Which regions deserve more teams at the World Cup?

Now that the group stages are over, the World Cup field will very quickly be hewn down to the truly elite teams. Of course, just making it to the World Cup is an accomplishment, but any team who thinks that way is probably gone by now.

Nevertheless, the process of making it to the World Cup is not the same for every team. For example, every European team starts out with, on paper, a 1 in 4 chance of making it to the World Cup (13 spots guaranteed for Europe; 53 UEFA member countries). The UEFA qualifying matches take place over the course of a about a year.

On the other hand, CAF, the African confederation has almost the exact same number of members (52 countries), but only gets 5 spots, meaning every team starts out with, theoretically, a 1 in 10 chance. As a consequence of having to further hew the field to determine who qualifies, the CAF World Cup qualifying process takes a little over two years.

This leads to the perennial debate over which confederations deserve more or fewer spots at the World Cup. There are all sorts of ways to determine who is over- or under-represented, so I shall propose my own…

A good indicator of whether or not a confederation is fairly represented at the World Cup is the number of teams advancing from the group stages. After all, the teams that would benefit from marginal tinkering with the number of spots wouldn’t be teams with a chance to bring home the trophy. More than likely, they would be teams for whom the most realistic ambition would be to make it through to the knockout stages and maybe the quarter-final.

Thus, my proposal: Given that, for the last two World Cups, FIFA has used the same formula for determining how many spots each continent gets, let’s compare the number of spots each confederation was allotted against the number of teams from that confederation that advanced from the group  stage. Since there are 32 spots at the World Cup, and 16 teams advance from the group stage at each World Cups, looking at the advancing teams from the last two World Cups gives us not only a bigger sample size, but exactly 32 teams, to help make our comparison. Thus, we can see which confederations are not making the best use of the number of spots they receive:


Confederation # of spots allotted # of teams advancing from group in 2010, 2014
UEFA (Europe) 13 12
CAF (Africa) 5 3
AFC (Asia) 4.5* 2
CONMEBOL (South America) 4.5* 10
CONCACAF (rest of Americas) 3.5* 5
Oceania 0.5* 0
Total 31† 32
*In case you’re unfamiliar the 1/2 spots represent places that are contested in a play-off between teams from two different confederations.


Not too surprisingly, Europe and Africa, who receive the most guaranteed spots, appear to be over-represented. Asia would also appear to be over-represented, whilst all the Americas are under-represented, and South America dramatically so. Oceania is the only confederation, according to this formula, which seems to be just about right.

Based on the above, my proposal for re-allocating qualifying spots will appear rather modest:

Confederation Number of spots
UEFA (Europe) 12.25
CAF (Africa) 4.25
AFC (Asia) 4.25
CONMEBOL (South America) 5.5
CONCACAF (rest of Americas) 4.5
Oceania 0.25

According to this formula, both South America and CONCACAF are guaranteed one more place, with the possibility of even one more, to be contested between the 5th best team from CONCACAF and the 6th best from CONMEBOL.

It's really not that confusing, Sepp.

It’s really not that confusing, Sepp.

All the other confederations would have a chance to secure just as many spots in the World Cup as before, but only one could actually succeed.  The final spot would be contested by N̶e̶w̶ ̶Z̶e̶a̶l̶a̶n̶d̶ the top team from Oceania, the 5th placed team from Africa, the 13th from Europe, and the 5th from Asia. This four-way scrum could either be settled through a home-and-away round-robin with the top team after the 6 matches earning the spot or — if that would take too long — two sets of ties, with the winners of each facing each other.

Can you imagine the pre-tournament excitement that a four-way playoff would engender? Here’s how my formula would have played out for this tournament:

All the same South American and CONCACAF teams would have qualified but there would have been an intriguing matchup between Panama and Venezuela for the extra spot.

As for the four way play-off for the final spot, Jordan and New Zealand would have been there for sure. It’s hard to say who the African and European participants would be since their final spots were contested by head-to-head ties.

This proposal could help to correct some of the underrepresentation at the World Cup, and it might not be too difficult a sell to the confederations who stand to lose a spot since each individual confederation will think that they theoretically have a chance at getting the same number.

Also, a few more qualifying matches means more advertising revenue.


†The number of guaranteed places only adds up to 31 because 1 spot is guaranteed to the host nation, regardless of their confederation


Adventures in vexillology mailbag: the world’s worst and most disappointing flags

A version of this post first appeared (yesterday) on RachelBrandon.com

You may remember that during London 2012, Brandon and I took our first adventure in vexillology and ranked our favorite flags. We just couldn’t let Sochi 2014 come and go without discussing more flags, this time the ones we don’t particularly care for. But instead of individual rankings, we produced a Bill Simmons / Malcolm Gladwell inspired mailbag. We hope you enjoy it…

DAVID: Okay, let’s get this started:

You picked the Union Jack as the best designed flag of any nation-state. It also cracked my top 10 list. But I think we could both agree that when flags of other countries have the Union Jack in their upper hoist (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Fiji) that’s pretty lame, right?

Isle of Man flag

BRANDON: Absolutely lame. I mean, other commonwealth nations and former colonies have their OWN flags. Canada has their own flag. Uganda has their own flag. Even the Isle of Man has their own flag without a Union Jack and they aren’t even a country AND much more part of the UK. It just absolutely baffles me that Australia and New Zealand, specifically, don’t have their own, considering their strong sporting legacy in non-British colours. To me this just feels like a 35 year old who still lets his mum pick out his clothes. Am I wrong here?

DAVID: Right on. And to further the analogy, Australia and New Zealand are like twins that never developed their own independent personalities, as they both have nearly identical flags, but for the colour of the stars in their Southern Cross.

But you bring up an interesting point about sporting colours, as there are a number of countries that compete in colours not found on their flag. Italy is always in blue and the Netherlands in Orange, for both the Olympics and the World Cup. In the former case, it’s strange that they pick a colour not on their flag. But in the latter case it’s the FLAG that’s missing a colour. I mean, isn’t the colour orange one of the first three things anyone associates with the Netherlands, along with tulips and windmills?

