Warning: reading about drugs can seriously confuse

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The Independent Culture
THERE WERE some outstanding performances at the Golden League athletics meeting in Monte Carlo two nights ago, but you could be forgiven for having overlooked them. As so often with athletics, the good news has been swamped by the drug stories. And what stories!

Linford Christie, social and sporting icon, 1992 Olympic sprint champion, tests positive in retirement, aged 39! Javier Sotomayor, the gentle Cuban giant, high-jump world record-holder and Olympic champion from the same Barcelona Games as Christie, tests positive for cocaine! This, following the US sprint champion Dennis Mitchell losing an appeal against a drug suspension, when his principal defence appears to have been that it was the five beers and four beddings of his wife the night before which raised his testosterone levels!

As if that weren't enough, lurking in the wings in Monte Carlo - headquarters of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) - was the grandaddy of all drugs demons, Big Bad Ben Johnson, yet again seeking reinstatement from his life ban. And just in case you thought that athletics had completely cornered the market in spiking itself, if you'll excuse the expression, there was the former England rugby union captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, being ordered to explain his apparent admissions of taking ecstasy and cocaine.

Now, despite personal testimony from many in the media (who must remain, I'm afraid, incognito, at least for the time being), cocaine is not necessarily performance-enhancing. But a minute quantity of cocaine in a urine sample is what got Sotomayor stripped of his Pan-American Games title in Winnipeg last weekend.

But that's not the only conundrum in this increasingly haphazard world of dope-taking, drug-testing and subsequent sanctions. Dennis Mitchell, for example, tested positive for the primary anabolic steroid testosterone more than a year ago. But his national federation exonerated him, and he continued to compete (and earn thousands of dollars) until last Monday evening. The IAAF was more stringent, and upheld his ban. But the ban is retroactive, so Mitchell will be free to compete from 1 April next - an appropriate date, you may think, for anyone connected with athletics dope-testing.

In contrast, when Dougie Walker tested positive for nandrolone (another steroid) last autumn, UK Athletics (UKA) told him to cease competing immediately.

He was exonerated by UKA last week (though not by the IAAF, which has yet to study his case), but Walker has lost a season's earnings, and has signalled his intention to sue UKA, the organisation that was set up after its predecessor, the British Athletics Federation was bankrupted, in part by Diane Modahl's suit for pounds 500,000 in the wake of her own acquittal on a drugs charge.

Which brings us back to Christie, whose positive sample from an indoor meeting in Germany last February revealed by-products of nandrolone. This is the same steroid as in the case of Walker, whose acquittal last week was due to his lawyers establishing that there are at least two non-banned food supplements with by-products sufficiently similar to those of nandrolone to cast doubt on the findings. It would seem, on the face of it, that Christie has a ready-made excuse for his positive reading - yet he maintains that he doesn't take food supplements!

You could be forgiven for being dazed and confused, because that's exactly how I feel, and I'm supposed to be an expert on all this. Of course, it doesn't help when I hear Jeffrey Archer blathering on about it on national radio as I write. If I understand him correctly, it sounds as if we'll need a dope test to travel the Underground if he becomes Mayor of London. But enough tomfoolery.

That dope-testing is in disarray is obvious. The results and penalties are inconsistent. Something needs to be done - for the benefit of the athletes, for the administrators, for the dope-testers, for the public, and, dare I say it, for the media. I would much rather be writing about elite competition.

If only to prove that athletics shouldn't carry the can alone, we are back to where we were a year ago, after the Tour de France finished in disarray. On that occasion, the lid was lifted on the can of worms by the French sports minister, Marie-George Buffet. His intervention ultimately resulted in a special congress of the International Olympic Committee, whose own president, Juan-Antonio Samaranch, had been widely criticised as much for talking down the importance of dope-testing as for turning a blind eye to financial scandal.

It remains to be seen whether anything will come of the new anti-drug legislation that the IOC finally adopted (principal opponents of even the watered-down version were Hein Verbruggen and Sepp Blatter, international chiefs of cycling and football). But there was another result of the Tour de France debacle. It was the publication of a book, Massacre a la Chaine, which has given us as much insight into the world of elite professional sports as did the Canadian government's investigation following Ben Johnson's expulsion from the Seoul Olympic Games 11 years ago.

Massacre a la Chaine was written by Willi Voet, the Festina cycle team soigneur, whose arrest, while transporting a minor pharmacy in his car on the opening day of the 1998 Tour, started the farrago. Voet speaks from the same expert perspective as did Johnson's coach Charlie Francis, to the Canadian commission. Both men oversaw and administered drugs. They knew exactly what was going on. Francis's testimony has got lost a little in the intervening decade. But Voet's is still fresh, and should be carefully considered.

Voet writes of the cyclists, "When I think, that after a positive test, they continue to swear on their mother's life that they've been doped without their knowledge... They knew, and they always know... They know their own bodies better than anybody, their reactions, when to take stuff, the substance and the dosage. They're pros - and that means, at all levels."

Voet isn't talking about food supplements here. He is talking about life- threatening substances - he lists more than a dozen young cyclists who are believed to have died from the effects of erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone. If these substances are available to cyclists, they are available to all elite sportsmen and women, who want to get an edge.

It remains our responsibility to ensure that our heroes and heroines don't plunge over that edge.