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Confronting the Lance factor

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Strained relations: Lance Armstrong and the media have often been at odds.WHEN Lance Armstrong appeared on television on August 23, I thought little of it. But it was deadline day. Would Armstrong defend himself against doping charges laid by the United States Anti-Doping Agency?
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I was three days into a holiday, sitting in a bar in Santa Monica with my wife. Life away from the bike was pleasant. Of course, Armstrong would fight USADA. It would go to a hearing later this year. Or, so I thought.

No sooner had we returned to our hotel from dinner and switched the television on that we learnt Armstrong had given up the fight. I was shocked that Armstrong had walked away, despite reading the statements from Armstrong and USADA. But by the next day I was disappointed. I had wanted to hear Armstrong answer USADA’s charges. Those charges were so serious I felt he needed to respond – for his sake if he was innocent – to everyone in cycling who deserved to know the truth, and still do.

Because of the conflicts it created, the Armstrong era heightened the ”omerta” which had wrongfully existed in the sport when it came to doping.

In my book What A Ride, I wrote of the Armstrong reign being bitter years on the Tour. Conflict on and off the bike was constant. He thrived on it.

One of my regular travelling partners was Sunday Times writer David Walsh who, with former professional cyclist and now journalist Paul Kimmage, has driven the quest to expose dope cheats. In doing so, both have crashed into conflict with Armstrong, who they have accused of doping. Both have also criticised the cycling media for failing to expose the gravity of doping in the sport, and for being complicit with the problem. They have a point. Had more cycling media – including myself – pursued doping more vigorously in the 1990s and early 2000s when it rocketed, maybe we would have been collectively stronger to tackle it sooner.

Maybe the discussion and investigation of today would have existed earlier, stymied doping’s explosion in cycling and paved the way for those who race clean to get the recognition they deserve earlier.

But as unbelievable and wrong as it was, it was not so easy to take Armstrong on. Since refusing to answer USADA’s charges, the agency has stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories. When he claimed the first in 1999, the success story spawned an explosion of business: media, broadcasters, advertisers, sponsors and race organisers all jumped aboard.

Yes. Me too, having known Armstrong since late 1992 when he turned professional after the Barcelona Olympics and leading up to his 1996 cancer diagnosis.

Walsh recently wrote of Armstrong being a puppeteer of a media reliant on access to him. There was also media reliant on the advertising gains from sponsors linked with him and his team. But cross him and you did so at your peril. I found out how access could be cut off as quickly as it was given. Twice I was on Armstrong’s black list, both times for being Walsh’s friend. The first time, the ban was lifted after I reminded Armstrong that ”guilt by association” was what he had accused the media of because he claimed disgraced Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari was a friend. But by 2003, when he knew Walsh and I were still travelling together, the ban was slapped back on for the rest of his Tour-winning years.

It was still an issue at the 2004 Tour. Walsh recently wrote that he was told by someone in our car in Liege that we could not take him because it would threaten co-operation with Armstrong. I can’t recall all the facts, nor do I dismiss how Walsh feels about what happened. What I do know is that I did not ask for him to not be in the car.

I had no access to Armstrong. And Walsh was a mate. Despite having argued that with Armstrong in emails, I once had a stand-up over that friendship with his sport director, Johan Bruyneel, and in 2003 with his press officer, Jogi Muller, who said I must choose my friends as he put a ban back on me.

But as Walsh wrote, I did later apologise for how it unfolded in 2004, and I still regret whatever circumstances led to him not following that Tour with us.

My access to Armstrong resumed by chance. When he announced his comeback in late 2008, I found an old email address and sent a message. A few minutes later he responded. His return to racing in 2009 was a huge story, especially in Australia, where he made his comeback at the Tour Down Under.

I knew, too, that for Armstrong’s comeback to succeed, he needed to rebuild bridges with the media. Fair enough, I thought. So regular interview access returned, including in late 2009 a visit to Austin, Texas, to follow him for two days on his cancer campaign and interview him about his comeback year, the highlight of which was his third-place Tour finish behind winner Alberto Contador.

He spoke of his disdain for Contador and admitted he fed off feuds and created them to reach his optimal competitive edge. So when he failed to win in 2009 and 2010, I felt he must have been clean. I didn’t think he would risk all he and his career stood for by doping to do it.

Fast forward to the aftermath of USADA’s verdict that Armstrong doped to win his Tours and during his comeback years. While I have reported on the doping accusations – since then and recently – and Armstrong’s responses, I have done so with the aim of being impartial until official evidence is presented. It is rumoured USADA will make its evidence public soon, possibly next week. That could be a lethal blow for Armstrong after last week’s launch of The Secret Race, co-written by Dan Coyle and former teammate and confessed doper Tyler Hamilton, which details doping allegations against him.

