Athletics: Running and the risks

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The Independent Online
IF YOU are going to comment on the allegation that Ben Johnson has again stupidly risked the wrath of authority by cynically playing around with a performance-enhancing drug there are some essential things you have to picture.

First there is the look of utter astonishment that crossed the face of Carl Lewis at the World Athletics Championships in Rome six years ago when finishing second to the powerfully muscled Canadian whose time of 9.83sec laid the 100 metres world record to waste. 'It takes some believing,' said Lewis, suspiciously.

Then the sight of sportswriters and cameramen dashing like firefighters to a blaze when it was announced at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, that Johnson was not in truth the great figure he seemed when taking the 100m gold medal ahead of Lewis, but a cheat whose triumphs could be traced to the laboratory.

Finally, an evening in Barcelona last year when Johnson, after serving a two-year suspension imposed on him by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, miserably failed in an attempt to qualify for the Olympic 100m final.

There was nothing against Johnson taking part which indicated foolishness or at least slack thinking on the part of athletics administrators who bear a responsibility for keeping their sport clean. This aside, there remains in the minds of many people a doubt, expressed every day in Barcelona and many times since, that the authorities are on top of the problem or that it will ever disappear.

An underground pamphlet setting out masking procedures was easily obtained by competitors in Barcelona, and the recent suggestion that 40 per cent risked exposure may not be an exaggeration.

The period of suspension has been doubled to four years by the IAAF, but even when allowing for the hassle of a civil action brought successfuly against it in the United States by Butch Reynolds, who was awarded massive damages, it should now consider extending it to life.

When the British athlete, Jason Livingston, was sent back from Barcelona after failing a drug test, Primo Nebilo, the president of the IAAF said, in effect, that athletics was doing everything possible and that it was time other sports addressed the problem. By then, some British officials had put their heads together and come to a fairly obvious conclusion.

It is that if nobody can devise a foolproof system or persuade athletes to consider the possible long-terms effects of drug taking, the only conceiveable deterrent is to suspend the culprits for life.

Otherwise, the safest bet you can make in this sporting life is that some of the most stupendous achievements you witness in athletics are fraudulent. I am not in possession of irrefutable facts, but I have heard that scores of athletes continue to play around with synthetic improvement.

Recently, when interviewed on Dutch television, Johnson put this forward as a truth along with the claim that he was running on natural fuel. Allegations in a Canadian newspaper suggest that he is back in the old squalid routine, doubtless believing that his only crime was to get caught.

If proven, it will be interesting to see what the IAAF do with all this, especially as it has refused to reinstate Reynolds on the grounds that it is not subject to civil law.

In the minds of athletes' agents, the IAAF has arrogated to itself abnormal power in the sport, especially when making the world championships a biennial event and paying no account to the issue of appearance money. This belief is strong enough to justify the assumption that it has enough power to make a lasting example of Johnson who doubtless has profited from notoriety.

It remains a great question whether Johnson was a cunning manipulator of the rules or merely a victim of that warped philosophy which places an absolute premium on success.

Johnson knows, of course, that to dabble again in drugs would be running a great risk, that there could not possibly be another chance of redemption. 'No comment', he is reported to have said when approached at his home in Toronto, Canada. If the allegations are proved, in a way it is too bad. A sad reminder of what ambition can bring about in the minds of gullible men.