48 hours in Baku, Azerbaijan

Fountains Square, Baku (c) flickr/Francisco Anzola

Azerbaijan’s capital Baku in 2012 had the world’s attention when the Eurovision song contest came to town and the millions invested in prettifying Baku has given the Azerbaijanis something to sing about.

The Eurovision spotlight has since left Baku but this spectacular capital has been left with a more than just a bright sparkle. So what can the avid traveller cram into 48 hours in this relatively undiscovered Caucasus gem?

Must Stay

The Boyuk Gala Hotel is ideally situated in the side streets of the Baku old city which is hemmed in by a sand coloured ancient wall. For business trips or a couples retreat the Boyak Gala is ideal. The rooms are decorated in typical Caucasus style, deep colours adorning the walls with delicate pastel colours all blending together to give a feel of warmth and comfort. The antique furniture, buffed to perfection, helps add to the comfortable feel of the room and support the necessary mod-cons. Free Wi-Fi, plasma television and a marble balcony are all extra luxuries that come as standard in this well priced abode.



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Must Stroll

On a sunny morning it is a pleasure to walk along the restored cobbled roads and side streets of the Baku old city. Baku means the ‘city of wind’. The brisk winds blowing in from the Caspian Sea barely effect the old city. The ancient city walls offer a wind break as well as a glorious spectacle to glaze at from the comfort of an Azeri restaurant.

Stalls and local shops are well placed in the old city. Tucked into old buildings and around the various historical monuments they offer everything from tourist trinkets to the national speciality – carpets.

Baku carpets (c) flickr/Loom Studio

The high streets with impressive modern Azeri buildings have fantastic shopping opportunities with everything from H&M to Prada available. Baku has a mix of old and modern, east and west and somehow they all blend into, something ‘Azeri’.

Fountain Square in down town Baku was first constructed in Soviet times and has since been developed and remodeled by the Azerbaijanis. To get there it is easiest to walk up Nizami Street past several 19th century buildings that inspire the imagination. The fountains at night are lit up and during the day it is a popular destination.

Must Lunch

Sadj fried chicken (c) wikimedia/Emin Bashirov

If you are on a budget, there are huge varieties of street food available from stalls and open air markets throughout the city. Going in December the choice of having roasted chestnuts and an Azeri coffee for under €3 is a perfect nibble for the peckish explorer. As you walk along the Neftciler Prospekti promenade by the sea you come to the Sahil restaurant. The Sahil restaurant serves Azerbaijani and western food with fluent English speaking staff who are warm and welcoming. It is not cheap by Azeri standards but with such a favourable conversion rate it is a shame not to indulge. The Caspian Sea fish arrives fresh off the boat every morning, making the taste as authentic of true Azeri Caspian cuisine as possible.

Wine lovers take note: if you’re a fan of new world wine you will love the local grape. The whites are crisp, flavourful and retain an aroma individual to the locally grown grape.

Must Visit

Baku Old Town (c) flickr/Adam Jones

The Maiden Tower is a UNESCO World Heritage historical monument in the old city of Baku. Take a tour and see the view from the top looking across the Baku seafront for a small fee. The tower dates back to the 15th century and is one Azerbaijan’s most distinctive national emblems. The curved, sand coloured structure looks magnificent in the Caucasus sun which adds to its splendor. The Palace of the Shirvanshahs, on the opposite side of the old city, dating from the same period espouses traces of the Azeri Muslim identity.

The fruit markets are a spectacle in themselves. The locals are warm and friendly they make it more of a delight while sampling the local produce. The open air market Baki Takhil Bazar on Aliyar Aliyev Street in Narimanov district is my choice especially for fresh pomegranates and feijoa fruit.

The Haydar Aliyev Center is a modernist styled architectural delight opened in 2012 which has been hailed as a spectacle of enlightened engineering. It is something you do not see everyday, a building shaped like a signature with so many beautiful curves and sections veering off in a myriad of directions, an architectural enthusiasts dream and well worth a visit.

Haydar Aliyev Center (c) flickr/Stefano Bolognini

Martyrs’ Lane is a memorial for the fallen Azeris from Black January and the Nagorno-Karabakh war. To the south of the city, perched on top of a steep hill this emotion evoking memorial offers the best panoramic view of the city available with the Flame Towers up close.

Must Dine

In the old city, the restaurants have kept their traditional feel and design, still serving the same delicious local delicacies as generations before. The Terrace Garden & Q-bar, is my favourite restaurant in Baku. Difficult to find but worth the search. Just behind the important Azeri historical monument – the Maiden Tower over the bridge, past the carpets and up the stairs you can find this delight. The postcard view of Baku on offer as you dine is irresistible. Opting for an Azeri ‘winter warmer’ of stew with a tender lamb shank within, is magic when coupled with a glass of dark coloured, flavourful Azeri red wine. The terrace where you dine is encased by glass, so on all sides you can see the stars, the Caspian Sea and the famous Flame Towers illuminating the surroundings.

