Triumph or travesty? Golden Ohuruogu is a true heroine for our time

Christine Ohuruogu is a world athletics champion today after a long struggle with adversity – and was hailed as a symbol of national pride by the PM. Yet the one-year ban she recently served for repeatedly missing drug tests casts another shadow over the credibility of international sport
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The Independent Online

Almost as soon as Christine Ohuruogu had crossed the finish line in the Nagai Stadium here in Japan's second city yesterday, a fax was speeding through the ether from 10 Downing Street saluting the British winner of the women's 400m final at the world athletics championships and also the British runner-up, Nicola Sanders. "Congratulations," it read. "You have made the whole of Britain very proud. I hope you can go on to win gold in the relay. Best wishes, Gordon Brown."

The whole of Britain has reason to be very proud, too. Ohuruogu's success story is an exceptional one. And she is an exceptional young woman. She also happens to have an infringement of the drug-testing laws on her track record. But to quote the conclusion of the UK Athletics hearing that imposed the mandatory 12-month suspension she served as a punishment for having missed three out-of-competition doping tests, the 23-year-old East Londoner was guilty of nothing more sinister than "forgetfulness".

To put that in context to those on the outside of the track-and-field world who may raise the eyebrow of cynicism – and, Lord knows, the good name of the principal Olympic sport has been tarnished by a succession of genuine pharmaceutically-charged cheats – the staging of a school sports day was ultimately responsible for Ohuruogu being banned from athletics from 5 August last year to 6 August this.

On the day the UK Sport testers turned up at Mile End Stadium in London, unannounced, Ohuruogu had travelled to train at Crystal Palace instead because her usual base was being used for a school sports day. Her crime, in her haste to catch up with her training group, was neglecting to inform the testers. Or of being, despite the linguistics degree she gained from University College London, a natural scatter-brain – as her rivals and British team-mates testified about her.

Christine Ohuruogu is no Ben Johnson – the steroid-fuelled sprinter who was busted at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. She is the second eldest of seven siblings from a devoutly Christian Nigerian couple who settled in London's East End – in Stratford, the borough in which the Olympic Games of 2012 will be held. She is articulate, intelligent and a role model for black youth in the deprived area in which she lives. She is, in fact, just the kind of person to help inspire other black youngsters to "scale the mountains", to adopt the phrase used by Nelson Mandela in his visit to London earlier this week. Mr Mandela called for leadership by example in Britain's black community. The young woman who turned yesterday's 400m race around in the final straight did just that.

Before leaving for Osaka, she acknowledged that a doping-related offence would always be a stain on her CV. "Britain must maintain a tough anti-drugs stance," she said, "but you have to tease out when people have been dubious from the genuine cases."

Yesterday, at the press conference, she was asked what message she would like to give to the columnists who have questioned whether she should be on the British team. "I'd like to say that just because people write things, it doesn't necessarily mean that they know what they're talking about," she said. "They don't see you working every day. They don't see what you put yourself through. So as far as I'm concerned people can write what they like.

"I think all the negativity has done nothing but just spur me on. I'm very pleased and I'm very proud that despite everything I managed to get my head down and still keep working."

Indeed, she did. It was only on 7 August that she was named in the Great Britain team. She had not raced since July of last year. And yet here she was standing on top of the medal podium. No athlete has achieved such an unlikely feat in the history of British athletics.

Her family name (pronounced O-hoo-roo-goo) means "fighter". She has spent £20,000 in fighting to clear her name. She still has one appeal to win. The British Olympic Association has a by-law automatically precluding athletes with doping offences from Olympic selection. Earlier this year, though, the triathlete Tim Don was reinstated after serving a suspension for three missed tests.

So Britain's new sporting hero is likely to be going for Olympic gold in Beijing next year. Let us hope that she does herself and the nation proud once again.