Athletics: Lewis should not be found guilty by association with Arbeit

Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online

The word is that Denise Lewis's training levels have dipped in the last couple of weeks. Stress, apparently.

The news that Britain's Olympic heptathlon champion is receiving specialist help in her throws from the former East German coach Dr Ekkart Arbeit has provoked condemnation in some quarters of the media and prompted a stiff response from the body responsible for distributing élite Lottery funding, UK Sport.

The latter body has written to the Daily Telegraph, the paper that has exercised itself most vigorously in criticising Lewis's new arrangement, pointing out that it "does not condone the appointment of any coach implicated in the supply of prohibited substances to sportsmen and women'' and adding that UK Athletics had provided assurance that none of its funding "had been or will be used to support the work of Dr Arbeit''.

Lewis, the latter goes on, is free to choose whomsoever she wishes to coach her, but it concludes ominously: "she must carry any potential risk to her reputation herself.'' That risk lies, clearly, in a simple sequence of association. Arbeit was a central figure in the East German sports regime which, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, routinely filled its competitors with illegal, performance-enhancing drugs.

Arbeit has subsequently spoken of his regret over his past, and stated that he does not condone drug-taking. He points to the work he has done for the International Association of Athletics Federations since 1989 in 30 developing countries.

But he acknowledges he was turned down by the Australian and South African Athletics Federations after being recommended by the man now in charge of Lewis's coaching, the former British national coach Frank Dick, and, in linking up with Arbeit at Dick's instigation, Lewis is inviting the charge that her comeback after having a baby last year may involve illegal assistance. In working with someone who, by his own admission, has cheated, she will be seen as a cheat herself, leaving any future performance open to question.

That is the case for the prosecution. But Lewis is sticking stubbornly with the Arbeit connection, maintaining that the subject of drugs has never been mentioned between the two of them, and adding that she would never expect it to be. Dick, too, is resentful of the criticism his choice has provoked. As he sees it, it is his role to offer Lewis the benefit of an expertise which has previously been employed by sporting performers such as Katerina Witt, Boris Becker and Gerhard Berger. And where he knows of someone better placed to help her, whether it be in terms of physiotherapy or throwing techniques, he will put her in touch with them. Bringing illegal doping into the equation, he maintains fervently, is the last thing he would ever do either for Lewis or British athletics. There are two questions to be asked at this stage. First, if Dick or Lewis seriously contemplated using illegal means to achieve their end, how smart would it have been to engage the services of a man best known for his part in the discredited East German coaching regime? We can all agree that it was hardly an inspired PR move - but it was not exactly a covert operation either.

Second, the condemnation of Arbeit for his past, and of Lewis by association, brings up some awkward parallels. Dick is understandably quick to point out the connection of another former East German coach, Jürgen Grobler, with British rowing. Grobler, by all available evidence, was not as integral to the doping operation as Arbeit, but his senior position meant it would have been impossible for him not at least to have known of the "supporting means'' involved in getting competitors into optimum condition.

This, though, is the man who coached Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster and James Cracknell to their victory at the Sydney Olympics. Unless you believe that Redgrave and Co were on something illegal - in which case we might as well all give up and hand the sports pages over to chess and gardening - it must be conceded that former East German coaches and clean competition can mix.

It boils down to whether you believe, as Dick has energetically asserted, that people should be given second chances. And to how far you believe in guilt by association.

British rowing sees fit to employ Grobler. Last year, UK Athletics employed Linford Christie, who received a doping ban for an adverse nandrolone finding in 1998, as a coach. Meanwhile the athletes Christie coaches personally - including Olympic 200m silver medallist Darren Campbell and Olympic 400m bronze medallist Katharine Merry - continue to compete free of taint or suspicion (Merry even writes a column for the Daily Telegraph).

In its role of administering the doping control programme for British athletes, UK sport has the capacity to target individuals. Let them test Lewis unannounced and often. The rest is prejudice.