Dear reader, if you come here to read light-hearted rants or about cool stuff I do outside, maybe turn around now on this one…
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between climate change and travelling. Part of this comes from finally handing in my PhD. I’ve been cooped up behind my desk for a good few months, and it’s been a long time (barring a couple of weekends and field trips) since I’ve really had the opportunity to go anywhere or do much exciting. The last decent trip I did was a pre-conference field trip around parts of Australia, a week long road trip from Sydney to Melbourne two long years ago. Even though it was a work trip (and thus spent almost entirely underground), we had a fantastic time doing some quick exploration of the Blue Mountains and Kosciuszko National Park. Kosciuszko in particular was an absolutely stunning locale, true wilderness in places with stunning vistas and wild horses and kangaroos roaming freely. I would love to go back there (spiders aside) and spend a few days or weeks wandering around.
When you work in an office environment (like I do) then you end up watching a lot of sport on your second monitor during the summer. This is doubly true during years where the Olympics or World Cup are held in appropriate time zones. My Masters degree coincided with the 2012 Olympics, and frankly I’m as surprised as you are that I have a Masters degree.
These days, though, it’s all about the cycling for me. Which, when it comes to the BBC, means coverage provided by a BBC sports journalist somewhere in an office with a microphone watching the feed from Eurosport (or occasionally ITV) because the BBC can’t afford the broadcast rights for the events. The exact same thing happens with the main events of most sports, with the exceptions of the rare occasions when the BBC decides it’s worth whatever cost for them to show it. That would be the Olympics, and football. Of course these rights are sold through the IOC, FIFA or the like – and therefore are at an astronomical price to the British tax payer. [As an aside, what is it with large sports organisations and corruption? Is it just an inevitable case of power corrupts?].
Not being privy to the internal budgets of the British Broadcasting Corporation I can’t speculate on how much of their budget is spent on these large events – but I guarantee you it’s a small fortune if the premier league is anything to go by. In fact the BBC is rapidly being priced out of large sporting events.
So, what would be different if I was in charge?
Forget the lot of them.
Any conversation about the BBC and its purpose inevitably boils down to this: Lord Reith’s declared purpose of “inform, educate, entertain” and the inevitable debate over what it means to be a public service, and whether that precludes pushing commercial interests. Personally, I have no problem with the BBC making a bit of money by producing commercially viable entertainments and selling them to overseas markets. America gets its Doctor Who and Top Gear, and we get a bigger budget to spend on other things. That’s fine. But when it comes to commercial sport the BBC is never going to manage to compete with a commercial enterprise which can sell adverts during big events. Every additional viewer of a large sporting event means that commercial providers like BT and Sky can bid even more for it – because they’ll make even more money back on ad revenues. The BBC can’t compete with that for the big events, so as far as I’m concerned they shouldn’t even try. The public get to see their large events anyway – because they’re going to watch them on the ad-supported channels anyway – and on the off chance that they don’t have access to those channels the BBC can continue its excellent radio and text coverage online.
Now that I’ve saved the BBC millions on their budget, what shall I spend it on?
I have a vision for what BBC sport could be. I can’t claim total credit, because I actually got the idea from the unlikeliest of possible places – the BBC itself. One of the best regular BBC shows is one that you’ve never heard of. It’s beautifully shot, well commentated, focuses on (largely) very British locations and promotes some more obscure events and regions. It’s called The Adventure Show, and the reason you’ve never seen it is that it’s barely promoted and is shown exclusively on BBC Two Scotland at dinner time for 10 nights out of the year. I highly recommend checking out the show yourself, but in a nutshell it consists of a presenter and a camera crew filming episodes around adventure sports. They go to small, interesting UK sporting competitions and film the stories behind them and show some of the highlights. Sometimes they even compete themselves. A good example of this is their Strathpuffer episode where they document a midwinter 24-hour mountain bike race in the north of Scotland (and if you watch very, very carefully you may spot my friend Cat competing in). The show is fantastic, and it doesn’t cost very much because all it requires is a presenter and a camera crew. Half the time the events probably don’t even charge the BBC to film them, because they’re glad of the publicity.
The BBC has national studios spread across the country. They have presenters, they have camera crews and they have the resources to broadcast on both television and online. What’s stopping them from relaunching a new BBC Sport channel showing amateur British sports across the country? And isn’t that what the BBC is for? We can inform and educate the public about sporting events they don’t know about, whilst entertaining them with fun stories and sporting competition. All the while performing a public service by giving exposure to events which might otherwise fly under the radar because there’s not a large enough existing audience for commercial viability. Football doesn’t need any help, but I’m sure British Archery would love to show their larger events to the public. I’m sure the national ice hockey or roller derby leagues would love to have their games on national television. Women’s sporting events can finally be shown in full, I’d like to see a bit more than just the barest highlights of the women’s six nations. There was supposed to be an olympic sporting legacy where people discovered new sports and got out there to try them – maybe a new BBC Sport channel can be the reminder and the gateway which lets them find local, exciting sports which might interest them.