BRANDON: Great point, David. Between the Italians and the Dutch, The Netherlands has the most potential for a great flag. Just think if their flag was simply the symbol they sport on their soccer kit in black centered on orange. This has top 10 potential and that’s why their red, white, and blue tricolor disappoints me more than any other flag. On the other hand I expect nothing less from the Italians, and in a sense, if there was only one country that we could grant an exception to in our rankings, I think they would make a strong case as an exception. Red and green is an easy, too easy, stereotype found too often in Italian restaurants and figures like Mario and Luigi. It’s not flattering.

Fun fact: Japan is also another country that doesn’t match. They wore blue once and won. They didn’t win when they switched to red and white, so they decided to go back to blue.

But in fairness these flags aren’t necessarily ugly, they just don’t seem to completely represent their nations (and I suppose that’s an easy statement to make as an American. Stars and Stripes FOREVER.) But I’m curious to find out which flags you find that are just plain ugly?

DAVID: Ah yes, I had forgotten Japan’s national football team are even called the ‘Blue Samurai.’

Flag of Mozambique

You’re the designer so I’ll leave the question of which flags are plain ‘ugly’ to you. I would say that there are some flags that, whilst not necessarily aesthetically deficient, are just off-putting. The most obvious example would be the flag of Mozambique. Putting an AK-47 on your flag isn’t really a good look for anyone, especially when the only association most of the world can make with your country is ‘civil war.’ I suppose maybe they get points for accurate representation, but I think your flag should represent your country’s aspirations, not just its grim realities.

The stray star of the CAR

So what say ye? Are there any flags that rub you the wrong way as a designer?

BRANDON: It’s funny you mention civil war as a cause for some odd flag choices, because one of my least favorite flags comes another country in a civil war, the Central African Republic. The flag just has a weird pattern, too many colors, and a weirdly placed star. At the same time its hard for me to rip into their flag because its like picking on someone who just doesn’t need to be picked on right now. The French already pick on them enough. Seriously, I just learned today of what amounts to a French Colonial tax that’s still imposed on France’s former African colonies. It’s no wonder the flag isn’t great, the French probably imposed it on them as a penalty for independence.

The swords and spears of Kenya

Before I get into other ugly flags, I noticed we both included a “weaponized” flag in our top 10s. I had Saudi Arabia and its very sharp sword at #2. And your #1 ranked flag included a trident (Barbados) albiet a broken one. And there are many many more that include them but in different ways. Are you implying that there is a classification system for “weaponized flags”? That some weapons are more “flag worthy” than others? Based on this, how do you classify Kenya’s flag, is it capable of representing the aspirations of a nation? And also looking at the “weaponized flags” all but a couple are either from Africa or the Middle East. Is this concerning?

DAVID: Yes, colonialism is alive and well, although I hadn’t realised until I read that article how old-school it is in the Françafrique. But yeah, weird flag for the CAR.

You’ve kinda caught me out on this weaponised flag question. Whilst I admit I’m a bit of an old-fashioned traditionalist, this alone doesn’t explain my preference for the spears and shield of Kenya (or Swaziland) to the AK-47 of Mozambique. Here’s my defence:

Most flags, when you think about it, imply some sort of violence; many use the colour red to signify blood shed in this or that national struggle, and many, including the ones you mention above, feature some sort of traditional or indigenous weaponry to represent the country’s history and culture. But there’s something to be said for subtlety and representation.

Flag/map of Cyprus

To take a slightly different angle, countries that just write their name on their flag (eg Paraguay) or have a completely literal map of their country (eg Cyprus) will never get my vote over a flag with a national symbol that is almost synonymous with the country itself (e.g. Canada) or a clever, well-thought-out but still simple depiction of the country’s geography (eg Brazil, obviously!). I guess for that same reason, I’m more sympathetic to Barbados’ broken trident, with all its’ powerful symbolism, or Oman’s khanjar daggers, with their reference to ancient customs and traditions, than to Mozambique’s very blunt and straightforward depiction of their brutal civil war in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

In short, I prefer Van Gogh to Rembrandt.

BRANDON: Catching you off guard? I’ll take that as a back-handed compliment, consider your answer satisfactory (when in fact its more than) and I’ll use your reference to Van Gogh and Rembrandt to segue.

It is undisputed that Van Gogh and Rembrandt are legendary painters. You may prefer one to the other, but you can still appreciate the other’s works. This is not the case with Thomas Kincaid. He paints kitch, meaning his work lacks meaning and is overly commercial. He is despised by the art community while his paintings sell like hot cakes. I guess what I’m getting at are there any flags that you feel are overrated?

And for the record, I’m punting.

DAVID: Your punt is acceptable, as I believe you more or less said the Star-Spangled Banner was overrated in your first flag post, eh?

It’s a bit difficult to call any particular flag overrated, as no one seems to get as worked up about flags as I do (although I discovered last night that Sheldon Cooper claims to. Nevertheless, here are a few things that are generally overdone in flags:

1. Red, white and blue. Someone actually did a statistical analysis on colour frequency and area cover on national flags and, no surprise, this is the most popular combination. Apparently the UN flag should have been done up in red, white and blue, as countries everywhere seem to love it!

The majestic and totally improbable lion of Fiji

2. Lions. Okay, there’s only a handful of countries that do this, but c’mon! If Tanzania or Kenya wanted to put a lion on their flag, that would make sense. But Fiji? A few lions would quickly devastate most of their islands. And sure, lions probably ONCE roamed Spain, but shouldn’t the monarchy be bothered that their representation on the country’s flag is an animal that the country hunted to extinction?

Finally, a flag pun: What does the pink lion on Spain’s flag represent? Pride.

Do you have any general flag pet peeves?

BRANDON: A few follow up items before getting to your question:

Interesting you link to a clip from The Big Bang Theory in the same paragraph you used the word overrated, because it is the most overrated situational comedy on television at the moment #justsayin. However, I do give them some credit for working the word vexillology into primetime.