Must Visit a Museum

On Yusuph Safarov street just at the end of the seaside promenade to the east side of Baku you can find the the Baku Museum of Modern Art. If you are an art lover the Museum, which opened in 2009, has exhibitions from world renowned Azerbaijani artists such as Altay Sadikh-Zadeh. The building itself could be an art piece with beautiful metallic structures and a minimalist layout. The well organized layout showcasing both paintings and sculptures will keep you entertained for hours. The Avant-guard of the Azerbaijani art world are here to see with sculptural masterpieces from the 1950s onwards on display.

Carpet Museum, Baku (c) flickr/Francisco Anzola

The Carpet Museum, close to the old city, to the west of the seaside boulevard is a must. The building is even shaped like an ornate carpet being unrolled. Even if carpets are not your thing, you cannot help but be spellbound by the intricate details and craftsmanship that goes into one of these Caucasus weaving feats. Inside you will find the history of Azerbaijan displayed and explained with signs in English beside carpets representing times, places, people and events. The designs are so detailed that it is almost like having an illustrated history lesson about Azerbaijan.

Must Catch a Show

While the Azerbaijanis have shown their singing talents, one of their lesser known attributes is their skill in ballet. On Nizami Küçəsi Street in possibly the most stunning buildings in Baku you can find Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theatre. The building has Eastern Orthodox styled features like rustic domes, stained glass windows and engravings of royal insignia. The building looks like something you might find in the Winter Palace, Moscow or any fairytale book, so impressive that it forces your imagination to run wild. The acoustics are fabulous inside and the classical instruments are mellifluous when their notes reverberate around the room. Either for a ballet or opera performance I would stick my neck out and say this theatre can rival any other theatre in the world – this I do not claim lightly.

Must Drink

Being British and passionate about tea I was pleased to discover that its not just a British obsession. A shared enthusiasm for tea is something the Azerbaijanis and British have in common although in Azerbaijan they do it in style.

Azeri tea and pakhlava (c) flickr/Salvatore Freni Jr

Tea is available everywhere throughout Azerbaijan and often is served with a side of sweetened apricots or feijoa fruit. Try Çay Evi tea house on Suleyman Rustam Street near the central bus station. Don’t let the exterior décor fool you, outside it’s plain and simple looking but inside its resembles an Azerbaijani sultans lounge. Snug in the velvet bright coloured cushions for a reasonable price you can choose from a mind boggling array of tea. The staff can explain why different teas are for different occasions and some are better suited for morning, afternoon or evening. When the tea arrives in a small, bolt-black, hard iron kettle with its own heater beneath and the delicate glasses with saucers are displayed it is wonderful. Sipping on steaming hot Azeri tea and watching the world go by was a great way to relax after a busy day of sight seeing and exploration in this remarkable city.


Read also: Azerbaijan – Land of Fire

Azerbaijan – Land of Fire

Attitudes toward women key in higher rates of sexual assault by athletes, study finds

Previous research has shown that male college athletes are more likely than college students in general to commit sexual violence or engage in sexual coercion. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education called for colleges and universities to institute efforts to educate athletes and address sexual violence.

“We wanted to know what these programs need to address,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of a paper on the recent study. “What are the factors that contribute to these higher rates of sexual assault? And are these issues confined to intercollegiate athletes, or do they extend to club and intramural athletes?”

For this study, the researchers surveyed online 379 male undergraduates: 191 non-athletes, 29 intercollegiate athletes and 159 recreational athletes. The study was conducted by researchers at NC State, the University of South Florida, Northern Arizona University and Emory University.

Study participants were asked about their sexual behavior, their attitudes toward women, and the degree to which they believed in rape myths.

“We found that 54.3 percent of the intercollegiate and recreational athletes and 37.9 percent of non-athletes had engaged in sexually coercive behaviors – almost all of which met the legal definition of rape,” Desmarais says.

“As high as these numbers are, they may actually under-represent the rates of sexual coercion, since the study relied on self-reported behavior,” Desmarais says.

The stately homes of Northamptonshire – plus a surprise or two

As the winter months give way to the sunny days of summer, England’s green and pleasant lands have so much to offer. One in particular is Northamptonshire, a smudge of land in the East Midlands just an hour or so from London, with lush rolling landscape and more historic stately homes than any other region in England.

But it is also home to the tallest abseil tower, it’s where the garden gnome was born, where 50 F1 grand prix championships have been celebrated since 1950, and is the place where the swash buckling Errol Flyn started his career at the Northampton Royal theatre.

