Sport is stranded in moral straits

Zofia K Stanley 2 October 2009

When the scandal which has now been dubbed “crashgate” broke last week, I have to admit I wasn’t hugely surprised. I don’t mean I’d suspected it all along – don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Formula One fan. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the sport has always had its seedy side.

For those of you who don’t follow F1, I should explain what happened. During last year’s Singapore Grand Prix, Renault’s team allegedly instructed one of its drivers, Nelson Piquet Junior, to deliberately crash his car, thus causing a delay to the race which allowed their other driver, Fernando Alonso, to benefit from safety procedures and go on to win it. This act of cheating, which could undoubtedly have had fatal consequences, was punished with a two-year suspended ban for Renault, a five year ban for their executive director and a lifetime ban for team boss Flavio Briatore. Last year, when McLaren-Mercedes stole secrets from their great rivals Ferrari, they were fined more than £60 million – the harshest punishment ever dished out. There is a stark lack of proportion.

Or is there? Does the mere act of unnecessarily endangering lives in a sport in which competitors and officials are fully aware of being at risk make Renault’s crime so greater than McLaren’s? You could contest that whilst Renault obtained an unfair result in Singapore, McLaren’s espionage might have lent them an unfair advantage all season. You could also claim that whilst McLaren’s crime was outright theft, Renault’s act was merely a racing tactic – albeit an unnecessarily dangerous one. The racing code, so to speak, has always been a shadowy area in Formula One.

I’m not going to uphold either of those arguments. But the real lack of proportion, in my opinion, was in the public’s response to the scandal. Why was there no outrage over the fact that the actual culprit, Piquet, got off scott-free? Renault’s act was not, as a Times columnist claimed, “the worse single piece of cheating in the history of sport.” It will not haunt the sport forever. And it will certainly not deter people from watching Formula One: this year’s Singapore Grand Prix is anticipated more eagerly than ever.

The truth is that many people don’t actually care about the cheating. The huge response to “crashgate” has been due not to the crime but to the punishment. And not because the punishment is unsuited to the crime, but because it was not as harsh as a punishment given to another team.

There are few moral values left in sport. The lack of outrage at Adebayor’s conduct in this season’s Manchester City-Arsenal match showed how accustomed football has become to outright fouls. Rugby Union’s bizarre “Bloodgate” case shows just how far teams are willing to pursue fraudulent tactics. When Harlequins player Tom Williams was taken off and replaced with specialist goalkicker Nick Evans, no one could have guessed that the blood gushing out of his mouth actually came from a fake blood capsule.

Does this deter viewers? Not in the least. The Tour de France has seen scandal after scandal over the past decade. Whole teams have been banned for doping offences, as well as riders such as Floyd Landis, who won the event in 2006. Yet the sport is as popular as ever.

But hope remains. The fascination with iconic sportsmen such as Usain Bolt and Lance Armstrong, who have never failed a drugs test, is testimony to the respect given to true sporting achievements. We can and must build on this in order to bring morality back into sport.

Zofia K Stanley