Simon Turnbull: Chasing drug cheats is still part of race to be fastest in world
Friday 26 August 2011
So here we go again: getting ready for another global 100 metre contest on South Korean soil. As the clock ticks down to Sunday's men's 100m final at the pre-Olympic-year World Athletics Championships in Daegu, the mind inevitably sprints back to Seoul and late September 1988.
Sitting in the Olympic Stadium in the South Korean capital back then, on pen-pushing duty for the Newcastle Journal and the rest of the Thomson Regional Newspapers group, there was the jaw-dropping moment when the big, be-muscled Ben Johnson left Carl Lewis looking like a school sports day also-ran as he powered to victory in the world record shattering time of 9.79sec.
Then, two days later, came the bombshell news that Johnson had failed a drugs test. It dropped at 4am local time, when the majority of residents in the media village were fast asleep, dreaming of what to do on the rest day to come in the track-and-field programme.
The shock was not that Johnson had been fuelled by unnatural products – the anabolic steroid stanozolol – but that the drug testers had managed to catch up with the Canadian. By dawn, we were chasing across town by taxi, to doorstep an emergency meeting of the International Olympic Committee at the Shilla Hotel, then on to the Hilton – only to discover that Johnson had packed his bags and flown his nest in the night.
Resembling scenes from a Marx Brothers movie, the global press corps moved from corridor to corridor, lobby to lounge, breakfast room to powder room, seeking any connected character who might be able to pass comment. Lewis would not leave his room but Tom Tellez, his coach, said the American had been "chemically beaten".
Then it was back in the taxi and off to the athletes' village on the eastern side of town. Linford Christie had crossed the line third in the final, behind Johnson and Lewis, and was in line for an upgrade from bronze to silver. He was not greatly amused to be confronted by the massed ranks of the British press corps while emerging from the British team headquarters to make his way to the breakfast room. "I can't believe I've woken up to all of this," he said.
Back at the Shilla Hotel, at 10am, the IOC announced Johnson's disqualification. "A sad, sad day for athletics," echoed athlete after athlete, official after official, as reaction to the story continued throughout what ought to have been a day of some rest. "It was a day gladly sacrificed," I wrote at the time. "It was a day of hope for the future: the day the sporting cheats started running for cover."
Twenty-three years on, that naive hope has turned to resigned frustration. The doping picture has become such a convoluted mess in athletics that the men's 100m at the looming World Championships will feature an athlete who has not one but two drug convictions on his record (the American Justin Gatlin) and another (Britain's Dwain Chambers) who is eliciting widespread sympathy because he is being barred from events that other reinstated offenders are free to contest.
It is a welcome move that the International Association of Athletics Federations, the global governing body, has taken the innovative move of subjecting all 2,000 athletes competing in Daegu to blood tests. This is in addition to the 500 urine samples that will be taken in and out of competition during the championships.
Still, the reality is that some athletes will keep trying to take the metaphorical piss between now and the close of business at the London Olympics, on 12 August next year. The absence of the Jamaican Steve Mullings and the American Mike Rodgers from the 100m field in Daegu will be confirmation of that much.
Both have been caught in the drugs net in recent weeks – the one that snared big bad Ben in South Korea back in 1988.
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