Athletics: Why I fear for my big sprint rival - Gardener

Pickering warned about shadow cast by drug cheats as his training mate courts retirement
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Jason Gardener is a worried and somewhat weary man. It is not just that his young training partner has caught up with him and is threatening to end his long reign as the undisputed king of the indoor sprint in Britain and in Europe. At the age of 31, the annual ritual of being denied achievements by athletes who have been subsequently unmasked as drug cheats has worn down his patience to the point of retirement.

It has also made him fearful that Craig Pickering, the 20-year-old who has emerged ahead of him at the top of the domestic and Continental 60m rankings, will suffer the same frustrations in years to come.

"Of course I worry that Craig will go through the same thing," Gardener said as he prepared to inspect the English Institute of Sport track in Sheffield where he and Pickering will contest the 60m in the Norwich Union European Trials and UK Championships this afternoon. "He's just starting out. He's really innocent and he's from a good background. He's intelligent; he's doing a good degree. And he works hard at his athletics. He probably thinks that everybody works like him.

"He's not totally naïve, but he's going to learn that there will be people in the system who do things differently. You get to a championship and you miss out on a place in the final or maybe miss out on a medal. That medal could have meant the world to you. And then you find out that you've been robbed.

"What more nasty or bitter taste could be left in your mouth? You have to feel for the kids who are coming through, who have got that kind of thing to come."

For the time being, having shot to the head of the European 60m rankings with clockings of 6.55sec in Glasgow a fortnight ago and in Stuttgart last weekend, beating Gardener on both occasions, the only thoughts on Pickering's mind are maintaining his high-speed momentum in Sheffield today, and carrying it through to the European Indoor Championships at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham from 2 to 4 March, when his mentor and training mate will be defending a title he has held for six years.

"I haven't experienced what Jason has gone through, so I don't have fully-formed feelings about it," Pickering said. "I haven't come up against anybody taking drugs yet, but it sounds like it might get a little bit grim as I get further up - running quicker times and just missing out on finals maybe. I'll deal with it when it happens."

Gardener has been through it, dealt with it and got the T-shirt - though not quite as many medals as he might have to go alongside his 2004 Olympic relay gold and his three European and one World Indoor golds. "At the World Championships in Helsinki in 2005 I just missed out on the 100m final, and two of the guys who beat me in my semi-final were Justin Gatlin and Aziz Zakari, who have since been done for drugs," he reflected. "Zakari also beat me in my semi-final in the Olympics in 2004. Then the year before that it was Dwain Chambers.

"And these are the just the ones we know about. We know there are more. These are just the ones who got caught and proven.

"When I was a young guy I kept believing if you work hard you can beat these guys, and I guess I have done that in some of the competitions that I've won. But it's difficult. They just keep coming and the ban they get is not long enough. Two years is just like a bad injury.

"The punishment's just not right. We need life bans. We need to send out a message to people who contemplate that quick route to success. Protect the clean athletes. Protect the clean ones."

Gardener intends to spend the rest of the indoor season and the outdoor summer campaign helping to nurture Pickering on the training track at the University of Bath, under the guidance of the masterly Malcolm Arnold. He is so "hacked off with the cheating", however, that he is contemplating hanging up his spikes before the dawn of the 2008 Olympic year. He has already spoken to Bath Rugby Club about a career on the marketing and media side and has also been working with ITV West on a series following the progress of local hopefuls for the 2012 Olympics.

"We have the 2012 Games and we've got to make sure we give our athletes the best possible chance," he said, returning to the shadow of drugs hanging over his sport. "We're very, very harsh with testing in our own country. We're leading the way.

"It's the English way: fair play. But it's not like that in a lot of other countries... We all know that."