James Lawton: Acrobatic U-turn leads athletics back up a blind alley

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The Independent Online

You have to hand it to the sport of athletics in the wounded innocence department. It fights its war against drugs with the utmost ferocity all the way to the first hint of an advantageous compromise.

Yesterday the potential face of the London Olympics, Christine Ohuruogu, was waved through to next year's Beijing Games with such sweet formality the only surprise was that she was not also presented with an official apology for all that inconvenience she suffered over the trifling matter of three missed drug tests.

After thanking all those who had supported her – no doubt an aggrieved stab at any ignorant outsider who was outrageous enough to assume that the rules of her sport were even worth writing down – she declared herself a clean athlete and said how happy she was to be moving on.

It is quite possible that the world 400 metres world champion is indeed someone of unsullied endeavour, perhaps even the pillar of rectitude which some of her supporters insist she is, but how did the independent panel explain their decision to draw a veil over the missed tests so troubling to those battered into disbelief down all the years of cheating? It was because of "significant mitigating circumstances". These were apparently three attacks of amnesia when testers were unable to track her down. It was, however, Simon Clegg, the chief executive of the British Olympic Association which once declared that a drug-related offence automatically disqualified an athlete from their teams, who performed the niftiest display of acrobatics.

He said that the BOA and the panel which made the decision stress that no-advance-notice out-of-competition tests is a fundamental part of ensuring an effective fight against doping in sport. Not fundamental enough, though, to deprive a high-profile three-strike offender of her place – and her publicity value – in the big shows in Beijing and London.

UK Sport, the taxpayers' government agency, was happy with the outcome, of course, but might just have seen a few future embarrassments down the road, especially with several leading British athletes just one missed test away from joining Ohuruogu across the line which was supposed to have been drawn so fiercely in the anti-drug battle.

The agency said that the BOA needed to examine its by-laws, particularly the automatic ban for any kind of drug-related offence. However, everyone was happy that the British public could be reassured the world-beating star was a drug free athlete. Reassured? The truth is that it was not reassurance in the air yesterday. It was a fresh question mark against the sport's ability to draw one of those lines and guard it with any more belligerence than a snowflake.

When Ben Johnson tumbled from the Olympic mountain top in Seoul in 1988 the reigning International Olympic Committee chief, Juan Antonio Samaranch, made a ringing declaration. He said that athletics had to get involved in a fight to the death. But whose death?

No one is saying that Christine Ohuruogu is a drug cheat. Only that she has compromised the rules of her sport, and those specifically laid down to rebuild some little belief in her sport's ability to cleanse itself. At the last Olympics there was cynical mirth when the two sprinters of the host nation, Greece, played a farcical game of hide-and-seek with the drug testers.

Then it seemed that athletics had tipped into the bleakest farce. Grant-aided athletes have a simple requirement. It is to let the testers know where they are at certain times. It is the kind of information most of us put at the disposal of our bosses almost every day of our lives, a point made with splendid force yesterday by the BBC radio show host Victoria Derbyshire when she was told by one athlete that the public just didn't understand how easy it was for athletes to forget where and what they were.

There is, of course, something else a lot of the public don't understand. It is how they are expected to take seriously a sport which makes up its rules – and its morality – as it goes along. Christine Ohuruogu said how happy she was to move on. The trouble is that athletics always seems to finish up back in the same old place.