But if USADA’s evidence proves true, I will admit I got it wrong. These are times when everyone in cycling must be ready to acknowledge the errors of their beliefs and judgments if they really want the sport to advance. I am ready.

Rupert Guinness lived in Europe covering cycling from 1987-96. He has covered all of the world’s biggest races, including 24 Tours de France.

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Umpire a law unto himself, now

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Illustration: Jim PavlidisFINAL WORD
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THE Tom Hawkins ”goal” that clipped the post in the 2009 grand final was such a blatantly wrong decision that it precipitated the introduction of goal-line video technology. At the final siren, the margin between the Cats and St Kilda was six points. The Saints never contemplated a challenge to the legitimacy of the result.

David Trodden might wonder why not. He is a solicitor, and chairman of the Balmain Tigers Rugby League football club. The next year, the Wests Tigers lost a preliminary final to St George Illawarra in controversial circumstances.

The scores were tied at 12-12 with less than 10 minutes to play when St George’s Jeremy Smith kneed the Tigers’ Lote Tuqiri in the back as he fell to the ground in a tackle. The site of the incident was within the range of the Tigers’ kicker, Benji Marshall. But the video referee decided against a penalty. Soon afterwards, a field goal decided the match in favour of the Dragons (who went on to win the grand final).

The next day, the NRL charged Smith with dangerous contact, to which he pleaded guilty, all salt to the Tigers’ wounds. Trodden maintains that there was a fundamental miscarriage of justice because the referee mistakenly held that Smith’s action had to be intentional to constitute a breach of the rule.

In this year’s Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Journal, published this week, Trodden methodically argues the theoretical case for a legal challenge to the result of that match. Condensed from 40 pages to less than one, it might read as merely a reheating of the age-old and always unfulfilled threat: ”We’ll sue!” It is far more elaborate than that.

Trodden says the principle that the man in white is always right (with its implication that he is sometimes wrong) was acceptable when the only consequence of his occasional mistake was to imperil someone’s victory. Now, unarguably, sport is vast business, and poor officiating stands to cost participants millions of dollars. It did the Tigers.

Trodden says that other professionals – doctors, accountants, lawyers – are legally liable for their mistakes, so why not sports officials and their employers? Refining his argument, he agrees that it would be too harsh to hold on-field officials responsible in law for real-time, on-the-spot decisions. But he says there should be no mitigation for video referees.

Trodden explores two possible avenues of recourse for a wronged player or club, breach of contract and negligence. He studies international parallels, and exhaustively traces precedents akin to cases in Australia, as far back as 1880, when an owner sued Wyndham racing club in Victoria because stewards ordered a race won by his horse, Lilydale, be run again. He lost the case.

Trodden notes that the Court of Arbitration for Sport historically is loath to review on-field decisions, except where there is evidence of prejudice or corruption, fearing the opening of floodgates. He tells of a high school football game in the United States that a court ordered to be replayed because of a referee’s error, only for that decision to be overturned by a higher court, which ruled that it was not a legal matter.

Another US court remarked: ”Heaven knows what uncharted morass a court would find itself in if it were to hold that an athletic official subjects himself to liability every time he might make a questionable call.”

Trodden recounts the 1991 Dutch Cup final, which a referee declared finished with eight minutes remaining because of crowd trouble. The loser, BVV Den Bosch, fought the matter in three courts, won the right to a replay, then lost it because it was ruled that the referee was the sole authority.

Trodden acknowledges that most case studies and other guidelines mitigate against the likely success of an action by Wests Tigers. But, quoting an expert, he says the reluctance of courts to intervene was because of ”social convenience rather than rigorous legal reasoning”. He said this was changing as society changed, especially as state paternalism grew.

He says that, although Australian courts rarely overturn the decisions of expert arbitrators, they make exceptions where they believe there are errors in law rather than misjudgments. This, he says, is the crucial point for Wests Tigers: It was not that the video referee made a bad judgment; he misapplied the law.

As for a charge of negligence, Trodden demonstrates that no court had or would put a limit on what constituted negligence. He notes that rugby referees in England have been held liable for players’ injuries.

If Wests Tigers had acted in 2010, Trodden concludes, ”it is not far-fetched to suggest that they may have succeeded both in contract and in negligence”. ”One day soon,” he says, ”there will be someone who is sufficiently aggrieved by a refereeing decision and sufficiently well-resourced to go to court about it.”

He asked if Nathan Tinkler, for instance, who has so heavily invested in the Newcastle Knights, would content himself with muttering: ”Bloody referee.”

