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Alexander Dale Oen 1985-2012

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Alexander Dale Oen jokingly told me that he´d happily have my calf muscles to improve his starts, even though they may cause some drag in the water. I was telling him how his physique would suit kettlebell sport, more specifically the snatch, with his long arms and explosive hips. After the Olympics in London, he said, I could teach him more about kettlebells, but until then his coaches wouldn´t be too happy. I explained some of the movements and could tell he was genuinely interested.

Dale Oen had recently returned from Shanghai where he was crowned 100m breaststroke world champion. We occasionally met at my local gym, shared stories, joked and had a mutual appreciation of the science behind training. When I last spoke to Oen, we briefly mentioned London 2012, where he offered to try and sort me out tickets to the aquatic centre. I´d followed his progress from a shoulder injury and he seemed quietly confident he would be back in top shape come July. Sadly, just last week on April 30th, Alex suffered a suspected cardiac arrest whilst at a national team training camp in the US, and died, aged 26.

For a small nation like Norway, Oen´s death came as a massive shock. Few athletes have made it to the top of genuine world sports, and his humility and humble roots made for an extra outpouring of grief. He had, the nation well remembers, dedicated his world title last year to the victims and families of the terrible tragedies tat struck Oslo and Utøya on 22 July. In Bergen, the town he was born in and raised close by, the feeling was one of losing its most illustrious son.

As one who has dabbled in sports psychology, I had a particular fascination with the mindset of those elite athletes who seemed to handle the enormous pressures of training and competition to make it to the very top. I once shared a coffee with Alex after training, having recently returned from Solomon Islands where I had been working with elite footballers. There were many ways those players handled pressures, and I was interested in finding common threads, using previous studies of elite rugby league players in New Zealand as further comparison.

Dale Oen spoke of his continuous search for movement patterns that could make him swim faster. Training hard was something he had always been used to, and enjoyed. But his recent rise to the top of world swimming was due to new discoveries which he was sure put him at an advantage over his competitors. I had heard elite athletes talking about “that something extra” before, and even though few had given me a clear definition of what that was, I assumed it was connected to an unconscious pattern of moving beyond conscious and habitual performance. The skills elite athletes posses are often expressed in effortless ways, almost as a transcendence of the self. I had pondered a lot on this so-called “zone”, and never wanted to bore or confuse the athletes I´d spent time with all the literature. I was simply interested in what the “feel” was like.

With slight, but continual changes in his training and technique, Oen told me that on certain occasions (usually in training) he felt so effortlessly fast. This wasn´t the case when he won the world title surprisingly. “Not the perfect race by any means”, he said. I asked him what was unique about world champions, and I sensed his typical modesty when he explained that some athletes simply had a better capacity to eliminate inhibiting movement and interference that would slow them down, at the same time as they had found an optimal balance of training technique, volume and ability to fire at a very important moment. Hard work, he added, was a necessity even for those with supreme natural abilities.

ImageWe spoke about other sports and joked about my experiences in Norway, and my lack of swimming ability. Could I become a world class swimmer without shaving my body, I asked?. “I know a good waxer in Oslo”, Alex replied. But what about my chunky legs?, I said. “Just enter the 50m, jump from the blocks so hard that you reach the end in one breath!”.

I sensed Dale Oen had reached the top not only because of his natural talent, work ethic, and top coaching apparatus, but also his open mind when it came to learning how to possibly go faster. “I´ve met swimmers from all over the world, and listened to the way they talk about training and preparation. There is no single way to train, or do anything well. You just have to keep thinking, keep doing things, and learn when things go wrong”.

Dale Oen was optimistic and excited about London 2012, just as he was about getting some food after our chat, and finding out about my ´secret´calf-training methods. We parted ways, and said we´d keep in touch. Sadly, it was the last I saw of Alex. I will remember him as a champion not just of the swimming pool, but of the human spirt. He possessed qualities of warmth, humor, humbleness and humility and was fiercely proud of his birthplace and nation. He will be sorely missed by all who were lucky enough to be touched by his presence, but whose legacy will last for generations to come.

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Barcelona vs. Chelsea and the changing ontology of football

Jose Mourinho summed it up well when asked about the criticism levelled for Chelsea’s remarkable semi-final victory over two legs against Barcelona in this season’s UEFA Champions League. He also spoke to what we may begin to speak of as a new ontology of modern football:

They know nothing


Some people think they are the masters of the game and they will criticise Chelsea in the same way that they criticised Inter two years ago, but they know nothing. Nothing.They know nothing about character and personality. They know nothing about the effort or what it is to resist physically, emotionally and technically, with 10 men. They know nothing about organisation. They know nothing. That’s why my heroes at Chelsea are in my mind and why Chelsea deserve to be in the final. One of the great things about football is that it is unpredictable“.

The Bayern Munich coach, Jupp Heynckes, whose side will meet Chelsea in the final following a dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the second semi-final, admitted he was surprised Chelsea had reached the final but praised them for a “tactical masterpiece” against Barcelona.

Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech simply stated that… “this is why everyone loves football: things happen which you just cannot explain“.

The Guardian’s Richard Williams wrote

On one side there was delighted admiration for a revelation of character under supreme duress, on the other a scathing contempt for a team who were considered to have abdicated all responsibility for playing the game in a way that might entertain the multitudes and inspire impressionable children. You really would not believe we had witnessed the same match“.

