Drugs in Sport: Ming: 'The purity of sport is still there'

Campbell fears that the scar of drugs may be stemming the flow of athletes
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The Independent Online

Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has invited Lord Coe to address the Party Conference on the progress towards 2012 in Brighton on Wednesday, and today he will be on the seafront greeting 500 competitors as they cross the finishing line in the 8km Running 4 Women event. The old Olympian still has an eye for sport, and a passion for it which began on the playing fields of Glasgow's Hill Head High School over half a century ago.

He says: "When I first got into Parliament, people said to me, 'Are you obsessed by politics?' I said, 'No, what I am obsessed by is sport.' And I still am. It was sport that opened up my life."

A former rugby union winger - he played for Glasgow University and in the Middlesex Sevens for his club Edinburgh Wanderers - his fleet-footedness translated into sprinting for Britain in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and to the British team captaincy before a political career hove into view.

Ah, Tokyo 1964, the last of the Olympics' summer wine - untainted by drugs, boycotts, terrorism or the assorted scandals that were to follow. Campbell agrees: "Those Games were more of less free of drugs - at least we assumed they were - and it was before commercialism set in. Adidas gave us a pair of spikes and a pair of warm-ups, and if you were lucky you got a bag. Most of us had only run on grass or cinder tracks and I remember the team captain, Robbie Brightwell, looking at all those wonderful facilities and saying to us, ' There are only two ways to compete here - be a total scrubber or go home with a gold medal'."

"Ming" didn't win gold, but he was never a scrubber. His 10.2sec for the 100 metres was a British record that lasted for eight years, and he once broke a 53-year-old record for the rarely run 300 yards. The year after Tokyo he was appointed British team captain. "They picked me because they thought I was a soft touch, a quiet, dour Scot who wouldn't give them any trouble. But it turned out I was an articulate, rather argumentative Scot who did give them some trouble."

In Tokyo Campbell, now 65 and president of Scottish Athletics, was a law student, and he later did a postgraduate course at Stanford University, where he ran some of the best races of his career: "I loved California and was almost seduced into staying there." Instead he returned to become a barrister, then a Member of Parliament.

He had run his last race, at Scotstoun in 1968, when drugs were first beginning to scar the sport. "By then we had suspicions about drugs, particularly from the Eastern Bloc countries," he explains. "Tamara and Irene Press - the Press brothers, as we called them - were around and it was clear that things weren't right. People were, and still are, willing to take the risk for two reasons: money and fame."

We were talking on the day when a new survey revealed that steroids were the most sought-after commodity on the drugs black market by teenagers wanting to emulate their sporting heroes. Campbell recalls: "The first private members' bill I tried to introduce as an MP was to make the possession of anabolic steroids an offence, but the government of the day wouldn't have that. It is a criminal offence to supply them but not to possess them, but if we really are serious about eradicating drugs in sport, that's one of the things that should happen.

"In some gymnasiums, the use of these sorts of drugs is treated as an incident of life. If you want a 'six-pack' or big pecs, they say, 'Take some of these, they will help you'.

"My anxiety about drugs is that the parents of young people who are promising athletes may not be comfortable with them getting into the sport to the point where they become internationals, simply because they feel at some stage they will be offered chemicals to assist their performance."

However, he says he has not become disillusioned with the sport because of the drugs situation, or the fact that here it seems to have lost its direction. "I believe the purity of sport is still there among the 15- and 16-year-olds, and that we will achieve more successes in the future if we invest in them now. Like Seb Coe, I believe we must look abroad for our coaches."

Campbell is clearly as avid a reader of the back pages as he is the leader pages. "This Ashley Cole stuff is just unbelievable. How can anyone be complaining when they are on £135,000 a week or whatever? Sport at the top level these days seems to be showered with money. Not that I begrudge anyone getting what they are worth. If Linford Christie had been a piano player able to fill the Carnegie Hall, none of us could have objected to him being a millionaire.

"Why should a physical talent be in any way intellectually or morally inferior to an artistic one? As someone who has sweated himself, I have empathy with others who do."

And, coming from a politician, here is something else that is music to sporting ears: "Politicians are quick to exploit sport but they would be more justified in doing so if they made a bigger investment in it." Is that a Lib Dem manifesto promise coming on, Ming?

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