They all agree he's stupid. But the jury's out on whether he's racist, sexist or both

Just when Ron Atkinson was trying to restore his reputation after his comments about the footballer Marcel Desailly, he's done it again

The good news for Ron Atkinson is that few people believe his latest remarks - in which he insulted Chinese women - are racist. The bad news is that the disgraced former football manager and television pundit has been described as a sexist bigot, and any hopes he had of reviving his lucrative TV career are almost certainly over.

The good news for Ron Atkinson is that few people believe his latest remarks - in which he insulted Chinese women - are racist. The bad news is that the disgraced former football manager and television pundit has been described as a sexist bigot, and any hopes he had of reviving his lucrative TV career are almost certainly over.

Big Ron, who perhaps should be renamed Big Mouth, landed in trouble after telling a joke on Friday night in which he labelled all Chinese women "ugly".

It comes just a few months after he accused the Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly of being "a fucking, lazy, thick nigger". That remark, broadcast live to the Middle East, cost Atkinson his television pundit's job and column in The Guardian, and earned him a new nickname, Ron the Racist.

Yet on Friday, speaking to more than 250 people at a fund-raising event at Sheffield Wednesday, one of his many former clubs, he said: "I can't understand why there is such a population problem in China as they have the best contraception going: Chinese women are the ugliest in the world."

The reaction has been mixed. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, was not inclined to take Mr Atkinson's comment too seriously.

He said: "If he would like, I will personally take him to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, both of which star probably the most beautiful film actress in the world, Zhang Ziyi, and I'll defy him to tell me Chinese women are ugly. Ron Atkinson just needs to get out more."

Christine Yau, vice-chairman of the London Chinatown Chinese Association, said: "Ron Atkinson is hardly a Tom Cruise or Prince William - if he was, then perhaps Chinese women would be upset. His joke is bound to upset some people, but I just find it sad."

Mr Atkinson, who spearheaded the development of black players while manager of West Bromwich Albion in the 1970s, has consistently denied he is racist and apologised profusely for his remarks about Desailly. In an attempt to rebuild his career, he even appeared in a BBC documentary called Big Ron - Am I Racist? for which he joined a race awareness course in America.

In the programme, Mr Atkinson seemed bemused at the offence caused by the term "nigger" but seemed genuinely relaxed in black company.

Yesterday he was lying low at his home in Birmingham. But on Friday he said: "I cannot believe anyone has complained about anything I said. I went there to help them out and to raise money. I stayed for ages and did photographs. I just can't believe this. I can't say anything now. I've been ultra-careful about everything."

He is not entirely without friends, however. Max Clifford, the PR expert who has known Atkinson for some years, staunchly defended him, but added that his career was probably over.

"He's an easy target at the moment," Mr Clifford said. "It seems to me like the kind of joke I've heard comedians say for many years. But because it's Ron it can be construed as racist.

"The fact is that Ron Atkinson is not racist and a lot of black players would say the same. It's going to be incredibly difficult for him to revive his career now. It's going to be almost impossible for him to get back."

Other groups were in a less forgiving mood.

A spokesman for football's anti-racism campaign Kick It Out said: "This stuff is poisonous really. Essentially he really doesn't understand what he is doing in making these comments. They are deeply offensive. In this day and age you cannot make jokes about race."

Jabez Lam, of Min Quan, the Chinese arm of London's anti-racism organisation the Monitoring Group, said: "I think it shows how deeply rooted racism is in British society and the football industry. When people are in an environment in which they feel comfortable they make these kinds of jokes. Of course it is offensive, not just to the Chinese, but also to women."

HAVE YOU HEARD THE ONE ABOUT...

Ann Winterton MP

The Conservative MP was sacked by Michael Howard after making a joke at a private dinner party about the death of 20 cockle pickers in Morecambe in March last year. It was the second time that Mrs Winterton, the MP for Congleton, had been in trouble for making racist jokes.

Liam Fox

The Shadow Health Secretary apologised after repeatedly telling a joke at a House of Commons Christmas party in December 2000. He asked: "What do you call three dogs and a blackbird? The Spice Girls". Later when questioned about it, he said: "I naturally regret if anyone was offended."

Princess Michael of Kent

So-called "Princess Pushy" sparked controversy in May last year when she allegedly told five black diners at a New York restaurant: "You need to go back to the colonies!" The Czech-born daughter of a Nazi SS soldier immediately denied making the comments, claiming she said "remember the colonies".

The Duke of Edinburgh

The Prince's latest gaffe came in March 2002, when he asked an Aboriginal while accompanying the Queen on a tour of Australia: "Do you still throw spears at each other?" The Aboriginal, William Brim, replied: "No, sir, we don't" and later commented that he found the Prince's comments "very strange".

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