Athletics: Seville's boost for truce and justice
Sunday 29 August 1999
Are we losing our capacity to be outraged? Or does a succession of shocks eventually dull the brain to the point that we can avidly watch our sport while experiencing a rapidly diminishing interest in what the participants do when they are out of our sight? Either way, our ability to carry on as if nothing happened has rarely been more dramatically demonstrated.
I doubt if many of those fervent English rugby fans who bothered to turn up at Twickenham last night had any thoughts about Dallaglio other than relief that he is available for the World Cup. What was a bizarre episode from start to finish is quickly receding into the darkest labyrinths of our crowded brains.
Without doubt, we have yet to hear the last of the drug allegations concerning Linford Christie and Merlene Ottey, but when the news about them broke the other week serious misgivings were expressed about how the World Championships would fare under the shadow that would fall over Seville. Some said they would turn their backs on the occasion because they had ceased to trust athletes.
Last weekend the media world was rife with rumours that another batch of drug disclosures was due and that a leading British woman competitor was involved. I was momentarily startled when I heard the word heptathlon on the radio. Then I realised it was an event not a drug. The disclosures, when they came, were of a minor nature and did not concern anyone from these islands.
Far from operating under a cloud, Seville has been a breath of fresh air; although that would be regarded as an unfortunate phrase by those who had to labour under its hot and humid skies. The athletes chose neither the time nor the place. The controllers of the sport did that and they had too many other fish to fry, other gods to serve, than to worry about the well-being of the sweating souls who provide the entire meaning to their bloated lives. The women's marathon, for instance, was run in the furnace heat of yesterday morning for the sake of Japanese television.
The image portrayed by the sport, and supported by others, has been of selfless, hard-pressed officials being continually betrayed by evil runners, jumpers and throwers. The reverse may be nearer the truth. The signals issuing from the authorities practically invite us to treat every great athletic achievement with suspicion. But I don't believe we do. Perhaps the fact that we live in a society where an increasing number are getting away with real crimes renders us less susceptible to pulpit browbeating.
All I hear from those who have been following the action from Seville is unconditional marvelling at the achievements of Hicham El Guerrouj - whose 1,500 metres triumph was described by Sebastian Coe as "as good a championship race as I've seen" - of the phenomenal Michael Johnson, of the brave failure of Marion Jones and, of course, of our successes, especially the surprising Dean Macey.
I have managed to gain a certain notoriety on the subject of drugs in sport because, in the 1980s, I echoed the thoughts of some doctors and pharmacologists who, in the midst of the post-Ben Johnson hysteria, wondered if the sporting bodies were heading in the right direction. They questioned if the drugs being used and talked about were that effective and whether the banning of so many substances created a mistaken impression about their powers.
Among the many suggestions I made was that sports leaders should make better use of the time, money and passion with which they were running around like medieval witch-hunters to discover exactly what these substances were capable of and discuss the matter quietly and logically with the athletes, particularly those who had failed tests.
They preferred the hounding approach and issuing dire threats of what steroids could do to you. One threatened calamity was exploding testicles and for years I would not sit next to a shot-putter without a flak-jacket on.
This is not to minimise the danger of any drug abuse but to beg a rethink of attitudes; towards one that has more concern with the welfare of all athletes.
I was once credited with recommending that we should just let them turn up and compete and sit back and enjoy it. I never actually said that but I am interested in the number who have recently told me that I might have been right.
What I did say was that the most important people in sport, in fact the only important people in sport, were the participants and that the rest of us should concentrate our efforts into understanding and supporting them instead of continually finding reasons to condemn them.
They work at their chosen vocation with an intensity of effort and dedication that puts most of the rest of us to shame and I am inclined to admire the product without peering too intently at the list of ingredients. If those who run athletics were to call off the war and use the truce to examine the problem from a more enlightened angle the sport might be saved from further suffering.
VIEWERS WHO parked in front of their television sets on Wednesday morning to acquaint themselves with our emerging hero, Dean Macey, would have searched in vain for the BBC's coverage of that morning's hurdling, discus and pole-vaulting events in the decathlon. Instead, there were children's programmes on BBC1 and a 40-year-old film on BBC2.
Although they had televised the morning session on Tuesday, the schedulers, when they made their decision weeks ago, had not seen much to interest them when they examined Wednesday morning's menu. After all, when was the last time we had a decathlete in contention? To be fair, not many others had anticipated his arrival on the world scene, either - apart from these pages, of course, in which Macey was featured big a month ago.
Since he did not surge to the forefront of the decathlon until late on Tuesday evening it was probably too late for the Beeb to organise a swift visit to the World Championships to keep an eye on Macey's charge for the silver medal the following morning. It is difficult to criticise them when so many others were caught napping, but once more is proved the vulnerability of a channel that cherry-picks instead of offering a more comprehensive coverage.
One of the children's films on that morning was The New Adventures of Superman. It was ironic that the kids should have been watching that while over in Seville a real British superman was casting off his anonymity.
IN A recent discussion on the subject of women in sport, I advanced the prophecy that if we encouraged mixed teams a woman would one day play cricket for England. I am not likely to change my mind after last week. I refer not to the sad events at The Oval but a happier moment in a top- level club cricket match in South Wales.
Pontarddulais, who are running neck and neck with Swansea for the title, were playing against Neath when Hannah Lloyd, the daughter of their spinner Barry Lloyd, came on as a replacement for an injured player. Thus she became the first-ever woman to play in the Premier Division. She went on to embellish the historic day by taking a splendid catch in the outfield off her father's bowling.
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