With a global pandemic raging, a national lockdown in
force and participation in most indoor sports suspended, it might be thought
unusual for the business of the UK Parliament’s House of Commons to be debating
the inclusion of squash in the
Olympic Games. Yet that’s exactly what happened in the Chamber on January 12th,
2021 following a submission by former Welsh Ladies number one (and current
Member of Parliament for Neath) Christina
True to form, Rees had previously secured a similar Parliamentary debate in 2016 and obviously wasn’t going to let the small matter of a worldwide coronavirus outbreak put her off her debating stride. Her speech which amongst other things identified current Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford as being an accomplished squash player, came just over a month after Team GB’s failed attempt to register a petition to get squash into the Olympics. Rees also name-checked Tesni Evans, Joel Makin and referee Roy Gingell as role models for promoting the game and Welsh sport in general across the world.
The UK Government’s response was provided by Nigel Huddleston, MP for Mid-Worcestershire, lapsed squash player and holder of possibly the longest job-title in Government: Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Huddleston, in textbook political language, offered moral if not material support to his colleague and suggested that the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham presented the best opportunity for promoting squash globally in the near term.
Well, I’m no judge but given their respective squash pedigrees, I reckon that Christina Rees would take him out in three.
What with all the Covid-19 pandemic coverage clogging up the news media, it’s easy to overlook the far-reaching impact of shifting global geo-politics on squash. Take the case of the Shetland Islands which, for the geo-politically challenged, is an archipelago off the North-East coast of mainland Scotland. At the time of writing, Shetland has 71 cases of Covid-19 out of a population of around 23,000, a third of which lives in its main town, Lerwick.
Squash in Shetland is centred on the town’s squash club, founded in 1979 and boasting three singles courts which can be converted into two doubles courts. Considering the location of Lerwick – equidistant from Aberdeen in Scotland and Bergen in Norway – Shetland’s squash connections stretch around the globe by virtue of its participation in the International Island Games.
Founded in 1985, the Games are now contested every two years by representatives from 24 islands and island groups including Greenland, Rhodes, Menorca, St Helena and The Cayman Islands. Squash has featured in the Games four times, beginning in 2005 and, most recently, in 2019. Unfortunately, the 2021 Games, due to take place in Guernsey, were recently postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although Shetland has tasted squash medal success in the Games, its future geo-political status is uncertain. The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union has fuelled the demand for Scottish Independence led by the Scottish National Party. The situation has recently been complicated by calls for Shetland to remain part of the UK (as a British Overseas Territory) in the event of Scottish independence; in other words, to become independent of an independent Scotland.
To further complicate matters, Shetland culture is extremely diverse having been shaped by 5000 years of habitation by North Atlantic peoples from the mysterious ‘broch builders’ to The Picts and The Vikings. By way of illustration, Shetland’s annual Up Helly Aa festival includes a torchlit procession through Lerwick culminating in the burning of an imitation Viking galley.
Beyond Scottish Squash
When it comes to participation in squash, Shetland follows the lead of Scottish Squash whose current BounceBack initiative is intended to help clubs start re-introducing competitive squash in a time of pandemic uncertainty. But future geo-political trends may provide the islands with a wider choice of squash partners, not only by virtue of their geo-political status but also by virtue of the links to other island squash communities worldwide.
reports in the Indian media of Saurav
Ghosal’s lockdown experiences come the views of the current world men’s
number 13 on player data, personal privacy and, er, gossip.
The background to Ghosal’s comments lies in the commercial partnership between the Professional Squash Association (PSA) and Sports Data Labs (SDL), a US provider of “human data technology”. The purpose of the partnership is to help the PSA utilise “in-game human data solutions to provide human performance metrics for its live broadcasts, as well as for player optimisation and training purposes.” The popularity of personal ‘fitness tracking’ devices may be one reason why the PSA is exploring the use of player data to attract more interest in the sport.
