It was one of the sporting days to savour in 2008; not quite up there with Usain Bolt and his world record-breaking feats in the Beijing Bird's Nest, but not a million miles away: sitting by the banks of the Avon on a glorious Saturday lunchtime in April, watching Bath playing champagne rugby against Sale in a semi-final of the European Challenge Cup.
Martin Johnson was also at the Recreation Ground that day, and the England team manager must have marvelled at the sight of Matt Stevens speeding along like a centre of excellence, the 19st prop making his deft offloads as though he had a No 13 on his back rather than a No 3.
In the adjacent cricket pavilion afterwards, Steve Meehan, Bath's head coach, reeled off the attributes of this titan of a tighthead. "He's carrying the ball with speed," he said. "He's hitting the lines. He's breaking the defensive line. He's got great leg drive in the contact. He can slip a pass. Defensively, he's sound. His line-out work is good." It brought to mind John Cleese's celebrated appraisal of the Roman Empire. Ah yes, but apart from all of that, what could Matt Stevens actually do?
The TV-watching public knew that the boy could sing, too, after he was voted runner-up to Lucy Benjamin in The X Factor: Battle of the Stars. What none of the wider world knew until Tuesday last week was that the all-singing, all-dancing class act in the Bath front row happened to have an x-rated factor in his personal life: by his own public admission, a drug addiction. Having tested positive for "a recreational substance", assumed to be cocaine, after Bath's Heineken Cup win away to Glasgow last month, Stevens added his name to the litany of sporting stars whose sparkling achievements have been underscored with the black mark of an asterisk and the legend "tested positive for drugs".
Whether he can rebuild his career at club and international level, only time will tell. At 26, he still has a good few years on his side, although he can expect to spend the next two on the sidelines. Drugs such as cocaine may be referred to as "recreational" but they are classified as stimulants by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), and testing positive for their use carries the recommendation of a two-year ban. Not that all offenders have served 24 months.
Javier Sotomayor, the Cuban athletewho holds the high jump world record of 2.45m, tested positive for cocaine at the Pan American Games in 1999 and was suspended for two years by the International Association of Athletics Federations. The high jumper, however, vehemently denied ever getting high on the white stuff and Fidel Castro appeared on state TV claiming that the whole affair had been "a set-up" by "the Cuban-American mafia". Sotomayor's ban was later reduced to a year, allowing him to compete in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, because of what the IAAF called "exceptional circumstances".
The fact is that sport's cocaine-takers have received varying terms of punishment: the jockey Kieren Fallon(18 months), the footballer Adrian Mutu (seven months) and the Australian rugby wing Wendell Sailor (two years). Such is the lack of consistencythat runs like a fault-line through the minefield of drugs in sport.
On Thursday, UK Athletics published the conclusions of their six-month-long Anti-Doping Review. A further 12-month quarantine from international competition for athletes returning after serving suspensions was among the 22 recommendations made by the review panel, chaired by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson. The domestic governing body of track and field are to be applauded for taking such a strident lead in the fight to rid sport of those who choose to cheat. Yet inconsistencies remain.
On the same day that this review was published, news broke of a group of 65 athletes, cyclists, footballers and volleyball players mounting a challenge in the Belgian courts to the new Wada code, which stipulates that athletes from all sports must declare their whereabouts for a one-hour window each day, three months in advance, in order to allow anti-doping teams to turn up unannounced and subject them to random out-of-competition tests. The European Commission have received advice that the demand, to which track-and-field athletes have been obliged to adhere for several years now, could be deemed illegal.
Then there is the case of Dwain Chambers, who is barred from running for Britain in an international indoor match in Glasgow next Saturday but not from going for the 60m gold in a British vest at the European Indoor Championships in Turin in March – and who will not be allowed to run for his country in the 2012 Olympics, while Justin Gatlin, who is currently serving a four-year ban, will be able to do so for the United States.
Not that other sports have very much latitude to laugh at the expense of athletics. The high-profile cheats unmasked in recent years might have been speed merchants such as Chambers and Gatlin, but UK Sport's drug-testing figures from 1 April 2003 to 31 March 2008 showed athletics at only seventh on the list with a total of 14 positive cases. Football was second with 54. Rugby union was top with 62. Now the multi-talented Matt Stevens has become another sorrowful statistic for the glorious oval-balled game.Reuse content