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The rise and fall of the British sporting aristocracy

By Simon Kuper

Published: July 12 2009 19:57 | Last updated: July 12 2009 19:57

The feud in Formula One is so riddled with peculiarities that it can be hard to see it for what it is: the latest act in the saga of upper-class Brits being ousted as rulers of the world.

On the surface, of course, it is just eight racing teams threatening to leave Formula One because Max Mosley, the president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, wants to impose a spending cap on them. We can dismiss as mere distractions last year’s claims that Mr Mosley participated in a Nazi-themed orgy and last week’s praise by Mr Mosley’s ally Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One commercial director, for Hitler’s ability to “get things done”. (Mr Ecclestone later unhelpfully refined this by saying he had only meant Hitler from 1932 to 1938.) At bottom, what is going on in Formula One is just another unseating of a British gentleman.

Mr Mosley’s upper-class pedigree is unmatched. His father, Sir Oswald, was an eccentric who led the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. His mother was a Mitford who had previously married a Guinness. In short, he comes from the small tribe that invented modern sport.

Most games the world plays today were codified in the 19th century at British private schools, chiefly to keep boys from thinking about sex. The Brits originally did not see the point of playing sports against foreigners, and so left it to the French to set up most international sporting organisations (including the FIA). Later, however, the Brits took control.

They simply felt it appropriate that they should be games masters to the world. The world had mixed feelings about this, used as it was to being dominated by public-school Brits preaching the common good. However, even after the British empire began to crumble, there was a widespread sense that British rule in sport was indeed appropriate. And so Lord Burghley ran international athletics for 30 postwar years, cricket was governed from Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, while from 1955 to 1974 Brits ran Fifa, the global football authority. Admittedly the Fifa presidents were not posh – Arthur Drewry was a Grimsby fish merchant and Stanley Rous a gym teacher in Watford – but they had imbibed the private-school ethos. Sometimes the Brits appeared in partial disguise: Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee from 1972 to 1980, was nominally Irish, but possessed the full British upper-class curriculum vitae of a father killed in the first world war, a schooling at Eton and a seat in the House of Lords.

Then, however, in a rerun of decolonisation, the world dumped its British games masters. The Brazilian João Havelange says that in 1971 he flew to England, had lunch with Rous, and informed him that he was standing for his job. “May the best man win,” Mr Havelange claims to have added, in a possibly ironic use of a British top drawer maxim. It may not have happened exactly like that – Rous remembered Mr Havelange promising not to stand – but in 1974 the Brazilian took over Fifa.

Later, the IOC shook off Killanin, the International Cricket Council left Lord’s for Dubai, and even polo came to be run from Beverly Hills. While the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews still sets the rules of golf, it is through an offshoot called the R&A, and together with the United States Golf Association. Looked at in this light, Mr Mosley would be merely the last British toff to go. It is history repeating itself as farce.

Mocked as incompetent buffoons by comedians since Peter Cook, the upper-classes have not ruled Britain since Sir Alec Douglas-Home stopped being prime minister in 1964. (Inevitably, he later moved to Lord’s to run cricket.) And yet they have fantastic staying power. Aristocrats in other countries – the few who still have heads – have become mere curios. By contrast, the British upper-classes have allied with commoners such as Mr Ecclestone, ridden the wave of globalisation that made English the universal language, and learnt to pretend to treat foreigners as equals. Next year they will almost certainly retake Downing Street, when David Cameron, a direct descendant of King William IV, becomes prime minister. They still have influence at many of the world’s great sporting venues: this month alone, Wimbledon, Lord’s, and the Turnberry golf course for the British Open. Mr Mosley has promised to step down as FIA president in October but has also threatened to stay on. Don’t count him out yet – or his class.

The writer is an FT columnist

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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