Travesty: In athletics today, doubt overshadows everything

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The Independent Online

The trouble with drugs in sport is they get everywhere, into every nook and cranny of what used to be an uncomplicated reaction to the kind of triumph Christine Ohuruogu delivered for Britain in the World Athletics Championships in Osaka yesterday.

It was a stunning achievement, breaking a British run of failure in the 400m event ever since the late Lillian Board, the "golden girl", won silver in the Olympics of Mexico City in 1968. But those were more innocent days, when, rightly or wrongly, every athletic success didn't raise eyebrows when it came with a surge of dramatically improved form.

In the years that have followed, the shadow of doubt has come to touch everybody, the innocent and the guilty and, in her moment of glory, it is a burden that rests on Ohuruogu with special weight. The fact that cannot be avoided is that, when she eased her way into the final with a breathtaking run in Tuesday's semi-final, she was recording a personal-best time in only her fourth run since emerging from a one-year ban imposed after she had missed three drug tests.

No doubt, many in athletics will say that her sentence has been served. They will also point to the assertion of the UK Athletics ruling body that the crime was due "only to forgetfulness". Yet who can accept such an explanation easily after decades of disillusionment with the ability of athletics to protect a world which wanted, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, to believe in performances clean from what could only be described as systematic cheating. The betrayals have been relentless since the first charges of "blood doping" were levelled at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Since then, not one major athletic event has passed without scandal.

Some, like Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his 100m gold in the Seoul Olympics of 1988 and returned home to Canada with no more glory than a reputation as a common criminal, have paid the ultimate price. Others, like Ohuruogu, have come through bans to achieve great success – but then everyone who competes at the top of their sport has been touched by the suspicion.

With the doubts the concern has grown that, however strenuous anti-doping measures become, there will always be a way of eluding them; that, because of the vast rewards accompanying gold medals at the Olympics, and to a much lesser extent the World Championships, the war will never end. In the wake of the fall of Johnson, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, declared that the war would have to be fought to the death. For many, though, there was another reality. It was that there would be no conclusion, no decisive moment, just the ebb and flow of an endless morality tale.

That this would be the case was indicated strongly enough at those same Olympics which saw the fall of Johnson. As the scandal of Johnson unfolded, Florence "Flo-Jo" Griffith Joyner produced shattering performances to win three golds. The sudden leap in her performance caused such suspicion that the crowd, especially in the stand for IOC officials, was largely muted.

Flo-Jo died prematurely but associates denied she had used drugs, pointing out she had never tested positive. This was accurate, but was it the truth? A sceptical world reached its own conclusion.

In the case of Ohuruogu, there could be no positive tests because, at vital stages of non-competition training, she was simply not available – against the strictest rules of her sport. Under the regulations of the British Olympic Association, it means she cannot try to build on her achievements in Japan in next year's Olympics in Beijing. She is appealing against the ban.

When Ohuruogu was suspended in 2006, Linford Christie, the former Olympic champion and head of her management company, said: "Of course Christine didn't cheat. She's just naïve. Some athletes are not great at lifestyle management."

The fact Christie finished his own career in 1999 on a two-year ban for steroid use – and tested positive after Johnson's run in Seoul but was exonerated after claiming he had drunk ginseng tea – was not one of the greatest planks of Ohuruogu's defence.

It may not be her fault, but Ohuruogu couldn't outrun one thing in Japan yesterday. It was the cloud that so many fear will always hang over track and field.

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