Professor Arnold Beckett: Sports doping expert who later changed sides and supported those accused of drug use
Monday 29 March 2010
Professor Arnold Beckett was a maverick who never shied away from a challenge or a perceived injustice. A member of the International Olympic Committee across four decades, he was a pioneer in the field of drug testing in sport and was involved in many high-profile cases, including those of Ben Johnson and the British skier Alain Baxter. Following his controversial exit from the IOC he became a champion of sportsmen he felt were wrongly accused of drug misuse.
Arnold Heyworth Beckett was born in 1920 in Fylde, Lancashire. He graduated from the School of Pharmacy and Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, from where he obtained his doctorate. In 1959 he was made head of the Chelsea School of Pharmacy, a position he held for over 30 years, developing the department into one of the finest in the country. He published more than 460 papers and supervised over 95 PhD students, many of whom went on to distinguished careers. In 1958 he was appointed co-editor with Albert Burger of the Journal of Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry. His publications on the relationship between stereochemistry and analgesic action were influential classics of their kind.
At Chelsea College, Beckett worked on drug metabolism, especially that of stimulants, and studied gas-liquid chromatography and other analytical techniques. A paper he delivered in London in 1965 brought him to the attention of the sporting authorities, who were seeking to intervene following several high-profile instances of performance-enhancing drug use, and the International Cycling Union invited Beckett to carry out trial drugs tests on competitors in the 1965 Milk Race, or Tour of Britain; three riders tested positive and were disqualified.
The following year testing was introduced for the first time in international football at the World Cup in England, with Beckett supervising. In 1967, the British cyclist Tommy Simpson, died during the Tour de France after taking amphetamines, and that year the IOC set up a medical commission and invited Beckett to join. They issued a list of banned substances and started testing in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City
Before the Games Beckett said in The Times, "Let's face it – [steroids] will be used in Mexico". Tom Wandell, a US physician and decathlete at the Games, claimed that during the pre-Games high-altitude training camp more than a third of the US track and field team were using steroids.
With steroid abuse increasing in the West, and Eastern European countries known to be administering them on a massive scale, sport was under pressure to react. Professor Raymond Brooks devised a test for steroids at St Thomas's Hospital in London and the IOC banned steroids in 1975. Chelsea College became the first laboratory established independently of any city staging the Olympic Games to test for drugs. In 1988 Beckett headed the team that investigated Ben Johnson following his victory in the Olympic 100 metres final in Seoul. The Canadian was stripped of his gold medal when the anabolic steroid Stanozolol was found in his urine.
As Beckett's standing in the field grew, so too did the accolades. He was appointed President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Britain in 1981 and from 1985 he chaired International Tennis Federation's medical committee for eight years. He was also at various times a member of the medical commissions of the Commonwealth Games and of the British Olympic Association and a member of the medical panel of Fifa, world football's governing body.
In later years, Beckett came into conflict with a fellow member of the IOC medical committee, Professor Manfred Donike, and it led to the end of Beckett's association with the IOC. Donike, a former German international cyclist, clashed with Beckett at a conference in Moscow in 1989 over whether the steroid profile of a male competitor, which provided the hormonal make-up of an individual, could be used to exclude a competitor from an event even if he had not tested positive. Their biggest showdown was at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when two British weightlifters, Andrew Saxton and Andrew Davies, were sent home after traces of Clenbuterol, an anabolic steroid and stimulant, were found in their bodies. The former East German sprinter Katrin Krabbe, the 100 and 200 metre world record holder, tested positive for the same drug.
The argument revolved around whether the drug was prohibited out of competition; had it been a stimulant only, IOC rules would have permitted its use in training. Beckett sided with the athletes, arguing that the IOC had not explicitly proscribed it for out-of-competition testing. Most of the medical commission sided with Donike and Beckett left the commission.
Beckett switched sides and ended up representing sportsmen he felt had been unfairly treated. One case was that of Alain Baxter, the Scots skier stripped of his bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics after testing positive for traces of an isomer of methamphetamine with no significant stimulant properties, which he had ingested in a nasal spray. Benjamin Raich, the Austrian skier who took the bronze, returned the medal to Baxter, saying that it was rightfully his.
Beckett went on to enjoy a successful business career, linking up with a former student, the founder of Vitabiotics, Dr Kartar Lalvani, and becoming a non-executive chairman of the company for 18 years. Together they worked on a number of natural healthcare innovations in nutraceuticals, which are used by professional sportsmen and sports teams.
On 9 December 1970, under the kite-flying 10-minute rule bill procedure, I introduced the Medical Inspection (Evidence of Drug Taking) (School Pupil's Bill, writes Tam Dalyell. The long title owed more to my friend and chief advisor Arnold Beckett, then Professor of Pharmacology at the Chelsea College of Science and Technology. It was intended "to empower local authorities, with the consent of their medical officer of health of the county or county borough concerned, to authorise medical inspections of pupils in attendance at any school maintained by them and to be conducted without motive given to the said pupils or guardians".
I had been appalled, as PPS to Richard Crossman, to go with him on a ministerial visit to drug rehabilitation centres in the East End of London. One saw boys – at that time few girls were involved – mooning around, unable to control their limbs. My bill had the support of my several of my most serious contemporaries, and it looked to Beckett and myself that it would become the official position of the Labour Party.
However, in the Shadow Cabinet two former Home Secretaries, James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins, prevailed on our erstwhile supporters at the top of the party – Douglas Houghton and Barbara Castle – to change their minds on the grounds that it was politically risky and an affront to children's rights. I was told to withdraw the bill and I regret obediently having done so on 12 May 1971. Arnold Beckett was still campaigning for enlightened views as an octogenarian. He was a man before his time.
Arnold Heyworth Beckett, pharmacologist and expert on sports doping: born Fylde, Lancashire 12 February 1920; married firstly (one son, one daughter), secondly, thirdly Bozena Hadzija; died London 25 January 2010.
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