If life isn’t fair, then why should sport, which reflects life, be fair? But it is comforting, perhaps necessary, to believe that all sport is fair and that even if the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, no one changes the goalposts (to mix metaphors) mid-race or mid-battle. No one tells an athlete running the relay at the Olympics that it has just been decided he should carry the baton in his mouth and not in his hand.
If the expectation in sport — that the more talented, harder working, better prepared individual or team wins — the essence of sport is the battle going to the less strong, or less fancied. A David overcoming a Goliath.
Such upsets justify sport, they are what fans live for. The irony is, rules generally favour the swift and the strong. Top seeds at Wimbledon play on the show courts, never at the outer reaches of the venue. This is partly because no tournament can afford to lose a top seed early but mainly because television would not have it any other way.
When the FIA decides that the Formula One championship should be decided by the excitement of an actual race in the last lap rather than by the passive procession behind a safety car, it is a different interpretation of ‘fair’.
Not coincidentally, it is also what television prefers. It ensures endless discussions and publicity for a sport that was in danger of lacking in surprises in recent years with Sir Lewis Hamilton winning championships with boring regularity. Consistency is good for the individual, often even for the sport, but seldom for television.
It is the fate of consistent champions — Pete Sampras in tennis was another — to be labelled ‘boring’ for being too good and too predictable. This is cruel, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to compete at the highest level. It ignores what it takes to be a great champion. But television isn’t concerned with such subtleties. Television wants drama and controversy. Consistent champions seldom provide that.
Should the current darling of the sport, the young and talented Max Verstappen overstay his welcome by winning too often and too easily, he will come up against this syndrome too. Spectators tend to turn away from sports without shocks and upsets. Fans of the individual might want their champion to win forever, but the rest (which is the larger group) crave variety.
The top performers initially find local rules in their favour, but if they make the mistake of winning so often that it eliminates all competition, then they can expect a backlash. Somebody somewhere will change the goalposts.
The higher the level of the sport, the less likely it is that protests will be upheld. Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal at the World Cup was allowed to stand although millions saw exactly what had happened. A sin of omission then, a sin of commission now — a part of life, a part of sport.