No excuses now for a positive test at next summer's Games

The Olympic safeguards
Click to follow
The Independent Online

No more excuses, lame or otherwise. No more the plaintive plea, "Honest, it didn't say anything on the label about dodgy gear"; no more, "Sorry I didn't do better but I couldn't get this knee injury properly treated".

No more excuses, lame or otherwise. No more the plaintive plea, "Honest, it didn't say anything on the label about dodgy gear"; no more, "Sorry I didn't do better but I couldn't get this knee injury properly treated".

From now on, whether it is sniffing out, so to speak, illegal substances, or providing top-class treatment for a whole range of sporting ailments, long-overdue help is on tap. The opening of a new specialist sports medical unit, run jointly by the British Olympic Association and the English Institute of Sport, means there is now no reason why British competitors should not only be free of injury but of drugs too (unless they have knowingly taken them) for the big events.

The British Olympic Medical Institute in Harrow, north- west London, will help ensure that in Athens next year there will be no repeat of the Paris World Athletics Championships sick-note parade, when Britain's running wounded seemed to be auditioning for stretcher parts in Holby City. Similarly, any athletes - whether track and field, rower, swimmer or weightlifter - who have any doubts about what they have been swallowing with the cornflakes can have their diets, and accompanying supplements, checked by the experts.

In an age when athletes can acquire a taste for EPO, HGH and now THG as easily as learning ABC, even more vigilance is required to stop them taking the tablets - or, more importantly, to prevent them from starting to do so.

It must be emphasised that the OMI plays no part in formal drugs-testing. But it contains a special unit which can advise and counsel and - vitally - clarify what can, or cannot, be used. This is of particular benefit to those who claim they need inhalers for asthma or breathing conditions. "All medications and dietary supplements can be tested before they are used," says the OMI's general manager, Nick Fellows. "From now on, ignorance is no excuse." However, the prime function of the institute is rehabilitation - of the body rather than the habits. For too long, Britain has been the sick patient of world sport, even lagging behind many third-world countries in terms of medical support for athletes.

Now the upgrading of the old BOA medical unit in the grounds of Harrow's Northwick Park Hospital has brought a new dimension to the treatment of sports injuries. It has required £150,000 of Lottery funding - a pittance considering some of the amounts lavished on less worthy projects - but rarely has such a sum been so wisely spent. Britain's crocked athletes can now receive treatment whenever they need it, including residential care and the services of a dozen leading sports doctors, scientists, physios, psychologists and nutritionists.

Replete with a hypoxic (high altitude) chamber, hydrotherapy pool and the latest hi-tech bone-healing machine, called the Magnaton, it leaves no reason for the likes of Paula Radcliffe, who withdrew from Paris after suffering a shin injury and bronchitis, to seek medical help overseas. Indeed, Steve Cram, the chairman of the English Institute of Sport, says: "Paula was a week away from being in Paris. If this facility had been available then she might even have made it. This is the sort of service athletes have been seeking for years."

The immediate aim is to deliver Britain's athletes to Athens in the best possible shape. Heat and pollution will be the main hazards there, and special screenings are being made available in Harrow to check the likely strain on the heart in what is UK sport's only cardiology unit. This is being operated in conjunction with Cry, a charity which researches cardiac death among the young. Dr Gregg Whyte, a former Olympic modern-pentathlon medallist and the OMI's director of research, says: "It is something of a paradox in sport that athletes take part in highly vigorous training without checking what is under the bonnet."

Caryl Becker, the former Yorkshire County Cricket Club physio who is responsible for managing and co-ordinating the rehabilitation programme, says: "Too many potential champions are left behind through injury. We must stop that happening. The worst thing you can tell an athlete is, 'Go away and see how you get on'. Here we can monitor the athlete all the time, for a day, a week or a month."

More than 2,000 Olympians and potential Olympians are entitled to free treatment, including accommodation and food, through the BOA's passport scheme. Non-Olympians can also make use of the facilities, though those in professional sports such as football may have to pay. The cost of these running repairs to sport will exceed £600,000 a year - worth every penny when you consider the comments of just one British athlete who believes she missed out on Paris because of the poverty of the medical system.

"A country like ours, so big on sport, should do better," says the Olympic 400m bronze medallist, Katharine Merry. "I've had to put up with some real rubbish. Compared to other European countries it has been a shambles. I've had to do my rehab in France because there's been nowhere in the UK." Not any more. Sport is suddenly a suitable case for treatment.