No hiding from Big Brother: Owen Slot hears athletes tell of the lengths to which drug testers will go

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The Independent Online
AN apartment on the outskirts of Los Angeles, six o'clock in the morning, February 1993. The telephone rings, a disgruntled international athlete stretches out an arm and struggles through the conversation. A couple of minutes later, in a state of amused disbelief, he announces to the household: 'You're not going to believe this, folks, but I'm being drug- tested in 10 minutes]'

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, an English sampling officer from the Sports Council appeared at the door of the apartment Roger Black was renting as a base for winter training. By then, Black had woken Kriss Akabusi, his training partner, who was also required for testing, they made their untimely guest a cup of tea and then, with him in tow as observer, disappeared to produce a 100ml sample of urine. And with that, the visitor vanished into the dawn.

'They got me that year in America, they got me this year in Australia. You expect to be tested anywhere, anytime,' Black said. 'Some would say that 6am is an anti-social time to phone an athlete, but actually I thought: 'This is great, guys. If you can catch me here, you'll catch me anywhere.' '

Rumours persist about loopholes in the system, but evidence shows that whatever short-cuts athletes may take, they cannot slip the samplers: Colin Jackson has notched up 15 tests this year, Steve Backley has done seven and Sally Gunnell has done five.

The testers will not be shrugged off. In their tenacity, they once took Fatima Whitbread to the point of filing a lawsuit. It was after a meeting in Cardiff in 1989, which turned out to be the last in Whitbread's career, for she sustained the shoulder injury - a simultaneous broken bone and dislocation - that has kept her out of competition ever since. Whitbread had been selected to be tested but discovered that she was not allowed to go to hospital until the urine sample had been provided.

'They actually imprisoned me in the physio room for four hours,' she recalls. 'But I couldn't give a sample because my arm was dislocated right into my chest and so I couldn't undress to give a sample. And I was in terrible, extreme pain.' Eventually the tester relented and jumped into the back of an ambulance with Whitbread, but at the hospital, the unswerving resolution returned. Whitbread was on the operating table, but despite the doctors' requests, the tester would not leave, demanding the sample before any operation could take place and threatening to report Whitbread to the authorities for avoiding the test. 'With that, I was hauled off the operating table with someone holding my arm, someone undressing me and a third person holding the cup. It was disgusting, the indignity of it. Afterwards I sought out a solicitor, but eventually settled on a letter of apology, which arrived six months later.'

When athletes join the international register, they have to sign a declaration agreeing to comply with the drug-testers' demands, excessive though they can be. Big Brother doesn't let up: Carl Lewis was once phoned at dinner in the White House to be informed that a sample was required from him in Houston the following day; Backley was half- cut at a New Year's Eve party at his parents' house in Bexley when the tester came knocking. In Britain, athletes are obliged to inform the British Athletics Federation if they are leaving the country for more than four days, and their addresses and phone numbers are required.

Selection for testing occurs in three ways, none of which is possible to duck. In-

competition testing is the most frequent: those to be tested are selected randomly from the first four finishers in an event (officials sometimes decide with a pack of cards), and athletes are not informed of the selections until after they have competed. The possibility of the doping process being 'bent' at big sponsored meetings, which Steve Cram alleged on a Panorama documentary in 1987, was infinitely reduced in Britain soon afterwards when the Sports Council took over all testing.

Second, out-of-competition tests - such as Black's - are selected at random by a Sports Council computer which is weighted towards the high-

profile athletes and in the high- risk areas. In mid-winter, for instance, there is less point in testing middle- and long-

distance runners than the sprinters and throwers for whom 'training drugs' (steroids) are more useful in their bid for muscle-growth. Third, the BAF's drugs advisory committee can order spot checks on athletes on whom suspicion has fallen.

With all three combined, athletes such as Black and Backley have notched up some 100 samples. However, though the procedure is meticulous to an extreme - the athlete has a choice of sample vessels and a choice of seals with which to close one of a selection of bottle containers on offer - a climate of fear ('It's like walking through customs,' Black says) has been exacerbated by the events of recent weeks. 'The biggest problem is the sample has to be taken away from you,' Backley says. 'As soon as it's out of your sight, the element of doubt creeps in. And the other thing is that the procedure changes all the time and that makes you wonder what was wrong with the old system.'

Such doubt undermines the confidence of competitors to use legal pick-me-ups. 'Athletes will do anything to raise their performance,' Colin Jackson says. 'Drinking lots of coffee is the most regular.' Seeing athletes with three cigarettes in their mouths, he says, is not unusual. Linford Christie used to take ginseng until the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

The message is clear - if it is legal, then you do it - but the legal parameters no longer inspire confidence. 'You know not to go near ephedrine. You do anything to avoid it,' Black says. 'But it can slip in - I mean look at Solomon Wariso, and he checked the bottle. That just makes you paranoid and we're not here for that. It is a worry if you take something you're not sure of. I have done that: it was just a vitamin and I have since phoned up and checked and it is fine, but at the time I thought, 'I'm not 100 per cent sure,' and you can't help but worry.'

Fear of the system has been accelerated by the Modahl case, partly due to her popularity and her peers' refusal to believe her guilt, but particularly with the assertion by her solicitor last Wednesday that 'material changes' were noted in her two samples.

'In some ways I want to hear that the procedure's always correct,' Backley says, 'because then you can have confidence that you'll be OK. But, then again, I don't, because if it isn't, that might prove Diane's innocence.

'I'm not saying whether she is or she isn't innocent. But if she is, then there's some incredible malpractice going on. Until now, I haven't really taken a lot of notice of which organisation has tested me, but with the implications of the Modahl case, I'll have to.'

Such uncertainty explains why the BAF and the Sports Council, who carry out the tests for the BAF, have been at pains to establish their distance from the Modahl incident. British athletes are either tested by the BAF or the IAAF and if there was a problem in Portugal, it was most certainly the IAAF's.

Meanwhile, interest has suddenly focused on the King's College laboratory in Chelsea where a team of 14 processes the Sports Council's annual samples. Of the 3,946 tests that passed through the Chelsea laboratory last year, 41 proved positive, 17 of them coming from powerlifters and weightlifters, but only one - a morphine user whose name was not disclosed - came from athletics. The figures speak in favour of athletics, yet nevertheless the sport has an image problem of which its leading practitioners are acutely aware.

Attention is being turned increasingly to blood tests. Skiers at the Lillehammer Olympics were blood-sampled, as were athletes at the 'Golden Four' athletics meetings recently. Jackson tested at two of them - Oslo and Berlin - and advocates its use, particularly as many believe it gives a

longer-reaching retrospective analysis of an athlete's chemical make-up. The implication is that Modahl would benefit from such a test. 'I think everyone should be allowed one on request,' said Jackson.

Backley is considering going even further to protect his name: 'I would be happy to be blood-tested every month. And I'd put the money up myself.' That way, he hopes, maybe his sport could be saved. That way, maybe the words of David Jenkins, the Scottish 400m runner, as he awaited trial in 1987 for steroid smuggling, would have less resonance in these troubled time. 'Sport is no longer,' Jenkins said. 'What is this illusion of innocence, of fair play, of good fun for all? That exists as a dream.'

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