It’s a no brainer; so here’s our whirlwind guide to an area ripe for discovery.

Althorp House – Princess Diana’s ancestral home

Althorp House

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s shocking death in a car crash in Paris. She was young, still in her thirties and at the height of her beauty.

She is buried on an island in the lake of her ancestral home, Althorp House estate, a home that has been in the family for 500 years (built in 1508 for the Spencers). Her brother Earl Spencer lives there with his wife and daughter. He throws open the doors of this 13,000 acre estate, for six weeks every year, and holds the annual literary festival too.

Everything about Althorp is a joy – even the approach. Driving through parkland during the lambing season was heart warming. Sheep straddled by their babies, watched on as we drove along the winding driveway. The Spencer family were originally sheep farmers who sold wool to London. Today their lands are rented to other farmers whose sheep we were now witnessing.

The entry leads into Wootton Hall, named after the famous painter of horses, John Wootton whose paintings hang here. It wasn’t hard to imagine Diana as a little girl tap dancing on the marble floor. She would practice here often in the very hall that centuries of monarchy had passed through.

There are 650 paintings mainly from the baroque 1600s, especially in the Gallery Hall. And though the paintings are of royal and regal ancestors, every now and again one stands out for its shock factor – such as Mitch Griffith’s Rehab and his Britannia where the models is Ray Winston’s daughter. Both paintings are from his Promised Land collection and I wondered if their bold statements on contemporary life perhaps give an insight into how the Earl views the world.

Althorpe The Picture Gallery

The most valuable painting is one by Sir Anthony Vandyck called War and Peace showing George Digby 2nd Earl of Bristol and William Russel 1st Duke of Burgunday. They say it is priceless.

There is only one of the Princess and it hangs alongside that of her brother. However, the stable block is dedicated to Diana with footage, memorabilia and even a page of her diary. Her condolences book is stored here too.

A tour of the house incorporates several rooms and even bedrooms. Diana’s favourite bedroom was the blue room.

If you visit now you will get to see an exhibition of photographs of this very photogenic princess. Fifteen iconic images were taken 20 years ago by Mario Testino. They were originally shot for Vanity Fair, then shown in in Kensington Palace in 2005 and form part of a permanent exhibition in Lima, Peru. The images will stay here until October 8.

Deene Park House – Mentioned in the Doomsday Book

Deene Park House (c) Richard Humphrey

This 16th century Georgian manor house near Corby has been the home of the Brudenell family since 1514 when Sir Robert Brudenell bought it from Westminster Abbey. Even so, the family had to pay £18 a year rent which they continued to pay until 1970 when they made a final payment of £200.

Deene Park House was mentioned in the Doomsday book and it was once the seat of the Earls of Cardigan, including the 7th Earl who led the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. The actual horse (stuffed of course) is still on display. His wife the Countess of Cardigan let the house fall into disrepair. However when Edmund Brudenell inherited it took on the task of restoring the home. It took him three decades.

The present owners of this crenellated house, Robert Brudenell and his vivacious wife Charlotte live there with their son William. There’s a series of equestrian pictures by John Ferneley and over the fireplace there’s a painting of the 7th Earl leading the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The gardens have evolved over 30 years and comprising a lake, old trees, mixed borders of shrubs, flowers and roses and a parterre designed by David Hicks.

The Brudenells do love a good cup of tea and the garden topiary has been shaped into teapots. Amusingly a teapot also sits in pride of place atop the millennium obelisk. Bizarrely the house is the venue of the Elusive pop festival.

Tours include viewing at least nine rooms that are still used by the family as well as the gardens.

Holdenby House – King Charles I was imprisoned here

Falcon Holdenby House

Originally this Elizabethan palace was built by Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton in 1583 amid 2,000 acres of rolling countryside and was the biggest stately home in England during the English Civil War.

When he died Holdenby House reverted to the crown. King James I used it primarily as a place for his son, Charles I, to play in. As fate would have it, he was held prisoner here during his reign, for 5 months. During incarceration he wrote a book – Eikon Basilike. It was published after he was executed in 1649 and the original is on display in the library, a room that survived from the original Elizabethan palace. It has essays of his belief in the divine right of kings and reflections of his reign. It was an instant best seller.

After the Civil War, the Palace was bought by Adam Baynes and was reduced to just a single wing – the Kitchen Wing of the old palace. What you see now is around 1/8th of its original size. Nevertheless, it still makes for a substantial tour.

In 1709 it was bought by the Duke of Marlborough and descended down the female line to the Lowther family – a family who since 940AD have produced more members of parliament than any other in England.

