James Lawton: Shadow of Johnson falls long and dark over moral lottery

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Dwain Chambers unwittingly gambled and lost. Or, as he would put it, somebody else gambled on his behalf. Same result, though. Chambers, banned for two years and permanently removed from Olympic competition, joins the list of losers who will always be headed by Ben Johnson, stripped of 100 metres Olympic gold - and a world record - at the very apex of his athletic life in Seoul, 1988.

When somebody like Chambers, reigning European champion and a fancied contender in the Athens Olympics later this year, goes down - or when Marco Pantani, the great Italian cyclist, dies in a cheap Rimini hotel room - Johnson's fate in that grey Korean dawn is inevitably the point of reference.

Why? Because many thought, however naively it seems now, that something had to change. Johnson was of course not the first athlete to fail a drug test, but no one had got so far along the road, no-one had ever gathered in the glittering prize, and been so close to pulling off the perfect crime, the great deceit, and then been dashed to the ground.

Johnson, with the tell-tale yellow in his eyes and the rough skin, was everybody's whipping boy. His friend Linford Christie weighed in with the critics and when Christie himself was banned near the end of his career, Johnson reacted savagely.

He said that thing that has always provoked so many doubts in an increasingly cynical audience, and might, you have to suspect, always be the justification of every sportsman who ever failed a drug test. "My crime," said Johnson so bitterly, "was to get caught."

Yesterday David Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics, offered again the official line that is supposed to carry us a little way down a more hopeful road leading from the convulsion of the Johnson case all those years ago.

He said that UK Athletics were proud of their testing programme, and though he was mindful that positive results would produce adverse publicity for his sport, it was something that had to be done to "ensure we do all we can to protect those athletes who compete fairly."

But what can the anti-doping forces really do beyond playing an endless game of catch-up with those who believe that beating the world without chemical assistance is a challenge loaded up with potential frustration.

When, in the wake of Johnson's fall, the former International Olympic Committee president Jose Antonio Samaranch declared that the drugs war would be fought to the death, could he have envisaged that 16 years on a victory in a case like that of Chambers would be based on a systematic, foolproof testing system - or the way it was, with an investigation procedure for the designer anabolic steroid THG that could only be developed when an anonymous coach sent in a syringe to the United States Anti-Doping agency.

What we had here was not the winning of the great drugs war but a passing battle settled by the random decision of a coach who refuses to be identified. We can thank him, even if we don't know his motive, but who can be euphoric - or doubt that some other designer number is even now already fizzing into life?

Chambers' claim that he was unaware of what he was ingesting was not disputed by the disciplinary hearing which, failing successful appeal within 60 days, has effectively ended the track career of arguably the most gifted natural sprinter ever produced in these islands. The burden of their case was to prove that the effect of THG was the same as anabolic steroids already on the banned lists, and that they established.

It is also true that an American Grand Jury is investigating the BALCO laboratory in Los Angeles - the source of Chambers' 'supplement' - and its vice-president Victor Conte, who has been indicted along with Chambers' coach, Remi Korchemny, and Greg Anderson, the personal trainer of baseball's star slugger Barry Bonds. But should we be impressed with this flurry of anti-drug activity in the year of the Olympics? Should we really believe that the "war fought to the death" is moving along, truly - or merely involved in another highly publicised skirmish?

All experience since the affair of Johnson points in the latter direction. Chambers has fallen some way before the point at which Ben Johnson's life imploded. But then what would have happened if someone claiming to be a top coach hadn't phoned in with his 'deep throat' tip-off and followed up, crucially, with a used syringe in the mailbox? We would maybe have been playing the old game of cheering - and hoping.

There are those who say that ultimately drug testing will always be an expensive exercise in futility, that some cheats will be caught in the net, and that many will not, and so what do we have, morality by lottery? The Chambers case says, yes, that's pretty much so. But what is the alternative? It doesn't, despite all the time we've had, bear thinking about.