successfully appealing to the House of Lords, and in October 2008 secured a narrow decision by three to two. Foreign Secretary David Milliband said: "Our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was about decisions taken in the international context of 2004."

Currently, the case is before the European Court of Human Rights with a final decision expected by the end of 2010. The British government attempted to pre-empt the forthcoming judgement with the creation of the worlds' largest Marine Protection Zone around the Chagos Islands in last month - and are not allowing the people to return.

So the case of securing the future of an abused people has been superseded by the ruthlessness of a colonial empire -- in the name of environmentalism. What could be more ironic?

Britain had maintained that once the Chagos Islands were no longer required for defence purposes, the islands would be returned to Mauritius, who have laid claim to the territory since 1980. Despite this, Mauritius was not party to the creation of the zone, something which has put a tremendous strain on the relationship between the two countries.

Prime Minister Ramgoolam lashed out just before the announcement in April, condemning as "unacceptable" that the British "claim to protect marine fauna and flora when they insist on denying Chagos-born Mauritians the right to return to their islands all the while.

"Mauritius is appalled by the British government's decision to press on with consultations for the creation of a protected marine park project around the Chagos archipelago."

The Mauritians held a general election on Wednesday, May 5, just days before Britain, and it is not inconceivable that Dr Ramgoolam's comments were merely a ploy to paint himself as defending Mauritian interests and making a stand against their former colonial rulers.

Mauritius may take the issue before the UN, or even leave the Commonwealth, over the issue. The country is now finally ready to press ahead with a full scale diplomatic row with Britain over the islands, with many Chagossians, both in the U.K. and in Mauritius, considering it to be long overdue.

Clency Lebrasse is a U.K.-based freelance journalist, activist and second-generation naturalized Mauritian citizen living in Nottingham, England.