Athletics: Walker's difficult route to the top

The sprint champion who overcame all the odds to be the best must now fight to clear his name.
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a gruesome sense of irony about the first face to pop up on the promotional video which preceded the official launch of UK Athletics in London yesterday. It was, of course, that of Doug Walker, the Scottish sprinter who finds himself at the centre of the biggest doping furore the domestic sport has endured since Diane Modahl reversed a four-year ban on appeal.

The wide screen showed the image of a young man at a high point of his career as he took the European 200 metres title. Now that achievement, particularly cherished north of the border as the first European gold by a Scotsman since 1990, is open to doubt as the sport prepares itself for what could be another long, and perhaps acrimonious, doping dispute.

Walker, who vehemently protests his innocence, is clearly ready to defend himself against any allegations. "I have never taken a banned substance in my life," he says. "I have never used steroids, and I will be contesting the findings. There is no chance of me ever having used drugs."

It is a desperate state of affairs for a man who emerged onto the international scene to such good effect last season via a route which took in a brief career as a top class rugby player and a number of years on the professional sprinting scene at grass tracks in the Scottish Borders.

Walker, managed by Scotland's veteran sprinter Elliott Bunney, follows in a national tradition of sprinting that includes the 1980 Olympic 100 metres champion Allan Wells. His victory in Budapest established him in a select list of Scottish European champions: Alan Paterson, David Jenkins, Tom McKean and Yvonne Murray.

Before he won the European Cup and European title last year, Walker was relatively unknown to the British public, but he had already established his credentials as a noted winner of handicap sprints, taking six British professional titles in 1994 and winning the traditional New Year sprint at Meadowbank stadium.

The last of those achievements yielded him by far his largest winnings in sport up until that point - pounds 4,000. In 1997, despite his potential, this graduate in estate management from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh had to get by with a pounds 3,000 Lottery grant, but his performance in that summer's World Championships, where he reached the 200m semi-finals, lifted him into the UK Award scheme, where he was guaranteed pounds 1,000 per month.

He said: "It wasn't a fortune, but it meant I could pay my debts and give my folks something towards food and rent like I should have done years ago.

"After I left university it was a bit of a struggle for me. I spent a year on the dole thinking of going into sprinting full-time but never doing it. I also had a lot of debts, including three student loans."

Walker had played in the same Scottish schools rugby side as internationals Gregor Townsend, Craig Joiner and Derrick Lee, but his rugby career was effectively terminated when, while playing on the wing for Heriot's FP at the age of 19, his ankle was deliberately stamped upon and he was put out of action for 18 months with damaged ligaments.

But his decision to turn towards athletics was partly determined by a growing disillusionment with rugby. He recalled: "I was busting a gut in games where many were not as committed as I was."

That sense of commitment has been clearly evident in all his efforts on the track, most of which have been followed by his being violently sick.

After his determined performance in winning the European Cup 200m in St Petersburg, justifying his selection ahead of Julian Golding, he demonstrated the range of his ability by beating the best of Britain's 400 metres runners over 300 metres at Gateshead, winning in a European and Commonwealth record of 31.56sec. By that time the dyed ginger hair he had sported in Russia had reverted to its natural dark.

"It's a good job he isn't a 400 metres runner," said the Olympic silver medallist Roger Black. That is something he is still hoping to prove next month, when he is due to run his first 400 metres in the Bupa meeting at Birmingham's national indoor arena.

After his triumph in Budapest, he added another European gold as part of Britain's sprint relay team, despite the fact that he was in considerable pain with a knee injury which required arthroscopic surgery on his return home.

Walker travelled to the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur the following month with only an outside chance of competing, and, wearing a kilt, he carried the Scottish flag in the opening ceremony.

It was typical of his attitude, although in retrospect more than a little foolhardy, that he decided to run in the Games, where he managed to reach the 200 metres final, where he finished a labouring last.

By 1 January this year, however, he had recovered sufficiently to take part in the Powderhall sprint at Meadowbank Stadium.

Despite the upsetting events of the last few days, Walker is still training in earnest for what he hopes will be another successful season on the track. It will be down to a hastily constituted independent panel to determine his fate within the next week as they consider whether the adverse finding which was confirmed in a B test on Sunday means he has committed a doping offence requiring further investigation.

THE DOUG WALKER STORY

1973: Born 28 July.

1990-91: Played Scottish schools rugby union, on the wing.

1994: Success on the track began to come his way, and he held six titles over various distances on the Scottish professional handicap circuit.

1997: Reaches 200 metre semi-finals at the World Championships in Athens, where he is also a 4x100m bronze medallist. He is also crowned UK 200m champion.

1998: In a season that sees him emerge from comparative obscurity - despite his UK title - he clinches the European 300m record (31.56sec) and wins the European Cup 200m and is AAA 200m champion. He is also gold medallist at the European Championships in Budapest, where he wins gold too in the 4x100m. He rises to sixth in world 200m merit rankings.

1999: Protests his innocence after failing a drugs test.

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