Formula One plumbs 'new depths' courtesy of the Piquet family
Saturday 12 September 2009
In a way it is not the deviousness of the cheating, both proven and alleged, that is now disfiguring front-line sport so routinely that is most sickening. It is the language of acceptance, the fudging, almost the sense that it is only when you are unfortunate enough to be caught does the real moral dilemma begin.
Cheating is not new, of course, but the ambiguity and funk with which it is being greeted surely is.
Dean Richards' greatest crime, and that of his former club Harlequins, who have so bizarrely been allowed to continue in a European Cup tournament they attempted to pervert quite coldly and systematically, is apparently that he tried so hard to suppress the evidence.
What was he expected to do? Sing like a canary and cop a plea, when all his iconic previous would be taken into consideration by a sport which apparently wouldn't know a crisis of conscience if the stud-marks were imprinted on its windpipe or eye sockets.
That may not be such a far-fetched proposition, given the nauseating performance of some of his apologists – and the regularity with which the phrase "draw a line under it" has been trotted out in rugby circles.
Cover-ups stink, of course, which is why this newspaper so memorably ran a bleached out front page with the small-type word "whitewash" the day after the Hutton Report was published. However, doesn't the strongest smell in what we might describe as the playpen of life come from the fact that so many in professional sport are apparently so willing to make a mockery of what they do in the reasonable hope, given the prevailing climate, that they might get clean away with it?
No doubt the latest scandal, Nelson Piquet Jnr's allegations that his Renault F1 team bosses ordered him to crash deliberately in last year's Singapore Grand Prix, is going to be mired in litigation for quite some time. It is a likelihood that was turned into a racing certainty yesterday with the counter-allegation that the driver and his father, the former triple-world champion, Nelson Snr, are guilty of attempted blackmail. In the meantime, though, we can only have our breath taken away by the reaction of the most powerful man in the sport – the rights holder, Bernie Ecclestone.
After being told by the younger Piquet that he was going to report the fact Renault had told him to crash his car in order to facilitate a cunning strategy that would enable his team-mate Fernando Alonso to profit from a safety car and a carefully plotted fuel strategy Ecclestone recalls saying, "There is no use you saying you are going to do something – either do it or stop talking about it. To be honest, I genuinely believed at that time he would not do it."
Where this left Ecclestone we are not told. Presumably, marching on with negotiations to spread the sport – some might say it is a more a contagion – of Formula One to previously uncontaminated corners of the world.
Even more befuddling is another Ecclestone comment on his standpoint – and that of the head of the world motor racing authority, Max Mosley. Ecclestone said, "Max's attitude is simple, it's not good if we are seen to do nothing about these things. If we said we don't care, that would not be good for the sport or the FIA and that's why it's not going to be swept under the carpet."
Speaking quite personally, and perhaps drifting ever further from the realities and the imperatives of the sports business, this is not a statement that is exactly all-embracing in its moral sweep. It is not guaranteed, surely, to get you off your backside and sign up with the first available crusade. According to Bernie, Max is not prepared to sweep it under the table because it would not be good for Formula One. What about such old-fashioned issues as right and wrong or the need to root out something which, if true, is utterly rotten in its nightmare picture of where the future may lie?
Let's remind ourselves quite what we are discussing here. It is, allegedly, not some bit of sharp practice or gamesmanship, it is not even something as merely wretched as getting one of your players to bite into a blood capsule and then have him nicked with a scalpel for fear of detection.
It is having a potential deadly piece of machinery driven wilfully into a barrier with, all the attendant risks to the driver and stewards and, possibly, the odd in-the-dark spectator, not to gain some potentially significant advantage but to stitch up a race for which vast sponsorship and TV payments have been received.
Formula One teams have already been found guilty of massive industrial espionage and the most bare-faced lying, but the charges made by the Piquets move us on to another dimension. They suggest that the sport has on at least one occasion been utterly subverted, literally from the start to a finish shaped by the spurious intervention of a safety car. With its absolute contempt for both human safety and the idea of fair play this is arguably the worst yet.
It makes the diving of footballers and the cynical appealing of cricketers seem relatively minor infractions, if not the persistence with which the managers of the guilty men dispute that such practices are making the games more or less morally worthless.
Maybe it is too soon to declare this the age of anti-sport, but then by what margin? Not by much more than half a race circuit, not as long as the best a Bernie Ecclestone can do is tell a troubled young racer that he has a choice between putting up or shutting up. His ilk have to understand that the problem with drawing a line is that sooner or later there is simply nowhere to do it.
England's old wives' tales horrify Capello
As if he had not performed enough service to English football, Fabio Capello offered one last gift at the end of his triumphant week of World Cup qualification.
It was the fleeting look of horror that crossed his face when he was asked if there was any chance of a revival of the WAG camp that so bemused the citizens of Baden Baden and the rest of international football in the last World Cup. "No, please?..." said Il Capo.
Sometimes it seems as though the England regimes of Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren happened on some other weird planet.
One old image, though, is hard to shake. It is of Eriksson being summoned from his dinner table to attend a team meeting at which the players were indignant about the suspension of Rio Ferdinand following his failure to take a drugs test.
The captain David Beckham made the signal and the manager, whose main course had just been served, responded very sharply indeed.
One of Eriksson's dining companion was Dave Sexton, the son of a fine professional boxer who while manager of Chelsea suggested to the somewhat undisciplined superstar Peter Osgood that if his behaviour did not improve he might be obliged to sort things out in his office – having first thrown away the door key.
Naturally, Sexton was stunned by Eriksson's compliance. So, we can believe with great encouragement, would have been Capello.
If Evans is off limits, what about Hemingway?
What a dismal message has been sent out by the Waterstone's decision to cancel two book signings planned for Frank Evans, the 67-year-old British bullfighter, under the weight of pressure from animal rights protesters.
Whatever you think of the corrida – and at the very least you have to say that any claim that it is a competitive sport rather than an important part of a culture which would look aghast at this country's record in child care is quite absurd – there is another principle involved. It is a little matter of freedom to produce and sell books which may not quite align with your particular view of the world.
Waterstone's, though, are probably not considering stripping their shelves of the works of one of their better earners over the years, the great aficionado Ernest Hemingway. The last time I looked his The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon were not exactly hidden away.
Nor, of course, was Moby Dick, a work of great literature which the people who stymied Evans would probably describe as a manual dealing with a rather cruel form of angling.
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