“There are three
kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (Unknown but not Mark
The player data in question includes such physiological information as distance
covered during matches, speed and heart rate which, even now, is displayed on
courtside screens during some major tournaments. The PSA knows that, under EU
and UK law, ownership of this data belongs to individual players and that
their personal consent to its use, and re-use, has to be secured on an
individual and, presumably, commercially-agreeable basis.
To complicate matters, not all relevant national and supranational (e.g. EU)
laws require the same level of protection for individuals against the
collection, storage and use of their data without their personal consent. The
concept of ‘personal privacy’ also varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. US
law, for example, does not recognise the right of individuals to opt out of
the automatic collection and use of their personal data for marketing and other
‘re-use’ purposes, e.g. by social media companies and their advertising clients.
Other national personal privacy laws unsurprisingly reflect their countries’ political cultures and social norms. India’s recently-implemented legislation, the Personal Data Protection Bill, follows the EU and UK models as does that of Qatar. The Indian law, however, makes specific reference to certain categories of data, some of which could be regarded as falling under the PSA / SDL player data category, e.g. health data, whereas others such as biometric and genetic may not. In contrast, Egypt’s soon to be implemented Data Protection Law applies only to companies and their responsibilities for protecting the personal data of their employees.
In light of such a complex, and evolving, legal situation the question
naturally arises as to who has the
legal right to assess the risks, costs and benefits to individual players
associated with the sharing of their personal data, and for what purpose?
“There is only one thing in the world
worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” (Oscar
Wilde, The Picture of
To date, Saurav Ghosal has not signed up to the brave new world of player data monetisation but recognises the commercial need for squash to engage with a world increasingly characterised by social media gossip and the popular obsession with statistics. While some may regard player data and derived statistics as being of subjective interest, others may not or remain either disinterested or sceptical. “An ideal heart rate can’t be set as a target,” says coach and current Secretary General of India’s Squash Rackets Federation, Cyrus Poncha. Commercialising access to player data may, it seems, be more effective in attracting the attention of some statistics-loving spectators than in helping coaches or players to improve their approaches to training and performance.
The question also remains as to whether any objectively-valuable player data will ever be collectible using human data technology. As Saurav Ghosal says, “Things like a good read on the game and the mental side cannot be measured. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic are all good, but they are made differently – which can’t be calibrated.”
Fordham University is a private research institution whose campus is located in the Bronx neighbourhood of New York City. Established in 1841, the university is the third-oldest in New York State and, together with Brooklyn’s Poly Prep Country Day School, the base for activities organised by City Squash.
Founded in 2002, City Squash is a not-for-profit after-school programmewhich helps young people from economically disadvantaged households develop strong characters, improve their academic performance and become competitive squash players. The success of the programme can be measured in terms of national squash titles, 110 of them to be exact, the last three being won at the SEA Team Nationals in March 2020. As part of the programme, Fordham provides City Squash with access to its classrooms and squash courts. Also, dozens of its students volunteer every year as City Squash academic tutors and squash coaches.
As recently as 2010 City Squash partnered with Fordham to replace the university’s five North American standard courts with four international standard squash courts, complete with spectator viewing facilities. Fordham’s original ‘narrow’ courts had been used for the hardball version of squash played by notable alumni such as then Queens resident Donald J. Trump, later to achieve success as a businessman, television personality and, er, President of The United States of America.
In a 2018 article in The Fordham Ram, interviews with fellow alumni paint a picture of what the current POTUS was like during his two years at the university. Many remembered him fondly and many more didn’t remember him at all. The consensus among friends, acquaintances and observers of Trump described him as an affable young man, even if he did keep his distance from other students. Some admired Trump’s abilities in sports, including football, golf and, during his freshman year, squash where he played on the team.
One interviewee, Brian Fitzgibbon, said he was friendly
but not friends with Trump. They both commuted from the same area of Queens,
and they would say hello whenever they bumped into one another.