In Melbourne, Collingwood folk are still waiting for the leaden-footed law to catch up with the boundary umpire in the 1979 grand final.

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Obama’s plea: If you want change, stay with me

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ACCEPTING the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, Barack Obama roused his audience with a defence not only of his record and his plans for a second term, but of the very role of government in America, insisting that he still had hope and that change took time.
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“We don’t think governments can solve all our problems, but we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems — any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays or any other group we are told to blame for our problems,” he told a crowd of about 14,000 in a basketball arena in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“We, the people, recognise that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom that asks only ‘what is in it for me’, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals and those who died in their defence.”

The President began sombrely; acknowledging the crises the US has faced this century.

“Now, the first time I addressed this convention in 2004, I was a younger man, a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope. Eight years later, that hope has been tested, by the cost of war; by one of the worst economic crises in history; and by political gridlock that’s left us wondering whether it’s still even possible to tackle the challenges of our time.”

Mr Obama dismissed the Republican Party’s plan for ending America’s malaise by cutting taxes to shrink government and pay down debt.

“All they have to offer is the same prescription they have had for the past 30 years.

“Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another.

“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning.”

The President said voters faced the clearest choice in a generation at the election on November 6.

“Over the next few years big decisions will be made in Washington on jobs and the economy, taxes and deficits, energy and education, war and peace.

“On every issue the choice you face won’t just be between two parties or two candidates — it will be a choice between two different paths for America, a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”

Mr Obama’s speech listed the issues he saw as critical to a second term — including energy PAGE 2

CORRESPONDENT

Nick O’Malley analysis PAGE 9

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Gillard raises Pussy Riot jailing

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THE jailing of three members of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot sparked a formal complaint from Australia over the ”disproportionate” two-year sentence.
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The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, landed in Vladivostok last night to join representatives of 21 nations for the APEC summit.

She said the Australian embassy in Moscow had raised the plight of the feminist punk rockers last month shortly after their sentence was handed down.

The band members were jailed for ”hooliganism” after a provocative performance in a Moscow cathedral in February and for singing lyrics critical of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Ms Gillard said she expected to speak to Mr Putin during the forum but declined to say whether she would raise the issue of the jailed band members.

Russia has been widely criticised in the West over the crackdown on freedom of expression during Mr Putin’s rule – first as president until he slipped into the job of prime minister, only to return to the presidency after elections in March.

Ms Gillard said she expected leaders to make progress reducing trade tariffs on environmental goods.

Daniel Flitton

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Scores dead after boat sinks in Mediterranean

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LAMPEDUSA, Italy: Dozens of people were missing and 54 rescued after a migrant boat sank off the island of Lampedusa early yesterday, Italian officials said. Italian and NATO boats were last night searching the waters around the island, the BBC reported.
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A distress call to the port in Palermo, Sicily, said 100 people were on board the vessel, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Lampedusa, about 120 kilometres from Tunisia, is one of the nearest gateways to Europe for African migrants.

A spokesman for the Italian coast guard, Filippo Marini, said 54 people had been accounted for by early Friday morning local time, all of them Tunisian and in good health, Associated Press reported.

The migrant boat, reported to be 10 metres long, sank about 20 kilometres off Lampedusa.

Last year Amnesty International reported at least 1500 people had drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe.

At least 58 migrants drowned in the Aegean Sea just off the Turkish coast after a fishing boat that was carrying them sank early on Thursday, local officials told a Turkish news agency.

Forty-six others who were on the boat, including the two-man crew, reached shore safely, and were detained, the semi-official Anatolian News Agency reported, adding that two of the passengers were taken to hospital.

Fifteen of the dead were apparently locked in a cabin on the sinking boat, but it was not clear why, the officials said.

The boat was carrying more than 100 Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians who were apparently trying to migrate to the European Union when it struck rocks and foundered near the Turkish town of Menderes in Izmir province, the agency said.

Turkey’s Aegean coastal region and the Greek islands a short distance offshore are a frequent route for migrants seeking refuge in Europe, often by paying smugglers to transport them clandestinely by sea.

The Greek island of Samos is less than 30 kilometres from where the boat sank.

The New York Times

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To repel or to talk? Clinton confronts Haqqani dilemma

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Hillary Clinton is keeping the world guessing, as she prepares to lay down a critical marker on what the US really thinks of its chances of taming the Taliban and its satellite militias before the planned withdrawal of Coalition forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
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The US Secretary of State is required to report to Congress by tomorrow whether Washington will formally designate the Pakistan-based Haqqani network as a terrorist organisation.

With the exception of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the Haqqani network is one of the most brutal to confront the US and its allies and is, in the judgment of The Washington Post, more dangerous than any of the 50-odd organisations on the US blacklist.

