James Lawton: Shameless lie that threatens to destroy Athens Games

Drugs Scandal: Pretence that only a few competitors resort to cheating needs confronting before next year's Olympics are fatally undermined
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The drug for which our erstwhile hero Dwain Chambers tested positive is a sexy, state-of-the-art designer number named tetrahydrogestrinone - otherwise known as THG, but let's stick to the longer version. It's a big, ugly word - and that's right for the big, ugly lie it represents.

The drug for which our erstwhile hero Dwain Chambers tested positive is a sexy, state-of-the-art designer number named tetrahydrogestrinone - otherwise known as THG, but let's stick to the longer version. It's a big, ugly word - and that's right for the big, ugly lie it represents.

How big? It knows no bounds. It eats into every corner of the Olympic sport that has the concrete mixers whirring against the clock in Athens and the London bidding committee flexing its puny muscles in anticipation of the Games of 2012 and, perhaps most dismaying of all, it does so with an ever-declining power to shock.

So many lies, so many deceits have piled up to make fools of those who still see in track and field the noble possibility of some great redemption, some dawning of the light.

For 27 years now, since the blood-doping spectre that dominated the Montreal Games which some, romantically, choose to remember for the awesome Alberto Juantorena and the exquisite 10s of Nadia Comaneci, there hasn't been an Olympics free of the heaviest doubts, and this week's news that a performance-enhancing drug sailed through the defences of the recent World Championships in Paris makes matchwood of claims of serious reform.

The lie is relentless, shameless and is bought so guilelessly by those who want to believe it, and who are always made to look, when the latest scandal hits, like befuddled victims of some marathon three-card trick.

Athletics coaches swear on the bible and their mother's tombstones that the drug cheats are a minority. Here in Britain. we are the masters of self-delusion. British athletes are never cheats. They take the wrong cough drops, they are caught in some testing malfunction, their dietary supplements have been taken on bad advice. And so it goes... After Chambers' disappointments in Paris, we were given the picture of a thwarted hero, gazing into the middle distance and contemplating fresh attacks on the mountain top. But how would he get there? His first positive test simply returns us to another cycle of doubt.

The remarks of Lynn Davies, the long jump hero of the Tokyo Olympics in a more innocent age who is now president of UK Athletics, come from the litany of denial. He says: "Sadly again, the perception of our sport is suffering. But I would rather have this in the open. If athletes are found to have taken performance-enhancing drugs they should be banned for two years - even if they are British."

Even if they are British! Especially if they are British, he might have said, because where does any true cleansing of sport have to begin? At home, in our own values and our own belief in what is right, and damn the medals that Ben Johnson's coach, Charlie Francis, said were beyond him if he didn't take the fast, chemical track to glory.

Some of us who greeted that grey dawn in Seoul when Johnson was unmasked as the ultimate drug cheat, bought, at least to a degree, the platitude that fell from the lips of the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. He said that a war against drugs would be fought to the death. But whose death? The latest news says that it is more than ever likely to be that of the ideal of clean sport.

For the moment we can only be inordinately grateful to the scientist who oversaw the tests that exposed the new designer drug which showed up in Chambers' sample. Not because he has come up with some fail-safe system to bring down the cheats, but because he may have nailed a few... and cut through the latest tissue of lies. He may, for a little while at least, have brought scorn to the notion that the drugs battle was being won.

That Britain's most talented sprinter should have tested positive at this time, of course, carries resonance way beyond the already deeply tainted waters of track and field.

It puts into the sharpest perspective the firmness of the recent response by the Football Association to the offence of Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand when he failed to attend a routine drugs test. That the FA stance should have provoked the possibility of a strike by England players, and the fevered protests of his union, told us a dismal story about the overall state of discipline and responsibility in one of the richest corners of our sporting life.

The message of the Ferdinand case is simply compounded by the news of the Chambers situation. It provokes the alarm that came when the Olympic gold medallist Denise Lewis blithely declared her indifference to the drug background of her East German coach, Dr Ekkart Arbeit, from whom she parted company only after a prolonged bout of adverse publicity. It says that winning is the thing, and that accountability and public sensitivity can be cheerfully discounted.

Well, of course, it cannot be. How long will parents be prepared to entrust their sons and daughters to a sport that is so frequently exposed as rotten to its core? How long will the bromide talk of a "small minority" of cheats be treated with other than outright disdain? Yes, it is tragic that even such an overt anti-drug campaigner as Paula Radcliffe cannot improve her performance dramatically without running into the shadows of doubt. Yes, maybe there are athletes and coaches who dream of winning clean. But how can we ever celebrate them in the climate of deceit that simply will not, and perhaps cannot, shift?

The announcement by the International Association of Athletics Federations that they are to re-test 400 or so samples taken at the recent World Championships has surely made the blood of the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, run cold. In less than a year he is due to proclaim a new Olympiad in the birthplace of the games of youth and hope. The usual obligation is to talk of a new era and new standards. He might as well whistle in the wind.