Athletics / European Championships: Conflicts of interest devalue the gold: British athletics returns to untidy house. Mike Rowbottom reports from Helsinki

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The Independent Online
THE British total of 13 medals at these European Championships may have been less than at the previous two, but second place in the medals table still counts as success.

For all the political disruption on the Continent - 21 of the 43 champions four years ago are now competing under different flags following the split in the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany - the athletic picture at these championships has remained much the same. In 1990, Britain were second behind East Germany and above the Soviet Union; four years on, they are second behind Russia, with Germany third.

Had John Regis been fit, Britain would very probably have had two more golds to add to the six they won. Regis was a virtual certainty to win the 200 metres, and although dropping the baton (as Darren Braithwaite did upon receiving it from Tony Jarrett in the first round of the sprint relay) can happen to anyone, the misunderstanding which led to it would have been less likely to occur if Jarrett had been handing over to the man with whom he has trained and practised all winter.

The image of Europe's triple sprint champion, Linford Christie, standing bemused and frustrated as men all around him took over their batons for the final leg was a memorable one.

Other images will remain. The huge, hopeful roar from the crowd as the home thrower Seppo Raty launched each effort in the javelin competition so beloved in Finland, and the skipping, arms aloft dance out to the centre of the stadium by the eventual winner, Steve Backley.

Then there was Roger Black, blank and wordless with disappointment after missing a third European 400m gold medal, attempting to lose himself in the routine of packing his bag while behind him the television screens showed the young man who had beaten him, Du'Aine Ladejo, romping joyfully on his lap of honour.

Black made himself feel a little better by running his fastest-ever relay leg and earning his fifth European gold medal to equal the record held by Harald Schmid, the former West German 400m hurdler. The 400 relay team's flag-waving celebrations brought the Championships to a happy end for Britain - but for the British Athletic Federation it had been an awkward week.

Most awkward of all has been the attempt to deflect interest in knowing which British athlete, or athletes, supplied Solomon Wariso with the tablets that caused him to test positive for ephedrine.

As a class II substance on the International Amateur Athletic Federation's banned list, ephedrine is a stimulant which may not be taken in competition. Wariso, foolishly, took two tablets half an hour before running on 1 July. That is the point which the BAF executive chairman, Peter Radford, cites.

'I do not believe that any doping offence has taken place with any other athletes,' Radford said. 'If these tablets had been taken the day before or even two days before it would not have constituted any offence of any sort whatsoever.'

The IAAF may choose to probe the matter further after Wariso has given evidence at his hearing.

Considering the economies now being made by the British federation, outlay on at least two return flights has been criticised. For all Radford's arguments about following procedure, it was pointless flying Wariso here knowing he had tested positive on 1 July. Radford, however, is right to be angry about the IAAF's delay which held up notification of the result until three days before the championships.

Similarly, the decision to let John Regis fly in late in the hope of running the sprint relay also looked ill-judged. Surely a reliable second opinion on the state of his Achilles tendon could have been made by someone, somewhere in Britain. The idea that Regis was coming out under duress after stories that he would not be allowed to compete in Zurich unless he ran in the championships were discounted by the European Athletic Association and by Radford. As it is, his injury has put the rest of his season in doubt.

There have been other untidy situations for the British team management - the non-witty T-shirts prepared for Christie and Colin Jackson to allude to their kit sponsor after their expected victories; Christie's encroachment on to the field to coach and counsel his friend Dalton Grant in the high jump; the plan for Regis to announce his final withdrawal from the championships at a press conference organised by his shoe company.

Such situations grow out of the conflict of interests when highly successful individuals find themselves involved in large teams. Trying to rationalise such potential conflicts of interest is one of the aims of the Federation now as it seeks to put together a new framework for its athletes to work within.

Mike Whittingham, coach to Roger Black and a man with experience in sports management, has been commissioned by the BAF to draw on systems currently operating in France, Germany, Australia and Spain in order to put together a blueprint for a co-ordinated system of support - and payment - for athletes. Such a scheme would have to be approved by the BAF management board and council, but Radford said that it would be in place 'in some shape or form' next year.

Structured salaries for athletes according to their level of achievement, which has brought Spain success in the last two years, is one major element of the plan. Negotiations on pay would involve agreeing a programme of meetings at which athletes would be expected to appear, including international matches. And Radford did not rule out fines for misbehaviour, as practised in football.

There is also an intention to provide better medical support, and to ensure that young athletes are attracted into clubs and looked after as they develop. 'It is not automatic that junior talent becomes senior talent,' Radford said. 'We have to learn how better to develop and protect that talent.'

(Photograph omitted)