An idiot's guide to intelligence

Another week, another outbreak of humbug in sport. You might have thought from the punishment handed out to them for “spying” that the McLaren Formula One team were some sort of latter-day KGB.

But what one or more of their team have done in acquiring documents from Ferrari is what every motor-racing team do when they sign a driver or technician from a rival. It has been that way for years and will continue to be so, as long as wheels spin.

If ever there were a case of a sport taking itself too seriously, it arrived in Paris last week, when the geniuses who regard themselves as the guardians of the sport’s morals fined the McLaren team $100-million (about R700-million).

It was grandstanding on a ludicrous scale. It was a bit like finding out that professional wrestling isn’t on the level. Taking their constructors’ championship points off them was irrelevant because nobody cares.

All that matters to most fans is who drives quickest and who wins the title. We want to know if Lewis Hamilton really is the best driver in the world. Then, thrust blushingly into the dock, came Bill Belichick.

The National Football League fined the New England Patriots coach $500 000 (R3,5-million) and decided that the team have to forfeit their first-round draft pick in 2008 if they reach the play-offs.

Belichick, apparently, violated league rules last Sunday when he instructed a Patriots staff member to video signals by New York Jets coaches during the first game of the season at the Meadowlands.

And who was spying on Belichick spying on the Jets? And will any of it matter when they next meet on the gridiron? As if subterfuge were spreading around the globe like a virus, how about this from the women’s World Cup in China? Members of the Denmark team are livid after discovering that two men with video cameras were hiding behind a two-way mirror next to a room in which the Danes were about to discuss their tactics for the match against China the next day.

Fifa said there was nothing to it, which might have ignored the obvious but at least put the core issue in perspective. The point about all of this is that sport is becoming increasingly—and needlessly—paranoid. What does it matter if McLaren knows about Ferrari’s workings and machinery and whizz-bang secrets? Their drivers still have to go out on the track and drive faster than Ferrari’s drivers. Ditto the Patriots and the Jets, the Danes and the Chinese. It is done on the pitch, not the touchline.

Rugby teams regularly “spy” on other teams for line-out calls (a bit of an issue on the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand when Sir Clive Woodward’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, got a tad touchy with the media); boxers watch videotapes of opponents; cricket teams get detailed analyses of other teams (Bob Woolmer was a big champion of this, even wanting instructions relayed on to the field from the dressing room by radio); and chess players analyse the history of their rivals’ moves.

I remember talking to the late Eddie Futch, perhaps the finest boxing coach and strategist of his time, about the time in his youth when he was sparring in a Detroit gym with a young Joe Louis.

Louis kept throwing his left. Futch, a quick-footed lightweight at the time, kept stepping aside and popping Louis with his right.

“What you doing, Eddie? I can’t hit you,” Louis asked. “Just before you throw your left, Joe,” Eddie told him, “you raise your left toe. You might as well send me a postcard about it.” “That’s cheating, Eddie.” “That’s not cheating, Joe. That’s boxing.” It’s also called intelligence.—Â

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