Athletics: British angered by IAAF cut in drug ban

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Linford Christie led British protests here yesterday as the ban for serious doping offences in athletics was reduced from four to two years.

"We are going backwards all of a sudden," the former British team captain said. "I think it leaves it open to people to take drugs. We should have gone forward to eight years or even a life ban.

"If we are going to eradicate doping the deterrent has to be strong. This is not strong enough."

The change in the rule, confirmed at the International Amateur Athletic Federation's Congress ahead of the World Championships, follows a series of costly legal battles in which athletes have invoked civil law to contest the length of their bans.

In countries such as Germany, Russia and Spain, restraint of trade legislation regards a ban of two years, rather than four, as an appropriate punishment.

In March of this year, two German athletes - Martin Brehmer and Susan Tiedke-Greene - successfully applied for reinstatement half-way through four-year suspensions. Tiedke-Greene is due to compete in the World Championships starting tomorrow in the long jump.

Two years ago, an emotional appeal by the British Athletic Federation's executive chairman, Peter Radford, swayed the IAAF Congress from changing the four-year rule which has been in place since 1991.

Alan Warner, Britain's delegate at yesterday's congress debate, also argued fiercely against the reduction, but the new measure was carried by a 112-56 majority.

"Alan made a magnificent speech, but the minds were already made up," said Mary Peters, Britain's former Olympic champion and BAF president.

"The tail is being allowed to wag the dog," Warner said. "Only 10 or a dozen nations are affected and we have 200 IAAF members. It is a bad and a sad day for the sport."

There was support for the British point of view from the Olympic and world high hurdles champion, Allen Johnson. Condemning the move, he said: "It is not a good idea. Someone could take drugs now and still get back for the Olympics. The IAAF should have zero tolerance to drugs."

An IAAF spokesman confirmed that athletes who have served more than half of a four-year ban would be free to seek immediate reinstatement. That will be good news for Paul Edwards, the British shot-putter who failed to overturn his four-year ban in court earlier this month.

The IAAF ruling that two years should be the minimum ban leaves open the possibility that national federations could suspend their athletes for longer if they chose.

Christie is all for this. "Britain should stay with the longer ban," he said. "Someone has to take a stand. The majority of our athletes are drug-free and we should be able to prove it to the rest of the world."

Warner is inclined to concur with the two-year rule. "I think it would be grossly unfair on our athletes to hold them to four years when others are serving two, but the question has to be decided by the BAF Council."

Christie's reaction was instinctive and admirable - but the practical difficulties facing the IAAF in the face of national legislation are extremely awkward. It is the responsibility of national federations to contest civil claims by their athletes, and in most cases they cannot afford it. The BAF itself is currently facing a pounds 1m lawsuit for damages from Diane Modahl following her successful appeal against a four-year doping ban.

For all that, the way in which the IAAF decision was passed on to the waiting world yesterday was little short of contemptuous as the IAAF president, Primo Nebiolo, attempted to skirt round the issue before providing a couple of grudging replies to questions.

By the time discussion moved on to the IAAF's alteration of punishments following detection of illegal stimulants in athletes' urine, the sport's autocrat wearied of the whole business. "We have a problem with stimulants and we have reached an agreement," Nebiolo said. "But I regret to tell you I do not remember.

"I'm tired of discussing the problem of doping. I like these great events with their young people. Spending so much time following the pee-pee - for me it is not nice. I believe the general secretary, who loves the pee-pee better than myself, can inform you."

Thus requested, the general secretary confirmed that the three-month ban for illegal use of stimulants had been abolished. Those found guilty of infringements in future would receive a public warning.