Athletics: New order faces drug case farce

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BRITISH ATHLETICS, due to launch itself into a brave new world today, will do so dragging behind it an embarrassing piece of unfinished business concerning an athlete who has failed a drug test.

At a press conference yesterday, UK Athletics spokesperson Jayne Pearce said the athlete could not be named, even though a B sample test had confirmed the original finding.

Standard procedure rules that a committee now has to decide whether there is a clear doping case to answer - and owing to administrative confusion following the collapse into receivership of the British Athletic Federation in October 1997, no such committee is in place to do so.

A hastily formed body will review the case "within the next few days" according to Pearce, who read a statement of the UK Athletics position yesterday. "If it is a doping case, we can reveal the name. If it is not we won't. We have to protect the confidentiality and rights of the athlete, and the principle that they are innocent until proved guilty."

Pearce was unable to comment on any other details of the case, but confirmed that what appears to be the first major doping problem the domestic sport has had since 1994 could not have come at a more awkward time. "We were on course for transferring recognition to the new governing body tomorrow," she said, "but this adverse finding has slowed everything up."

The statement confirmed that a recent B test had confirmed a positive A sample given by a British athlete. "In view of the transition in governing body status from BAF to UK Athletics," it continued, "UK Athletics and BAF are working together to decide the procedures to be followed.

"Under BAF rules, a committee will be formed to review whether or not a doping offence may have taken place. The athlete is not suspended and will not be suspended unless and until that committee decides that a doping offence may have taken place."

Pearce stressed that the case is following established procedure, but acknowledged that, since the effective demise of the old BAF drug advisory group, the next link in the chain no longer existed.

Responding to the suggestion that an interim committee should have been set up for such an eventuality as has just occurred, she said: "The case is legally one for BAF to deal with, because the sport is still working to their rule book. And their business is being dealt with by the administrators. But no one is dragging their feet over this issue. We hope to resolve it as soon as possible."

A resolution cannot come soon enough for a sport which stands on the brink of a new season needing to seal a five-year television deal with the BBC and to secure a number of sponsors for its key domestic events. UK Athletics needs to be clearly and independently established to ensure the smooth working of a sport which has picked itself up by its bootstraps since the dark days of autumn 1997.

The longer this latest doping case is unresolved, the more the sport in general is likely to be harmed by the inevitable speculation which will follow. And yet, UK Athletics needs to proceed with caution to ensure it does not become involved in the kind of potentially costly court case which followed in the wake of Diane Modahl's successful appeal against the doping ban imposed on her five years ago.

The billing for today's announcement promised the "Launch (with a difference) of UK Athletics." Unfortunately the difference now is that the launch is effectively held up on the slipway, and it will take some frantic efforts to free the sport's new vessel.