The statistical analysis you provided would make my ugliest websites list, hands down.
Props to Tanzania for having no red or lions in their flag, but having strong cases to include both.
Perhaps my biggest pet peeve in flag design is when triangles and stars get out of control, together. I have two examples:

Flag of the Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands: The bands (another obvious equator reference), don’t go corner to corner making them off-putting. It also appears that they are supposed to imply a sense of depth perception that is not realized. Then the star… ouch. There’s no cohesive feel to the banner. I should also mention that the flag was designed by the first first lady of the Marshall Islands. I suppose her husband didn’t have the heart to tell her he didn’t like it #cheapshot.

Flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia & Herzegovina: Here’s another nation torn by competing ethnic groups with a history of civil strife. In fact this flag was imposed on the nation by the UN high representative at the time, a Spaniard. The flag has its issues, mainly: 1) obnoxiously large stars; 2) the use of a right triangle that’s not bound to the hoist. I just want to push it over. Seriously.. just nudge it over, or change the orientation of the triangle so it looks grounded and not divided.

Have we covered it all the things wrong with world flags? Should we move to closing statements? Or better yet how does one wrap up a joint mailbag post?

DAVID: Hmm, I’m not quite sure how to wrap this up. How about this: You’ve just opened a flag re-design consultancy — a startup with limited staff and resources. Which one flag redesign project would you take on? It may not necessarily be the one you like the least — just the one you’d be most keen to redesign.

BRANDON: Ooh, I’d start by redesigning Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Netherlands. Follow that with Australia and New Zealand. Then onto the CAR and Marshall Islands. Shall we find a grant to apply for? Shall we kickstarter?

I think we wrap up by sincerely thanking each other, plugging the other’s projects, and asking for reader suggestions.

Thank you David, this has been fun and informative and you have my sincerest gratitude for your participation as you are a busy man now writing for the esteemed Salt Collective, among other places. I look forward to our next endeavor.

And for those readers that have stuck with us this far, please do chime in with your snubs from this list or a passioned plea in the patriotic defense of your home nations banner’s inclusion in this list.

DAVID: Well, as always Brandon, it’s been a pleasure blogging with you, especially on matters of such great import. Hopefully we’ll do another joint post before these Olympics are over!

Also, I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming launch of your sports (and other competitions) reform blog!

Finally, sorry to everyone we’ve offended! Hopefully you’ll still feel a sense of pride when you see your flag being hoisted to the rafters as your national anthem plays and one of your country’s finest athletes receives a gold medal.

Unless of course you’re from the Marshall Islands, in which case, just, sorry.

How to not be a rapist: 5 easy tips for guys!!!

In recent weeks, there have been a number of super-duper helpful articles written on how woman can avoid being a rape victim. Surely it must be a sign that the media is dominated by feminazis that no one has bothered to write anything for us men on how not to be a rape perpetrator. Does no one care enough to help us???

Well take heart, fellas. I’m here to help. Now, whilst the dearth of articles written to tell men how to not rape someone might give you the impression that it’s very difficult to not become a rapist, it’s actually quite easy! Follow these 5 helpful tips and you’ll be not-a-rapist in no time!

1. Don’t binge drink

This is how it starts

I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that, deep down, you don’t want to be a rapist. Well, when you’re heavily intoxicated, your judgment is clouded, and you do things you would normally know that you shouldn’t. Like riding a bike off a rooftop. Or trying to light your farts on fire. Or raping someone.

The findings from different studies on this are all over the place (anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of rape perpetrators had consumed alcohol in different studies), but it seems safe to say that, if you’re a good guy who doesn’t want to rape anyone, you have a better chance of success if you don’t binge drink.

2. Don’t listen to Top 40 music

She’s not just a piece of meat, even if her dress IS

I’m not just talking about Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, although that song is indeed dreadful. Songs like Do what U want by Lady Gaga and R. Kelly or Last Friday Night(TGIF) by Katy Perry might give you the mistaken impression that women are all too happy to be treated like sexual playthings or that, when she awakes in the morning, a woman will whimsically laugh off the fact that someone had sex with her while she was unconscious.

It might be helpful to remember that these artists are not writing songs that reflect their innermost feelings or desires (if they even write their own songs at all); rather, they are just trying to mass-produce crap to appeal to the lowest-common denominator, so if a song seems to just be telling you what you want to hear, it is!

Oooh, BONUS POINTS! Not listening to Top 40 hits will also increase your hipster points by allowing you to say cool things like “Yeah, I’m just not up on all that mainstream shit anymore.”

3. Don’t join a frat

Academic studies have found that fraternity members are up to three times more likely to commit rape than non-fraternity members on college campuses. So if you want to reduce your exposure to negative influences that might persuade you to rape someone, don’t join a frat!

And don’t worry, there are tons of other fun clubs and societies on campus where you can meet friends, have fun and develop personally and academically.

4. Watch this video

I suppose the reason some men become rapists is because they imagine themselves to be so attractive and alluring, that they never bother to ask whether someone wants to have sex with them; they just assume everyone does! If that’s you, (and research suggests that the majority of people consider their own looks to be above average), then maybe watching this video every day will help you to realise that you’re less attractive than you think:

5. Consider the life of a registered sex-offender

There is a strange, recurring theme in American society: we don’t do much to try to prevent people from becoming criminals, but once someone has been convicted of a crime, we go apeshit on them and punish with a vengeance. As you’ll notice, the US spends more on prisons than schools, suggesting we’d much rather spend money to lock someone away than to try to educate them to give them other, non-criminal options in life.

Nowhere is this tendency more noticeable than when it comes to sex offences. Like I said, there aren’t many helpful voices telling young men how to not be rapists. But if you ARE convicted of any sexual offence, you can expect to end up on a sex offenders registry, where your life will become a living hell. I’m talking signs on your front-lawn (if you can find a neighbourhood that meets the stringent residency restrictions for registered sex offenders), your face unexpectedly showing up on local news stories about perverts in the community, and difficulty finding a job.

So if there’s any chance that someone might not be emphatically 100% on board with having sex with you, think about what your life might be like if you were on a sex offenders registry. That should do the trick 

And if you’re not from the US, don’t worry! Lots of countries now have sex offender registries!