Currently James and Karen Lowther, (of Saatchi fame) live here. Rooms are filled with artworks and portraits including Wicked Jim Lowther the 1st Earl of Lonsdale. His portrait hangs in the Ballroom. Music lovers will be awed by the music room as James Lowther is a collector of antique musical instruments from around the world.

Music room at Holdenby

Some parts of the historic Elizabethan gardens have been replanted by Rosemary Verey using plants available in 1580 and has clipped yews and a sundail.

There’s a falconry centre where Bird of Prey Experiences are fun to watch. Birds include owls, eagles, merlins and vultures.

Coton Manor Garden – Flamingos and a carpet of bluebells

The pride of Coton Manor is its vast gardens. It’s ten colourful acres were laid out almost a century ago at the foot of a 17th century manor house. There are lakes, fountains, streams, shrubs, a wildflower meadow and so many roses.

The landscape includes a magical five acre bluebell meadow within a shady wood all of which are native to England. See them at their best in June and July. There are some surprises too. Turn a corner and you may see a pair of bright pink flamingos looking quite at home by a small lake.

After spending time enjoying nature’s artwork (curated by the current owners of course) take tea and cake or even lunch in their cafe. It’s is amazing how quickly time flies when surrounded by so much natural beauty.

Home of the Gnome – only at Lamport Hall

Lamport House
Lamport gnome (c) Amos Wolfe

The story goes that Victorian Baronet, Sir Charles Isham created England’s first rockey in England in 1847 in Lamport Hall. Some 24 foot high, 90 foot long and 47 foot wide, it was built right up against the Hall so that Sir Charles could see it from his bedroom window. He populated it with  with small figures from Nuremberg and so the garden gnome was born. Some say that after his death his daughters took air rifles used the gnomes as target practice. One survived and was discovered after WWII by Sir Gyles Isham. This original gnome can now be viewed in the Hall.

Silverstone – the ride of your life!

Silverstone (c) ToNG!?

Although not exactly a stately visit, I didn’t want to leave Northamptonshire without visiting Silverstone home to Formula 1, and book a hot ride. Hot rides cost £55 and are an opportunity to be driven at breakneck speeds in an Aston Martin screeching around chicanes. Be warned a small camera films the whole thing and my driver Shaun didn’t mind how loud I screamed. There are other options including self drive from £99.

Where to Stay – make is stately

It makes sense on a tour such as this to stay in a stately hotel. Rushton Hall & Spa is just perfect for this type of sojourn. Ask to stay in a stately room.

More information: Northamptonshire Surprise

Five places you can experience Summer Solstice in the Austrian Alps

This year, on Saturday June 18th thousands of bonfires across the peaks of SalzburgerLand and Tirol will set the mountains aglow to feed the sun and welcome the summer.  Most villages have their own particular customs dating back in some cases to the Middle Ages.  Below are five of the most interesting to visit.

Back1 – Summer Solstice at Innsbruck’s Nordkette2 – Summer Solstice in the Steinernes Meer, Saalfelden3 – Summer Solstice in the Kitzbühel Alps4 – Summer Solstice in the Grossarl Valley5 – Summer Solstice in Zugspitz ArenaNextSummer Solstice at Innsbruck’s Nordkette

Nordkette, Innsbruck

The mountains to north and south of Innsbruck, including the Hafelekar (2334m) and Patscherkofel (2250m), appear to be on fire.  Bonfires big and small light up the sky bringing the whole community on to the streets to celebrate.  Views are breathtaking from below or above: the Nordkettenbahnen cable car, will run up to midnight from the heart of Innsbruck, with music and culinary treats at every stop. More: www.innsbruckmarketing.at

STAY: Relais & Châteaux Spa Hotel Jagdhof. This 70-room hotel is located in the beautiful Stubai Valley, 20 minutes’ drive from Innsbruck and the Nordkettenbahnen. Offering classic Tyrolean-style decor, a warm welcome, spectacular views, gourmet cuisine and a prestigious wine cellar. It offers relaxation in the sprawling SPA with its extensive saunas, in/outdoor pools and private SPA suite and SPA chalet.



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Back1 – Summer Solstice at Innsbruck’s Nordkette2 – Summer Solstice in the Steinernes Meer, Saalfelden3 – Summer Solstice in the Kitzbühel Alps4 – Summer Solstice in the Grossarl Valley5 – Summer Solstice in Zugspitz ArenaNext

Race starts could give some athletes an unfair advantage

Typical race starts involve the starter telling racers ‘ready’ before firing a starting gun. However, the gap between the initial cue and the starting signal can vary, as athletes take different amounts of time to assume a starting position, and some regulations enforce a variable delay.

