Athletics: Suspicion threatens to destroy a great sport

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The Independent Online

You might not have noticed how quickly the troubled world of athletics slipped gratefully out of the spotlight last week as the build-up of avalanche proportions surrounding David Beckham and England, and to a slightly lesser extent Craig Bellamy and Wales, engulfed the media's attention.

There was a slight flurry surrounding the Golden League meeting in Brussels on Friday night, when Kelli White was competing after her flirtation with a drugs ban at the World Championships last weekend, but the sport has largely managed to avoid a pentrating aftermath of an extraordinary week in Paris. Not that Britain's injury-hit team escaped a slagging-off for their lack of success. They were monstered from every direction and the BBC added the final insult when they blamed our athletes for the worst peak-time viewing figures in the Corporation's history.

Undoubtedly, the absence of Paula Radcliffe would have been a big turn-off on the night of the 10,000 metres and there were a few other top-liners missing but how would the viewers have known in advance that our competitors weren't going to do so well? Perhaps, they waited until the events were over before they decided not to watch them. Perhaps, they couldn't be arsed anyway or were indulging in that rare British August pastime of barbecuing.

But let's not confuse the problems of Britain with those of the athletics world at large. Another outbreak of drug scandals at a major meet underlines how inadequately the sport's authorities have coped with the establishment of a firm and consistent global policy to tackle drug abuse. They are usually portrayed as gallant but helpless battlers against the evils of the pharmacological jungle. It is a dramatic scenario used with expert effect with many members of my own profession and, in some cases, rightly so.

But it wears a bit thin when you consider that the main aim of that jungle is to keep many of us alive and is more miraculous than menacing. It was a product of the pharmacuetical industry that led to White testing positive in Paris after winning the 100m and 200m. Over a confusing period of time the IAAF made three different statements about a medication she had taken on prescription.

Modafinil is not on the banned list but it knows a drug that is or, rather, is "a related substance". Now, what that substance is and what it is supposed to do for you was not disclosed. It never is.

That fact that she hadn't disclosed it - which was stupid on her part - was enough to disqualify her. She was allowed to run on Friday night but whether she will be able to keep her medals is unclear.

But yet another seemingly harmless substance enters the sporting vocabularly and none of us has the faintest idea of what magic it can perform for an athlete. All we know is that there's enough stuff at the average corner chemist's to get the entire entry for an Olympic Games banned for life. We also learned that the 400m winner, Jerome Young, had failed a drug test in 1999. The Americans kept it a secret and he was subsequently cleared before helping the US 4 x 400m relay team to win gold at the Sydney Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency are to investigate what is or has been going on. We also had the case of a Kenyan runner who pulled out of the World Championships after testing positive for drugs before the event began. If we needed further evidence of the torment the sport is in, it came from the great Michael Johnson, who has been very enlightening both for the BBC and in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. Johnson is so worried about the future of athletics he believes it is better to make the mistake of banning one innocent athlete than to allow a guilty athlete to compete.

Just as well Johnson isn't in charge of capital punishment in his country but his attitude is one that prevails not only within athletics but outside in the shape of the volunteer vigilantes who think they are doing sport a favour in their eagerness to condemn.

Not that the prospect of innocence finds much room with anyone. Suspicion is nine points of the law. Witness the hue and cry after Denise Lewis, our heptathlon heroine in Sydney, but now routinely castigated for using the coaching services of Ekkart Arbeit, who played a major part in East Germany's infamous drug regime. But since neither the IOC nor the IAAF have banned him, Lewis is within her rights to seek his expertise on the throwing skills and many top athletes have backed her - even IOC top man Jacques Rogge has said it's time to leave the girl alone.

She competed bravely in Paris after her long lay-off but some papers still would not let go. I haven't had the tape measure out but I fancy she's had more column inches of condemnation that those who failed the drug tests. There's clearly an urgent need for a fresh approach and perhaps the Wada are the body to achieve it once they convince the world to leave it to them. So many in athletics have advantages that are way beyond the scope of many competitors from other countries and climates. There hasn't been a level athletics field for a century and perhaps there never will be. There are so many blurred lines these days that we have reached the time when sport must re-examine the parameters inside which we ask our athletes to operate. As we are, this great sport will destroy itself through suspicion, innuendo and distrust. Surely, anything is better than that?

Welcome relief over rates

Lest it slip by unnoticed amid the tumultuous happenings of this weekend, the Government have acted to free thousands of amateur sports clubs from being crippled by rate bills.

Since we never miss an opportunity to hammer them on the frequent occasions they skilfully avoid doing anything to give real help to sport at grass-roots level, our rulers are entitled to wild applause on this one.

Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport, said that although "it may not be the most glamorous announcement", it was a major reform. That's been the trouble, old son. Through the years we've had too many glamorous announcements about sports initiatives and the promise of phantom billions when all our hard-pressed voluntary club organisers have needed is some basic assistance.

The irony has been that the harder local clubs have worked to build up their facilities, the higher the councils have lifted their rates demands. To a club like West Bridgford Hockey Club, who run 12 male and female teams, their £4,500 bill meant a big cutback on youth coaching. Clubs in all parts of the country and covering many sports will now be better placed to develop their contribution to community life. That the Government were finally persuaded that rates relief is a good idea is a tribute to a long campaign by the Central Council of Physical Recreation.

Much good support has come from the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and Lord Moynihan, the former Conservative sports minister. And let us not forget the hard bargaining done inside the Government by Caborn and the Culture Minister Tessa Jowell. It's been a good effort all-round, which in sport, is as it should be.