“He was a bit of a loner all those years ago and I really
can’t recall his being close with anyone,” said Fitzgibbon. “He complained to
me on one of our rides to school that there were too many Italian and Irish
students at Fordham. He wanted me to know that I was excluded from that
Although, whether anybody else was the article doesn’t say.
Thanks to The Fordham Ram, Fordham University, Poly Prep
and City Squash.
Having previously written about the inexorable rise of Egyptian squash, it’s refreshing to share some recent stories from another African squash-playing nation with ‘wannabe’ aspirations: Nigeria.
In the context of international competition, Autumn 2019 saw history made as Babatunde Ajagbe became the first-ever Nigerian, male or female, to play in a PSA tournament final losing to Canada’s Michael McCue in the Kiva Club Squash Open in Sante Fe.
Three months later in Washington DC, Ajagbe led Nigeria’s four-man squad in the Men’s World Team Squash Championships, the first time that the country had taken part in the competition for 20 years. Drawn in Pool B with England, Wales and Canada, the team put in some strong individual performances eventually finishing in 21st position by beating South Korea and Singapore in the 21st-23rd place play-offs.
In 2019 Nigeria’s top woman player, Yemisi Olatunji, also competed in two PSA tournaments held in North America, reaching the second round of the Granite Open in Toronto and the Queen City Open in Regina. She also competed in the London Open in the UK where she lost 3-1 to England’s Alicia Mead in the first round.
In the context of Nigerian domestic politics, early 2020 saw the appearance of squash in the national media in the person of the nation’s Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo. The Veep, sporting a worn-the-right-way-round baseball cap, was pictured playing squash with his son on a suspiciously pristine private court at his residence in Abeokuta, Ogun State. The Professor was playing “to get fit” reported the Nairaland Forum website although some below-the-line comments were somewhat less charitable.
“Imagine. What vice president of a country starts the new
year playing squash – with tax
payers money!” raged one. “This kind of extravagance by the office of the vice
president is mind boggling! The man is supposed to be at his drawing board working
out how to fix the rot of 2019 but here he is playing squash!”
The Veep’s fitness regime, however, was defended by
another website commenter:
“What should he have started the year doing? Dining with you in your one-bedroom shack?”
Sometimes, its better just to let people get on court and play, isn’t it?
Thanks to Wikipedia, SquashInfo, and the TopMediaNG, Nairaland and Naija Squash Media websites.
with his finger on the pulse of global politics, I recently came across an
article which managed to address, simultaneously, the international development
of squash and the departure of the
United Kingdom from the European Union, also known as Brexit, i.e. the
departure not the EU.
I refer, of course, to the issue of the “Irish backstop” which is, effectively, an insurance policy meant to ensure that the land border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland remains open (as it is today) whatever the outcome of the UK and the EU’s negotiations about their relationship after Brexit.
“But what’s that got to do with squash?” I hear you say. Well, quite a lot, as it happens. Consider the following. The development of squash in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of Ulster Squash which supports the development of players through its “Player Pathway” from talent-spotting to World competition. The eagle-eyed amongst you will, of course, have spotted that the name “Ulster” actually refers to a province in the north of the island of Ireland made up of nine counties, only six of which constitute Northern Ireland. The remaining three (along with a further 23) are located in the Republic of Ireland, making a grand total of 32 on the island as a whole. Clear? Then consider this.
Ulster Squash works in partnership with Irish Squash, the governing body for the sport on the whole of the island of Ireland. Irish Squash itself is recognised by Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and the World Squash Federation. Most importantly, squash is, in the context of Irish sport, a cross-border sport along with Gaelic games (such as hurling), rugby, cricket, hockey, golf, boxing, tennis, table tennis, rowing, swimming, triathlon and, last but not least, motorcycling. For the record, there are also partitioned sports such as football (soccer to US readers), martial arts and motor-sports, all of which are governed separately north and south of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland land border.
