James Lawton: Olympic flame triumph cannot mask burning question
Wednesday 20 August 2008
Who would want to douse the glory of the big laughing girl who so sensationally sent the gold fever of her nation up still another notch – and at the very heart of these 29th Olympics?
Why would you do it – pose the bad question, that is?
Christine Ohuruogu's magnificently measured run not only landed the 400 metres title here yesterday to add to her world title in Osaka last year but made the rest of the field, and especially America's superstar favourite Sanya Richards, look like the victims of a natural phenomenon.
No one could really match the mastery displayed by Usain Bolt here last Saturday night, at least not residents of this planet, when he stunned the world while winning the 100m title, but here last night there was no question that the 24-year-old east Londoner, who lives within a mile of the Olympic stadium being built for 2012, had also produced a run that may prove to have been the one of her life – and quite unanswerable in its power and authority and timing.
Unlike Bolt's, it didn't turn the world record into matchwood; it didn't even break it. But it was still perfect in its intent and its execution and justified entirely her exclamation when she lay on her back on the track after destroying her opposition. "Oh, my God!" she appeared to be saying.
So, no, you wouldn't want to cloud her moment. It would be the least of your natural instincts.
However, there was another question in the "Bird's Nest" stadium and it wasn't easy or sentimental or caught up in the national euphoria of seeing Britain continuing to race behind only the behemoths of these Olympics, China and the United States.
It is one you have to dredge up like the revelation of an impediment at the most beautiful wedding. Should Christine Ohuruogu really have had the chance to write her long name so eternally into the history of Olympic sport?
Not according to the rules of the British Olympic Association, which naturally was pleased to place another gold medal on the stockpile of a foundation for the Olympic effort in London in four years' time.
Yes, of course we know she qualified in so many respects. She is, plainly, a born competitor with nerves of the highest quality – something that was evident when she crossed the line with one of those satisfied smiles that says, in so many words, "Now that was exactly what I had in mind".
Yes, she has a wonderful, rippling power which, for the final stages of yesterday's race, suggested her opponents were negotiating a swamp.
However, unfortunately an uncomfortable fact was not swept away when Richards tied up horribly in the last 100m or so and the Russians, Tatiana Firova and Yulia Guschina, running in lanes either side of Ohuruogu, appeared to have been plunged into reverse.
Ohuruogu, most of us know, missed three drug tests and offered almost whimsical excuses for failing to respond to requirements which most lovers of athletics agree are absolutely fundamental to some overall credibility returning to the sport.
As the BOA has it in its rule book, missing three drugs tests is not something to be adjudicated upon with reference to the nature of the defendant, and the instincts of the jury on this matter.
It is all spelt out. Missing three drugs tests is not a misdemeanour. It is a fully fledged drugs offence and any swerving from this fact, because, say, Christine Ohuruogu, has a skittish, even eccentric side to her nature along with the intelligence to collect 10 GCSEs, four A levels and a good degree from University College, London, is, in the opinion of some, betraying the whole basis of the war against performance-enhancing drugs.
Apparently, though, it is possible to push this aside for several reasons, one of them, practically speaking, being that Ohuruogu is not some obscure and mediocre shot-putter but a runner who, as she proved so brilliantly last night, is capable of thrilling a television audience of billions across the world.
Another is that there is a strong general perception that Ohuruogu does not do performance drugs. Even CAS – the Court of Arbitration for Sport – voiced that opinion, rather than an evidence-backed judgement, when it resisted her appeal against the year-long ban that ended just in time for her to make an earlier outstanding impact in the World Championships in Japan. CAS said, "There is no suggestion that she is guilty of taking drugs to enhance her performance or otherwise. Indeed, this case can be viewed in all the circumstances as a busy young athlete being forgetful."
How convenient that was for everyone, and especially the British Olympic Committee and how closely aligned to Ohuruogu's view that her offence was no more serious than failing to clock on punctually. "I truly believe that I feel like the system was designed to catch cheats but caught a person with bad time management."
But then how do you enforce that system if it is flouted by the good and the bad?
How can you divide the scatterbrained from those with sinister intent, in any serious way, by guessing at the nature of an offender – as has happened in this case, which erupted to such delight for so much of the nation last night?
Inevitably, Ohuruogu's past was re-presented to her in her moment of triumph. First, after wiping away tears on the podium when the national anthem was played and she had received her medal, she was asked whether she had any regrets. She said, "Why bring it up? What can be said?"
Later, she declared, "Why should this be spoilt ... it can be done only by someone who wants to spoil it. I'm very happy with my performances and my three gold medals at three major championships [including the Commonwealth Games]."
Yet even when you return to her brilliant run, and the certainty of her success when she came off the final bend and a terrible strain came to the face of the celebrity favourite Richards, you have to say that there is indeed something to say. Something perhaps that goes against the tide of national euphoria being generated from here. Something that might be seen as harshly judgemental on a young woman who made no greater mistake than being forgetful. But then something that needs to be said, anyway.
The beaten Richards had put it rather well a few days ago. She said: "I believe there is a strong case for life bans for all dopers. I don't want to hear about drugs, I don't want to hear about cheaters. Most members of the team share that view. I admire what Great Britain does – you test positive and you cannot represent your country at the Olympics. I do think Christine Ohuruogu is fortunate to be here, but her case is different. She never had a positive test and to me she seems clean. But I do think she's fortunate."
When Ohuruogu was congratulated by Richards and most of her beaten rivals there was a certain coolness injected into the humid night, but then such can be the pain of defeat, pure and simple. However, Christine Ohuruogu was not quite right when she said that there was nothing to be said. There was, and there always will be. It is that you don't pick and choose your laws – or your guilty and innocent. No amount of glory will ever be able to change that.
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