That the Haqqani network has remained off the list in more than a decade since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan is proof of the uncertain gains in a mismanaged and relentless conflict – one in which there are only two more solid rounds of fighting in which US military force might act to persuade the key players to consider an alternative to never-ending war.

Quite apart from what could unfold in Afghanistan, Clinton’s decision will serve also to shape Washington’s uneasy relationship with a faltering government in Pakistan, which has long used terrorist and militia proxies to advance obsessive policy objectives – particularly in relation to India.

The debate in Washington is seen as a contest between the Pentagon’s belief in the persuasive force of military power and the State Department’s belief in negotiation and diplomacy as instruments to end war. Officials at the White House have tended to side with Clinton’s State Department, but late yesterday The New York Times quoted unnamed administration officials saying the Haqqani network was to be blacklisted.

The timing of Clinton’s decision is awkward because the northern autumn marks the end of this year’s so-called fighting season – winter makes it difficult for the Taliban to move men and supplies.

But the flipside of that is that winter is when there might be a shift towards a negotiated end to war, and branding the Haqqani network as terrorists would rob Washington of the opportunity to confer with the movement.

It might also make the Taliban less willing to talk, especially if there are only two more summers of combat before the local players will have to resolve the conflict on their own terms.

Dubbed the ”Sopranos of the Afghanistan war” by The New York Times, the Haqqani family has dominated war and brief periods of peace in three eastern provinces of Afghanistan for decades.

They aligned themselves with the CIA in the 1980s war against the Soviet Union and with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the conflict that followed September 11, 2001. But their network acts independently of the Taliban central leadership, which operates from the Pakistani border city of Quetta.

When it is not executing terrorist strikes causing mass death and injury at embassies, military bases and hotels frequented by westerners in Afghanistan, the family reputedly raises funds through kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, trucking, real estate, construction, car-dealerships and timber. It runs its own Talibanesque statelet in the Pakistani border town of Miram Shah, which is always watched but rarely interfered with by Pakistani authorities.

The network raises substantial funds in the Persian Gulf principalities, a spigot that could be threatened by US sanctions on wealthy individuals who contribute or financial institutions that process their offerings.

In the face of repeated pleading by the Pentagon for the Pakistani military to challenge the Haqqanis, Islamabad insists it is too stretched and does not have the capacity to engage the network. And although the CIA’s drone attacks have had mixed results, a strike last month claimed the life of Badruddin Haqqani, a son of the founder who was described as the network’s No. 3 leader.

The Obama administration has formally declared several individual members to be terrorists. But arguments against a formal terrorist designation for the movement range from the damage it might do to Washington’s perilously strained relationship with Islamabad and the risk it might pose to any resumption of tentative talks with the Taliban, which faltered early this year.

Describing the White House’s Afghanistan policy as ”heavily dependent” on a political solution to the conflict, an unnamed official posed this question to The Washington Post: “Why not do everything we can to promote that? Why create one more obstacle, which is largely symbolic in nature?”

Tomorrow’s deadline falls awkwardly, too, in the US presidential election campaign. The Obama camp is reportedly reluctant to be seen to act in a conciliatory way towards the Taliban or the Haqqanis. But perhaps that’s a moot point, given that his challenger, Mitt Romney, failed even to mention this hot war for which he would be commander-in-chief should he win the election, when he accepted the nomination at last week’s Republican National Convention.

A Clinton decision to defer designating the network as a terrorist movement would lend support to a belief in Washington that the Haqqanis and, by association, the Taliban are redeemable, and a negotiated end to the conflict is possible.

Conversely, putting Islamabad, the Taliban and the Haqqanis offside by labelling the network terrorists and putting perhaps all parties beyond genuine negotiation, sketches the contours of a bleak future in the region – an unresolved conflict in Afghanistan with all regional players, and Washington, sticking their oar in.

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Bizarre entry to Moon’s orbit as empire fell and a cult flourished

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To Moscow with the Moonies! Of all the assignments that can come in a reporter’s career, this had to be the weirdest.
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Across my desk at the old Far Eastern Economic Review office in Hong Kong in early 1990 came a letter inviting me to speak at the forthcoming World Media Conference in Moscow, all expenses paid.

It was clear from back-up information that this was ultimately sponsored by the Unification Church. Indeed its founder, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, would preside in person.

Quibbles about dubious sponsorship were set aside by my boss: this was a genuine news event, one of the more bizarre conjunctions happening as the Soviet system unravelled after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On arrival at Moscow’s international airport, Moon’s guests were ushered into a shabby VIP room with an equally dubious collection of VIPs, including several former Latin American dictators, the widow of Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat and a former vice-president to Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.