In a cross-border sport development context it is, unsurprisingly, the border that’s causing pre-Brexit concern. In the case of squash, for example, cross-border competition is a key part of the development strategies of both Ulster Squash and Irish Squash. Currently, the border isn’t a barrier, in any practical sense, to the movement of players, coaches and supporters between venues. In fact, people can move freely between the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands within what’s known as the Common Travel Area, an informal arrangement which existed before the UK and Ireland joined the EU in 1973. So, there are no official passport checks if you’re travelling from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland to London in mainland UK.
the exit of the UK from the EU, however, there is concern that the border will
become a “hard” border complete with border posts, barriers and passport
controls. Understandably, the potential for a “hard” border is a
vital concern to business communities and farmers who have become used to the
free movement of goods. But the ending of the free movement of people could also cause a problem for the operation
and development of cross-border sport in Ireland.
A recent article for Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE) states: “In terms of the governance of Irish sport, it is clear that the vast majority operate on the basis of a “soft” border to ensure cross-border competition. While no border is designed specifically with sport in mind, the potential for disruption to sporting activity is enormous. Even for a sport already partitioned along what will become the UK-EU land border, the potential for disruption is clear.
“More worryingly, it is often suggested that the return of border infrastructure could lead to such equipment or the officials operating that border becoming the target of dissident republican violence.” Another
reason, perhaps, for those negotiating Brexit to turn their attention to the
issue of Irish squash development.
I think that
letters to Michel Barnier and Boris Johnson are in order, don’t you?
RTE, Ulster Squash, Irish Squash, Full Fact and Wikipedia.
For Part 1 of “Hijab Stories” go to the following link.
In the space of a few days in early August, I stumbled across two stories connected by a common theme: female squash players who represent their countries in international competition…and who wear the hijab.
The first story covered the final of the World Junior Womens Squash Team Championships held in Kuala Lumpur. As has become de rigeur in recent years, the final was contested between Egypt and another country, this time that country being the hosts, Malaysia. Both finalists in each of the other competitions taking place at the Championships, namely the Mens and Womens Singles, were, yes you’ve guessed it, also Egyptian.
But it was Malaysia’s 17-year old first string, Aifa Azman, that caught my attention by virtue of the fact that her kit incorporated a hijab. Although Azman lost her match to Egyptian first string (and just-crowned Junior Womens Singles champion) Hania El Hamammy, her performance in winning the first game pretty much demonstrated that, in squash at least, dress codes have adapted in recognition of the nature of the opportunities presented by international competition.
The second story described the experience of 12-year old US squash playerFatima Abdelrahman. En route to play in a tournament in Toronto, Abdelrahman had, according to news reports, cleared security at San Francisco Airport to board an Air Canada flight. Travelling with her older sister, she was reportedly asked by a ‘gate agent’ to remove her hijab, apparently without being given the option of doing so in private.
Irrespective of the circumstances, the social media storm triggered by the incident is, at the time of writing, still going strong. Yet, unlike Aifa Azman’s participation in a squash tournament, the Abdelrahman incident demonstrates how a single human conversation lasting seconds can generate so many secondary communications, between individuals not actually present at the time, unfamiliar with any of the people involved and, almost certainly, unaware of the existence of squash. Whether or not any of those communications will ultimately be helpful to any of the parties involved in the incident, I’ll leave for others to judge. Meanwhile, I’ll keep on looking for stories which celebrate a sport which, in my opinion, can compete with the best.
By any account, 2018 is shaping up to be a ground-breaking year for women, sport and road transport in Saudi Arabia. In early January women were, for the first time ever, allowed to attend (men’s) professional football matches albeit accompanied by their male chaperones and confined to segregated seating areas. This revolutionary relaxation of The Kingdom’s strict laws followed last year’s announcement that, from June 2018, women would, also for the first time, be allowed to drive cars thus raising the possibility of increased female car ownership, demand for driving lessons, congestion on Saudi roads, attendances at Saudi football matches and development of sports stadiums to cater for dedicated toilet and refreshment facilities for women.
