Athletics: Denise Lewis - From golden girl to a witch to be hunted

One of the most appalling consequences of the drugs age is the willingness with which so many form into lynch mobs
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The Independent Online

Denise Lewis, one of our most successful and exciting athletes, is competing in a combined-events competition in Estonia this weekend under a cloud even blacker than the one that hovered over Tim Henman in midweek. The difference is that his was made of rain and reality, while hers consists of dark and hostile slurs.

The campaign against her employing the services of Dr Ekkart Arbeit, whose CV is indelibly stained by his time as head of East Germany's drug-assisted athletics team, has adopted the tones of a holy crusade, and touched the height of its hysteria last week.

The newspaper leading the ranks of the outraged claimed that Lewis, who once had a column in their pages, is putting London's 2012 Olympic bid in jeopardy. This nonsensical accusation was based on a response from the Olympic chief, Jacques Rogge, to a question on the subject. He dug deep into his thesaurus of denouncement to call her "unwise", and followed that devastating comment with the killer quote "not a good idea".

Does that sound like bid-crushing talk? Of course it doesn't. It probably represents the least he could say. But even that should spring the next question - if it is unwise for Lewis to have anything to do with Dr Arbeit, is it unwise for the International Olympic Committee to allow him any contact with Olym-pians? Or could it be that a ban on him, or anyone connected with the sporting regime in the old East Germany, would require some attention to other countries on both sides of the then iron curtain? Were the East Germans the only drug transgressors at the time? They most certainly were not.

So why is Denise Lewis being nailed to the cross to atone for the sins of the past? She is competing in Tallinn for the first time since she won her Olympic heptathlon gold medal, but the amount of attention on her is not due to her achievements but designed to further the witch-hunt. Certainly, it would have been preferable for Lewis to seek help on the throwing disciplines in the heptathlon from elsewhere. But it wouldn't have been her idea but that of her coach, Frank Dick, who has known Arbeit for 30 years.

The fact that Arbeit is such a good throws coach probably blinded Dick to the potential repercussions, but the German has not just appeared in a puff of demonic smoke. He has been around for some time. A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Simon Turnbull revealed that in 1996 Arbeit spent 10 days coaching the West Hartlepool rugby union team. This passed without scandal because the team, who were relegated that season, were evidently not crusade material.

Neither is Arbeit the only former East German coach involved in big-time sport. Sir Steven Redgrave's coach for the last 11 years of his golden career was Jürgen Grobler, who had been East Germany's rowing coach in the Seventies and Eighties. Did we hear any protests when Sir Steven was celebrating being one of the greatest ever Olympians? Grobler is now coaching Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell, who has a column in the very newspaper that is hell-bent on disgracing Lewis. Another columnist in the same paper is Katharine Merry, who is coached by Linford Christie, who himself lacks a drug-free reputation.

None of this means anything to me. Gathering words of advice from any source cannot possibly be construed as gaining an unfair advantage. There has been a parallel case in the US, where sprinters Tim Montgomery and his partner Marion Jones sought out help from Charlie Francis, the notorious coach of Ben Johnson.

They went to Francis because he happens to be the best start coach there is. They've dropped him now because of the outcry, but remain convinced they were right to seek his advice, however controversial their decision.

It has been alleged that the attack on Lewis is part of a vendetta. I do not want to believe it, because I know the people involved. In any case, I have always found that the pulpit from which moral judgements need to be delivered has been too high for me to reach.

What I do know is that Lewis does not deserve to have her name dragged through the mud. One of the most appalling consequences of the drugs age is the willingness with which so many form themselves into lynch mobs whenever the slightest association with drugs raises its head. The destruction of one of our finest athletes on a whim would challenge any drug abuse for its evilness.

History lesson for Palios

Wimbledon's second week, with Henmania flushing the nation's cheeks, would seem a good time for a chap to ease himself into the hot seat at the Football Association. Even the concentration of those unswervingly devoted to football would have been fixed on Madrid's first examination of the Beckhams.

But there were a few lining up to remind Mark Palios, the FA's new chief executive, of the many problems that require attention. They range from corruption to drugs, from dodgy finances to discipline, and from the supervision of incoming owners to hooligans.

The last was given fresh gravity last week when Lennart Johansson, president of Uefa, spoke of the implications if English fans cause trouble in Turkey in October. "We are very worried about this match. We have a problem with certain English fans when they travel abroad," he said, warning that participation in the next World Cup as well as Euro 2004 in Portugal would be in danger.

Oddly enough, that very day I had been reading in a newly published book similar words uttered by a Uefa official 23 years earlier: "There is a recurring pattern of violent behaviour by English football supporters. It cannot go on." He was speaking after England fans had rioted in Turin during the European Championship finals of 1980. England feared expulsion but escaped with an £8,000 fine.

Not much has changed apart from the certainty that England would not avoid a ban this time and, it appears, nothing much has changed on the FA scene either, which is why Palios may well benefit from reading the book - Jules Rimet Still Gleaming? England at the World Cup (Virgin Books, £18.99) written by the highly respected veteran sports columnist of The Independent, Ken Jones.

Since we are two years from the last World Cup and two years before the next one, topicality is not its main selling point, but as an examination of English football's progress throughout the last century and the first couple of years of this one it is a remarkably incisive work that fills in the background to many of the game's big stories and scandals.

Although they won it in 1966, England have a lousy record in the World Cup. Why this should be is investigated in every detail thanks to Jones's presence during most of the calamities and his gathering of further evidence from some impressive sources. The FA do not come out well from this intriguing tale of bungling officialdom and unfulfilled expectations, but the least this book can do is acquaint the new man at the top with many beneficial examples of how not to do it.