At the Slavyanskaya Hotel, fellow delegates proved an eclectic mix. The most engaging company at the breakfast buffet was Nikolai Tolstoy, a British author of wartime history and a descendant of Russia’s greatest writer, and Sir Alfred Sherman, a lively London political gnome who had been a trusted adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

At the opening session in the main hall, some of America’s most fiercely anti-communist commentators and think-tankers filed in. This was a gathering of hawks in the very heart of the ”evil empire” – there to watch its downfall. Some did not trust their eyes, wondering aloud if they were being inveigled into a Soviet front organisation.

Moon and his wife greeted delegates in a reception line. His handshake was perfunctory. The eyes in the granite face barely made contact. If he was the new messiah, it wasn’t much of a blessing.

Rising from a vast podium, Moon began a sermon. It went back to basics in his theology, starting with the original sin, which he said was Eve’s illicit sex with Satan, the unfinished mission of Jesus that Moon himself had taken up by forming the ”perfect family”, and the ongoing battle with Satan that would end with Armageddon, fought roughly along the 38th parallel between North and South Korea.

As it went beyond an hour, Moon’s audience of Cold War warriors gazed fixedly at different points of the ceiling, not catching anyone’s eyes.

Next morning in the breakfast line, one of them quipped: ”I gotta say, I was rootin’ for Satan.”

My turn to speak came, after a former Japanese vice-minister of transport suggested a network of highways around Asia, so that perfect families could motor over to see one another. I gave a rundown on current Asian affairs. The audience dozed. A few journalistic colleagues smirked.

After the conference, I went on a tour of the Soviet republics in central Asia. Russian settlers gathered fearfully in their nomenklatura clubs and hotels, getting drunk and dancing the lambada. In Ashkhabad, Ukrainian missile officers shared gassy Georgian champagne and wondered in which army they would be the following year. In Samarkand, local Aeroflot pilots filled me with vodka and put me on the flight back to Moscow.

When I arrived, the May Day parade in Red Square had become a shambles, the crowds waving the Russian tricolour and imperial double-headed eagle instead of the hammer and sickle.

With this notch in his pulpit, Moon was on his way to the final stage of his crusade against communism. A year or two later, he visited Pyongyang to meet Kim Il-sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the lifelong political satan in the Moon world view. Kim gave him a licence to set up a car assembly plant.

”They were reconciled,” says Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at the University of Sydney. And why not? As Petrov notes, Moon’s ”cocktail” of religions and ideologies – Christianity, Confucianism, shamanism and anti-communism – was a mirror-image of Kim’s Juche (self-reliance) mix of nationalism, communism, neo-Confucianism, and Korean nativism.

Both played heavily on the Korean dream of national reunification. Moon was to claim Kim nominated him as the one to bring the two halves together. When Moon died this week, aged 92, it still hadn’t happened.

Cults flourish when empires weaken. In 19th century Korea, as European powers and Japan forced the hermit kingdom open, there was the Tong Hak (Eastern Teaching) movement, which became fiercely anti-foreign, like the Taiping and Boxers in neighbouring China.

Moon’s church grew in a Korea humiliated by 35 years of Japanese annexation, then ravaged by the vicious Korean War. It was one of the exotic faiths, including even Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo (which carried out the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo metro), that were taken up by some Russians in the ”crisis of faith” as communism collapsed.

Moon was a prominent lobbyist for South Korea’s military dictator, Park Chung-hee. Moon’s jail term in the US for tax evasion was seen as a kind of martyrdom by his followers, and a badge of honour among many American neo-cons.

Criticising him was risky. A skinny Presbyterian theology professor, Tahk Myung Whan, who set out to expose Moon and other cults, was arrested many times. I am told Tahk was found murdered in his apartment more than a decade ago. He would have angered many fanatics, not just the Moonies.

South Korea is now a prosperous, wired society, where the past that nurtured Moon and the Unification Church is a foreign country for the young. That country still exists across the 38th parallel. What strange flowers of belief will emerge there?

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Grim vista for a lost generation

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Eva Valiente … “The laws are weak for beginning people.”When Eva Valiente finished her university studies in advertising, she wrote applications to 200 companies in Madrid. She did not get a single reply.
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So Valiente got part-time work with a chain of fashion shops. They sacked her when she turned 25 – she was too old for their look now, they said.

”It is illegal but the laws are weak for beginning people,” she says, with the hard-earned wisdom of a 26-year-old.

She tells of a friend who was offered a ”job” in which she would work from 9am to 9pm five days a week – and get no salary for a year. Talking of the desperation of young Spaniards for work, she says, ”It’s for crying.”