A human trait called the ‘alerting effect’ makes this variation crucial. When we are cued to expect something to happen, as with the ‘ready’ signal, we experience a burst of arousal which should enable us to respond faster when the expected event then happens — in this case, the gun firing. A half-second interval is the optimum time, but as that interval gets longer we become less responsive.

Oxford psychology researcher Edwin Dalmaijer explained: ‘In events with heats, like running and swimming, results are compared across heats and the fastest finishers overall progress in the competition, so those who experience longer ready-start intervals are disadvantaged. This is worse in a sport like speed skating. In two weeks, at the start of the Speed Skating World Cup in Calgary, Canada, pairs of skaters will compete head to head over several races. Their times from all those races will be added together and the lowest total time will win. In these events, the variation in starts between races could add up to enough to knock a skater out of the medal positions.’

The team knew that there can be a gap between the laboratory and the sports arena environments, so they tested their hypothesis by analysing TV coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics’ 500m speed skating event. By carefully measuring the gap between the R of the ready and the B of the bang on the soundtrack, they got millisecond accurate timings of the ready-start intervals.

Utrecht researcher Beorn Nijenhuis, a former Olympic speed skater for the Netherlands, said: ‘What we found was that an extra second of interval before the gun made a difference in finishing times of 672 milliseconds in women’s races and 299 milliseconds in men’s races. While those times sound pretty short, in the context of elite speed skating, that can be the difference between first and fifth place.’

The researchers propose a change to starting procedures where an extra step is introduced to warn athletes to get ready. The ready signal would then be given only when everyone has assumed the start position and the starting gun would sound after a fixed half-second interval.

Stefan Van der Stigchel, associate professor in Utrecht, adds: ‘In the optimal scenario, the starting procedure would be computerised: A referee would only have to push a button to sound the ready cue, automatically followed by a fixed pause and the starting shot.’

A fixed ready-start interval would, the team say, be a fairer way to begin each race.

Women’s sport participation and gender equality: African women in the beautiful game

The earliest documented women’s soccer in Scotland, 1888 was the start of an emergent European trend, but faced resistance to women at competition level due to their being too delicate for the physical demands of the game. Women in soccer also presented problematic challenges to the stereotypical woman as homebound caregiver.

There has since been rapid progress with a few significant firsts; women’s UEFA International tournament in 1982, FIFA women’s World Cup in 1991, South African National women’s team in 1993 and sponsored women’s South African League in 2001. This paints a positive picture; sport is known to improve women’s self-esteem, confidence, to challenge gender inequalities through constructive male-female relationships and increase educational opportunities.

However African women broadly are still subject to patriarchy, poverty, sexual and domestic violence and lack of freedom and education. Gender parity in South African politics, with its emphasis on women’s rights has not yet filtered through to the majority of domestic situations. Will South African Women’s soccer ease gender inequality?

South African sport undeniably remains a male dominated domain with aggressive undertones; the majority of coaches/decision makers are male. Girls in the region are generally socialised into domestic roles at a young age providing a barrier to female participation. On the other hand, the South African soccering Association has elected 3 female Executive Committee members and has announced that all National women’s teams will have female coaches, a means for encouragement of increased girls’ participation in the sport. Significant sponsorship has increased coverage and opportunities for women in soccer and improved legitimacy of the sport and women’s abilities on and off the field. At community level, women and girls are receiving greater access to facilities.

On an individual level, the sport is seeing subtle changes in families and traditional roles, fathers and brothers accepting domestic responsibility to enable female family members to train. Girls’ increased confidence on the pitch has transferred to the classroom and educational opportunities have increased. Could this be an end to the spiral of female poverty, inequality and powerlessness?

Ogunniyi concludes “Large scale alterations to the hegemonic masculinity…do not occur in a short time period. Change takes time and occurs predominantly on an individual and household level with few advances in gender equality transforming the (higher) levels of society…Participation in soccer has provided opportunities for the females in this study to counteract the dominant masculinities and femininities prevalent in society and sport.”

Domestic violence issue possible red zone fumble for NFL

The NFL Players Association has prepared, and subsequently filed, an appeal of Rice’s indefinite suspension, and corporate sponsors have joined the swelling crowd of critics. In an attempt to understand the gravity player-inflicted violence issues pose to the league, Sweeney and Gregg, both sport management faculty, asked NFL fans their thoughts on Rice’s future and on the potential financial threats it poses to the league and its corporate sponsors.

Of the 250 respondents to an online survey, 90 percent considered themselves fans of the NFL, with nearly 60 percent being fans of the league for 20 or more years. Female fans accounted for 68 percent of responses, while 62 percent of total respondents had combined household incomes of $75,000 or more.

The majority of fans surveyed strongly agreed that the NFL has a domestic violence problem and that the league should be concerned about losing its female fan base. Fifty-two percent of fans reported that NFL corporate sponsors should also be concerned about losing their footing with female consumers.

