The anti-drugs crusade seems to be creating more victims than villains

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The Tour de France is off and rolling and I doubt if the péloton will have had time to appreciate the irony of their starting point. Getting the hell out of Dunkirk is an urgent requirement that carries more echoes for us than for them but, despite the fact that the riders are heading in the opposite direction than we were 61 years ago, there is an element of retreat about their departure today.

What they are fleeing from are attacks on their sporting integrity that would have long ago destroyed lesser events. Drug abuse has inflicted a series of disgraces that can only be ridden out of their system by unimpeachable heroes.

But whether the suspicions will ever be totally removed is doubtful and much the same can be said about many sports. The war against drugs has threatened to stain everyone with the same brush and it is time we sought a new strategy.

We seem to be creating more victims than villains, which is why it was heartening to see Mark Richardson's stirring comeback last Sunday. Banned for two years for testing positive for nandrolone, the 400m runner was reinstated eight months later because of scientific evidence that contaminated food supplements had planted traces of the drug in his system.

Nandrolone has been discovered in the blood streams of so many athletes from various sports (almost 600 in the past two years) that it looked as if there had been a sale on. In addition to Richardson, athletes Linford Christie, Dougie Walker and Gary Cadogan have been banned for the stuff while others who have tested for it include the Jamaican runner Merlene Ottey, the footballers Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Fernando Couto and Christophe Dugarry and the British boxer Jon Thaxton.

Some of those, notably Ottey and Thaxton, have produced convincing evidence that other elements were responsible and the doubt must be fairly general by now. Meanwhile, the food supplements industry is now worth an annual £7 billion. If food supplements such as creatine are so successful and popular someone needs to explain the difference between taking them and taking drugs if the object is to improve one's performance over that of an opponent.

The fate of Diane Modahl, whose innocence did not stop her career being ruined, should have convinced the sporting world that the crusade against drugs had reached a zealousness that was becoming damaging.

Drug-abuse cannot be condoned and needs to be tackled but the cause has been overcome by such an avalanche of ambiguities it is about time we sympathised with the athletes and understood their temptations instead of subjecting them to a witch-hunt that casts the pursuers in a more sinister light than the pursued.

I suggested this back in the 1980s when Ben Johnson had the world boiling with indignation when he failed a drug test after winning Olympic gold in Seoul. Athletics should have taken the opportunity then to establish what substances Johnson had taken and by exactly how much had they affected his performance.

A scientific examination into that and the dangers of taking steroids would have been more effective than building him up as the anti-Christ. After all, he was still the fastest man in the world and how he achieved that has created a myth that has done more for the steroid industry than anything else.

When Richardson won the 400 metres in Glasgow last Sunday to celebrate the end of his ban he did so having renounced supplements. He used to take them as part of a balanced diet but has stopped now and notices no difference. He claims that they have only a placebo value.

That is a valuable opinion which athletics should investigate because some drugs might come under that category. The battle against drugs in sport has had no more success than the battle against drugs generally. When even leading Tories are now calling for cannabis to be legalised, decriminalisation of all drugs can't be too far away.

For different reasons, sport should be also tending towards a more enlightened view of this difficult subject. Our passions for sport helped to create the climate which encourages young men and women to seek assistance from wherever they can. It is time we offered more help instead of more persecution.

Ranks and filers

It used to be quite simple. Diligent sports writer would chat to player and elicit moans and groans about club, country, coach or sundry other subjects and produce a report accordingly.

Player would promptly deny saying it, writer got bollocked, Press ethics were held in further contempt and everyone was happy.

These days, writer chats to player and faithfully reproduces his views in an article bearing the player's signature. Player can't deny it and gets the bollocking, the authorities go ballistic and everyone is upset about it. Except, of course, the writer, who more often or not remains happily anonymous.

Indeed, the professionalism of the ghost-writers, a brotherhood to which I am proud to belong, ought to be recognised. What I hear from the Lions tour to Australia suggests that one or two players have been persuaded to tone down views that even the ghosts considered too outrageous.

A likely aftermath to the Matt Dawson criticism of the Lions management methods is that strict censorship will be imposed and that the articles will become so tame and boring that newspapers will refuse to pay good money for them and we will be back with the original arrangement. Players will still shoot their mouths off but they'll leave the writers to take the flak, as we have always done to the ruination of our reputations.

When I read Dawson's notorious views on the day of the First Test I was struck by how closely they resembled the letters we used to send home when doing national service in the army. Our mothers had a lot of bleating to contend with.

Complaining was nothing new to the army, of course, and old soldiers used to relate a series of letters once said to have been exchanged between mother and son. I can recall only part of it: "Dear Mam, It's a bastard." "Dear Son, So are you." "Dear Mam, Sell the pig and buy me out." "Dear Son, We've eaten the pig. Soldier on." I realise that you can't possibly compare army life with the rigours of a Lions tour but the advice is to soldier on holds good whatever the hardships.

Wasted millions

According to a survey, we are becoming a nation of "sport truants" at work. Results of the survey published last week, reveal that, 29 per cent of full-time workers in Britain are using the firm's computers to keep up with sports results.

It claims that, assuming they log on to the internet for 15 minutes of the working day to catch up with the scores, this could cost the economy per £7m a day.

Even by the standards of the ceaseless surveys we are battered with these days, this is nonsense. For a start, they neglect to report what the other 71 per cent are doing. Presumably, they are tuned into porn sites or chat lines.

And why do they think that interest in sport is a manifestation of the new technology? Haven't they heard of the telephone or even the wireless that has been smuggling sports scores into the workplace for 50 years or more.

Before that, grandmothers used to get buried on a regular basis so that workers could attend events. At least, they stay at work these days.

Employees, and their bosses, keep in touch throughout the day with all types of news, the weather forecast, their partners, friends and children and when they are not doing that they are showing each other their holiday snaps. So why pick on sport?

Amazingly, the orginators of this dim-witted piece of research are npower, the essential services provider, who are sponsoring the Ashes Test series. Perhaps the survey should have concluded that if npower and others trying to publicise their strange names didn't sponsor sporting events in midweek, everyone could get on with their work.