Spain’s youth unemployment rate is a staggering 53 per cent, the highest in the 17-member eurozone. Among the jobless are Valiente’s boyfriend, a lawyer who has never had work in his field, and two of her sisters: one, a graphic designer who has never worked, and the other, a psychologist who recently lost her job. All of this in a middle-class, educated family; Valiente’s father is a doctor.

The eurozone now has 3.3 million young people who cannot find work. Leading this dismal set of statistics are Spain and its fellow victim of the financial crisis, Greece (52.8 per cent). With half the eurozone nations in recession, there are now enough unemployed people of all ages to make up a middling-sized country: 25 million.

There are warnings of a ”lost generation” from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. In a report in July, it demanded urgent action to stop the cyclic jobless problem becoming permanent, particularly for the young. ”We need to avoid the risk of a lost generation by all means,” the OECD secretary-general, Angel Gurria, said.

An alarming report by the World Economic Forum on ”Global Risks 2012” used even tougher language. It warned that with unemployment and systemic financial crises, the world was sowing ”the seeds of dystopia”, defined as ”the opposite of utopia, a place where life is full of hardship and devoid of hope”.

The report, based on the views of 469 leaders from industry, government, academia and non-government organisations, warned that rapid global changes risked producing misery for much of humanity. The risks included ”a large youth population [that] contends with chronic, high levels of unemployment, while concurrently, the largest population of retirees in history becomes dependent upon already heavily indebted governments. Both young and old could face an income gap, as well as a skills gap so wide as to threaten social and political stability”.

Declining economic conditions could jeopardise the social contracts between states and citizens and increase nationalism and populism. The forum warned of the emergence of ”critical fragile states – formerly wealthy countries that descend into lawlessness and unrest as they become unable to meet their social and fiscal obligations”.

The No. 1 risk to global stability, according to the report? Major systemic financial failure – that is, the collapse of finance or banking institutions, or even a whole currency.

All of which leads back to Spain and its potential to wreak economic disaster upon the rest of Europe and, perhaps, the world.

Madrid does not look like the capital of a struggling nation. Its broad, proud boulevards and graceful old buildings speak of majestic confidence. Its many public gardens are green and manicured, despite a hot summer. Madrid does not seem to have in any numbers beggars such as the Romanies on Parisian streets, or the English homeless holding out plastic cups for coins in London.

But Spain is suffering. Greece’s public writhing under the agonies of austerity in a recession has been the focus of headlines. This is because if the eurozone falls, Greece is likely to be the first domino. But in many ways Spain is the bigger worry.

Greece is a small nation and accounts for only 3 per cent of the eurozone economy. While its exit from the euro might trigger a crisis of confidence in Europe’s financial markets, the euro would have a chance of surviving it. But Spain is Europe’s fourth-largest economy and is widely considered too big to bail.

That did not stop the European Central Bank deciding in June to lend Spain up to €100 billion ($126 billion) to help its struggling banks in an attempt to ward off a more serious emergency.

Spain is in financial crisis – and Valiente and her family and friends are out of work – because of what Spaniards call ”the brick bubble”. When Spain joined the euro, credit became cheap as the European Central Bank kept interest rates low for the whole zone. Spaniards bought property, leading to a construction boom. In 2007 came the bust.

Credit tightened. People stopped buying. The value of houses plummeted, some by more than 50 per cent, leaving many people owing big mortgages worth more than the property involved. Banks found themselves weighed down with mortgage defaults and toxic assets worth a fraction of their previous value. The countryside is dotted with ghost towns, huge housing developments unfinished and unsold. Federal and regional governments that had spent big as revenues flowed like rivers of gold found themselves unable to balance budgets.

The human cost is dire. Spain now has 1.7 million households in which no one is working, and the government says it does not expect joblessness to fall below 22 per cent until at least 2015.

For Valiente and others like her this means adult life is on hold indefinitely. She and her boyfriend would like to live together but they can’t afford it, she says in frustration: ”You can’t leave home. You can’t be in a couple. You can’t be a mother. You feel like you are too old for everything, but at the same time, you have to live like you’re a 15-year-old. You live with your parents; you live like a teenager.”

This pattern of delayed adult milestones is also showing up in statistics, says a sociologist, Almudena Moreno Minguez, of Valladolid University. ”If you compare us with other European countries, Spaniards are now marrying three or four years later, on average, and having children six or seven years later.”

This is partly because many of those aged between 25 and 34 who moved out of home a few years ago when they started work are returning because they’re unemployed and broke. Parents call them ”boomerangs”, she says.

”The parents aren’t happy. There comes a point when even the family cannot support another three or four members at home.”

