Swimming: In the shadow of the cheats

'My whole life, both personally and financially, would have been very different'; James Parrack reveals the painful cost of a sport riven again by drugs allegations
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The Independent Online
THE Americans want the fame and the glory. They want the record books rewritten to remove anyone proven to have used drugs, and their own swimmers thus paraded as "rightful" Olympic champions. But for dozens of smaller nations, the cost of East German drug abuse through the Seventies and Eighties is very different and very real. And there is a deepening fear that the legacy will be repeated with China.

On the eve of the first day of swimming at the world championships in Perth, drug issues in the sport have spectacularly dominated the headlines. The head of the German delegation was banned and then reinstated after a Supreme Court ruling; the German team are reeling from on-going court cases in Berlin as former swimmers sue their coaches and doctors for abuse; and the whole sport has gone into apoplexy after a flask of growth hormones was found hidden in the baggage of a Chinese female swimmer at Sydney airport on Thursday.

The swimmers privately have always had their suspicions and will have been cheered by the relentless attack on China from the swimming community. Now, following the announcement that Fina, the ruling body, will conduct a full inquiry, their instructions will be to ignore the allegations and focus on the only thing they can control - themselves.

It will be difficult; memories of the last world championships in 1994, when Chinese women won 12 of 16 events, loom ominously. Rumours were rife then of state-controlled drug abuse, exactly repeating the farce of the East German domination. China were banned from taking part in the Pan-Pacific Championships the following year but are back like a rash over the world rankings again now.

There is no proof of statewide abuse in China, but then it took the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to uncover evidence of systematic drug-taking by thousands of athletes there since 1973. Swimmers and coaches are adamant it must not happen with China.

The Olympic silver and bronze medallist Sarah Hardcastle is certain her life was affected by the East Germans. "They would win championships by overwhelming everyone on the last length, they were so strong," she said. "I would have been double European champion, European record holder and world champion in the mid-Eighties. Being one of the favourites going into the Seoul Olympics would have kept me in the sport. Instead I retired prematurely and made a comeback, but I was never at the same level again. My whole life, both personally and financially, would have been very different."

Nick Gillingham was denied a bronze at the Atlanta Olympics when a swimmer who failed a drugs test was reinstated on appeal. "I've got to live with the desperate disappointment that the feeling of standing on the winners' podium is gone forever," he said. "I want the medal to put the record books straight but I don't think it will happen."

But it is not just the medallists who have been affected. Others were denied places in finals, or consolation finals, and thus the chance of automatic selection to the next championships. Gone then is the chance for funding for the next year's training. Gone also is any sense of achievement and recognition, to be replaced by anger and frustration. To represent your country at an Olympic Games or world championships is the dream that swimmers live for.

Many nations set Olympic or world qualifying times based on the top-eight and top-16 times in the world. But the women's rankings are abnormally high, as many of the top times are from swimmers who have been, or are believed to be, on steroids.

Every year of my competitive career, I watched helplessly as friends came within a fraction of a second of a qualifying time and missed out on the experience of the major games. They were not given the boost to face another exhausting year with the same optimism. It is then that the real effect of drug cheats is felt most personally; on the poolside, far away from the glory of the Olympic Games. It is felt when the coach goes that extra mile in training, when he pays you that extra compliment, or gives you that extra piece of encouragement when you need it most. The lifeblood of the swimmer is the odd word, thoughtfully given, which can make such a difference to an exhausted, distressed athlete. It is heartbreaking to be left in the cold.

These are the hidden human costs of the legacy of the East German drug programme, which the Chinese are in danger of perpetuating. Now with Lottery money inextricably linked to performance points, the need for a drug-free sport is paramount. Not once will there be mention of reimbursing hundreds of lost grants and sponsorships. It is impossible for those who miss out to revisit the past and reclaim those glorious experiences. Miss by a fraction and you may be forced to retire frustrated and unfulfilled after years of physical and emotional investment in a brutal sport. These are the ones forever denied the deep satisfaction and advantages open to them when they hear me say: "James Parrack, Olympian."

Peter Corrigan, page 11