Thursday, September 17, 2009

Opinion: the worst act of cheating in the history of sport

It is the worst single piece of cheating in the history of sport. We must accept that Renault, in refusing to defend its Formula One motor racing team against the allegation that one of its drivers was told to crash, is admitting that the allegations are indeed true.
That is to say that Nelson Piquet Jr, son of the eponymous three-times world champion, a young man desperate to make his mark on the sport and yet struggling to keep up with its demands, was told to have an “accident” at the Singapore Grand Prix last September.
As a result of his crash, Piquet’s team-mate, Fernando Alonso, was able to win a race he would otherwise have not, taking advantage of the safety procedures that are laid down in Formula One. Piquet was sacked by his team in July for his failure to bring in the results they wanted and turned whistleblower. online sports
After the usual bluster and cover-up, Renault — the company, not the Formula One team — has made its move. It will offer no defence to the charges and has parted company with the team principal, Flavio Briatore, and his No 2, Pat Symonds.

That is what happens when leading commercial concerns get mixed up in sport: their ultimate goal is profit, not sporting success. They are in it for image. They want to be associated with glamour and with success, while the faintest hint of sordidness and cheating is anathema.
This is no run-of-the-mill piece of skulduggery. The Renault team’s crime was not an act of cheating as mere fraudulence. Rather, it was cheating as a potentially lethal act; as potential murder, if you like. This is not melodramatic. Deaths in motor racing still happen. They are not a relic of the wizard-prang days. Deaths come from crashes, and no crash can be controlled.
There have been two horrifying incidents this year alone. In a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch, Henry Surtees, son of the former world champion, John, was killed.
He was struck by a wheel that escaped from another car that had crashed. In Formula One less than two months ago, Felipe Massa’s skull was fractured by a spring that flew from a car that was ahead of him during qualification for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Initially, there were fears for Massa’s life. Motor racing remains a very dangerous sport.
It is supposed to be. Huge advances in safety measures have been made, but speed is by definition dangerous. Motor racing is dangerous for drivers, for pit-crews, for marshals and even on occasions for spectators. It follows, then, that to play fast and loose in this sport is breathtakingly irresponsible.
The first person at risk was Piquet, obviously. He was 23, eaten up with ambition, out of his depth, desperate to please. It is all very well to say that he should have refused and got sacked: would you? After him, every other driver in the race was put at risk by the decision to crash on purpose. And after that, the lives of marshals and spectators were wilfully risked — and for what?
A few points in a table. Money. Sporting prestige. Fame. Glory. It is this willingness to take risks with the lives of so many people, including those of bystanders, that separates this event of cheating from the many others that have occurred with such regularity throughout the chequered history of sport. This single incident is clearly different from long-term institutionalised cheating, of which the East German drugs programme is the most notorious.
The most famous single-event cheat in sporting history is Ben Johnson, but what did he do? He took drugs to win the Olympic 100 metres final in 1988. His coach, Charlie Francis, must take at least equal responsibility. But it was only Johnson’s life and health that were at risk, not those of his fellow competitors and certainly not of the officials and spectators at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul. Other sports
In recent weeks we have had the so-called “Bloodgate” scandal in rugby union. By comparison with the Renault affair, this is just farce: a comic episode in which fake blood was used in an attempt to gain a victory by fraudulent means.
In football, the cheating issue that excites people is the faking of fouls: diving, simulation, whatever. In the most recent high-profile case, Eduardo da Silva, the Arsenal forward, was banned for simulation and then got off on appeal. Even had he been guilty, this would have been no more than a routine example of deception. No one from Celtic was in danger of dying.
English football’s favourite example of cheating is Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal at the World Cup of 1986 that helped to eliminate England in the quarter-finals. This also had no lethal consequences; it was just a piece of urchin malice.
Some examples of cheating, or alleged cheating, are more violent. In the Lions’ rugby union tour to New Zealand in 2005, their captain, Brian O’Driscoll, was driven into the ground by a spear-tackle by two All Blacks in the first international, a potentially crippling manoeuvre. The rugby authorities never charged Tana Umaga, the New Zealand captain, with wrongdoing; others have suggested that the tackle was recklessly dangerous and premeditated, as well as illegal.
But “Crashgate” is the worst. This example of cheating passes all its single-event predecessors. The potentially lethal consequences of this act were beyond anyone’s control.
What we must now ask is whether this is an isolated example of a total loss of perspective, or whether it is a straw that shows which way the winds of sport are blowing.


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