A Biblical Proposal for accomplishing Russell Brand’s revolution

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, and this blog is the first thing you’re reading since you crawled out from under it, welcome back! Now watch this interview that you, and only you, missed whilst you were under that rock:

Jeremy Paxson hints in the interview that he thinks Russell Brand’s critiques are valid (and has since said he thinks Brand is “absolutely right”), but still seems to dismiss Brand’s call for revolution on the basis that Brand can only say what an alternative political system shouldn’t do, without specifying how it would work.

This is the classic hic Rhodus, hic saltus taunt that any critics of the status quo (whether political, economic, cultural, etc) face.

Brand’s three criteria for a poltical alternative (which he repeats several times in the interview) are:

1. Shouldn’t destory the planet

2. Shouldn’t create economic disparities

3. Shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people

I want to posit here that a system which satisfies these three criteria can be found in one of the books of the Old Testament that even most Christians would quietly brush off as one of the more backward: Leviticus 25.

I won’t quote the whole chapter here because it is lengthy, but there are two major components that are of note:

1. Every seven years, there was to be a “Sabbath rest” for the land, during which fields were to lie fallow (i.e. crops would not be sown)

2. Every fifty years, all debts would be forgiven, and all land acquired during those fifty years was to be returned to its original owners.

Although many of us struggle with the violence, misogyny and occasional homophobia in the Old Testament, it’s undeniable that there are some good ecological and socio-economic principles here.

Allowing the land to rest for a year was a way of halting the degradation of the land that occurred through intensive cultivation. We now know that over-irrigation of rivers in the Ancient Near East was causing salinisation as early as six thousand years ago, and this was causing yields to fall, and land to be abandoned (it’s also why some parts of the region which were once called the Fertile Crescent are now barren desert). Allowing the soil to rest helped to halt this process and to restore the land.

What saline soil looks like

Requiring debts to be forgiven every 50 years was a way of preventing the concentration of wealth and breaking the cycle of poverty that was common in peasant societies.

Prohibitions against the concentration of  wealth are a recurring theme throughout the the Old Testament. The prophets are particularly scornful of those who accumulate wealth, with Isaiah 5:8 one of the most demonstrative examples:

“Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.”

The semicentennial forgiveness of debts was to be a way of rebalancing society and allowing those who’d fallen on hard times several decades prior — and were still struggling under the burden of debt — to have a chance of starting anew.

Returning land to everyone who’d been forced to sell it in the years between each Jubilee year broke the cycle of poverty wherein families that took on debt had to sell their land to repay it; having lost access to the means of production , they’d have nothing else to sell but their labour, which made them bond-slaves; once you were a bond-slave you had no way of earning enough to buy back your land (it was as much a dead-end job as working at McDonald’s in 21st-century America); the Jubilee broke this cycle of poverty.

Faith communities, Russell Brand fans and anyone else similarly dissatisfied with the current politcal and economic system could advocate for the Sabbath/Jubilee alternative:

Banks and credit card companies could be required to write off households’ debts after a certain number of years (and, in line with the provisions laid out in Leviticus, prevented from charging higher interest rates in the years leading up to the Jubilee year)

Farmers could be given subsidies for allowing their land to lie fallow in a given year, rather than saturating it with petrochemical fertilisers and crop monocultures (This isn’t that far-fetched; the US government already gave about $24 million last year to “farmers” who didn’t grown anything)

These policy proposals are radical. Wall Street (in the US) and the City (in the UK) would fight against them tooth and nail, as, presumably, would Monsanto, Cargill and other agribusiness suppliers who would stand to lose a lot if farmers used time-honoured methods of replenishing the soil rather than cutting-edge, ever-changing technologies developed in the laboratory.

But there is a precedent for this: Around the turn of the century, activists around the world called on rich countries to forgive the debts of poor countries, who were straining under the burden of massive debts that in many cases had been incurred by despots seeking the patronage of the West or the Soivet Union during the Cold War. The activists appealed to the biblical concept of Jubilee. The World Bank and rich country governments told them they were full of it, and that Jubilee just couldn’t work in the modern financial system.

In 2005, the activists won. If impoverished countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America –the international Davids — can win Jubilee from the global Goliaths, there’s no reason the citizens of the rich countries can’t demand their own Sabbath and Jubilee.

A few words about Lance

It’s been almost two months since Lance Armstrong was all but formally stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, but the fallout continues, as do the questions from many of my British (and other European) classmates about the whole sordid affair.

The extended period of time that Lance’s shaming in the public sphere has carried on is indicative of the degree to which his personality and legacy were allowed to permeate American sport and consciousness. In recent days, we’ve read that Nike, Trek and Budweiser have now ended their endorsement deals with Lance (quick reflexes there, eh?), that his quote is being removed from an Olympic training centre, and that he is stepping down as the head of a foundation that he created. The fallout will likely continue for quite some time.


In truth, I was very late to jump on the Armstrong bandwagon, so I’m not exactly heartbroken by Lance’s downfall. In his early years of winning Tours, there were plenty of reasons to hate him: He was arrogant (and for my European readers, I mean even more arrogant than your average American). And he left his wife, who had stuck with him through his life-threatening cancer, for Sheryl Crow.

But there were other reasons I wasn’t rooting for him in those early years. For some reason, I felt more affinity to Jan Ullrich. Lance was my compatriot, sure, but his story wasn’t as easily to relate to as Ullrich’s. Armstrong had a dramatic tale of surviving cancer and rebuilding his body from scratch to win the Tour. Ullrich was just a hard-working kid whose only fault seemed to be coming of age at the wrong time (of course Jan might have had some character flaws as well).

All that said, I’m still not happy to see Lance’s star come crashing down the way it has.

Lance was admired and regarded as a hero for so long because he was what we wanted him to be. In his now-parodied Nike ad (here’s the original), he affirmed what every athlete — even the most amateur — wants to believe: that the human body is infinitely malleable and is ultimately limited only by our level of determination. One year, during their annual acknowledgement of pro cycling, Sports Illustrated none-too-subtly compared Lance and Neil Armstrong. And it was a fair comparison — both individuals changed our notion of what was possible.

The truth is, we created Lance Armstrong (and Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds and Marion Jones and…) because we wanted heroes who were superhuman and Lance was all-to-willing to oblige.

