A sport running scared: Scandalised by drugs, and riven by suspicion and fear, can British athletics survive these latest blows to its public image?

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The Independent Online
SUCH is the climate of suspicion and nervousness prevailing here at the Commonwealth Games after last week's drugs scandals that, after winning his silver medal in the high jump late on Friday, Steve Smith was handed a can of drink by a stranger, and refused to take a swig. 'It was on my mind that he was a bit keen to give me a drink,' Smith said afterwards. 'A clean athlete shouldn't have to feel like that, but everyone is terrified.'

Smith, like many of the British competitors here, felt a mixture of anger and disbelief after two of his English team-mates, the 800-metre runner Diane Modahl and the shot- putter Paul Edwards, were sent home following positive drug tests. In defence of Modahl, Smith (whose agent is Modahl's husband, Vicente) was particularly voluble: 'I know she's the victim of a system that's gone horribly wrong,' the high jumper said. 'There's been a big mess-up somewhere along the line because Diane Modahl would not take drugs.'

The results of the test on Modahl's B sample will be known early this week, but there is speculation that the substance found in the A sample was in the most serious category of banned substances. If this is the case, Professor Peter Radford, the chief executive of the British Athletics Federation, will pull Britain's women's team out of the World Cup event in London in September.

In Victoria, however, there is a belief that the athletes are victims of the British federation's determination to be seen as world leaders in the fight against drugs (three, as yet unnamed, club athletes have also tested positive, and the sprinter Solomon Wariso has already been suspended). Sally Gunnell, gold medal winner here and captain of the women's team, said: 'I just wonder if we are doing things right. Maybe we've got some system that other people aren't following. Perhaps we're catching every little thing; aspirin, you name it. They've got the technique to trace everything, and you feel you can't take anything.

'I believe we are a clean country,' added Gunnell. 'We are one step ahead of any other country when it comes to random drug testing. I must have been tested five or six times last winter alone.'

Smith was equally adamant: 'Ninety-nine per cent of us are absolutely clean, but we still get nervous about providing a sample because we don't trust the system. Somebody I think is pretty innocent has become a victim of the system.'

Yet while the athletes in Victoria feel unhappy with the specifics of drug-testing, the authorities back in London have wider, and more far- reaching, issues to tackle. For example, will the avowed determination to clean up athletics result in the eventual destruction of the sport? And has the public image of athletics in Britain been damaged beyond repair?

Radford, however, continues to be evangelical in his crusade against drugs. 'The trend of steroid use particularly is continuing despite an increase in the number of out-of-

competition tests by 20 per cent last year,' he said.

Nevertheless, there is a widespread feeling among athletes, coaches and fans that, while Radford's motives may be laudable, if it is discovered - and this is likely - that four of the athletes tested positive are shown to have taken nothing more serious than the sort of mild stimulant found in over-the- counter prescriptions, Radford will stand accused of dragging athletics down an unnecessary and dangerous path. Many countries in the world turn a blind eye to these offences, but Radford was also formerly the chairman of the Sports Council's drug advisory board, so he must be seen to be carrying out the International Amateur Athletic Federation's rules to the letter.

Only a week ago, Radford was smarting at criticism by Professor Arne Ljungvist, chief of the IAAF's medical commission, who told me that the British doctor who claimed that the amount of ephedrine found in Wariso's sample was only equal to a cup of coffee was 'sending out the wrong messages'. No athlete failing a test, said Ljungvist, had taken less than a quantity that was 'performance enhancing'.

Radford must now continue to lead the search for more culprits, while at the same time persuading thousands of athletes that they are not in danger of similar humiliation if they happen to be tested while taking nothing more harmful than asthma relief tablets or tonics that they may not realise contain banned substances. He also has the huge problem of leading a sport that in the public's perception is now riddled with pill-popping cheats. Radford's handling of major scandals does not give cause for confidence that he can balance these delicate matters.