While it’s widely documented that women comprise 45 percent of the NFL’s fan base, Sweeney and Gregg found significant differences among men and women and their intentions to attend more than one game this season. Just 23 percent of women surveyed plan on attending two or more regular season games.

This finding suggests there remains substantial room for growth in the female market. According to Sweeney, lead author of the study, it should be troubling to the NFL and its corporate partners that 25 percent of women stated the handling of the events surrounding the Rice incident would discourage them from not only attending NFL games but also from the consumption of league-related media content.

“These findings imply the current state of the league has potential to negatively influence female consumers. If this is true and the NFL wants to protect and grow its female fan base, they should strongly consider its perspective on the league’s domestic violence problem,” she said.

Perception is often reality. According to Navigate Research, the NFL’s popularity is near market saturation at 72 percent of adult men. “Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, and the league should be mindful of the integral role women play in the future growth of the NFL both financially and culturally,” stated Gregg.

“Women control 80 percent of consumer spending and have substantial influence on spending on products that are thought to be traditionally masculine, including sport products,” said Sweeney. “The female consumer base is both a dynamic and economic force on the NFL in today’s market, and recent events seemingly have changed the game. The NFL can’t afford to not listen to them.”

The vast majority of women surveyed — 56 percent — strongly agreed that Rice should never play again in the NFL. Sweeney suggested this finding might reinforce the league to strongly consider a zero-tolerance policy as previously suggested by 16 female U.S. Senators.

“Female fans have thrown their challenge flag and it isn’t pink. The league, in its current state, must appeal to women through policy and action. They might also consider rolling out purple jerseys, in addition to pink this October, in support of domestic violence awareness,” she said.

Revolutionary hamstring tester will keep more players on the field

The discovery could be worth a fortune to football codes, with hamstring strain injuries accounting for most non-contact injuries in Australian rules football, football and rugby union, as well as track events like sprinting.

Using an innovative field device, a research team led by Dr Anthony Shield, from QUT’s School — Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, and former QUT PhD student, Dr David Opar, now at the Australian Catholic University, measured the eccentric hamstring strength of more than 200 AFL players from five professional clubs.

The in-demand device, the only portable ‘machine’ in the world capable of measuring strength during the Nordic hamstring curl, has attracted attention from some of the world’s biggest sporting teams, including French football giants Paris Saint-Germain and several top English Premier League sides, and National Football League teams in the United States.

The researchers found that higher levels of eccentric hamstring strength in pre-season could dramatically reduce a player’s chances of suffering a hamstring injury during the season.

The results have been e-published in leading sports medicine journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise and accepted for publication in an upcoming print edition.

“We showed, for the first time, that hamstring injury risk can be quantified by measuring an athlete’s hamstring strength when they’re performing the Nordic hamstring curl exercise,” Dr Shield said.

Concussions: Getting your head out of the game

Research has led to change in our approach to treatment of the injuries. New guidelines do not use a set time away from activity and emphasize a gradual return to play. While concussions often occur from direct contact to the head or face, they may also occur from rotational forces without contact such as a tumbling fall. Although research continues to help understand what happens to the brain in a concussion, it appears that the neurons (brain cells) sustain a small injury that creates an “energy crisis.” This generally lasts 7-10 days and physical or cognitive activity during this time period may worsen symptoms and prolong recovery. This is why rest is so important in the initial stages of treatment. Collision sports (football, hockey, etc.) generally have the highest overall rates of concussion; however, they can be seen in all sporting activity. Fortunately, the overall rates of concussions are relatively low even in collision sports. Certain risk factors are associated with an increased risk of concussion or prolonged recovery. Genetics, gender, playing position, migraines, history of multiple concussions and mental disorders (depression, anxiety and ADHD) all may play a role in how an athlete is affected by a concussive injury.

However it is still unclear how much influence each of these factors has on an individual athlete’s risk. The diagnosis of a concussion can be complex as the signs and symptoms of concussions can be found in many other conditions and there is not a singular test we can use to determine if a concussion has occurred. Sometimes the diagnosis is very straight forward, for example when there has been a brief loss of consciousness, but many times the changes seen in the athlete are very subtle. The diagnosis of a concussion is mainly based on the history and physical examination. Symptoms of a concussion may include headache, dizziness, nausea/vomiting, amnesia, brief loss of consciousness and inability to concentrate. These symptoms may last for several days to a few weeks.

