Mark Richardson completed another lap on the comeback trail last night – powered by a plateful of scrambled eggs and baked beans and a full measure of pride. "I have my name back now," the 400m man from Windsor proclaimed before settling into his starting blocks for his semi-final race at the Norwich Union World Championship trials and AAA Championships.
It is four weeks now since the International Amateur Athletic Federation reinstated Richardson as a runner, lifting a two-year suspension after six months because of "exceptional circumstances" in the case of the positive test he gave for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.
The most exceptional circumstance was the fact that the 28-year-old Briton provided scientific evidence relating to the specific batch of a food supplement he had ingested prior to the out-of-competition test in October 1999. While the IAAF hold athletes strictly liable for all substances found in their drug test samples, the laboratory analysis supported the claim Richardson had always maintained: that one of the supposedly legal supplements he routinely took must have been contaminated.
"I'm sorry but I can't elaborate," Richardson said, when asked to identify the offending product. "There is a legal issue. Suffice to say it has all been proven by an International Olympic Committee laboratory. The most important thing to me is that I've got my integrity and my dignity back."
It has further enhanced Richardson's integrity that he is not running away from the living nightmare he endured for 20 months. Last week, instead of honing his preparations for the AAA Championships, he was in Hungary, at the World Youth Championships at Debrecen, lecturing young athletes about the perils of popping even the most innocent-looking of vitamin pills. "Based on my own experience," Richardson told them, "you should be very, very wary of supplements. You should ask yourselves, 'Do I really need to be taking them?' "
It is a question even seasoned competitors will be asking themselves in the wake of the 600 positive tests for nandrolone that have been registered in the past two years – and in light of recent evidence. Most revealingly, the IOC's laboratory in Cologne analysed 100 different food supplements and found that 16 produced the nandrolone metabolite norandrosterone. That prompted a warning from Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-doping Agency, about the risks of using products marked as "natural" by less than scrupulous manufacturers. "Labelling is not at all reliable," he said. "There are tons of prohibited drugs in the middle of all that."
Richardson started taking supplements in 1995 because his training was continually interrupted by illness. "I kept getting tonsillitis," he recalled. "I never took supplements because I thought they were going to give me some fantastic edge over my opponent. I just didn't want to miss out on training days."
These days he prefers to miss out on the supplements – not even a multi- vitamin tablet at breakfast. "I take nothing," he said. "I just have scrambled eggs, baked beans and toast. I'm working with a dietician now. I'm trying to cover my nutrition that way. I don't want to go through the nightmare again."
Richardson will always be haunted by the Olympic medal chance he lost last year. Though temporarily cleared to run by UK Athletics, he withdrew from the British team because the IAAF would have suspended him while he was in Sydney if he had pushed for his case to be referred to arbitration. He sat at home in Windsor while Greg Haughton, the Jamaican he had beaten at the WChampionships in Seville the previous year, took the bronze medal behind Michael Johnson and Alvin Harrison.
"It was heartbreaking watching the 400m, absolutely heartbreaking," he said. "You only have a small window of opportunity as an athlete and behind Michael Johnson it was a very soft final. I'm convinced I would have been a medal contender, but I can't change the past. I've got to look to the future now."
The near future – beyond a battle with his old adversary Iwan Thomas in the AAA final this afternoon – brings the World Championships into view for Richardson. They open in Edmonton on 3 August without the retiring Johnson defending the 400m crown he retained in a world record 43.18 in Seville two years ago. Richardson finished sixth in that final – a huge disappointment considering the medal potential he had shown the previous summer when inflicting a rare defeat on Johnson in Oslo and equalling Roger Black's English record, 44.37sec. However, given the circumstances that have since prevailed a similar placing this time would give cause for celebration.
In his comeback race in Glasgow a fortnight ago Richardson did beat two of the Americans he will face in Edmonton, Antonio Pettigrew and Jerome Young, but the ground he has lost since 1999 cannot be underestimated when assessing his World Championship prospects.
"For two years I've had no motivation for training," he said. "Being realistic, this year for me is all about rebuilding. I know that next year I'll be much better."
Richardson has already been a World Championship gold medallist for a decade now. He was a member of the British 4 x 400m relay squad that beat the Americans in Tokyo in 1991. "Yes, I've got a gold medal," he said, "but I only ran in the semi-final. It doesn't really count."
It would be different if Richardson could find a Midas touch on his own come the next global challenge after Edmonton – the 2003 World Championships in Paris. No British 400m runner has struck individual gold at a global outdoor championship since the 1924 Olympics. Following in the historic wheelmarks of Eric Liddell's chariot of fire would be quite a feat – fuelled, of course, by scrambled egg, baked beans and pride.Reuse content