Athletics: Golden couple in race to save reputations

Tim Montgomery, the world's fastest man, faces a swift removal from the track if he fails to persuade the US Anti-Doping Authority that he is innocent of any wrongful involvement with the Balco laboratory, which has been at the centre of a federal investigation into the supply of banned drugs. The world 100 metres record holder could be suspended by next week.

Tim Montgomery, the world's fastest man, faces a swift removal from the track if he fails to persuade the US Anti-Doping Authority that he is innocent of any wrongful involvement with the Balco laboratory, which has been at the centre of a federal investigation into the supply of banned drugs. The world 100 metres record holder could be suspended by next week.

The 29-year-old Californian, whose partner Marion Jones, the triple Olympic champion, has also found herself increasingly embroiled in the Balco scandal, was formally notified of a potential drug violation on Tuesday by the USADA on the basis of papers released to them from the investigation.

He must now attend a USADA hearing - usually required within 10 days of notification - and if charges are upheld, he is likely to be suspended by the sport's world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, pending arbitration.

After setting a world 100 metres record of 9.78sec in Paris two years ago, Montgomery was established as one half of athletics' golden couple. But the stock of Jones and Montgomery, who have a one-year-old son, Tim junior, began to fall last year when they received widespread criticism for engaging the coaching services of Charlie Francis, the avowed doping enthusiast who guided Ben Johnson to the 1988 Olympic title of which he was eventually stripped.

A year on, the couple's world is on the verge of collapse. He faces a minimum two-year ban if he fails either to persuade USADA of his innocence or to win any subsequent appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. And while Jones has not been directly charged with a doping offence, documents that have come to light in the last month appear to implicate her in a questionable training regime. She has also been publicly rebuked by the most powerful voice in sport, that of the International Olympic Committee's president, Jacques Rogge, for risking her reputation by associating with others implicated in doping, a comment she dismissed this week as "ignorant". Jones' former husband, the shot-putter CJ Hunter, was forced to withdraw from the Sydney Olympics after testing positive for the banned steroid nandrolone.

Montgomery and the three other US athletes who received similar USADA notifications this week - the world indoor 200m champion Michelle Collins, the Olympic 400m silver medallist Alvin Harrison and the sprinter Chryste Gaines - have all found themselves called to account following a seismic shift in the way doping cases are pursued.

Laboratory evidence, in the form of a damning urine sample, is no longer essential in the prosecution of potential doping abuse. The USADA rules allow documentary evidence to be used to establish guilt, and the thousands of documents seized by federal agents from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative run by Victor Conte - one of four men indicted of supplying illegal drugs - have provided the necessary details for the agency to make its latest announcements.

The process has already been tested in the case of Kelli White, the US sprinter who won the world 100m and 200m titles last summer only to test positive for the banned stimulant modafinil. Presented with evidence last month implicating her in an organised doping regime at Balco, White confessed to taking a variety of drugs, including steroids, since 2000, and agreed to co-operate by supplying information concerning other athletes.

In fact, IAAF rules have always allowed for doping cases to be prosecuted by means other than laboratory analysis - such as confessions - but the US is perusing a more vigorous application of this approach.

"It is like saying that although we didn't see you stealing a sheep, you are guilty because of X, Y and Z," said an IAAF spokesman. "You don't have to see anyone stealing a sheep."

As the legal ground begins to shift under their feet, Montgomery and Jones areaware of unprecedented changes within the sport. There is a long history of competitors boycotting events, but the fall-out from the Balco investigation has led to a new phenomenon - that of events boycotting competitors. Several meeting promoters on the IAAF circuit, including Sven Arne Hansen, who runs the Golden League meeting which will take place in Bergen, Norway on Friday, have made it clear that the pair are unwelcome while doping charges were outstanding. Conte is alleged to have named Montgomery and Jones as being among 15 track and field athletes whom he supplied with the tetrahydrogestrinone, the previously undetectable steroid.

However, if the next round of meetings between athletes and USADA officials become complex the way ahead looks likely to be increasingly fraught.

The gap between a hearing and a subsequent appeal to CAS can be up to 60 days. Should any of those notified this week go down that route, they risk missing the US Olympic trials which start on 9 July, ahead of the Games themselves, which get underway in Athens on Friday 13 August.

Given that US laws make it virtually impossible for the national federation to suspend athletes pending any appeals, the onus would fall upon the IAAF to uphold what is a general rule in world athletics. But if such a ban were to prevent athletes running at the trials the international authority could find itself in a similar situation to that involving Butch Reynolds, the then world 400m record holder, before the 1992 Games. Reynolds, who received a ban for a positive nandrolone finding, went to the US Supreme Court to ensure he continued to compete, and took part in that year's Olympic trials.

There, however, he failed to win one of the three qualifying places, and although he qualified for a relay place he was not taken to Barcelona.

TRACK RECORD THE DRUGS, THE BANS AND THE ATHLETES AT RISK

What is Balco?

Balco, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, is a self-styled centre for nutrition in San Francisco run by Victor Conte. It has been the subject of a federal investigation into tax evasion and alleged doping issues. As a result, Conte and three others have been indicted for the illegal distribution of banned drugs.

Is Victor Conte singing like a canary?

Conte has yet to agree a plea-bargain deal, but has allegedly given evidence to a federal investigator naming 15 track and field athletes among a total of 27 who received THG.

What is THG?

A banned steroid - tetrahydrogestrinone - alleged to have been supplied by Balco which was undetectable until an anonymous tip-off, and sample, was offered to the authorities last summer.

Which athletes are involved?

Using evidence passed on to them by the federal authorities, the US Anti-Doping Agency has initiated cases involving the world 100m record holder Tim Montgomery, the sprinter Chryste Gaines, the 400m runner Alvin Harrison and the 200m runner Michelle Collins. Last month it persuaded Kelli White, who won the world 100m and 200m titles last summer, to confess to doping abuse and accept a two-year ban. Five others have tested positive for THG, the 2003 world indoor 1500m champion Regina Jacobs, the hammer-throwers Kevin Toth, John McEwen and Melissa Price, and Britain's European 100m champion Dwain Chambers, who was banned for two years in February. Reports indicate that a Conte e-mail also implicated some Greek athletes.

What i s Marion Jones' position?

The triple Olympic champion, who had a son with Montgomery last year, has not been charged with any offence, although her name is rumoured to be among those put forward by Conte. She gave evidence to the federal investigation and continues to help their enquiries.

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