Imaging, CT scan or MRI, rarely indicate concussions, unless there is a finding on examination that suggests a structural injury ( e.g. bleeding or swelling). Newer computerized tests may add value in some cases, but these tests are not used to diagnose concussions and it is unclear if using these tests improve the outcomes of concussed athletes. Previous grading scales used symptoms at the time of the concussion to determine the severity of the concussion. New guidelines now suggest that we not grade concussions at all and that we only determine that a concussion has occurred. The reasoning for this lies in newer research that shows symptoms at the time of the initial injury do not correlate with the severity of the injury and recovery time. Additionally, grading does not change our treatments as resting until symptoms have resolved is the initial treatment regardless of the injury.

Treatment

When an athlete is suspected of having a concussion, they should be removed immediately from competition. Symptoms should be monitored and the athlete should not be returned to competition until they are evaluated by a qualified medical professional. This evaluation should occur as soon as possible. The athlete should be monitored closely for several hours after a concussion. It is important to stress that both physical and mental rest speed the recovery of concussions. It is okay for the athlete to sleep and should avoid over stimulation such as video games or loud crowded activities. Athletes may need to stay out of school or have modified class schedules.

Ask your health care provider for more specific recommendations. Returning the athlete to play starts when the athlete is symptom free. It will take 3-7 days for full return to sports (depending on the sport) with an athlete gradually increasing their activity level every 24 hrs. Returning to class can occur over the same timeframe and athletes should be monitored as well for any increase or recurrence of symptoms. Activity can surface underlying concussion symptoms and athletes should be instructed to notify their coach, trainer or physician if they redevelop any symptoms during the recovery period. This process allows faster and safer return to sporting activity. Computerized neuropsychological testing is sometimes used to help monitor an athlete’s progress but is never used on its own to determine a diagnosis or an athlete’s readiness to return to play. There are many common misconceptions about concussive injuries.

The following are several myths about concussion:

Every athlete who sustains a hard hit must have a concussion. Although our knowledge about the forces involved in concussion is improving we still have not found a level of force that definitely causes a concussion. At times high forces do not cause an injury and relatively lower ones may. This means that we should not overact to every head impact but also need to listen to athletes who complain of concussive like symptoms after any head contact. Because there is no known force level for concussion in-helmet devices that are marketed to consumers as “concussion alarms,” they are not recommended as they will likely lead to both over and under diagnosis of concussive injuries.

Better helmets and mouth guards will prevent concussions. Unfortunately there is no good scientific evidence that helmets of any type (hard shells, soft-padded or head bands) or mouth guards can prevent or reduce the risk of concussions. Hard helmets can reduce the risk of more serious head injuries (bleeding, skull fractures etc.) and should be worn in high risk sports. Mouth guards can prevent dental injuries and should be worn for sports with a high risk of these injuries. Helmet-add ons additionally are not effective in concussion prevention and using these will generally void any warranties associated with the helmet. Risk reduction may be possible in some settings with rule changes (e.g. no hitting from behind in hockey) and behavior changes (e.g. tackling technique in football).

Once you have a concussion you will always be more susceptible to having another one. While there appears to be an increased risk of recurrence in the first few weeks after a concussive injury it is unclear what factors may influence the risk of another injury in the future. Despite being a commonly held belief there is no evidence to suggest that athletes develop a decreasing force threshold after each injury. A few small studies have found the opposite. The largest risk to any athlete for a recurrent concussion is exposure (playing a sport) and since most athletes who have a concussion plan on continued participation this likely is the leading cause. Other risk factors discussed before may play a role but this is not yet defined. Management of concussion will continue to evolve as more research develops. Removal from competition and early intervention with a healthcare professional knowledgeable about concussions will help protect our athletes and allow the fastest and safest return to play.

Central Asia steps out of the shadows in 2017

Eagle hunter (c) Sophie Ibbotson

A hundred years ago, Central Asia regularly made front page news, and the explorers who went there — and made it back again — were national celebrities. These were the days of the Great Game, the Game of Shadows, when British and Russian spies criss-crossed the region on foot, by horse, and by camel, trying to buy influence with local Khans and other tribal leaders. But the Bolshevik Revolution, 70 years of Soviet rule, and, in some cases, subsequent civil wars, meant that Central Asia vanished from public view.

2017 is the year when all that changes. Forbes, the Financial Times, and the New York Times all picked Central Asian republics in their top destinations for 2017; Kazakhstan will be hosting the World Fair, Expo 2017, in its capital Astana from June to September; Uzbekistan will be visa-free for 27 nationalities, including Brits, from 1 April; Bradt Travel Guides will be publishing a new edition of their guidebook to Tajikistan; and UK tour operators Indus Experiences and Travel the Unknown are both adding Uzbekistan to their tour options. Almost overnight, the region has stepped out of obscurity to become one of the most desirable destinations for adventurous travellers.

