Drugs in sport: The former cheat who prospered
Drugs in sport: David Jenkins, one-time golden boy of British athletics, has survived the shame of prison to make his fortune
Monday 14 December 1998
David Jenkins, former golden boy of British athletics, was found guilty on four counts of involvement in smuggling more than $70m of steroids across the Mexican border into the United States in what was the largest known operation of its kind in American history. Plea-bargaining reduced a theoretical 100 years in prison to a seven-year sentence, which he began serving at the Mojave Desert prison in December 1988.
"You had it all," Judge Irving went on. "Brains, education, apparently in the upper 10 per cent academically of the British population, able to speak French and Spanish, great health and God-given fantastic athletic ability. Then enters greed..." Ten years on, the tragedy has turned into something else. The case is altered.
Jenkins, who was released after 10 months having co- operated with further federal investigations into steroid trafficking, now lives in style in Carlsbad, an exclusive suburb of San Diego, and runs a business manufacturing and distributing what claims to be the No 1 selling protein powder in the United States.
Speaking from his home last week, he engaged in a dramatic pause when asked whether he was a millionaire, before responding with one word - "multi?" At 46, 27 years after winning the European 400 metres title, Jenkins is a sure-fire success once again. The image which many will have of him from his competitive days during the 1970s, struggling over the final 100 metres after blasting out of the blocks, does not appear to be holding true in real life.
His current success, he acknowledges, stems from the fundamental insecurities which bedevil all athletes, including himself. Although his protein powder derives from a different source than creatine - "it comes from whey, a by-product of cheese-making" - it caters to the same kind of need among those seeking to gain a competitive edge on their rivals.
"The British Olympic Association can say they don't approve of athletes taking creatine," he said. "Maybe they're right, maybe they're not. But warnings about possible consequences are no deterrent to the kind of obsessive-compulsive characters who decide to be athletes. If that argument worked, people would have stopped taking creatine years ago. Athletes are more concerned about today than tomorrow." Jenkins, who studied chemical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, remains ambivalent about the current system of banning certain substances and methods, and allowing others.
"If you go down to see how the University of Nebraska football team prepare themselves, it is like something out of science fiction," he said. "They are hugely successful, with 80,000 crowds every Saturday, and they have a huge budget to spend on their players. So you get 150 footballers working out in a weight room that is 6,000 square metres. And none of them is allowed to lift unless they are under the supervision of a personal trainer.
"The players have the benefit of the latest sports psychology and relaxation techniques. And they use every means possible to organise their diet, including being fed at short intervals to maximise the benefit of the nutrients they take in.
"There are 20 universities in the USA like that. It's all part of the same paradox. The Olympic situation is based on De Coubertin's whole false premise about fairness, but competition is designed to produce a winner. You have genetic advantages - if you are seven feet tall, it's going to help your basketball. If you were born at altitude, it's going to help your endurance.
"The decisions made by people like the International Olympic Committee about which substances are legal and which illegal are arbitrary ones. But certain substances are banned. And if you decide to go into that arena you will eventually pay the consequences." By consequences, Jenkins - who revealed his own history of taking steroids to enhance his performance at the time of the trial - means more than simply testing positive and receiving a ban from the sport. "I started taking steroids at the end of 1975, when I was world No 1 over 400m. It was all about the insecurity of going to the 1976 Olympics with such expectation on me.
"I wasn't caught. But it changes you. From the moment you take the first pill, it starts to change you - and I don't mean chemically. You become a liar. And you have to live with that lie for the rest of your life.
"There are some athletes in Britain who are doing that now, living a perpetual lie. Some of them have gone up to Elizabeth Windsor's house and shaken her hand and got their little medal. They know who they are. And I feel sorry for them, because they are in living hell.
"What I went through 10 years ago has been the making of me. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. It wasn't good for my family to see me go to prison. But it has enabled me to make a fresh start."
Another satisfaction in Jenkins's life occurred at the 1996 Olympics when Roger Black, under his guidance, won the silver medal in the 400 metres behind Michael Johnson of the United States.
Black recounts in his recently published autobiography how, when he first met Jenkins in 1986, the man whom he had emulated in taking the European title at the age of 19 told him he could continue achieving in the sport without resorting to drugs. And when Black persuaded him to act as his adviser in the run-up to the Atlanta Olympics, the question of seeking banned assistance was not something that was even discussed.
"It's true that I could have told him to take something," Jenkins said. "There was probably some stuff around that wouldn't have been detectable if I had looked. But it never even occurred to me."
As he went to his marks in the final, Black said to himself: "This if for you, Jenks." Afterwards, when he phoned his mentor in California, he recalled that Jenkins chuckled, before saying very quietly: "Thank you... thank you for allowing me to complete my athletics career."
Jenkins says he has little interest in athletics these days. However, he is a keen follower of the sporting exploits of his 13-year-old son Jason, who is excelling at water polo and swimming.
What would Jenkins advise him to do if one day he came to him and said: "Dad, I'm thinking of taking drugs?"
"I would have to sit him down and give him the Big Chat," Jenkins said. "I would tell him the whole deal about having to live with a lie - about the risk of getting caught, of damaging his health, and being unable to be open about who he was."
Jenkins, clearly, wants his son to be in the ranks of those who, in his phrase, can hold up their hands and say "never did". People, he says, like Black, and Kriss Akabusi, and the 1968 Olympic 400m hurdles champion and current president of UK Athletics 98, David Hemery.
"David advised me before I started getting into steroids," Jenkins recalls. "He knew absolutely nothing about it. I sold him down the river, and that wasn't cool. But there is something about Hemery - he isn't a liar. It reverberates through him."
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