Explaination, or our thoughts and emotions, are constructed in the language we use to express our understandings of, in this instance, football. We might hear that a game is a masterpiece, a travesty of justice, or, in the case of Petr Cech, unexplainable. Those that try, says Mourinho, know nothing. For philosophers, interest lies in the world of experience and explanation outside often beyond our language capabilities. In other words, football can only be explained through the way we understand our conceptions of the world. This dogmatic language we repeatedly hear through the media channels and on the streets around the world is merely a reflection on the way we conceive the world, and the game of football.

What alternatives do we have?. Why do we know nothing? Have we witnessed a different game?

Firstly, let us consider the possibility that a football match is more than merely a game. That players are more than purely men running about looking to control a ball. Our language has become accustomed to thinking through, and representing what we see via the categories of understanding that we learn through our conceptual ideas about the world and the game. We may agree or disagree with the way Chelsea overcame Barcelona, but what lies beyond this disagreement?. If we move beyond the category of representation then we enter the realm of what might be?.

For Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher of the metaphysics, the way the game might be represented is the result of two essential functions: Distribution, which it ensures by the partition of concepts (common sense) and hierarchization, which it ensures by the measuring of subjects (good sense). So, a game may be exciting or boring or unjust or confusing. We use our ideas of representation to clarify our thoughts, just as Plato, Aristotle and Kant have done in the past. When the game is viewed differently, it is because different people draw upon categories of explanation (common sense) that are stable, rather than offering porous possibilities. What if we consider dropping the (common sense) categorical identities we use to think about the game, and help us explain it, and instead look beyond recognizable conditions that dictate our judgements of the game?.

Bear with me, as I quickly identify the elements we use in representing our thoughts (thanks to Aristotle, who, should you ever find yourself in a philosophical quandary, usually has the answer). We judge things and conceive our world in terms of: identity, analogy, opposition and resemblance. We adopt common sense, and try to use this through the rationale of good sense. Language and our conceptualizations about the world dictate our expressions and actions in other words. So why can we look to football as a way beyond the conformity of thought?.

Ontology, in traditional analytic philosophy, refers to the study of what there is. This could be very general (what constitutes the universe) or specific (what constitutes a football encounter). Or, what makes up the psychology of the mind, the body in social interaction. Another take on ontology, looks at the study of being. What is being or what is it for something to be?. For Foucault and Derrida (yes, French philosophy can be useful in this instance) ontology of the human being is fraught with bias based upon the historical conditions of our existence and the language used to explain it. The ontology Deleuze refers to, takes a new approach to many before him, by looking at the question of how things might be, rather than continuing attempts to explain the fundamental nature of the universe (and football) which in itself is bound by the limits and categories of our explanations.

Football then, rather than being a project of explanation (of our thoughts, emotions or technical analysis) can be seen as an ontological project of creation. We need to create and employ different concepts which will enable the game to be seen in a different light. We need to see the potentials in the game that open up a multiplicity of perspectives, free from the categories of representation we see employed (often frustratingly) today. We need to look at the differences apparent in the very elements mentioned above we use for making sense of our world. By sticking to rigid conformity and mechanical repetition (as fans and as reporters/thinkers of the game) we continue to immerse ourselves in the very structures of judgement that confine us to scratching our heads on a regular basis when things don´t make sense. Football, like ontology, need not provide answers, but can be seen as an arena for thinking about future possibilities that extend into all aspects of our lives. We can look at the differences taking place on the football field, easily highlighted in the semi-final matches between Chelsea and Barcelona, rather than using stable conceptual identities to form and fabricate our analysis of the game.

Philosophy, ontology and football do not provide answers, if we continually try to place ourselves in coherent frameworks of understanding. By describing a game as good or bad, or a team as extravagant or adopting anti-football, we are adopting concepts that are interlinked with a multitude of difference, yet we represent them as static categories. Difference then, ought not to be something we can easily represent, or we step back into the same old realm of dogmatic thought. Difference as represented through football, is what lies in the unexplained (Petr Cech mentions this) beyond the conformity of the various representations and reactions to the game. Football is not about finding answers to easily stated problematics. A victory is a victory (and to some, but not all, the most important thing) but there are many ways of achieving this. The solution, or the result, can often take precedence in defining the way the game is played. A new ontology of football then, seeks to stretch what everybody knows or perceives, and enters into a world of the unknown that is full of potentials. It is like feeling ill, and having a confused doctor poke about on your stomach. There is an issue, but it is hard to define despite our best efforts (whether it be poking or representation through language).

Mourinho was right in saying that “they know nothing“, as was Cech in saying the game “cannot be explained“. Perhaps they are aware of newer ontological ways of thinking about football?. Representation cannot capture everything about football. How then, does language help us with this new ontology that seeks to broaden the questions surrounding what the game (life) might be like?. Language will always be an asymmetrical representation of the way we conceive of our world. Just as thought will always involve both conscious and unconscious elements. If we accept what we hear and read, and find ourselves making judgements on a game of football in an uncritical way, then maybe the task of thinking through a football game will not take up more than the odd 90 minutes of your time. If, however, you see others as knowing nothing, yet cannot explain things yourself, then you are a mere mortal (like Jose) and a new ontologist. Football is often spoken about in terms of models and prescriptions, but needs to be viewed beyond the comfort zone of our engrained bias. There is more to the game than we know, and we are yet to see what it may be like.

 
 

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