Sport Comment: Records a monument to a war badly fought

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN what seems a clumsy attempt to wipe some muck off the face of the 20th century, Germany's top athletics official is proposing that we enter the new Millennium with the record books completely expunged. So, from the first moment of 1 January in the year 2000 we would begin from scratch with a 100 metres record of 0.00 seconds (less than that if wind assisted), a long jump record of 0.00 metres (even at altitude) and a distance for the shot put not much different to that recorded if you dropped it on your big toe.

It is difficult to argue against there being a more appropriate time to start with a clean sheet or a more suitable source than Germany for wishing away the past 100 years but I wonder if Professor Helmut Diegel, president of the German Athletics Federation, has thought his brainwave through.

When he proposed it at a meeting of the International Amateur Athletic Federation while they were slumming it in Monte Carlo last weekend, Diegel felt that a fresh start would motivate a new generation of athletes. He neglected to dwell on the real reason for the suggestion; that so many of the present world records are tainted by drug assistance, or the suspicion of it which is pretty much the same to the authorities these days, it is best to scrap them all and start again.

Apart from the fact that many beautiful and innocent babies would be thrown away with the dirty bath water, the notion that the murky past of international athletics needs no more than an imperious wave of the hand to render it pure again is an indication that what we are up against is far more serious than a collection of dodgy data.

As the time of reinvigoration approaches you would think, for instance, that the IAAF might care to drop the word amateur from their title because truth, like charity, starts at home. While they're at it, they could also discard a score or two of amateur administrators from their ranks. After all, if you care to take the century as a whole, more infringements have been committed by sham-amateurs than drug-takers so a final purge of those would add freshness to the air.

Can we take seriously any governing body who sits in Monte Carlo, probably the world's most expensive venue, and seriously discusses tackling the drug problems of the future by destroying the incriminating evidence of the past? Obviously, a number of existing world records were set with the help of drugs.

We may never know the exact figure but there are those that can be easily spotted. From the 1980s, for example, there are 12 Olympic records surviving and they are so far in advance of the best times and distances achieved in the past year as to be freakish. All but one are held by women and all but three were from the old Soviet bloc and East Germany in particular.

If those records seem extraordinary now they were even more so when they were set but although it was obvious that Eastern Europeans were benefiting from many advantages, scientifically controlled drug regimes and full- time professionalism among them, the world's athletic authorities did nothing.

Admittedly, it would have been easy but there is no evidence that they even attempted to tackle the nations involved.

By allowing the defaulting countries to get away with it they helped spread the drug culture. Many athletes who did not have the power of the state behind them were tempted to level the odds with a spot of DIY drugging that didn't have a prayer of avoiding the testers. If only the witch-hunting zeal with which individual transgressors were hunted down and punished had been applied to the culprit countries some advance in the battle would have been made.

Even now, sport faces the 21st century without any coherent drugs policy apart from harsh words and Draconian threats. As we saw at last week's Olympic meeting on the subject, the various governing bodies can't even agree on the list of banned drugs. Football is one of the sports objecting to signing up for a code that outlaws chemicals that have no possible performance enhancing benefits for footballers. Independent pharmacologists have been telling them for years that the list is out of date and should be pruned down to the real threats in each particular sport.

The issue has been further clouded recently by permitted substances such as creatine which seem to have all the properties of banned drugs. This is a confusion that demands firm and rational guidance and a disciplinary programme aimed at countries rather than individuals. Banning a few administrators instead of athletes might cost their leaders a few votes but it would signal a future approach far more likely to work than their previous stumblings.

Any constructive move would be more welcome than the cynical suggestion that the records honestly and heroically gained should be destroyed alongside those of the transgressors. Those facts and figures should stand as a monument to a war badly fought.

Sporting ghost writers received their annual kick up the Thesaurus last week when the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award was announced. Angry White Pyjamas: An Oxford Poet Trains With The Tokyo Riot Police, by Robert Twigger, an account of the author's introduction to the perils of aikido, was judged the winner by a worthy panel and there's no complaints about that.

But in 10 years no ghosted autobiography has ever won the award and since these books comprise the bulk of sports publishing it represents a surprising lack of success.

As someone who has on a few occasions been haunted by the necessity to be a ghost, I will readily admit that it often takes a powerful telescope to see literary merit in these works. But there is an art even in the sweated labour of writing under the constraints imposed by such autobiographies, chief among which is to chronicle the nuts and bolts of a sporting career in what purports to be the subject's own voice. It is not easy to make silken prose out of soused words.

One day a genius in ghostly form will deliver a Hemingway with boots on and perhaps the genre will be looked upon with less disdain as, we hope, will all those others who toil away on subjective books with minority appeal. At least, the worse ghost-written book provides a permanent record of the leading sporting lights of our age. So many heroes of the past have slipped away with their triumphs unsung.

It was only recently that the amazing story of Billy Meredith was captured for posterity and last week a more recent Welsh football legend was commemorated in print. Ivor Allchurch (Christopher Davies Publishers, pounds 9.95), which has been lovingly put together by two university men, David Farmer and Peter Stead, is the story of a player who earned the description of "Golden Boy" in the 1950s. Had he played for a successful club he would have been regarded as one of the all-time greats. As it was he was revered at Swansea, Newcastle and Cardiff, the three clubs he graced, and in Wales at large who he represented 68 times.

The former Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker called him the player of the century and anyone who saw him play even at the age of 50 for Pontardawe would have been gifted a lasting memory. It is just another sports book that enthusiasts have beavered away at for little else but the comfort of knowing that they have preserved an idol. There are some stories where the merit has already been written in.