Resurgent Oakes still going strong

Pat Butcher on the Olympic aims of Britain's leading woman shot putter
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The Independent Online
Judy Oakes may yet have the last laugh. Treated as something of a joke for the majority of her long career as the leading British woman shot putter in the Brobdignagian era of "performance enhancing", Oakes has emerged relatively unscathed as a contender at the highest level.

When the best in the world were regularly throwing 22 metres, lagging three metres down usually qualified her as an afterthought when team places were being handed out for major championships, but that has not prevented her from becoming Britain's most "capped" woman athlete, with 73 appearances. With a tightening of drug legislation, and the dissolution of state-controlled sport on the Eastern frontiers of Europe, the world's best are currently dropping around the 20m line. So her consistent 19m putts have shot her well up the ranking lists.

Her competitive edge has never been in doubt, as anyone will testify who has witnessed her pugnacious pirouette in the shot circle, or the aggression she brought to winning weight-lifting world titles in the mid- 1980s. So when she went into the European Cup Final in Madrid two weeks ago as No 5 on paper, and emerged with the silver medal, it was not the shock that it would have been a decade ago.

One of the women she beat in Madrid, Svetlana Krivelyova is the reigning Olympic champion; which does not automatically presage an Olympic medal chance for Oakes, but it is not outlandish to suggest it. The penultimate step on the road to the centenary celebration in Atlanta next month is the British Olympic Trials in Birmingham this weekend.

Winding down this week, Oakes ruminated on retirement, drugs, uncaring administrations, and the tribulations of being a working girl in a so- called professional era.

A common perception of Oakes is that she has enjoyed more comebacks than Frank Sinatra, often with as little grace, given her propensity to hurl harsh words at a "running-oriented" British federation as violently as she chucks the shot. She went on strike in 1988 at the poor pay she got.

She retired shortly afterwards for a couple of years, before being tempted back by long-time coach and admirer, Mike Winch - "We can see what she's really worth, now that everyone else has come back to reality," he said. Yet, even now, she still has to work full-time, and is discouraged, even despite the recent administrative changes, that more notice is not being taken of the former Cinderellas.

Neither Oakes, nor Ashia Hansen, who went one better and won the European Cup triple jump, has a contract with the British federation. "It's a case of: `If we put on your event in one of our promotions, we'll invite you. If not, too bad' - I can't afford to take four days off every time I compete abroad," Oakes said. "I only went to Madrid, because Malcolm Arnold [the new national coaching chief] is trying to do something for us. The administration isn't."

Given that she could claim to have forfeited a successful career to the drug takers, she seems remarkably ambivalent about it, saying: "Unless someone tests positive, you can't honestly say anything about them, it would be unfair. I've been accused, and I know what it's like."

On the other hand, when somebody has not only been positively tested twice, and admitted under oath that she took drugs, but deprived Oakes of an Olympic bronze medal, then she can be as tenacious as her vocation demands. The woman in question is Gael Martin, formerly Mulhall, the Australian who beat Oakes into fourth place in the Los Angeles Olympics, and deprived her of the Commonwealth title in Edinburgh two years later. Martin later admitted to the Black Commission, the Australian federal enquiry into sports drug abuse, that she had consistently taken drugs throughout her career, even to a testosterone boost two weeks before LA.

Sir Eddie Kulukundis, who acts as guardian to scores of Britain's less well-off athletes, wrote an article for Athletics Today suggesting that, in view of Martin's admissions and the erasure of Ben Johnson from the record books, Oakes be given her rightful medals.

Oakes is still waiting, after six years and dozens of letters to the International Olympic Committee. The Princess Royal even interceded on her behalf, as did Prince Edward and John Major - to no avail. "I never even got a reply to my last letter," she said.

Given that Oakes is as far ahead of her British rivals as she used to be behind the world's best, the Olympic trials (the shot is tomorrow) should be little more than a formality. Then comes, as she puts it: "the serious stuff - I'm looking to make the [Olympic] final. By then, I'd be expecting mid to high 19s, and you've got to be in with a shout with that. And, like Madrid, anything can happen."