Athletics: Shadow over family values

European athletics championships: However great the performances, drugs will again colour the issue; Budapest's welcome for Breuer sets a sour tone. Simon Turnbull reports
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The Independent Online
JUST WHEN it seemed safe to get back into the international sporting waters, the "De Bruin goes for gold" headlines are about to emerge again. On dry land in Hungary - on the concrete of the Nep Stadion's shot-putt circle, to be precise - Corrie De Bruin will be going for gold in the European track and field championships, which open in Budapest on Tuesday.

Having finished third in the European indoor championships in Valencia six months ago, the 21-year-old Dutchwoman stands an outside chance of getting gold too - and adding to a family medal collection which includes the three Olympic golds tarnished by the murky water in which her sister-in-law, Michelle, has recently been swimming and the world and European discus silvers which lost their sheen when her brother, Erik, tested positive for human growth hormone five years ago.

All has not been well of late in the De Bruin family. And all is not quite as it ought to be in the athletics family, as Primo Nebiolo, head of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, likes to refer to the sport over which he presides.

That much will be clear in Budapest as Grit Breuer powers to victory in the women's 400m final, as her winning run in Zurich on Wednesday night suggested she will. Like Ben Johnson the dynamic little German runner has twice been snared in the drug-testing net. Unlike big bad Ben, though, she is free to go prospecting for gold on the international stage.

Breuer, who won the European 400m title while still a junior in 1990, was banned for tampering with a urine sample in 1992. She was then cleared by the Deutscher Leichtathletik Verband because the rules of the German federation did not cover drug tests taken in South Africa, where Breuer had been training at the time. She subsequently tested positive for Clenbuterol but has been clear to compete since serving a three-year ban.

In this sporting summer of drugs, it is perhaps fitting that the major athletics event of the year should present us with the prospect of a golden girl who has twice been tainted. Not that the chemical cloud shrouding Breuer at the top of the podium would be anything other than an injustice to the two athletes below her and to the one who misses out on a medal, quite possibly Allison Curbishley. It is just as well, from a parochial perspective, that Britain's medal prospects are otherwise sparklingly bright.

For the first time since the 1982 championships in Athens, there will be no Midas contribution from Linford Christie in the 100m and no golden challenge from Roger Black (successful in 1986 and 1990, marginally unsuccessful in 1994) in the 400m. From the unfamiliar vantage point of the commentary box, however, the retired veterans seem certain to see the continuation of what - at continental level - has been a golden age for British athletics.

Since 1982, when the National Anthem was aired just three times in Athens (to honour Steve Cram, Keith Connor and Daley Thompson), Britannia has very much ruled the Tannoyed air-waves at European Championships. After eight golds in Stuttgart in 1986, nine in Split in 1990 and six in Helsinki four years ago, there is likely to be another healthy British haul in Budapest, though not quite the record 10 or more that might have been possible had Ian Mackie, Kelly Holmes and Ashia Hansen not all been hamstrung by injury.

The one absolute banker, the men's 400m, promises to be a British championship on foreign soil, with the closely matched Mark Richardson and Iwan Thomas and the potentially threatening one-lap new boy Solomon Wariso 0.76sec ahead of the rest of Europe on 1998 times. It would need a bungled changeover to deprive the 4x400m team of gold and Colin Jackson and Steve Backley (seeking a hat- trick in the 110m hurdles and javelin respectively) and Jonathan Edwards (seeking his first in the triple jump) will all start as favourites.

So will Dougie Walker in the 200m, though the new flying Scot will need all the fast- finishing experience he has gained from professional handicap racing in what is likely to be a tight contest. There are possible British contenders in other events too: all three men in an open 100m field, the 4x100m men's quartet, Jon Brown in the 10,000m and Richard Nerurkar in the marathon.

Then, on the women's programme, there is Paula Radcliffe, who faces the Olympic champion Fernanda Ribeiro and the debutant Sonia O'Sullivan in an intriguing women's 10,000m, and Denise Lewis, whose return to form and fitness could wrest the heptathlon crown from Sabine Braun. But not all that glitters in Budapest this week will be pure gold. Grit Breuer's presence will guarantee that.