Leading Article: A losing race to keep up with the rules

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The Independent Online
HOURS after he had observed the ritual of spraying champagne from the winner's rostrum at the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday, Michael Schumacher was disqualified. The reason was not that he had cheated outrageously nor driven dangerously, but that a piece of wood placed under the car to slow it down for safety reasons was 1.6mm thinner than the permitted minimum.

The disqualification could cost the German driver the Formula One world motor racing championship. Today he is appealing against a two-race suspension for ignoring a black flag instructing him to pull off the track at the British Grand Prix in July. He could be forgiven for feeling that the rules are now more important than the races.

The cyclist Graeme Obree would sympathise with his frustration. Two weeks ago, he was disqualified from the world 4,000m pursuit championship because officials could not see daylight between his arms and chest. The regulation had been introduced only 20 minutes before the start of the race.

Meanwhile, as allegations of drug-taking among athletes at the Commonwealth Games have produced bigger headlines than the competition itself, Miguel Indurain, four-times winner of cycling's Tour de France, faces an extraordinary situation. During the Tour de l'Oise race, the asthmatic Indurain took Ventolin, which contains Salbutamol, to relieve the condition.

Salbutamol is banned by the French Cycling Federation but not by the International Cycling Union or the International Olympic Committee. While the sporting authorities should take the toughest possible stance against the illicit use of performance-enhancing drugs, the lack of uniformity about what can be used has created a minefield.

This growing obsession with the minutiae of regulations is partly the product of increasingly sophisticated technology and ever higher levels of fitness. The slightest tinkering with either machines or the human body can make a crucial split-second difference.

The financial stakes are now so high and the competition so ferocious that the once simple aim of sporting excellence is in danger of being obscured by the need to keep up with the latest rules. In the future, coaches may spend more time leading sportsmen and women through the maze of regulations than teaching the sport itself.