I don’t buy the argument (advanced by none other than Malcolm Gladwell) that Lance ought not be punished for simply doing what everyone else at the time was doing, but doing it better.  But I do think we’ve neglected to address one of the most important issues surrounding that particularly dark period in cycling history that began with Bjarne Riis’ now discredited 1996 Tour victory, included the 1998 Festina Affair, enveloped Lance’s 7 years at the top, and still hasn’t completely ended, but might at least have marked its final act with the nullification of Alberto Contador’s 2010 Tour title.

That oft-neglected issue is this:   We LOVED watching races during that era. A doped up Lance Armstrong versus a presumably doped up Jan Ullrich with an occasional third party (such as an about-to-overdose Marco Pantini, or a rising doping star like Ivan Basso) was good theatre and we ate it up. Some of the fastest races ever took place during those EPO-addled years, and fans appreciated the enhancements to the race.

Really, all of you guys? Surely there must be someone in the Top 100 this year who didn’t dope.

Armstrong’s rise in the  European peloton sparked an interest in professional cycling among Americans that continues still.  On the other side of the Atlantic, a researcher in Belgium conducted an interesting study of what characteristics influenced viewership of individual  stages in the Tour de France between 1997 and 2010. He found that allegations or suspicions of doping (as defined in the study) had little impact on viewership. Trust? Sure, but not viewership.

So, as I said last year in my ode to Thomas Voeckler, I now revel more in the human moments of professional cycling — riders grimacing (and rightly so) as they struggle over forbidding mountain passes, Bradley Wiggins appealing for civility after a series of punctured tires, or the cunning tactical maneuvers of teams where mental acuity is running higher than physical stamina. Lance Armstrong was the culmination of a generation that offered us cycling performed by superhumans. We liked the product, but ultimately, didn’t like the production process.

Adventures in Vexillology — The Top 10 Best Symbolic Flags

As I explained on Friday, Brandon and I are each posting our picks for the world’s 10 best national flags. I didn’t see Brandon’s post before writing mine, but here’s his ranking, based on design.

Here are my 10 favourite flags, ranked according to their historical and political symbolism (as outlined here):

10. Nauru


Chances are you’ve never heard of Nauru. But don’t worry if you have no idea where it is — the flag shows you! It’s an island nation in the Pacific just south of the equator (that’s what the yellow line in middle of the flag represents). And you have to love the symbolism of the colours:

Does the white symbolise peace? No! It symbolises phosphate, which gave the tiny island what little economic prosperity it’s had.

9. United Kingdom


Although it’s now an entity unto itself, the Union Jack is actually a composite of three pre-existing flags, each of which was the cross of a nation’s patron saint. The blue background with white saltire (diagonal cross) comes from St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland. The red perpendicular cross is St. George’s, the patron saint of England. And finally, the red saltire is the cross of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

The ability to incorporate the national flags of three nations is impressive. But two things prevent the Union Jack from ranking higher: First, it doesn’t incorporate Wales or the cross of St. David. Second, because it’s so ubiquitous in the upper left-hand corner of other countries’ flags, the Union Jack has lost its uniqueness (this is a friendly way of saying that the flag has become synonymous with colonialism).

8. United States of America


What’s great about the Star Spangled Banner is that it’s basically just a template. Even though the US has grown from 13 to 50 states, the flag hasn’t had to be significantly re-designed. If Puerto Rico ends up voting for statehood this November, it won’t be a problem for the flag; we have a system in place. The 13 stripes representing the original 13 colonies stay in place, while a new star gets added for each new state.

And hey, if we ever lose a few states here or there, that’s no problem for the flag either!

The sense of continuity of the flag is important for a country that has constantly expanded geographically throughout its history. After all, if the flag had changed much, we would have to change our national anthem (“The Star Spangled Banner”) as well!

7. South Africa


I’m not sure how the presence of six colours will comport with Brandon’s design sensibilities, but they’re all necessary for South Africa. The country redesigned its flag in 1994 after the end of apartheid to represent the new attitude of this rainbow nation.

Green, black and yellow are the colours of the African National Congress, which fought to end apartheid. Red, white and blue are the colours of the flags of both the Netherlands and the UK, from whence the majority of white South African’s ancestors came. And although it may just look like a melange of colour, there is some potent symbolism to the flag: the sideways ‘Y’ represents convergence.

6. Mexico


Most countries that are the product of European conquest and resettlement completely sweep their pre-European history under the rug when they portraying themselves through their flag (I’m looking at you US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most of Latin America). But Mexico puts an important Aztec symbol right in the centre of its flag.

The eagle holding a snake , perched on top of a cactus, which in turn is on top of an island was a symbol to the Aztecs to build Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) on an island in Lake Texcoco. So I give props to Mexico for owning and acknowledging their aboriginal history. But the flag is prevented from ranking any higher because it turns out it was a bad idea to build a city there.

5. Mongolia


In just the past 100 years, Mongolia has had a theocracy, a people’s republic, and now, ostensibly, a parliamentary republic. But all of those disparate forms of government have  featured the soyonbo on their flag — so important is its place in Mongol consciousness.

The soyonbo, in case you hadn’t already figured it out, is that stack of symbols over on the left side of the flag (the “hoist” in vexilloligical lingo). It represents a whole lot of things in a very stylish way. See if you can find all of these symbols in the soyonbo: Fire, earth, moon, the mutual complement of men and women, the walls of a fort, a spear or arrow, honesty, justice and equality.

The symbolism of colours is a mixed bag: the blue represents the endless sky — rather unimaginative. But the red represents the Mongolian people’s ability to survive in harsh conditions. I’m not sure how the colour red portrays that, but props to the Mongols for toughing it out in the Gobi all these years.

4. Iran


Take a look at the flag above. What do you see? A tulip with a mustache on top? Good guess. Here’s what you missed:

That thing that looks like a stylised tulip is in fact a symmetric form of the word “Allah” in Arabic, and also contains overlapping parts of the Shahada, one of the five pillars of Islam. Additionally, the script along the border between the green and white stripes, and the white and red stripes (which looks like fancy lacework) is the phrase “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great,” repeated 22 times.

Not bad for a flag you didn’t think had any writing on it, huh?

