Athletics: Brunning provides chilling example as testing freezers fill up

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The Independent Online

Neal Brunning was one of the first British athletes to be banned for taking drugs, back in 1992, when he was suspended for four years after taking testosterone.

Others have followed, but the burly south Londoner, who fitted a career as a discus thrower around 13-hour days as a chef, remains unusual. When his number came up after a positive test at the National Indoor Championships, he admitted what he had been doing and accepted disciplinary action.

"If you are caught, you put your hand up," he told me a couple of years later. "There is no point in doing anything else. It just makes you look like a fool. That's why everyone speaks to me: because I'm an honest banned athlete."

Brunning's views on honesty may seem a little skewed. But in talking openly about what he did, he presented, one suspects, the archetypal mindset of an athlete choosing to venture into illegal territory.

His decision to start taking the tablets came after an indoor meeting at Crystal Palace when he lost to opponents whom he believed had gained an illegal advantage. "I did it because I felt others in my event were doing it," he recalled. "It is hard to motivate yourself when you are being beaten by someone who you think is on stuff. I thought, 'If they can do it and get away with it, then let's have a go'."

Athletes, and substances, may change over the years. But here is the thought process that lies at the heart of doping abuse.

According to someone who knows, the latest doping scandal involving the so-called designer-steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), came as no surprise to some of the athletes who took part in this summer's World Championships. "The **** is about to hit the fan," they were told.

Now we are being deluged, and there is the possibility of more to come as the grand jury hearing in San Francisco works its way through the business affairs of the laboratory said to be at the centre of this latest controversy.

The new test that has been devised for THG was a gift delivered by an anonymous United States coach who provided testing authorities with information and a sample. But the effectiveness of the latest anti-doping weapon has been amplified by the number of urine samples which have been frozen and stored worldwide.

As Britain's three-times Olympic rowing champion and International Olympic Committee member Matthew Pinsent has pointed out, this capacity presents a potent deterrent to any competitors contemplating cheating. They may feel confident their sample can withstand today's test, and perhaps tomorrow's. But what about the day after that, and the day after that?

The accompanying problem, however, is the question of how far back it is legitimate to impose retrospective sanctions.

Numerous adjustments could be made to the Olympic roll of honour even now. The emergence of evidence that East Germany had run a mandatory doping regime throughout the 1970s and 1980s to support their track and field athletes led to a strong campaign for their medallists to be stripped of honours.

But how much of the tapestry of sporting history are you prepared to unravel in the interests of justice? And what happens if technology demands that you revisit an event more than once?

The further back you go, as Pinsent observes, the more what you are dealing with starts to resemble a can of worms. He favours a cut-off point of between four and five years, after which results have to stand, even if they may do so with accompanying asterisks and "additional information".

Recently, the Norwegian federation proposed to the International Association of Athletics Federations that 2004 become "Year Zero", in which all the sport's world records would be wiped from the book and the process would start afresh.

The IAAF rejected a suggestion which, surely, would be an insult to all those who have managed to get their name on to that list by fair means. It is as absurd a stance as its polar opposite, by which it is proposed that athletes simply take whatever they want. Finding the correct balance between these extremes is only one of numerous pressing problems for the world's sporting federations.

Upon consideration, Brunning was unusual in more than one respect. Not only did he admit his offence, he seemed unconcerned about its possible consequences. "I just took the tablets," he said. "I thought, 'Sod it. If I get caught, I get caught'."

Luckily for the testers, most athletes don't have the same insouciance. Fear is the way forward, and even now, laboratories across the world need to be extending their storage space. Cheats, or would-be cheats, need to know that if the A or B test doesn't get you, the Y or Z one just might...