Later in January, women spectators were similarly let loose in Riyadh’s Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University to watch the first PSA world series squash tournament for women to be held in Saudi Arabia. And that’s not all. Not only did the tournament attract many of the world’s best players but, in a symbolic move, a last-32 wildcard entry was granted to The Kingdom’s highest-ranked player, Nada Abo Al Naja, who thus became the first Saudi woman to play in a world series PSA event. Al Naja went out of the competition, losing to number 2 seed Camille Serme of France.
Saudi PSA Women’s Squash Masters Finalists 2018
The tournament, originally scheduled to take place in November 2017, was held with Saudi Arabia in the throes of internal reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman including the lifting of restrictions on the activities of women. With total prize money of US$165,000 up for grabs, the tournament was won by World number 1 Nour El Sherbini of Egypt who defeated her compatriot Raneem El Weleily 3-0.
As a matter of interest (well, it is to me anyway) Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which I have a 100% record of squash success having played and won two matches there. The matches were both played on a court at the Intercontinental Hotel in Riyadh (where I was staying) against fellow hotel guests, both of whom were travelling with their racquets in the hope of bumming a match with anyone they could find.
Hot on the heels of news that Serbia’s Cricket Federation has established a government-sponsored programme to encourage migrants and refugees to play cricket, comes an equally inspiring story from the world of squash.
The source of the story is the Kingdom of Jordan which, by early 2017, had seen over 650,000 Syrian refugees seeking shelter from the civil war raging in their country.
In 2016, US charity Reclaim Childhood, in partnership with the Jordan Squash Federation, announced an initiative to introduce Syrian girl refugees to squash. Fast forward a year and fifteen girls are now playing the sport coached by some of Jordan’s top-ranked players.
One of them is eleven-year-old Raghda Hasriyeh who practices with two of her sisters in the Jordanian capital of Amman and now dreams of a career in squash. Her father, Nizar Hasriyeh, says: “I don’t understand anything about this sport but I am so happy to see my three daughters playing squash. I hope to see them become world champions one day.”
With its costly rackets and purpose-built courts, squash might not seem an obvious choice for children displaced from Syria. But Reclaim Childhood says that getting the refugee girls involved in the sport can be invaluable in helping them deal with the hardships they face.
Life for Syrian refugees in Jordan is difficult but the families of those girls taking part in the squash programme have been able to move out of crowded camps to accommodation on the outskirts of Amman. At least in a small way, squash has proved a godsend for them and their children.
Millionaire UK political party donor Arron Banks has been forced to apologise to squash clubs throughout the world by US President Donald J. Trump, unnamed sources have claimed.
Arron Banks Apology Tweet
Banks had complained that the UK Independence Party was “being run like a squash club committee” implying that it was dedicated to promoting social interaction, public health and personal well-being through sports participation rather than peddling fake news and alternative facts to racist, misogynistic and gullible people. As part of a well-rehearsed and finely-nuanced statement, he had also accused UKIP’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell, of treachery in not doing enough to help former leader, Brexiteer and fellow millionaire Nigel Farage, get a knighthood. Later, asked to expand on his comments, Banks threatened to set up a rival political party that would “destroy” UKIP unless he was made party chairman.
Arron Banks, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage outside The Golden Squash Court in Trump Tower, New York
However, it has since emerged that news of Banks’s crie de coeur may subsequently have appeared in the Twitter feed of the billionaire US President. Outraged at the millionaire donor’s views on squash clubs, Trump is alleged to have alerted fellow sports enthusiast and rumoured squash buddy Farage, possibly urging him to take out Banks “with extreme prejudice”.
Within hours, Banks had issued an apology to “squash clubs across the UK” for his comments about the way in which they were being run, including how they elect committee members, welcome newcomers or plot with enemy powers. At the time of writing, however, it is not known whether President Trump, rumoured to be addressed as “Sir Donald” by members of his administration, regards Banks’s apology as sufficient as it does not apply to squash clubs either in the US or in Russia.