3. Brazil


Lots of countries glibly toss “stars” on to their flag to represent all sorts of things. So you might not find anything remarkable about the 27 stars on Brazil’s flag representing its 27 states. But this is not mere symbolism and these are not just homogenous starlike emblems, arranged into rows or columns. NO, my friend each one depicts an actual star in the heavens, and the astronomical precision of it all is extraordinary.

The positioning of the stars on the flag mirrors how they would have looked to an observer in Rio de Janeiro at 8:30 am on 15 November 1889 (the day the Republic of Brazil was proclaimed). There are no fewer than 9 constellations depicted on the flag.

That’s already remarkable specificity, but it gets better! Each star represents a specific state in Brazil, based on 1. The size of the state and the brightness of the star, and 2. The location of the star in the sky (as seen from Rio) and the location of the state within the country. So, for example, Alpha Virginus, the only star that appears above the band with the motto of “Order and Progress” represents Para, the northermost state in Brazil at the time of the Republic’s founding.

Oh, also the green and yellow represent the colours of the former Emperor and Empress of Brazil, but who really cares what anything else on this flag represents. They could have JUST the blue sphere with its stars on a completely white background and they would make my list.

2. Croatia


European flags tend to be pretty disappointing: Hundreds, if not thousands of years of recorded history that have generated countless national symbols, defining historical moments and heraldic emblems, and the best that most of them can come up with is three different-coloured stripes?

Thankfully, Croatia gives us a sampling of its rich and varied history with its flag. The checkerboard has been part of Croatia’s coat of arms at least since the country’s nobles aligned themselves with the Holy Roman Empire.The five shields atop the checkerboard each represent a historical kingdom within modern Croatia. The one on the farthest left (the six pointed star above a crescent moon) is the oldest known Croatian coat of arms. The five historical kingdoms represented by the shields are, in order: Croatia, Ragusa, Dalmatia, Istria, and Slavonia.

1. Barbados


Now that the sun has set on the British Empire, there are quite a few sovereign countries which count themselves former British colonies. The struggle for independence was usually a defining moment in many of these countries’ respective histories, but the only reference of it on the flag is usually just the colour red, to symbolise the blood shed in that struggle.

And then there’s Barbados. When Barbados became independent in 1966, the new government organised an open competition to design the new flag — so this flag already has a good meta-history to it.

The man whose design won the contest — one Grantley Prescod — went for a very complexly layered, but very powerful symbol. That trident on the flag represents several things, sure, including the three principles of democratic government: Of, by and for the people.  But it also makes reference to Barbados’ colonial badge, which pictured Britannia wielding a trident. The trident on the new flag has no handle (It is commonly referred to as “the broken trident”), symbolising that no one else, Britain or otherwise, could ever wield power over Barbados.

That, my friends, is how you create a national symbol.

Coming up Sunday: Adventures in Vexillology

This Sunday, in light of the closing ceremony of the Olympics and the attendant parade of nations, my friend Brandon and I will each be ranking our 10 favourite national flags on our respective blogs.

Here’s the thing: Brandon, who is a web designer, will be ranking the flags aesthetically, from a design perspective. I will be basing my rankings on the use of historical and political symbolism. There will no doubt be significant differences between our rankings. The only question is: Will there be any overlap?

Of course, I won’t reveal any of my picks until Sunday (I presume Brandon has taken similar steps to prevent leaks and discourage whistleblowers), but here are the factors I’ll be considering when choosing my top 10 flags:

Use of unique symbolism

Does the flag reflect the country’s unique circumstances? Can you learn something about the country’s history, politics or geography from the flag?

Is there really nothing else to see in the South Pacific other than the southern cross in the sky?  Ooh, your flag has an eagle on it? How original!

Originality in symbolism of colours

Of course, every country’s flag is intended to be full of meaning. But it seems like the symbolism of many flag’s colours tends to be pretty similar. I give high marks to flags whose colours have meanings that deviate from the standard interpretations.

Oh, oh, let me guess! The blue stands for the sky! The green stands for the land! And could it be that the red is for the blood your soldiers have shed?

Potency of political symbolism

Once again, all flags have some symbolic meaning, but many have rather banal and obvious symbols. Sure, a stylised representation of some topographical feature in your country is nice, but I prefer something that has multiple layers of meaning and that makes a statement about your country’s view of itself and its place in the world.

So these are my criteria. If you have a blog, and think you have some other perspective on how national flags should be ranked, then by all means, join this fool’s errand, and send us a link to your estimation of the vexillological victors.


Why are US Women so much better at soccer than US Men?

Tomorrow, in what has become an Olympic tradition, the US women will play in the Gold Medal final of the Olympic football tournament. The US have made the final every year that women have competed in football at the Olympics (1996 was the first year), and have only had to settle for silver ONCE.

The US men’s national team, by comparison have never made it to ANY medal match at the Olympics (Gold or Bronze) even though men’s national teams have been playing at the Olympics 88 years longer than the women.*

The situation is similar in the World Cup: In the 6 FIFA Women’s World Cups that have been held, the US have made it to the final three times and have won it twice. The men have had far more chances — there have been 19 FIFA World Cups for men — but the US have NEVER made it to the final.

Boys get that excited just over making it out of the group stage? Cute.

It’s hard to resist asking: Why have US Women been so much better, relative to the rest of the world, than US Men at the world’s most popular sport?

There might be any number of factors contributing to the “achievement gap” in American soccer, but I’ve identified two broad themes that might help explain it. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do sound a bit contradictory.

Perhaps they can’t both be entirely true, but they certainly go some way toward explaining the US’ gender achievement gap in football.

1. Gender roles in US sports

The most lucrative sport in the US, at both the professional and collegiate level is American football.  So for a young, male athlete who’s talented enough to play in any sport he chooses, there is undoubtedly strong pressure, both internally and externally,  to play American football.

Yeah, soccer’s totally a girlie-girl sport, isn’t it Abby?

But American football is seen as a “man’s game” so for a similarly talented young female athlete, it’s not an option (the rise of lingerie football notwithstanding). Soccer is popularly (and inaccurately, I would add) viewed as more effete, and therefore is the corresponding choice for young women.

