THE latest back-stairs manoeuvring by Ferrari to manipulate the arcane rules of F1 to their advantage and deny Sebastian Vettel a third successive title illustrates the depth to which a once-noble pursuit has sunk in the pursuit of mammon.
Unfortunately, much of modern sport merely mirrors our covetous society. Think corrupt, expenses-fiddling MPs, the moral bankruptcy of bankers' bonuses and fat cats' tax havens. Yes, and corrupt newspapers. It's little wonder that the art of sport should imitate life. When some 3000 Brussels bureaucrats take home more than the Prime Minister's £142,000 per annum, against a life-saving UK neurosurgeon's salary of £100,000, and some footballers earn that in less than a week, you know the world has gone mad.
If that categorises me as a fogey, then I'm proud to be one. The medieval notion of chivalry, which despised victory gained without honour, always appealed to the romantic in me. So when I learned Ferrari had explored having Vettel penalised for allegedly overtaking under a yellow flag early in the Brazilian Grand Prix, I shed a tear for temps perdu, then savoured a frisson of nostalgia.
The Italian team were indulged for years by F1, holding a secret right of veto which was almost certainly in breach of European competition legislation. It certainly made the sport a less-than-level playing field. We are told this has now lapsed, but who knows what lurks in the oily sump of Bernie Ecclestone's private fiefdom?
FIA officials ruled Vettel's move at Interlagos was legal, prompting Ferrari to explore options that could have dragged the outcome of the 2012 championship through the FIA court. Had the governing body been influenced by claims sweeping the South American media and YouTube, they could have imposed a drive-through, or 20-second penalty. This would have relegated Vettel to eighth from sixth. And guess what? Ferrari's Fernando Alonso would have taken the title by a single point.
This is a sport in which honour was once the norm. There were countless examples from an earlier era of rivals being waved through when a driver realised his car, or skill, was inferior. Not now.
Stirling Moss never won an F1 drivers' championship. He had the chance to do so when he and his British arch-rival Mike Hawthorn were neck and neck for the 1958 title. Hawthorn spun and stalled in the Portuguese GP before restarting to finish second, but he was disqualified for having done so against the traffic. Moss, who had won, told stewards Hawthorn had done this on an escape road, not the circuit. Hawthorn was reinstated and two races later won the title, denying Moss by a single point.
And Francois Cevert, having once passed Jackie Stewart when the Scot missed a gear change, later let Stewart take the lead again. He said he would not have been satisfied beating his rival in that way.
F1 rewards have always been high. Drivers can now even expect to come off the track with their life. Doing so with honour intact is more problematic. Financial rewards in many areas of performance sport have become extreme, some might say obscene. Notably, but not exclusively, in football – and even more so in a range of American sports.
I deplored the era of shamateurism, when athletes received brown envelopes in defiance of rules from the same establishment officials who kept working-class kids out of the sport, and the Olympics. I wrote in defence of them receiving money, legally, thus ending hypocrisy. Even today, track and field (and even more so swimming) remain sport's poor relations.
Yet the labourer is worthy of his hire. Directors of British football clubs made fortunes in my lifetime while operating a system little better than feudal. They imposed a minimum wage as low as £12 a week, usually with no injury insurance, close-season wages, or right of mobility for player-serfs who were paid a pittance. Tales of players catching the tram or bus to matches along with the fans are no urban myth. Those who rebelled were often victimised and denied the right to earn a living.
It was 1961 before the minimum wage was abolished, and the Fulham and England captain Johnny Haynes became the first £100-per-week player. Deservedly so. It had to change, but if we are to believe recent Twitter claims, Carlos Tevez earned nearly £8m in the 2009/10 tax year. Modern football wages are patently as wrong as those which prevailed 50 and 60 years ago.
The inflated rewards of modern sport, however, have bred cheating and bad sportsmanship on an epic scale: diving, drugs, corruption, illegal betting and much more. They have sadly removed the good example sport bequeathed to earlier generations. So I continue to celebrate the day in 1964 when Eugenio Monti, doyen of bobsleigh (in what was believed to be his last Olympics) was trailing Britain's Robin Nash and Tony Dixon.
Monti had won every honour save Olympic gold, yet when the GB pair could not start their second run because a bolt had sheared, Monti handed over one from his own rig. The Brits triumphed, but Monti's consolation was to become the inaugural winner of the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.
Now, sport is all about earnings lists, rights fees, and endorsements. Performers are rightly richer. Yet sport itself is the poorer.