'It's theft. They might as well mug people on the street'

The tarnished image
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The Independent Online

So where does athletics go from here? What does it do about the drugged-up cheats who are dragging its name and its public reputation through the toxic gutter? Mike McLeod has an answer of sorts.

"Instead of going on the track," he says, "they might as well go out on the streets with guns and mug everybody - because, basically, that's what they're doing. It's like robbing a bank with a gun. Those athletes are taking money from the likes of ourselves - from the public, who pay to see them. That money goes to them in appearance fees and prize money. It's theft, sheer theft. It hasn't been earned by legal means. It's been stolen."

Gold medals have been stolen too, as McLeod knows only too well. Back in 1984 he finished third in the Olympic 10,000m final in Los Angeles. Two days later he was promoted to the silver-medal position when Martti Vainio, who had come second in the race, became the first track- and-field medallist to fail an Olympic drugs test. Traces of primobolin, an anabolic steroid, were found in the Finnish runner's urine sample.

Three years later, Alberto Cova, the Italian who won the gold medal, confessed he had indulged in the practice of blood doping, a process by which the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is increased by the withdrawal and reinfusion of red blood-cells. He was never punished.

McLeod is 51 now. He has the bronze medal he received on the podium in the Los Angeles Coliseum, and the silver with which he was belatedly presented prior to the AAA 10km road-race championship at Battersea Park in April 1985. He keeps them in a Marks and Spencer plastic bag. He has no Olympic gold to show for his honest efforts - for the speed and endurance he developed naturally, pounding the streets and tracks of Tyneside for 20 years after winning the Newcastle primary schools' cross-country championship in a pair of two-shilling Woolworth plimsolls. He does, though, have a clear conscience - unlike Cova, Vainio and the chemically-charged gold-robbers following in their tainted needle-tracks.

When McLeod is not busy running his printing business, he can still be found treading the streets on a training run or wearing the red-and-white vest of Elswick Harriers in a local road race. He has seen the big drug scandals come and go. He was a member of the British team in Seoul in 1988 when Ben Johnson was held up as the big catch to scare them all, all the high-speed cheats.

As the storm of the designer-steroid affair was raging last Tuesday night, he was standing by the track in the freezing cold at Gateshead Stadium, clicking a stopwatch and shouting encouragement at the group of young distance runners he coaches. On Thursday night he was at the foot of the steep inclines behind the stadium, putting his charges through their weekly hill-training session.

You might ask how someone who has seen his sport mugged so grievously by the drug fraudsters could still show such devotion to it - and how he can summon the enthusiasm to guide his 19-year-old son, Ryan, a British junior international, along in his footsteps.

"Because I'm daft," McLeod replies, laughing. "The thing is, you can go to your grave with what you've done and say, 'I've done it cleanly. I've done my best. I was good at what I did'.

"The young kids coming through are good. They get personal bests. They win championships. They're good at something. It keeps them off the streets. It keeps them occupied. It keeps them fit. And if they get beaten by two or three people who are taking drugs, so be it. They've done their best. And they're doing something they enjoy.

"My son's always on the computer, emailing the friends he's made from all around the country. He enjoys his sport. I don't think he even thinks about the drugs problem. We haven't sat down and talked about this latest thing, because... why? What's the point? You're wasting your time.

"I'm sitting here now talking about it, but the poor kids just want to get on. They don't want to get disheartened. They don't want people saying, 'Oh, by the way, when you get older you're going to be competing against a lot of people who are on drugs, who are cheating'. These lads want to compete for their country and, hopefully, go to the Olympics. You can't let the people who are taking drugs stop the younger generation from coming through and trying to achieve those goals.

"It is depressing, because not a great deal has been done about it. The authorities haven't stamped down hard on the cheats, and if they don't there is a danger that this sport could disappear. A lot of kids now are not going into athletics. There are a lot of factors, but drugs could be a major one. People have to stand up now and get drugs right out of the sport, because it's giving the wrong impression, totally.

"If anyone has a good performance now people think, 'Oh, that person's on something'. People might be talking about Paula Radcliffe, but the thing is she trains damn hard, and if you look at her progress over the years she's just got better and better. It's sad from that point of view, too." It is indeed. And it's sad, too, that Mike McLeod has Olympic silver and bronze but no gold in his Marks and Spencer bag.