OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Poised to move out of the shadow of drugs: Faster, stronger, cleaner? Hugh Jones looks at the standards - in every sense - we can look forward to

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ACCORDING TO legend the ancient Olympic Games were created by Hercules in celebration of the successful completion of one of his 12 labours: cleaning the cattle stables of King Augeas of Elis. Juan Antonio Samaranch and the organisers of the 25th modern Olympiad in Barcelona have their labour cut out to clean up their own Augean stables.

Four years ago in Seoul the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson became the most celebrated offender to be caught by the Olympic drug-testing programme, and was stripped of his gold medal. At last, it seemed, officialdom might be meeting the qualifying standard demanded by modern athletics. The drive against performance-enhancing drugs has had uncertain impetus since Seoul, often checked by the interests of the national organisations having to prosecute their own.

Any measurement of success may be flawed, but the numbers of offenders detected has risen and standards in many events have declined. The modern Games have always served purposes other than those of the Gods, but some performances at least are being handed back to humans.

Standards in all throwing events are down, except for the men's javelin where technical innovations have made performances oscillate. The latest wonder implement designed by the Hungarian Olympic champion of 1976, Miklos Nemeth, like last year's version, clearly offends the existing rules. Tessa Sanderson, at her fifth Olympics in the javelin, believes that improved drug-testing has not only affected the strength many competitors may achieve, but that that has also had a knock- on effect on their technique.

In the other throwing events there has been a clear pattern, with the same people leading the field but throwing consistently lesser distances than before. The constituent members of the 'unified team', and the new Baltic republics, still dominate the hammer, as they did under the flag of the former Soviet Union. Most of the medals in the discus and shot will also be accounted for between them and the new consolidated Germany.

The impact of the drug-testing regime is also evident in the women's track events. It is a rare feat nowadays for women to break four minutes for the 1500 metres or 50 seconds for 400 metres, although better than those times will be needed to win in Barcelona. All the world records date from an earlier era.

But positive tests continue to be reported: the Nigerian team lost two of their best women sprinters recently; the German trio alleged to have manipulated drug tests have withdrawn from the Games. Some relief from the gloomy backdrop may come to the fore in Barcelona. The long-limbed Frenchwoman Marie-Jose Perec now stands head and shoulders above the rest in the 400 metres.

In the mens' sprints, with Ben Johnson's performances erased, standards have continued to progress. The pre-Johnson 100 metres mark was broken twice last year, although this looks unlikely to happen in Barcelona. Michael Johnson, in hot pursuit of the 200 metres world record for three seasons now, stands a better chance. While Butch Reynolds continued his court appeals to be reinstated from a two-year drugs ban for Barcelona, 400 metres performances overtook him. All three American entrants have broken 44 seconds and could approach Reynolds's world record.

Where drug-detection has driven down standards in some areas, in others they have been buoyed up by world competitive conditions. There are the personal contests, like Powell vs Lewis and Drechsler vs Joyner-Kersee in the long jump, but in the mens' track events a whole new generation of talent has been introduced since Seoul. Kenyans led the way there, and still do, but there is a supporting cast of Africans from lesser-known origins. Commentators can no longer quip knowingly at the expense of assumed underdogs. A Namibian, a Mozambiquan, a Zambian, a Rwandan and a Burundian could all end up with medals. Athletics is now a truly global sport.

Ability at shorter distances and technical events is often mediated through US colleges, but there is an ever-increasing flow of raw talent directly into world track competition from the East African Highlands. In Seoul, Kenyan men won all track events from 800 metres up, except the 10,000 metres. At last year's World Championships the only event in the series to be dropped was the 1500 metres. There is little reason to suspect that their dominance will be broken in Barcelona.

African women are at last following the men's success. They have chances in Barcelona at all track events from 800 metres upwards, although the most obvious candidate is the white South African Elana Meyer, against Liz McColgan in the 10,000 metres.

While emergent nations are beginning to show in the Olympics, Barcelona also welcomes back old ones. South Africa returns, still amid some recrimination, for the first time since 1960. Meyer looks like their only great hope. Other countries return after their own boycott of the Olympic movement. Ethiopia are back for the first time since the days of 'Yifter the Shifter'. The Cubans have also been absent since 1980 but continue to produce worthy successors to Alberto Juantorena.

Roberto Hernandez in the 400 metres and Anna Quirot in the 800 metres at last get chances to prove themselves in an Olympic arena, but like Silvia Costa in the high jump, their time has probably passed. Javier Sotomayor, world leader in the high jump, and a young newcomer, Ivan Pedroso in the long jump, may be luckier.

The ancient Games imposed a truce, the terms of which forbade participating states from taking up arms, pursuing legal disputes or enacting death penalties. The modern movement is more pragmatic. It is the first time since 1972 that there has been no boycott, but, contrary to the original ethos, individuals from the Yugoslav rump state, making their hazardous journey around the Mediterranean as of old, compete under the Olympic flag as 'the independent team'.

Apart from the conditions of world competition and world politics in the Olympic Games, Barcelona's climatic conditions will also discriminate. The endurance athletes will be worn down by the weather as well as by each other. In no event over 3,000 metres is there any likelihood of a world record.

In the marathon, as is so often the case in summer championships, times will be inconsequential in the struggle simply to survive in best shape. No wonder this modern invention was never part of the ancient Olympics, which were also held at the hottest time of year. The reason was that they followed the gathering of the crops, when people had free time. The Olympic Games today are no longer a holiday, particularly not for marathon runners.