She says research shows young people are feeling angry and alienated from the formal structures of society; they feel they have no voice in the deciding of public affairs. Recent improvements to welfare benefits did not include them, she says, and Spain spends less of its GDP on training and education than the rest of the eurozone.

Many Spaniards talk with disdain of the ”botellones” (from the word for big bottles) – young people who gather at night in public places to drink and party because they can’t afford clubs or bars.

Moreno says: ”Even worse than not investing in them, people here try to make them feel guilty, ‘You are responsible for this situation.’ It’s like they have spat them out.”

A survey of young people aged 15-29 asked them to rank different institutions according to how well they respected them. Moreno says, ”They gave justice 3, unions 4.5 – and politicians 2.”

Their disdain for politicians is shared by their elders. The newspaper columnist Luis del Pino, who contributes to El Mundo, says Spaniards have an old saying, ”Two things are bad for your health – politicians and smoking, in that order.”

He says ”legal” political corruption is to blame for many of the financial problems. Regional politicians manipulated local banks to encourage finance for local projects: ”They put boards of directors that oriented these savings banks towards giving credit to big construction companies who were friends of the politicians. All this subsequently collapsed.”

Four Spanish banks that have been part-nationalised because of toxic debts have at least €71 billion in bad loans on their books. Politicians also made many political appointments to get friends and supporters on the public payroll, he says. ”Mayors and ministers have a total of 17,000 ‘personal advisers’, according to my colleagues at El Mundo. That’s an €850 million expense each year.”

And some politicians also manipulated the ”brick bubble” for personal profit, buying land they knew was to be rezoned and reselling it for many times the original value, he says.

But Spain also has tight labour laws that need reform. Both right-wing and left-wing economists agree that the regulations, generous but not entirely unreasonable in the boom times, now serve to lock young people out of work.

Sick employees can get most or all of their wages for 18 months. Employees can be sacked without a payout only in the first year, and many long-serving staff would cost €80,000 or more to let go. Businesses stay small because once they reach 50 employees, they must have five workplace representatives to bargain on wages and conditions who each receive 15 paid hours a month for these duties. Companies also pay higher rates of tax once they have more than 25 staff.

Inigo del Toro Calonje lost his job as an environmental engineer with a company designing golf courses when the boom burst. Golf courses had sprung up to add value to housing developments in the middle of nowhere but suddenly his company’s clients stopped paying and Calonje, unable to find another job, decided to set up a consultancy.

It cost him €4000 and took three months to set it up to comply with government regulations. He earns only 60 per cent of what he earned as an employee but must pay company taxes each month and is driven mad by the different environmental regulations in Spain’s 17 regions.

He is not the only one feeling punished by ”la crisis”. ”Social instability is a risk because we will have a large group of young unemployed for a long, long time,” warns Moreno. ”It will produce social conflict and the social structure will break down because young people don’t see any future; they don’t see any solution. What is going to happen in three or four years if we don’t find a solution?

”Here, democracy is quite young. It’s less than 40 years [since dictator General Franco died], it’s nothing. Our structures are quite weak. It’s hard to predict but if groups such as the long-term unemployed, the young people with no future and the people who have been evicted join together, their social power could be terrible, and dangerous, too.”

Luis de Pino is another who can foresee possible trouble. He warns of the ”amazing speed” with which the middle class, the backbone of any developed society, is disappearing.

”It would be a disaster if this led to the rise of political extremism. Franco is within living memory here. When you put several million people in a desperate enough situation, then they will hear anyone who promises them some hope, even if that anyone is the most despicable man.”

Those questions are too big for most of the young jobless, for whom the main question is where to go next.

Many are considering joining the tens of thousands leaving the country to seek their fortune in foreign lands.

Enrique Melendez, 30, who lost his job writing for a public relations firm, is thinking about emigrating to South America. It’s far away but they speak Spanish there, he says.

He is grateful to have worked at all: ”At least the people around 30 had a job and lost it. At least we have had the experience of work. It’s more dangerous for the next ones coming behind us, who’ve never had a job and have no experience.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Great season but climate change brings snow blindness

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THE ski bunnies, the electro-engineers and the resort operators all agree on one thing: 2012 is the best season in the Snowy Mountains for a long time.
Nanjing Night Net

According to the levels measured by Snowy Hydro, the snow was 204 centimetres deep on August 30, which is as deep as it has been since 2004.

Some say the quality and consistency of the snow is as good as it was in the famous 2000 season. Others mutter about 1990. Thredbo resort is so excited it has extended its season until next month.

What they can’t agree on is how long it will last.

While climate scientists predict Australian ski seasons in future will have scantily clad slopes, the ski resorts prefer to focus on the here and now, while hedging their bets with technology that maximises the snow they have, for however long they have it.

