Leading Article: The only way to get drugs out of sport

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The Independent Culture
KATE HOEY, the new Minister for Sport, has called for a review of sports drug-testing procedures. The immediate cause is the furore that has accompanied the revelation that Linford Christie has tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. This follows the clearing of Britain's European 200-metres champion, Dougie Walker, for having produced the same result as Christie. And you only need pick up the sports section of any newspaper, on any day, to read about more positive tests and more bannings at track and field events around the world.

There are many issues to be reviewed. Certain drugs, such as the cyclists' favourite, EPO, are available only by medical prescription. Others, such as nandrolone, are available in food supplements, and are even legal in certain sports, but are banned in athletics. Testing procedures for these substances are continually being refined, as are masking agents and other tricks for avoiding detection. And penalties vary - from a slap on the wrist to a lifetime ban - depending on the organisation applying them. Finally, merely testing positive for a banned substance is not sufficient cause for ruining a lucrative career. There has to have been an intention to cheat, and banned athletes have discovered they can initiate lawsuits which can be ruinously expensive for themselves and the sporting bodies.

These authorities should not be left to sort all of these matters out for themselves. They have neither the necessary impartiality nor the means to police themselves effectively. Last summer, the big drugs story in sport was not in athletics, but cycling. This exploded in France following the stopping, at a customs post, of a cycling-team car that contained a pharmacopoeia of banned and illegal drugs. This discovery was followed by a year of police raids, tapped phones, magistrates' examinations, arrests and imprisonments, which have yielded more information than any testing regime could uncover.

If Kate Hoey wishes to clean up the use of drugs in top-level sports in the UK, she should take a leaf out of the French criminal code. If cheating in sport were to be made illegal in Britain, both those who indulge in it and those who help them could be investigated and charged by a system used to establishing guilt and innocence, and which has the power to enforce truly deterrent punishments: fines and imprisonment. The criminal justice system - police and courts - are the way to take drugs out of sports. Self-regulation has failed.

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