I love watching the Tour de France. For 3 weeks out of the year work in this office grinds to a halt between 2-4pm or so as the cyclists converge around monitors and occasionally coffee room iPads to watch the final 60 odd kms of each stage. We gleefully cheer on breakaways, bemoan our poor choices in our fantasy league (I was last again this year – knew I should’ve backed Froome rather than Quintana and Contador), and wince at mechanicals and punctures. And every year, we have the same conversations about two main topics: doping and touring – and I wonder about how we could make the Tour even more exciting to watch.
First, the inevitable spectre of doping. Every year at the Tour it raises it’s ugly head. Typically in the lead up we hear from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Tony Blair of cycling, chief-scumbag himself as he desperately tries to get the media spotlight on him once again. This is rapidly followed by someone, usually either a past-offender or the latest Astana team member testing positive for something stupid. Then, finally, through the race itself someone inevitably has a good day of cycling and the unfounded speculation begins.
It’s boring. I’m tired of hearing about it. Everyone (including me) assumes that they’re all on drugs, nobody is particularly surprised when anyone is busted. Nobody is surprised when someone is busted AGAIN, after receiving a trivial off-season ban (or, in the rare cases of a ban with teeth, they then start commentating!). Nobody views therapeutic use exemptions with anything other than weary scepticism.
So why don’t we just give up? If it’s really this hard to stop it, if it’s really so hard to prevent these guys from micro-dosing EPO in their hotel rooms, why don’t we just say go for it?
Imagine this: a 3-week anything goes race across France. A peloton travelling uphill at 60kph with track-marked riders snorting cocaine off their handlebars and guzzling blood bags like nosferatu. Pharmaceutically enhanced Übermensch competing against bionically enhanced cycle samurai fresh from the fevered dreams of William Gibson.
Imagine seeing riders exceeding the limits of human abilities on a daily basis. Superhuman feats of speed and endurance shattering records daily. I’d watch it!
Hell, it might even do leaps and bounds for medical science. Then again, there might be some ethical concerns after the first few self induced health crises…
Maybe this idea will need to go back to the drawing board. Let’s try something else.
At this point, why even call it the Tour de France*? The Tour de France bears about as much resemblance to bicycle touring as an olympic javelin event bears to spear hunting gazelles on the African savannah. So while the EPO-junkies as described above have their “Tour” sprinting up hills and outpacing the team cars (which they’d otherwise linger against, lovingly stroking the outstretched hand of their team manager for just a little too long) we can run a real Tour de France!
Here are my new rules:
- No team cars
- No motorhomes
- No team doctors, chefs, masseuses, mechanics, coaches, etc.
- No hotels
- No drugs **
- Riders must camp and carry everything on their bikes
- Riders followed only by referee cars and camera crews
- Stages aren’t rigidly defined – there’s a start and a finish overall, with maybe some checkpoints on the way
- All supplies and repairs along the way have to be bought from existing businesses or carried from the start
- We make the riders actually do a real three week bike tour across France
Now this maybe doesn’t sound as exciting as the current form that the tour takes. It will certainly be slower, there’s not going to be lots of attacking up climbs the morning after the whole field has slept on a gravelly French alpine camp site. There might even not be true Pelotons, as teams do their own route finding. But imagine the potential for stories!
Suddenly there’s fresh drama during the stages, fresh tactical decisions to make, and minor events like punctures take on new significance. Legends will be made about bodged self-repairs, camp site shenanigans, risky shortcuts up dirt tracks, tragic losses of maps to adverse weather, and comical misunderstandings by British riders in boulangeries. The age of social media brings immediacy to these stories, we’d get to follow the live outrage as Team Sky buys every energy gel in the Carrefour. Indeed, with live GPS tracking of riders we could see thrilling maps as teams take different routes and commentators discuss the merits of different mountain passes. Even the bikes get more interesting: do you go full carbon, pack light and bivvy uncomfortably? Or do you opt for something more reliable and pack heavier in the hopes that better rest helps you out in the later stages? Domestiques begin to be favoured not just for their riding abilities, but also for their camp cooking skills, sports massage and map reading abilities. Miles from a bike shop there are tense stand-offs as BMC negotiates with Tinkoff-Saxo to swap spokes for inner tubes.