”It’s the best since 2000 in terms of snow quality,” Reggae Elliss, the editor of ChillFactor magazine and a long-time Thredbo resident, says.

”It’s been consistent because the season started early. We had really good snow in June and it stayed cold for a long time.”

This was Elliss’s 22nd Thredbo winter, so he has seen some change, both of the climate and cultural kind.

The biggest transformation, he says, is in the sophistication and the reliability of the resorts’ snow-making.

Whereas once it was a crude affair, involving men on a skidoo pumping out snow manually through a hose attached to a hydrant, now it is sprayed across the slopes by giant guns. The guns are connected by optic fibre, and operate automatically when the temperature hits the right point.

”It’s better than being at the mercy of nature all the time,” Elliss says.

But nature will have its way, at least according to climate scientists.

The CSIRO predicts that compared with 1990 levels, there will be 60 per cent less snow on the slopes by 2020, under a high emissions scenario, which is what we’re tracking towards.

”Resorts, national parks and local government researchers have all moved on from ‘Is it happening?’ to ‘How do we deal with it?’,” says Catherine Pickering, a climate scientist and associate professor at Griffith University.

When asked about Thredbo resort’s contingency plans for climate change, the communications manager, Susie Diver, says that snow, just like rainfall, ”goes up and down”.

”You have to make sure you have different infrastructure in place to smooth out those ebbs and flows.”

Richard Phillips, a spokesman for Perisher Blue, says he doesn’t think snow levels will fall off dramatically in the next decade.

”We are making sure we maximise the customer’s experience in the short term,” he says.

Elliss says the business operators and resort personnel in the area err on the conservative side when it comes to climate change thinking.

”I think they would like to believe the sceptics, but it’s pretty bloody obvious to me,” he says. ”It’s real. You can be in denial about it all you want.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Night net

Come on down, grow on up

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SOME television shows attract a lot of attention. A breakout drama or comedy, controversial reality show or quest to find the best dancer/singer/cook/farmer-seducer will be spoken about at water coolers and urinals across the country.
Nanjing Night Net

But some shows never get talked about. They exist in a murky netherworld, shunning the public like a photophobic sewer mutant. Fitting into this category is the strange and mysterious genre known as the children’s game show.

So rarely do kids’ game shows get a mention, yet for generations they have been a touchstone of the adolescent experience. As a lad, these shows introduced me to such legendary names as Michael Pope, Eden Gaha, James Sherry, Tony Johnston and that guy with the hair from Challenger. And I dreamt that one day I, too, could go in front of the cameras and become the toast of the nation by giving embarrassingly off-base answers to simple questions, running through nightmarishly surreal mazes or just staring blankly into space. Such dreams are what childhood was made of. Then we got a little older and gave up those dreams, but still had hours of fun cackling like magpies at how dumb those kids were.

What fun it was to sit down after school and watch a terrifyingly enthusiastic semi-celebrity bound up to a youngster encased in an enormous foam-rubber battery and stackhat and hit them with a brain-teaser such as ”How many toes do you have?” or ”Which way is up?”, upon which the child would gaze at them with a look of vacant panic before stuttering, ”Mariah Carey?” and the host would lie and tell them it was a good try and everyone would go home with a pencil case or a Goosebumps book or something.

Happily, the genre is still very much alive. Recently, our screens have been graced by the dramatic thrill-quiz Pyramid, which revolves around schoolchildren and television personalities without jobs looking tensely at each other without any idea what the other is talking about until the buzzer goes. Two fine examples air at the moment. On Channel Nine, we have Kitchen Whiz, which combines trivia and handy cooking tips with a dreadlocked host who looks as though he’s been inflated with a bike pump, and a racial stereotype in a karate outfit who grunts and waves a wooden spoon. Like all good kids’ game shows, it is bafflingly garish and weird, and features winning demonstrations of juvenile brilliance such as the contestant who, on being asked, ”Hot cross buns are associated with which celebration?” replied, ”Baker’s Delight”.

On Channel Seven, there’s Match It, a more sedate affair in which children try to match words to pictures and ignore the audience shouting at them. It doesn’t have the fever-dream quality of Kitchen Whiz but it does have awkward interactions and bewildering answers, which are gold to the connoisseur.

The important thing is that these shows are out there, practically invisible to the wider public but still providing something for our youth to aspire to – a platform for, possibly, the finest tween minds and an excellent way to market creepy Bratzillaz dolls to the after-school market. As long as kids’ shows reign at 4pm, I’ll feel that a little bit of my childhood remains alive, like a certain children’s game show that aired in the ’90s. Let’s just say there’s a little bit of my heart that is forever A*mazing.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.