Ban drug cheats for eight years

Grey-Thompson says 'Stalinesque hard line' is only way to succeed in Paralympic icon's critical anti-doping review
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The Independent Online

If Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson has her way, the Dwain Chambers fiasco will have another positive result – driving drug cheats out of British athletics. The Paralympian icon, who is heading a review into UK Athletics' anti-doping policy, takes an uncompromising stance which she hopes will see minimum eight-year bans imposed on those who cheat.

"I am prepared to be Stalin-esque about this," she says. "I have a hard line on drug-taking. My personal belief is that anyone who cheats should be banned for eight years, at every level. Some may say well, why not a lifetime ban but even when murderers get life sentences they rarely serve life. But eight years is effectively a career ban for an elite athlete."

The 37-year-old wheelchair racer, who retired last year as Britain's most successful disability athlete, starts her new role this week. The results of her review are expected to lead to sweeping reforms in UK Athletics' anti-drugs policy.

"I have spent the last few days thinking how far this remit might go," she says. "My first job will be to assemble a working party to examine the problem and I'll be talking to people like Seb Coe who have grave fears for the future of the sport if something isn't done soon." She also says she intends to invite Chambers to give his views. "I want to understand why he did it because for me it is alien to anything I would ever contemplate.

"You can talk about money, fame, glory, all that stuff but you need to understand why he and others who have taken drugs would make that choice. It is not only in terms of informing us but for athlete education."

Grey-Thompson, already on the board of UK Athletics, said she has turned down the chance to become chair of Sport England, preferring to take on this task. She was speaking at the Laureus World Sports Awards in St Petersburg, where Christine Ohuruogu had been controversially nominated for the Comeback of the Year accolade, won by Paula Radcliffe. Grey-Thompson admitted she would have felt "some discomfort" had Ohuruogu been successful in view of her year's ban for missing three drug tests.

She also admits she will have to find out if her eight-year ban is legally enforceable. "I know my views will have to stand up within a legal framework and I also know I just can't compose a panel of those who will have similar views to my own.

"I want to make sure that we deliver robust solutions so there will be legal and scientific experts who will help pin down hard and fast recommendations. We also need to find out more about the masking agents which disguise drug use. There are some athletes who have never been caught and may never be caught, but these last few weeks have highlighted how the sport needs to be sorted out.

"We can't keep messing about. It has to be sorted. We can't keep lurching from court case to court case. As a sport, athletics has to decide what it wants as its destiny because what we have just been through is not fair to the sport or the athletes.

"We need to make athletes understand what their responsibilities to the sport are, both in taking drugs and missing tests. It is not only about athletes, but coaches and organisations. Also we need to find out if there is the political will to impose longer bans. Hopefully, there is."

It would seem so. The chief executive of UK Athletics, Niels de Vos, says that the current two-year ban is "no worse than a cruciate ligament injury" and has queried whether a four-year ban is enough.

Grey-Thompson would like the review to be completed soon after the Beijing Olympics, which she will be attending as a Paralympics coach and TV pundit. In view of her socio-political awareness – she has a degree in politics and is a Labour party fundraiser – would she have gone as a competitor had she been required to sign an agreement not to make statements about human rights in China?

"I would have thought long and hard about it but yes, I would have competed. But athletes have to make their own decisions on this. For me, winning medals for your country in the Games is paramount. Yes, I do have a political conscience and no doubt I would speak out about things I thought were wrong when I returned. If my gut reaction was not to go to the Games for political or social reasons, it might be a story in the papers for a couple of days but what change would that effect?"

Change, however, is what she is determined to achieve in the battle that threatens the destruction of the sport.