We can even keep some of the modern innovations in the tour, this adds even more tactics to the route finding. Do you go out of the way for those sprint and KOM points? Or do you keep your team together to protect your GC contender? A lot more tactics will start being displayed in the racing.
This would inject fresh drama into a sport which otherwise can often see a peloton riding almost as if the race was neutralised until the last 30km climbs to a mountaintop finish. I’d be glued to the screen for three weeks.
*I’m being facetious and pedantic here, I know perfectly well the history of the Tour – but bear with me.
**Or at least our best efforts. Let’s be honest, nobody believes this’ll be achievable.
A later addendum:
Oh yes, and both of those races should have equivalent women’s races. It’s a travesty the lack of attention women’s cycling gets – it’s just as good. A full women’s Tour de France is long overdue.
So today is Record Store Day, the day when a whole lot of exclusive limited edition hard to find records are released to the world*. Theoretically this is to promote independent record stores, opening them up to a new audience who might not otherwise wander in, keeping these shops afloat and relevant in this modern age of Amazon and all the rest. I have all sorts of issues with this, but I’ll start instead with an account of my experience of Record Store Day this year.
The Independent on Tuesday of this week published an article by Chris Green reporting on the contents of emails between two unnamed individuals working for Cuadrilla and the British Geological Survey (BGS) which were obtained by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The quotes selected from the cache of e-mails reveal (in dramatic fashion) the revelation that the two individuals in question appear to know each other casually – catching up over a beer and potentially going to a Leonard Cohen concert together. Damning stuff. The article is padded out further with some quotations from an attempt to organise an event (which didn’t actually happen) where the BGS and Durham University were contemplating organising an event to educate journalists about fracking.
Academic institutions are no strangers to this style of reporting, where troves of emails obtained either through FOIA requests or other means are pored over to attempt to cherry pick hints of impropriety. Climate researchers in particular are practically used to it. The “Climategate scandal” was founded on this very issue, where selective quoting and mischaracterisation of what those quotes meant was used to manufacture doubt into the scientific research being undertaken at the University of East Anglia. Subsequent investigations have vindicated the researchers completely. Other climate researchers such as Michael Mann have been hounded with FOIA requests by denier groups in an attempt to seek out more controversial nuggets of text. It’s a surprise then to see these very same tactics being used by an environmentalist group such as Greenpeace.
The case for impropriety here is extremely thin, so much so that I’m actually surprised that Greenpeace weren’t able to dig up anything which looked more damning. Who amongst us thinks that carefully about what we type? Can we really be sure that our own e-mails are any better? I’m sure if you look in the inbox of any habitual email user you can eventually find something which looks damning enough when taken out of context. How many of us have sent emails to old friends or colleagues arranging to have a catch up pint some time?
Not too long ago I received an email from a colleague with an attached Creation “Science” document. The e-mail read: “I guess we had it all wrong”. How does that look out of context? I know that my colleague had their tongue planted firmly in cheek, but is that how it would be reported? Similarly, when I won a BP sponsored presentation prize I proudly joked to my collaborators – “I guess I don’t believe in climate change now!”. Individuals seeking to imply relationships between myself, petroleum researchers and employees of the British Antarctic Survey would need to look no further than a series of regular e-mails with the subject “Total Choon!” linking to various music videos.
We all have ill-advised statements sitting in our outboxes, whether they’re jokes or poor word choices. This latest “scandal” isn’t even that, it’s an attempt to cast aspersions on a pair of individuals based solely on their social associations.
Geologists are a sociable bunch, we have a well-known love of beer, and we tend to know our fellow graduates well. Three or more years of shared field trips in cramped, remote hostels with terrible weather tend to form lasting bonds. Friends from my undergraduate degree work across the world, some in academia, many of them in industry. A geologist in the BGS and a geologist in Cuadrilla knowing each other and potentially being friends should hardly be a surprise in this context. The association between the two does not imply any form of impropriety or shady goings on. Indeed many of us maintain friendships with colleagues working in other fields for the purpose of potential future collaborations as well as social engagements. I am working on a PhD in climate research, the fact that a few weeks ago a friend who works for a large multinational oil company slept on my couch doesn’t influence either of our work/research. That said, he did e-mail me this today:
“Hi Bob, how are things
Fancy catching up over a beer sometime – would be interested to hear more on your research into climate. You’ve got a wonderful field location, would be great to find oil out there.
p.s. hope Greenpeace doesn’t read this!
[Anonymised oily friend]
Disclosure: I work as a PhD Researcher at Durham University. However I am not associated with any petroleum or fracking researchers (except for Friday evening beers!). I do enjoy some classic Leonard Cohen tunes.