Because of this gendered bifurcation of talent, the US women’s national soccer team is comprised of the best and most suitable athletes, while the US men’s national team is comprised just of the most suitable athletes who weren’t interested in American football.

2. Gender parity is sports financing

Thanks to Title IX and several landmark Supreme Court rulings, high schools and universities in the US must make equal provisions for men’s and women’s athletics. Not many other countries have similar provisions, including some of the football powerhouses (on the men’s side) in southern Europe and Latin America.

So while the US are a mediocre regional power on the men’s side, we rise to the top of the global table on the women’s side because several countries that could be fielding top-class national sides fail to invest in girls’ sports.

This would explain why some other countries (say, Norway) with more gender-equal societies can be so lackluster in men’s football, but so successful in women’s.

But maybe there are other explanations…


*1908 was the first year that national teams competed in football at the Olympics, but at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics, three clubs contested. Football was not a medal event at the time.

The 10 Most Adorable Athletes of London 2012 (so far)

In the spirit of the Olympics (or at least in the spirit of events such as synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics), it seems only appropriate to rank some of the world’s elite competitors according to flagrantly subjective and hopeless arbitrary criteria.

Here then is my assessment of the 10 most adorable Olympians at London 2012. Keep in mind, this is most adorable, not most attractive. I”m not trying to objectify anyone — just patronise them.

10. Hiroshi Hoketsu, Japan, Equestrian

First of all, let me just say (with apologies to Ann Romney) that I don’t think equestrian events should be included in the Olympics, and least of all the event known as dressage.

But it’s there and there’s little we can do about it. So I would be remiss if I did not include this Olympiad’s oldest competitor, Hiroshi Hoketsu. He is 71 years old and has been competing in the Olympics since Tokyo 1964. He is also utterly adorable.

He has said that this will be his last Olympics, due to age. Not his age, mind you, but that of his horse, Whisper.

Oh Hiroshi! What a dapper chap!

9. Katie Ledecky, USA, Swimming

Missy Franklin, who is 17 and has won 4 gold medals at this Olympics, has gotten a lot of attention, and much of it has focused on her youthfulness. But Missy is an old codger compared to Ms. Ledecky. The fearless 15-year old went into the 800-metre freestyle swim against world record-holder (not to mention hometown hero) Rebecca Adlington and quickly left Adlington and everyone else behind on her way to the gold.

But why does she make this “most adorable” list?

Somehow Katie still seems like a kid — in her interviews, in her post-race reaction, and just generally in the way she carries herself. While Missy and the whole host of gymnasts have quickly taken on personas that make them seem like teenage stars, Katie still looked like a teenager who suddenly found herself winning in the Olympics.

Oh Katie! You remind me so much of myself when I was 15!

8. Lizzie Armistead, Great Britain, Cycling

Lizzie won the silver medal in the women’s cycling road race, which opened Britain’s account in the medal table for London 2012. Armitstead’s performance was quite impressive, given that this is her Olympic debut.

But since she’s new to the big stage, Lizzie didn’t know that, no matter what you’re asked in post-race interviews and press conferences, you should stick to traditional boilerplate and talk about how happy you are that you won and thank the people who supported you and say how you were feeling during the race and blah blah blah. So instead, dear Lizzie addressed the issue of sexism in professional cycling and sport more generally.

Oh Lizzie! Look at what zany adventures you’ve sent the chattering classes on now!

7. Tüvshinbayar Naidan, Mongolia, Judo

If we’re to be completely honest, the outfits in Judo make all competitors look ridiculous and/or adorable. And if we’re to be even more brutally honest, Mongolian names tend to sound adorable and/or ridiculous.

The mighty Tüvshinbayar won Mongolia’s first ever Olympic gold medal in 2008 in Beijing, but could only manage a silver this time around. But he was adorable, even in defeat, as he lost the final in the men’s -100kg to Tagir Khaibulaev of Russia.

Oh Tuvshee!

6. Reese Hoffa, USA, Athletics

“Can a shot putter be adorable?” you ask. Absolutely, and shame on you for asking. Everything about Reese Hoffa, the American who took bronze in his event, screams “teddy bear.” Which is odd because Hoffa himself doesn’t seem to shout with the same visceral exclamation common in throwing events.

If you have a high tolerance for adorableness, check out the picture of Hoffa and his wife in this slideshow of displays of affection at London 2012.

Oh Reese! You big chug-a-lug, you!

5. John Orozco, USA, Gymnastics

I don’t know about you, but I found the whole helicopter-parent routine with Cuban-American gymnast Danell Leyva and his omnipresent father a bit exhausting. Conversely, I couldn’t get enough of the other American gymnast in the men’s all around: John Orozco.

This Puerto Rican kid (he’s 19) from the Bronx seemed like the sweetest guy you could hope to meet, and unfortunately, his most dramatic moment was an adorable catastrophe — his leotard pants got caught on the pommel horse and all but doomed his medal chances.

Oh John! Why must you sheath your legs with those silly tights anyway!?

4. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica, Athletics

Folks, she’s no longer the Shelly-Ann Fraser we saw wearing braces while winning the 100-metres  in Beijing in 2008. She’s now Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a married woman whose dental development is presumably complete. But Shelly-Ann still managed to look  adorable (in a very juvenile sort of way) as she won the 100 metres again yesterday (Although I really would have thought that those ribbons in her hair would create drag while running).

But what really catapulted Shelly-Ann up this ranking was NBC’s feature on her before they aired the 100m final. She couldn’t help but laugh as she told a light-hearted story about how her mother once threatened to cut up a neighbour boy with a long knife.

Oh Shelly-Ann! You and your grim sense of humour!

3. Gabby Douglas, USA, Gymnastics

Many of my American readers probably thought this whole list was just building up toward yet another first-place finish for Gabby. Well, were this just a ranking of the adorableness of American Olympians, it would be a no-contest!

The Flying Squirrel, as Douglas has so aptly been nicknamed, was just as adorable during her routines as she was when feverishly nodding along to coaches’ and teammates’ exhortations on the sidelines. All successful athletes acknowledge the influence and support of their families, and that’s especially true for competitors as young as Douglas (16). Fittingly, Gabby’s family was also quite adorable when she won gold.

