Skiing: Unavoidable verdict for Baxter's avoidable offence

Britain's Olympic bronze medal winner may have failed his drugs test as a result of an oversight but every athlete must be responsible for what is in his own body
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However much you felt for the anguish of Alain Baxter yesterday – and if he was faking it his lost bronze should be immediately replaced by an Oscar – you kept coming back to unshakeable truth.

An Olympic medallist has to be right up there with Caesar's wife. He certainly can't be found to have a banned substance in his body, however he put it there. Ignorance of the law is not a viable defence in a courtroom and still less in the tribunals of an Olympic movement which has been reduced to stirring around in the dregs of its own credibility.

Jacques Rogge, the new president of the International Olympic Committee, has been obliged to move beyond the shocking ambivalence of his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch. His announcement of "zero tolerance" for drug offenders may have brought a frown to worldly critics who know that sport's policemen will probably never be better than half a step behind the most sophisticated cheats, but it is impossible to imagine that he could have taken any other course.

We know the American track and field team at the Sydney Olympics buried more transgressions than a squirrel does nuts in the autumn. We know that since Ben Johnson was dragged off the winner's podium in Seoul 14 years ago it is a rare gold medallist who does not carry at least a seed of doubt.

How can it be otherwise, even here where positive tests are so vehemently protested despite the fact that one of our greatest Olympians, Linford Christie, retired under the shadow of a suspension?

Yesterday it was easy enough to relate to the despair felt by Baxter and his friends and supporters, including the chairman of the British Olympic Association, Craig Reedie.

The Highlander who flew down the slalom course in Utah last month with such magnificent élan – and a technical finesse which could never have been enhanced by the taking of "speed" – suffered the equivalent of a parade ground stripping of his colours. And for what? For, he claimed, the careless use of a nasal inhaler which he had been using for much of his life in its British form.

Disastrously, he claims, he failed to note that the American version contains an element of the banned methamphetamine. Reedie took the unusual course of criticising the harshness of the IOC decision. He suggested that a modest mistake had received immoderate punishment.

Baxter and his people may have appreciated the support, but it made you wonder which planet Reedie has been inhabiting these last few decades. What did he propose? A whole new grading of offences ranging from massively cynical, systematic cheating to mere bouts of negligence. Unfortunately for Baxter, it cannot work like that.

An immutable law has to be that the athlete is responsible for the contents of his own body. The veteran fighter of drugs, Professor Arnold Beckett, reasserted the point a few years ago when a rash of nandrolone positives brought the standard defence claim that the problem must be contaminated dietary supplements.

Professor Beckett declared: "In all this you have to keep coming back to the point that ultimately the athlete has to be answerable for what is found in his body. If we don't accept this, we will just be going around in circles." At the same time the director of the anti-drugs body in Canada, which is still deeply scarred by the Johnson affair, warned all athletes that the citing of supplements would not constitute a defence.

Baxter's defence is especially plausible when you consider the lifestyle of the skier. It is fast to the point of being unreflective. It is about natural highs and the imperative of flying down the mountain. The bureaucracy – and the detailed demands – of drug control would not be a natural preoccupation. He needed a nasal inhaler and when he eventually got hold of one he used it as he had always done. He didn't read the table of contents. That it should prove such a catastrophic oversight has, he claims convincingly enough, wiped out the finest moment of his life. Yes, it is easy indeed to sympathise when you hear his story. But even as you do, you cannot avoid the conclusion that the sentence handed down yesterday was unavoidable.

There is, of course, always the alternative view that drug controls are ultimately futile, that it would be better to use the resources involved in the education of young athletes to the point where, fully acquainted with all the facts, they could make their own moral decisions. It is not likely to happen.

In the meantime, athletes must operate in a world where trust is just a memory. It means that everybody has to follow the rules – or pay a price. Baxter, whether innocent or guilty of an intent to cheat, is simply the latest example.