Athletics: Drugs cloud cup as clubs close curtain on season: Fallout from scandals involving illegal substances has left the rank and file unsure of their sport. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
THE empty lane at this weekend's club finals represented an outward sign of British athletics' annus horribilis. A year that began with the traumatic removal of Andy Norman as promotions officer has drawn towards a close with a crop of positive doping tests - and last Wednesday's confirmation of Solomon Wariso's three- month ban rendered his team, Haringey, ineligible to defend the cup they won last year.

For the clubs of the Guardian British League, business went on as usual at Bedford. Thames Valley Harriers, the League winners, completed their double with the Gold Cup, despite being without Linford Christie. Essex Ladies, minus Sally Gunnell, won the Jubilee Cup for the eighth time. The only clouds under which the competitions went ahead were of the kind which distribute water.

Into every life, however, a little figurative rain must fall. Those at the grass roots of British athletics, unpaid, over-extended club officials, are proceeding as much in hope as expectation. The events of the last nine months have created a general feeling of doubt if not disillusionment. The inward signs of a troubled year.

'We are at a watershed,' Roger Symons, the chairman of the Guardian British Athletics League, said. 'We need to learn from the experiences of this year and move on.'

There is much to perturb him and his fellow toilers. Symons in particular was put into an awkward position by the delay of any resolution to Wariso's case as he endeavoured to keep the sponsors informed. When the news finally came through, Cardiff did not have enough notice to fill the vacant team place.

'We have got to shorten the whole process of testing and hearings,' he said. It is not just the timespan of cases which perturbs Symons, but the way in which, he believes, the system punishes certain individuals inappropriately and inflexibly.

'We have got to clarify the position in three categories,' he said. 'Those who are taking things like Lemsip as a genuine mistake. Those who are chronically ill, and those who are taking stimulants for recreational purposes, which often are not helping their athletics at all.'

The first category refers to cases such as that of Wariso, who unwisely but apparently unwittingly took ephedrine as part of a herbal concoction. The second to that of the discus thrower, Peter Gordon, who is still unable to clear his name despite it coming to light that his inability to produce a full urine sample - the charge on which he was suspended for four years - stemmed from the fact that he had testicular cancer. The third category has in mind the Team Solent stand-in javelin thrower, Marcus Browning, who was last in the Gold Cup semi-final after attending an all-night party which included chemical entertainment.

'There is no quick fix,' Symons said. 'But I will be talking to the British Athletic Federation in order to reach some kind of consensus, and then it will be a case of approaching the International Amateur Athletic Federation.'

As Symons seeks his consensus, others intimately involved in the club scene can only watch and wonder. And come to differing conclusions.

Phil Vivian, who has a connection with Thames Valley going back 47 years and is now their representative on the British League, gets angry with the innuendo about drug-taking within the sport. 'It is insulting,' said Vivian, whose son Peter is the AAA hammer-throwing champion. 'It's like saying that it is easy to mug old ladies, so everybody must be mugging old ladies and getting away with it.

'I have stood in throwing circles for the best part of 10 years right through every winter. I've heard all the stories. But what you have to do is ask the question instead of just agreeing. For some coaches, if someone comes along and starts doing better than their athlete it is a natural tendency to say: 'Oh well, I suppose he's taking the old pills.' But when you actually press the point with them, you find people backing off a bit.'

Dave Lawrence, the team manager of Birchfield Harriers, recognises the temptation that lies in store for good club athletes who find themselves moving into the international ranks. 'But, the vast majority of athletes in this country still believe that they can do it clean,' he said.

'I think the latest situation is indicative of the fact that the drugs problem is very widespread in the sport,' Leo Coy, the team manager of Belgrave Harriers, said. 'They have managed to catch a few people this year, but there are still a lot getting away with it internationally at the top level. It is big business and there is lots of money to be made.

'I would like to see the testing programme for the last five years. I would like to see the authorities make public who has been tested - and more significantly, who hasn't been tested.

'I don't think it (the drugs scandals) is going to put off any youngsters from coming into the sport. Kids like running and jumping, and competing. I coach a group of 25 kids, and the idea that the recent positive cases have made parents worried about their children doing athletics is a figment of someone's imagination. None of the parents have said anything like that to me.

'I have gone off watching grand prix events. I think they are a circus now. I like championship events more than ever, and I like club athletics too. That's where my heart is and always will be. Because it is reasonably honest and reasonably drug-free. You have got people in there who are true athletes who train hard and run hard and enjoy it. They are in the majority.'

(Photograph omitted)

Results, Sporting Digest, page 37