Children in Bukhara (c) Sophie Ibbotson

But what can you expect from this vast, and to date under-appreciated region? Well, it depends where you go, and when.

Ski and culture in Kazakhstan

If your interest is in the great outdoors, Kazakhstan has the best facilities for winter sports. The ski resorts are in the east of the country, on the doorstep of former capital, Almaty. The Winter Asian Games were hosted here in 2011, so the Shymbulak Ski Resort was upgraded and expanded, and even Prince Harry’s been seen on the slopes! The skiing here is cheap, the off-piste options are endless, and you can even try heli-skiing.

Astana, Kazakhstan (c) ninara

Culture lovers should opt for a different set of destinations. If contemporary architecture is your thing, try Astana, Kazakhstan’s brand new capital. Rich with oil money, the skyline is dotted by extraordinary structures designed by the likes of Norman Foster and Kisho Kurokawa. Here you’ll find the world’s largest tent, the Khan Shatyr; a glass pyramid which houses the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation; the gold domed Nur Astana Mosque; and the birds nest-like Bayterek Tower, whose observation deck offers unparalleled views of the city.

Read also: Kazakhstan: Welcome to the Pleasure Dome

Trek in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Nomads in Kyrgyzstan (c) Sophie Ibbotson

The best trekking is in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, countries covered almost entirely by mountains. Two favourite regions include Tajikstan’s Fann range, with its alpine lakes, wild flowers, and dramatic passes; and also Kyrgyzstan’s Ala Archa National Park, where you can hike, white water raft, and may even spot snow leopard in the higher reaches.

Accommodation infrastructure is limited in these remote areas, but you can always camp, and community-based tourism initiatives such as CBT Kyrgyzstan can set you up with homestays, which might even include a night in a nomad’s yurt!

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

Much of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is covered by desert, and the sands have their own beauty, too. This was historically the centre of the Silk Road, remember, so if you want to relive the journeys of ancient travellers, a camel trek in the Kyzylkum Desert is an exceptional experience, especially if it’s a multi-day trip and you camp out beneath the stars.

Mausoleum in Bukhara (c) Sophie Ibbotson

The ruins of ancient cities, some almost completely reabsorbed by the land, stretch across Central Asia, from Turkmenistan’s Merv — once one of the largest cities in the world, but destroyed by Genghis Khan — to Kampir Tepe and Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border. The best-preserved ancient cities are in Uzbekistan, and many of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Samarkand is likely the most famous, but Shakhrisabz, Bukhara, and Khiva are likewise bejewelled with mosaic-clad mosques and mausoleums, minarets and madrassas, palaces, trading domes, and public baths. To walk the streets of Khiva is to walk through a museum, every turn bringing you yet more historic surprises.

Read also: Discovering Uzbekistan: At the centre of the Silk Road

The guest is king

In Central Asia, the guest is king, so you’ll want to take every opportunity to meet local people. This isn’t without its challenges — English is still not widely spoken outside of the cities — but a smile and charades will carry you a long way.

Tea house in Tashkent (c) Sophie Ibbotson

Sit in the tea house at Lyab-i Hauz in Bukhara, and someone will undoubtedly invite you to play a game of chess; you’ll be enthusiastically tugged into wedding photos (and likely invited to the party to follow) if you visit Bishkek’s Victory Monument or the statue of Timur (known in the west as Tamerlane) in Shakhrisabz; and every grandma you meet on the roadside will invite you home for a cup of tea, dried nuts, and sweets.

Travelling in Central Asia is for those ready for an adventure. The climate can be extreme, the transport connections poor, and outside the capitals you won’t find top-end accommodation. But what you will get is an exciting sense of a region on the cusp of great change, unspoilt wildernesses, and the sense of being a travelling pioneer to a new destination. That alone is reason enough to visit Central Asia in 2017.

Practical Information

Getting there: There are direct flights from London to Astana and Almaty (Kazakhstan) with Air Astana, and from London to Tashkent (Uzbekistan) with Uzbekistan Airways.

Red tape: British nationals and other EU passport holders can visit Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan (from April 1) without a visa. E-visas are available for Tajikistan. Visitors to Turkmenistan require a letter of invitation from a local tour operator, and a visa.

Read also: Uzbekistan waives tourist visas for 27 countries

Tours: Starting in 2017, Indus Experiences will be offering tourists bespoke tour options to Central Asia, and Travel the Unknown will have small-group tours to Uzbekistan. Paramount Journey focuses solely on Tajikistan, but has some great treks, mountain bike routes, and photographic tours. If you prefer to pick up a local tour guide, trekking guide, or driver in-country, social enterprise Indy Guide links independent travellers with approved local partners in Central Asia and Mongolia, supporting communities to engage with visitors for a truly unique experience.