James Lawton: Why we all fear being duped by dope in Athens

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The Independent Online

Let us deal simply with a few facts, unadorned, unspun, and unchallenged, as we pick our way towards the uplifting moment in Athens next month when the Olympics go home, when the youth of the world - as they say - gather to uphold the old blood-stirring demand to go Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

Let us deal simply with a few facts, unadorned, unspun, and unchallenged, as we pick our way towards the uplifting moment in Athens next month when the Olympics go home, when the youth of the world - as they say - gather to uphold the old blood-stirring demand to go Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

Four years ago in Sydney, C J Hunter, shot putter and husband and protector of the athletic superwoman Marion Jones, lifted his trouser leg to reveal a fresh scar from knee surgery. He was crying copiously at the time. He said the surgery was the reason he had withdrawn from the Games that his wife was midway through dominating in a potentially historic way. This was despite the fact that one of his four positive tests had revealed a level of nandrolone one thousand times above the legal limit.

Sitting beside him, dressed in white and wearing an expression of infinite sadness, Jones said that her husband had her full support. This week Hunter, who was divorced from Jones two years ago, was reported to have told American investigators that he had injected his former wife with illegal drugs in their quarters in Australia.

Her lawyer's response was as vehement as it was predictable. He said that Hunter was lying and his motive was "revenge". Jones's current companion, the 100 metres world record-holder Tim Montgomery, will not be going to the Athens Olympics next month after testing positive.

Meanwhile the reigning 100m Olympic champion, Maurice Greene, having been tested 20 times this year, complains: "The atmosphere is very tough out there for the athletes. It's going to take athletes like myself to perform well to take the attention away from all the negativity."

Some of the fuel for the negativity, as another matter of fact, is that Greene flies to Athens without three of his California-based stable-mates, who are arguing the validity of positive dope tests. Among them is his training partner Larry Wade, a hurdler who, while not as inseparable from Greene as C J Hunter was to Jones for a brief period of their lives, did spend a lot of time running up and down the beach in Santa Monica with his friend and clubmate.

When Hunter was exposed in Sydney, it was suggested that if Jones was herself innocent of any chemical irregularities, she must be deeply embarrassed by the possibility that she had been, as it were, sleeping with an enemy of fair sport.

Greene talks of reassuring the doubters by superior performance, but perhaps he has simply missed the point.

No one ever performed with more superiority than Ben Johnson at the Seoul Olympics. He was so much faster, he might have been fired from a gun. He won the gold and smashed the world record, and anyone who saw the look of bewilderment on Carl Lewis's face as he trailed in second and then looked at his conqueror's time on the big clock will surely never be able to expel the image. It was a moment of savage, dismaying truth.

Forty-eight hours later, Johnson was, of course, stripped and Lewis and Linford Christie were lifted up the medal order. Christie - and it is a source of bitterness that Johnson will surely take to his grave - survived a positive test of his own, explaining that he had misguidedly sipped some ginseng tea. When Christie was banned after a positive test for nandrolone a decade later, Johnson's scorn was terrible to hear.

He raged that his own main crime was to be caught, even though he had maintained his innocence until cracking in a Toronto court nearly a year later.

The problem is a profound breakdown in trust and when Greene talks about negativity he should maybe understand that much of it is to do with the public fear of being duped yet again. At the World Track and Field Championships in Athens six years ago, Greene's coach, John Smith, sought to address this basic obstacle to any successful attempt by track and field to regain a breath of its old credibility. He said that he was ready to swear on a Bible over his mother's grave that none of his charges had ever cheated.

This week Smith said of the crisis at Greene's club: "There is a system in place. We have to work our way through it. If there are any improprieties we shall deal with them."

Greene says, with what sounds like an aching passion: "I continue because I am looking for perfection. It will be a race that people will be remembering for ever." But as we were saying, Johnson's run will not be forgotten - and in Ireland they will no doubt recall the day when a substantial section of the nation waited in the rain for the return of the triple gold medal-winning swimmer Michelle de Bruin.

Her husband, like Hunter, was a field event man, a discus thrower, whose career was cut short by a positive drugs test. This, given the march of suspicion, was seized upon by those rivals who were disbelieving of her dramatic improvement on the run-in to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She indignantly rejected the innuendos and stood proudly beside the Mayor of Rathcoole on a victory parade.

Nearly four years later, America's NBC television network, the Olympics' host broadcaster, ran profiles of heroes and heroines of the Games. De Bruin was one of the subjects. When asked why it was that there had been no mention that she had been found guilty of tampering with samples given to drugs testers, NBC said: "The director's brief was to supply personality pieces." The rival Fox television alleged that it was simply the way it worked with NBC's Olympic coverage. The network, said the Fox man, did things the way the Olympics liked it. And how was that? "No steroids, no doping, no 14-year-old gymnasts with anorexia."

Until this week's outburst by her ex-husband, Jones has not failed a drugs test nor has she been charged with any offence since, as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, she withdrew from the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 and was suspended following allegations that she had failed to comply with testing regulations. However, the ban was overturned following legal action.

So, here she stands now, an archetypal Olympian, a magnificently gifted athlete who in Sydney ran away from all her rivals before encountering the doubts that are now endemic to her sport. Now the lustre of Sydney is long gone. In the recent US trials in Sacramento she failed to earn the right to defend her sprint titles, managing only a place in the long jump.

When the Hunter story broke in Sydney, she offered fleeting support for her husband, then walked stony-faced from the room. She still had to attend to the business of making Olympic history. Yesterday Jones' lawyer said that C J Hunter plainly had an axe to grind ever since Jones decided to end their marriage. The good news was that her former coach had told the same investigators who interviewed Hunter that she never used performance-enhancing drugs.

As the Olympic flame moves nearer to its ancient home, the controversy swirls on. The probe into the Balco laboratories that has already brought down Montgomery and Britain's Dwain Chambers, and put a shadow over the great baseball player Barry Bonds, intensifies. As it does, it persuades some that it is providing one of the great breakthroughs in the war against drugs. Unfortunately, we cannot ignore another fact: the Balco inquiry is not the fruit of triumphant testing but arose from the tip-off by a disaffected coach, who posted an old syringe to the investigators. We surely know that when one designer drug goes down, another comes up.

Maurice Greene would no doubt call that another unfair shot at his sport. Others might say it is living in the world as it is rather than the way they would like it to be. It is impossible easily to forget the splendour of Marion Jones as she ate up the track in Sydney. She produced unanswerable power. It still lives beyond the circumstantial evidence that two of the men she has been closest to in life have been found guilty of cheating.

The way she ran at the peak of the Olympics will always be with anyone who saw it. Tragically, this is also true of the most astonishing moments of a pitifully sad and embittered man named Ben Johnson.