Oh Gabby! Don’t ever grow old!

2. Jessica Ennis, Great Britain, Athletics

It would not be a stretch to say Jessica Ennis was the face of these Olympics before she even performed. In fact, it wouldn’t even be all that metaphorical to say she was the face of the Games: British fans wore masks of “Our Jess” in Olympic Park, and her face is on billboards all over London. She was Britain’s great hope and was the favourite to win the Pentathlon.

Needless to say, the pressure on Jess was enormous, and she delivered.

But somehow, despite having the weight of her country’s collective expectations on her shoulders, she was always sporting her whimsical smile, and her delightful Yorkshire accent maintained its musical lilt in all her interviews throughout the Heptathlon.

Oh Jess! You could make even a basset hound stop being so gloomy.

1. Mo Farah, Great Britain, Athletics

First of all, there is something inherently adorable about watching a man the width of a chihuahua flying along at speeds unattainable by the average human and then seeing his eyes practically bugging out of his skull as he wins a gold medal.

The final of the Men’s 10,000 metres was probably the most exciting distance race I’ve ever seen at the Olympics, and if you didn’t see it, you at least owe it to yourself to watch the highlights of the race. Equally important to watch, though, is Farah’s tracksideinterview with BBC following the race.  The whole thing is adorable, but the most adorable bit starts here.

Because this list is so America-heavy and transparently unscientific, feel free to offer your rebuttals or amendments.

Cardiff City Jersey Debacle: A Taste of the Future Far Beyond Football

Yesterday, after several weeks of absurd yes-we-will, no-we-won’t drama, Cardiff City FC’s owners announced that they will in fact be changing the team’s shirt next season from blue (the colour the team has worn since 1908) to red (a colour the team has never worn before).

The good old days vs. The brave new world

Moreover, the team’s crest will change too, relegating the Bluebird (Cardiff’s mascot) from its former place of prominence to the very bottom, in favour of the red Welsh dragon.

Now, I think this whole episode portends a lot for the future of human civilisation, but before explaining why, I realise that many of my readers are American, and don’t understand why this re-branding is such a big deal.  I’ll humour you for a moment. For my British readers, skip ahead to the awful picture below.

Why it’s a big deal

The changes to Cardiff City are not analogous to, say, the San Diego Padres changing their colours from brown and yellow to brown and orange to navy blue and orange to just navy blue to camouflage. It’s really not even analogous to the Washington Bullets changing their mascot to become the Washington Wizards. Tradition has a role in baseball and basketball but it’s not nearly as dominant as in European football, and very few teams’ identities and traditions are bound up in their team logo or colours (Exceptions would be very old teams like the Yankees and Reds in baseball or the Celtics and Bulls in basketball).

A better, though still imperfect analogy would be if the Green Bay Packers were to change their uniform to a colour that wasn’t green and changed their logo to something other than the iconic “G.” Again though, this would still not be quite as dramatic, given that the Packers haven’t been around as long as the Bluebirds, and they didn’t always wear green.

[ADDENDUM: For my Canadian readers, it would be like the Maple Leafs changing their sweater to red]

It used to be like this EVERY GAME

What it means

The two conflicting sides in this debacle were the team’s (Malaysian) owners –who claimed that switching to red and dragons would help woo potential supporters in Asia — and the team’s fans who felt that such an abrupt switch ignored the club’s history and traditions.

(Incidentally, if the only thing Asian fans look for in a team is a red uniform and a dragon on the crest, wouldn’t they all already support Liverpool?)

Reverse Imperialism, suckaz!

Now, I count myself a Cardiff supporter, and I  was opposed to the kit switch, but I couldn’t help but find the irony a bit amusing. Here was an episode involving Asians and Europeans, where culture and traditions were being disrespected, or at least disregarded, BUT!!! this time it was the Europeans whose traditions were being disregarded and it was the Asians who had the power, money and final say in the matter.

This, I believe, is the first portent from the shirt saga.

The most obvious lesson for the future of course is that, in our globalised world, commercial considerations will usually trump cultural traditions, but this truism is, by now, so banal, that it hardly warrants further analysis.

Rather, what I find more interesting is the battleground on which these struggles take place. Note that, with his immense wealth (around $1.25 billion), owner Vincent Tan thought the best investment he could make to raise the profile of Malaysian sports was in a football club in Wales.

Indeed, wealthy tycoons from all over the emerging world have also decided that English football clubs are the best use of their gargantuan finances.

Interestingly, Air Asia doesn’t even fly to the UK

Just in the top two divisons of English football you have: Blackburn Rovers, owned by an Indian; Chelsea, owned by a Russian; Leicester City, owned by Thais; Hull City, owned by an Egyptian; Manchester City, owned by an Emirati oil sheikh;  and Queens Park Rangers, owned by an Indian and a Malysian.

As far as I know (and I am willing to be corrected), none of these owners have invested any money in domestic leagues in their own country. They certainly have the means to pump a lot of money into football in Thailand. Malaysia, etc. and thus greatly improve the quality of entire leagues in their home countries.

But instead, they see English football as the best arena for their personal ambitions and expressions of national pride.

Now, here is what I find interesting: Despite the incredible national diversity of club owners in the English Premier League and Championship, there are NO mainland Chinese* owners. Why? It’s certainly not due to a paucity of Chinese millionaires or a lack of interest in football. Rather, it seems that football-loving Chinese tycoons would rather bring world-class football players to China (the most high-profile example being Nicolas Anelka) than buy up a team in England and re-brand it to look more Chinese.

And so, here for me is the most telling sign of things to come: As China’s wealth and influence has grown, so has its confidence. But for other Asian countries, enjoying similar economic growth, there is still an insecurity which leads them to seek prestige in Europe and the West, rather than on their own terms.

What exactly does that mean for the future? I don’t know, but I’m sure there will be more colossal misunderstandings, and next time maybe outside the realm of football.

And for those of you taking any schadenfreude in Cardiff City’s plight, be careful. If the Bluebird is an endangered species in this brave new world, the Swan could become one too!

*Although Birmingham City are owned by a businessman who is from Hong Kong