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Britain 'falling behind' in the drugs fight

The Uzbekistan official detained at Sydney airport for allegedly carrying vials of Human Growth Hormone last week would be allowed to enter the UK without any hindrance under current legislation.

The Uzbekistan official detained at Sydney airport for allegedly carrying vials of Human Growth Hormone last week would be allowed to enter the UK without any hindrance under current legislation.

Provided the carrier claims they are for his own use, the drugs would not fall under the provision of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which, according to one doping official in Britain, is being exposed as inadequate by the success of the Draconian anti-drug laws in Australia. If found guilty of importing a banned substance, the Uzbeki official could face a maximum sentence of five years in jail.

With the Commonwealth Games in Manchester due to be the next anti-doping battleground in 2002, authorities in Britain will be propelled into the forefront of the fight against drugs in sport. But officials are concerned Britain will be regarded as a "soft" target for the cheats, with police and customs powerless to act under a government unwilling to bring legislation into line with other countries, notably France and Australia.

The decision by the Chinese authorities to leave 27 athletes and 13 officials at home was widely interpreted as a direct response to the rigorous programme of testing set up by the Australian Sports Drug Agency, which includes the first effective test for EPO, a drug widely used by athletes in endurance sports. Senior figures here question whether Britain has shown anything like the same commitment to the anti-drug campaign, and even whether the newly developed test for EPO will be set up here in time for 2002.

"We have to look at ourselves and our laws very closely, if only to demonstrate that our society cares about the way sport is being played," said Michele Verroken, director of the ethics and anti-doping unit of UK Sport, responsible for the testing programme at the Commonwealth Games. "For example, an official could arrive at the Games in Manchester carrying large quantities of steroids and if he simply says, 'Yes, I'm a bodybuilder, yes, they are for my use,' there is nothing we can do about it. In a recent survey, steroids came third in a list of drugs regularly offered in schools; young athletes do not have to look far. It's a time-bomb waiting to go off."

Verroken has been impressed by the evidence of co-ordinated action in Australia between customs officials, police, politicians and sports authorities, and hopes the model might be followed here. Her fear is that Britain is very far from being able to muster similar forces, particularly when the sporting federations themselves cannot agree on a standard range of punishments for drug offences and recent investment on research into methods of drug detection has been minimal.

"The Australians committed money to fund the EPO study and the French government helped to finance the blood-based EPO test developed by their scientists," said Verroken. "We led the way in the detection of testosterone abuse in the Seventies and in developing independently scrutinised standards for testing, but I'm worried that our reputation is being shot to pieces at international level."

In Australia, British athletes have already been targeted by the doping agency. The European 100m champion Darren Campbell and Katharine Merry, Europe's leading 400m runner, were called for testing late last week. Both athletes are part of the squad coached by Linford Christie, who has been banned for two years following a positive test for nandrolone. Privately, some British officials feel that the team are being singled out for high-profile testing because of the recent controversies over the use of nandrolone.

"This will certainly be the most tested Games; whether it will be cleanest is another matter," Verroken added. "It's a pity we have to take such Draconian steps. It's a bit like putting cameras on every single road in the country to deter speeding. But if the athletes become more confident that the cheats will be caught, then I suppose it's worth it."

The news that Neil Campbell, a squad member of the British Olympic cycling team, has been sent home after being banned for a year by the British Cycling Federation having tested positive for human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG), is another blow to Britain's increasingly tarnished reputation, although Campbell yesterday protested his innocence: "I strongly deny that I have ever taken performance-enhancing drugs and I still maintain these anomalies are from a medical condition. Investigations are ongoing."

A two-year study by America's National Commission on Sports and Substance Abuse released last week made equally sobering reading for the IOC and officials. According to the report, coaches and athletes estimated 80 to 90 per cent of competitors in certain unidentified sports use banned performance-enhancing drugs. "We have to remain optimistic," Verroken said, "or there won't be another Games."