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What sport tells us about financial regulation?


My 16 year old sports mad son read a book by Ed Smith, an Anglo Welsh county cricketer, over the summer entitled ‘What Sport Tells Us About Life’, and was mightily impressed. The book’s brilliance – he tells me - stems from the recognition that sport is life in miniature, and that if you analyse sport you find a mine of information about war, money, egos, perceptions and genius. The one issue he had with the book was its remarkable brevity. After a mere 190 pages of Smith’s impressive insight the book runs out. However, I think I have a solution.

If financial regulation was a slightly more engaging topic to the wider public, I’m sure that the compliance community could come together and write its own chapter. I would be tempted to call it ‘What Contador and Barichello tell us about the global financial crisis’, although this is not quite as snappy as the actual book’s chapter titles, which include ‘Zidane’s kiss’.

So what particular sporting examples from their careers should we draw on? Well for cycling fans, one of the most memorable incidents in this summer’s Tour de France was Alberto Contador overtaking Andy Schleck and then accelerating away at full race pace, when Schleck had to stop to re-engage his bike’s chain after it fell off at a vital moment at the top of a mountain climb. Having taken this advantage Contador got ahead of Schlek in the overall race order and stayed ahead; eventually winning the Tour. Many commentators were outraged at this breach of cycling’s “unwritten code” (he should have paused to give Schlek a chance to catch up) and the crowd, including many of Contador’s supporters, were so incensed that they booed him loudly on the podium at the stage finish. This is a striking example of a framework of acceptable behaviour that relies on a notion of doing the right thing and cultural norms, rather than black and white regulation. There is no law in the Tour de France rule book that prohibits overtaking another cyclist with a mechanical problem, but the collective moral decision of the supporters was that it was the wrong thing to do. Contrast this with a highly technical and legislated sport: F1 racing. When Rubens Barrichello was told to pull over and let Ferrari team mate Michael Schumacher take the lead in the 2002 Austrian grand prix his team was breaking no rule at that time, (it was directly in response to this that “Team Orders that could influence the outcome of a race" were later banned in F1 regulations) and as there was no expectation of self-regulation in F1, so the drivers were not penalised, and the Ferrari fans remained supportive - despite the massively negative media attention. It is, perhaps, revealing that Barrichello later says that the team lawyer was the one calling the shots.

So which sporting scenario is a good parallel for the behaviour of financial firms over recent years? Is it Contador ignoring the sportsmanship expected, but not mandated, of him and scoring such a massive “own goal” against his own support that he voluntarily published what was an apology - in all but name - that same day. Or is it Ferrari who exploited a legal loophole in a tremendously competitive and money rich sport and simply moved onto the next race with the F1 regulators patching up the laws after the fact?

Let’s be clear, by looking at these examples from sport we are not advocating some form of return to principles based or self-regulation, or indeed proposing indulging in a marathon session of “bash the banker”. Rather it is more fundamental. As we at MPI found in our risk management survey (as reported on Finextra) last year, there is a need to change the culture of a proportion of leading financial firms and that of their supporters (also known as shareholders). Without this culture change, financial regulators are simply playing a sophisticated game of catch up.


Comments: (3)

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 02 September, 2010, 05:03Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Cricket anyone?

Dave Kershaw
Dave Kershaw - Ulster Bank - Belfast 02 September, 2010, 10:41Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Sport teaches us that if there is a gap or loophole in the rules, someone will eventually discover it and exploit it - until it is banned by the rules. Sport is littered with examples, ranging from the F1 example above, to bodyline bowling in cricket, through to the backpass in football.

Evolutionary biology is similar - altruism (i.e. self regulation) only works if all sides benefit. Cleaner fish are not eaten when they clean the mouths of larger fish, as the former benefit from the food they find and the latter benefit more from a clean mouth than a quick meal. In the financial world, FIs all get together to fight fraud, as the disadvantage of one organisation facilitating fraudsters would be outweighed by the sanctions the others would apply to it.

Otherwise, the rules applied by nature (the regulatory environment) are all that counts.

John Cant
John Cant - MPI Europe Ltd - London 04 October, 2010, 08:04Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Given the discussion above, it was interesting to see in the news last week that Contador has been suspended by the cycling governing body for a drugs irregularity found during this same event. So could this be the final confirmation that he had been prepared to do anything, fair or foul, to win this iconic race for the third time? Well the jury is still out as the amount of the banned substance found in the test is so small that Contador argues it could have entered his system through contaminated food. The same chemical is used (illegally) by farmers to promote growth of lean meat by their cows. In a further parallel between sport and business life, the Contador debate on the web has generated those supporting the current method of regulation and those advocating nothing less than a complete culture change.

John Cant

John Cant

Managing Director

MPI Europe Ltd

Member since

06 Jul 2004



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