Radford naively believed that the athletics media would accept unquestioningly that the reason Modahl was withdrawn just before the 800 metres semi-final was because of a family bereavement. The English team's spokesperson here, Caroline Searle, had been left to release that information when the tears in her eyes told of a much more serious situation. Within the hour, the full truth emerged.

What most concerns the followers of British athletics is the sport's image. Almost everyone here supporting the home countries is involved in the sport in some voluntary capacity, or has relatives who compete at one level or another. All are ashamed and deeply concerned that parents are going to discourage youngsters from going into what should be the most healthy of all sports. Many were already complaining about Linford Christie treating the Commonwealth Games like a two-day meeting, flying in and out just for his event. This complaint now pales by comparison.

Graham Botley, a committee man for the British Athletics Supporters Club and a Blackheath Harriers club member, spoke for many in Victoria when he said: 'The Modahl and Edwards affair has soured everything here for us. Parents at home are going to have to decide whether they will let their children get involved.'

It is impossible to say exactly how widespread the deliberate taking of body-building and performance-enhancing drugs - as opposed to mild, though still illegal, medicines - is, but one coach said yesterday that he could reel off the names of a dozen athletes, some of them well known, and tell you exactly what drugs they were taking. Following the joining of the two Germanies and break-up of the Soviet Union, it was assumed, probably wrongly, that the drugs problem in world athletics was being overcome. Radford is one of many who believe that the situation is not much better than it ever was. He says the misuse of 'anabolic agents' among sportsmen and women in Britain remains 'a significant problem'. However, neither he nor Professor Ljungvist are convinced that many leading athletes who receive thousands of pounds in appearance and prize money are involved, as is rumoured, with unscrupulous drugs companies in efforts to find new 'masking agents' - drugs that conceal the use of such things as anabolic steroids which are widely and openly used by body-builders not so much to increase their strength, more to exaggerate muscle definition.

All that athletics can claim for the moment is that random testing has almost certainly greatly reduced the number of athletes taking extended courses of steroids (as many East Germans did) and that the gap between the research done by undercover pharmacists (mostly in China) and that done by those involved in detecting the drugs is steadily closing.

Attempts to expose drugs cover- ups in British athletics have always met with failure, not least that of a national newspaper that a few years ago attempted to implicate some big names in the sport but only ended up paying a substantial amount by way of settlement. Nevertheless, there is a feeling that the avoidance of drug- testing is still a problem, and some of the biggest names in athletics may now be concerned that Radford will be tempted to expose them. Clearly, in a climate of rumour and suspicion, speculation is rife, but many in the sport feel that high-profile figures escape testing.

A cynical, though perhaps justified, view of the sudden rush of positive test announcements over the past 10 days is that they came after, rather than before, the British federation signed an extension of their television contract with ITV. The company, together with the sponsors the federation has had to work extremely hard to obtain, must now be considering whether they want to be involved with a sport that is increasingly becoming tainted. The possibility that one or two top stars could be exposed is undoubtedly a real fear among those who provide the sport with the largest proportion of its income.

Yet Radford will point to the events of the last few days not with any delight, but at least with satisfaction that the random-testing campaign (by which an athlete can be asked to provide a sample virtually anywhere and at any time) is actually working. If it could be confidently believed that the sport was laying traps to catch bigger game, then the federation's stance would receive greater support. As it is, Professor Ljungvist probably highlighted the dilemma for British athletics and for Radford when he said: 'I cannot prejudge the recent cases against British athletes, but to have so many cases from one country shows that country is being very honest in its vigilance. But it may also may have a serious problem.'

Timetable of a scandal

18 June Modahl has sample taken after random testing at European Athletic Association permit meeting in Lisbon.

20 July Date when A sample is understood by IAAF source to have been tested and produced a positive result of a Class One prohibited substance carrying a possible four-year suspension.

18 August Letter notifying positive result sent from Portuguese Athletic Federation to British Athletic Federation.

25 August British federation receive notification and Modahl is withdrawn from the Commonwealth Games 800 metres.

30 August Result of B sample test will be known.