FIA and loathing in the week of weakness

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The Independent Online
THE QUALITY of mercy is not strained... especially when it's been filtered through a Formula One engine. In the furious aftermath of the leniency afforded to Michael Schumacher by motor racing's governing body, we have neglected to consider the merciful nature of the judgement. Porsche would have been proud of it.

Whether Schumacher deserves such forbearance is immaterial; I suspect that the mercy contained in the decision by the World Motor Sport Council of the Federation International de l'Automobile was directed mainly at themselves. The ban that any natural idea of justice demanded he should have received for deliberately crashing into his rival Jacques Villeneuve in the final race of the grand prix season was likely to have done more harm to the sport than to him.

Suspension, say, for the first three or four races next year - even five would have been well short of Draconian - would certainly not have helped the German driver's chances of winning the world championship but the more immediate and even less helpful impact would have been on the appeal of those races to the huge world-wide television audiences the FIA's fortunes are founded upon. With their season built around only 16 grands prix, even a few anticlimactic events would diminish the attraction.

They have avoided that fate by fashioning a punishment which is hardly worthy of the word and which was denounced as scandalous both within the sport and outside it. Their decision to strip Schumacher of his second place in the year's championship - history will credit him with finishing as runner-up, even if they don't - would have been a touch less ludicrous if they had rationalised it with a more convincing explanation than that his swerve into Villeneuve's car was "instinctive rather than premeditated".

It will not be long before a football disciplinary committee is presented with the defence, "I can't help kicking opponents, guv, it's my instinct". We can be assured that the argument wouldn't wash in any sport mindful that instinctive violence is the least controllable and most dangerous.

However, when our scorn at the FIA has been fully ventilated, we will be left with that all too familiar feeling of the helplessness of the sporting onlooker. It is only on occasions like this that we realise the absolute power these sports authorities possess. There is no parallel to them even in the real world. I wouldn't dream of committing the folly of comparing anything in sport with what has been happening in Iraq but one couldn't help notice that while FIA were being roundly and impotently denounced last week, Saddam Hussein was attracting more meaningful threats from the United Nations.

There are times when we could wish for the existence of a United Nations of Sports which could step in when a governing body was behaving in an irresponsible manner. It is a totally impractical thought but in sport, of all areas of life, there ought to be some enforceable code of conduct. There isn't even a moral example-setter. The most powerful sporting organisation in the world, the International Olympic Committee, pursues a course precisely opposite to what most of us think that movement should take.

Blessed are those sports which have a democratic structure by which changes at the top can be made. We've seen that happen recently in the Rugby Football Union when the clubs decided to take action but what has happened in that game generally is viewed by many as unsatisfactory. Trouble can be caused even when a sport lacks autocratic leaders. Boxing is unique in that it has a proliferation of governing bodies which has produced a situation in which someone like Don King can bully his way into control.

No incitement to motor racing drivers is intended but among the best directed sports are those in which the players have gained real influence; golf and tennis being the best examples. But if you want evidence of what standards a fiercely autocratic body can achieve look no further than horse racing where Frankie Dettori was handed a three-week suspension on Thursday. What the Jockey Club would have done with Michael Schumacher doesn't bear thinking about.

Far too many of our sports give the impression that there are more hands in the till than on the tiller. This is, perhaps, the least avoidable by-product of the sport's commercial success. There is often too much money at stake for cool and uncomplicated decisions to be made in every case.

It is difficult to deny that the hypnotic powers with which motor racing entrances an amazingly large proportion of the four-wheeled world can only be increased by the prospect of more battles ahead between Schumacher and anyone who dares to overtake him. Nature having rendered me bereft of little more than idle curiosity when it comes to fast cars, I can only presume that danger and drama figure high in the fascination of those who sit transfixed by the sight of cars going around the same corners 60 times. The sport has now been gifted a genuine baddie, a Baron von Richthofen without the chivalry. The FIA may have created a ready-made excuse for any driver who fancies allowing his instinct access to his steering wheel when Schumacher is passing but they have done no harm to their box office.

The growth of Formula One over the past decade has been extraordinary and those involved, drivers and officials alike, have been spectacularly rewarded. The sport has no grass roots to tend - not deep ones, anyway - but it does have responsibilities which, I fear, are not being strictly recognised.

EVEN a few yelps from the football's watchdog David Mellor failed to help BBC 1's Weekend Watchdog make a scandal of the old story of how the Tottenham defender John Scales made successful bets on himself to score the first goal in matches while he was playing for Wimbledon and Liverpool. He won pounds 800 the first time and pounds 200 the second. He also bet on himself on several other occasions when he didn't score. Scales promises not to bet again, the FA say they are going to write him a haughty note and it all falls a long way short of sensational.

There isn't a shock-horror story to be had in footbaIl betting unless you are a bookmaker. Friday's Sun revealed that a large betting syndicate took advantage of some generous prices offered against Watford, Dundee and Ross County winning their respective leagues this season and all pounced at once at bookmakers all over the country. All three are now hot favourites and the punters stand to win a total of pounds 10m.

I refuse to chortle because the William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe will be at me again. Sharpe, fortuitously, has just brought out a fascinating book, Gambling on Goals, a Century of Football Betting (Mainstream Publishing, pounds 15.99), in which he takes me to task, commenting: "He rarely has anything other than a bad word to say for the betting industry."

I appreciate the compliment. I come from a family with a long history of hardship at the hands of bookmakers and we rejoice in the motto - if you can annoy a bookie as you go your way, then your living will not be in vain.

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