Sport on TV: Testing times and suspicious minds

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The Independent Online
CALL IT deeply subversive scheduling, or a stroke of luck, but last Monday's On The Line (BBC 2) came up with three bells and a jackpot in terms of topicality. Shown in the half-hour before the Commonwealth Games (BBC) athletics started, the programme aimed a shotgun at the issue of drugs in sport and proceeded to blast away at many of the preconceptions which the issue has created. Those of us who watched the programme, and then witnessed the Edwards-Modahl mayhem gradually overwhelm the Games in Canada, could have been readily convinced that the BBC had invested in virtual reality broadcasting.

On the Line's thrust in 'Testing the Testers' - and there was a kaleidoscope of material which was almost too much for its 30- minute slot - was that the drug- testing procedures had not only got out of hand, but were also increasingly open to manipulation and distortion by the authorities. 'Shoddy science and muddled thinking' were cited, while one expert witness asserted that the testing procedure's 'only constant was expediency'. The crucial point in the argument was that although the testing had started out with the aim of protecting the health of athletes, it had now become a blind and wrathful moral crusade, a sort of Witchfinder General with test tubes.

The image that came to mind while these complaints were bounced around was one of a net designed to catch sharks, but which had trapped dolphins too, while those doing the fishing refused to distinguish between the two as they dangled their catch on the quayside for the benefit of cameras.

It had seemed, initially, a self-destructive move for the programme to cite the recent fall of Diego Maradona, though again it was a topical item as his 15-month ban was announced by Fifa on Wednesday. What Maradona's case highlighted was the faulty science - of the infamous 'cocktail of drugs' he was supposed to have taken, three of the stimulants would have been created by the other two - and, in the headlong rush into moral outrage and public judgement, Maradona's 'crime' was leaked to the football press before his 'B' sample could be tested, and Fifa were able to dangle a famous scalp to display their control of the game.

Professor Arnold Beckett, a member of the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission for 25 years until recently voted off, provided what most documentaries need to get started - a disaffected witness. But there was no sense of bitterness in Beckett's testimony, just measured anger that 'innocent athletes have been judged guilty'.

Beckett indicted the sloppy science, the pressure on the laboratories - all testing stations have to be licensed by the IOC - and the meddling of bureaucrats for corrupting the system. You didn't need the happenstance of his surname to suspect that the IOC might have come to view him as a 'troublesome priest'.

The effect of this programme coloured the viewing of the ensuing Games to the extent that when, on the following evening, Des Lynam donned his reading glasses in the manner of a hanging judge to announce 'one piece of news that we really don't need', you knew in an instant what it would be. The athletics itself began to assume the feel of an identity parade, as you looked for signs of the 'significant British name' cited as the source of a positive test.

When Christie went scuttling away down an alley of scaffolding after his easy win in the semi-

finals, and a camera sought him out, it was very easy to create a cocktail of suspicions, and you began to realise how fevered and poisoned minds can be in this climate. Happily Linford, in imperious form, brought a brief moment of light to the gathering gloom, with his stupendous, record-breaking win in the final.

The only bleakly comic moment came when David Coleman identified a Canadian sprinter as 'the pusher for their bobsleigh team in Norway', which was quickly corrected to 'the brake-man, that is'.

But by midweek, the BBC's team of studio presenters - Des, Steve Rider, and Sue Barker - couldn't hold back their funereal looks. 'It's not the tip of the iceberg, it's the whole iceberg,' Brendan Foster said from Canada, trying to reassure a worried Barker, but the sense of decay was all-pervasive.

If On the Line is to be believed - and the timing of the announcement of Diane Modahl's test, a full 10 weeks after sampling, makes at least one accusation ring true - it threatens the nature of televised athletics. While we once all sniggeringly played 'spot the moustache' with the freak shows of eastern Europe, and leapt into judgement when sudden muscle-

bulk appeared on those who had previously been wimps, we didn't foresee that the audience would become the instant jury before whom the authorities would one day parade their 'criminals'. Sport TV has become Court TV.