Tortuous journey through moral maze

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YOU ARE a 17-year-old apprentice footballer with Newcastle United, but because you have developed a heroin habit during your teenage years, your contract is immediately terminated. You are then thrown on the mercy of the Professional Footballers' Association in order to try to resurrect a career that has barely begun.

You are a 26-year-old professional rugby player for Wasps and England, but your career is in jeopardy because of your foolish statements about drug use to undercover reporters from a tabloid newspaper. You are cleared of any charges of drug dealing, but now a three-man tribunal, which handily includes a judge, has been appointed to decide whether you "brought rugby into disrepute" by allegedly snorting cocaine and taking ecstasy and, implicitly, whether you can continue as an international player.

You are a 39 year-old former Olympic, Commonwealth and World sprint champion, who has now retired from full-time athletics, for a career in coaching and the media. But at a small meeting in Germany, two drug tests prove positive for a banned steroid. The International Amateur Athletics Federation, for reasons to do with your celebrity, decide to sit on the results, but then they are leaked to a French newspaper, and the IAAF decides to suspend you. Now every achievement of your career is potentially tarnished while you wait to appeal against the test results.

You are a 24-year-old public relations operative for a film company, with an admitted penchant for using cocaine. But because your mother is the lover of the future king of England, you only have to apologise, before being invited out to Greece to spend a holiday not only with the Future King of England, but with the Future King of England II. Your career is not affected.

The panel for BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze programme is not sitting at the moment. This is a great pity because I could have used some of their wisdom over the past week to escort me through the tangled implications of the four cases mentioned above, the use of drugs in sport, and the wider issue of drug abuse in society. But if I'm confused, it seems as nothing to what is being experienced by various sports authorities in their response to the drug issues. And this, in turn, seems to be merely a reflection of the perverse attitudes at large in certain areas of high society - no pun intended - show business, music and, lest we forget, newspapers and other media. One man's toot is another man's poison.

We accept the recreational drug misdeeds of minor aristocrats, game show presenters, rock musicians and journalists on the basis that it is, for them, a lifestyle choice and probably isn't hurting anybody, or impairing their effectiveness at work. We may even be invited to see their indulgences as a necessary part of the creative process. In any case, very few spliff-smoking, coke- sniffing musicians lose their job; in fact they are more likely to create a tedious, self-absorbed concept album out of the experience.

When it comes to sport, however, it is apparently time to impose a rigorous moral framework, to summon the ideal of mens sana in corpore sano and to punish those who don't subscribe to it. So, for example, Tom Parker Bowles is exonerated for coke sniffing while Robbie Fowler receives a six-game ban and a hefty fine for merely imitating the same action. The difference between one facet of our public life and another is that somehow sport matters more, sport should be kept clean at all costs, even if it means turfing a 17-year-old apprentice on to the scrap heap.

But what the endless torrent of sports and drugs cases seems to suggest is that the architecture for maintaining that defence is crumbling away. The Tour de France has become a sick joke, with swimming and athletics not far behind. The "witch-finder generals" of the drug-testing circuit garner more big names, but then the big names fight back with expensive lawyers, barely plausible excuses and direct challenges to the testing process, in order to proclaim their innocence and demand compensation.

Indeed the whole system of testing, reporting, penalising and rebuttal is becoming so chaotic that it either needs urgent reform, or complete abandonment. The tests are plainly able to pick up all manner of substances, but when the sources of these are explicable in such bizarre terms as "too much sex the night before" or "eating hormone-infected meat" or "special food supplements", they are immediately vulnerable to legal challenge.

There are two implications here. Either that the testing procedures have become so sensitive that they will register any foreign agent in an athlete's body and therefore produce a constant stream of "positive" results. Or, that those who wish to gain an edge in their sport can continually find easier, more "innocent" ways of importing the guilty agents, leaving the first line of defence as "I don't know how it got there". In short, we may have achieved a state of impasse in which neither prosecution nor defence can win.

If this is so, this should be the time for new thinking about our attitude to drugs and sport. If the moral line cannot be held, there may be a case for all testing and subsequent procedures to be conducted in private until such time that a comprehensive indictment has been assembled, perhaps based on the "three-strikes and you're out" model. At this stage, the sports authority in question could order "instant retirement" and a stripping of previous honours, or announce an open tribunal if the indicted athlete still insisted on his or her innocence.

The other alternative is to accept that the drugs and the dopers have won, and that sport cannot be separated from wider society either in terms of its greater substance abuse, or its greater personal amorality. This could involve the acceptance that the cheats need help, not punishment, and that if they persist then the drugs themselves, the very instruments of victory, will one day come back to demand an unanswerable price of the athlete's body.

THE BBC'S spin-doctors were quickly off their blocks to try to make out that Des Lynam's sudden departure to ITV was a mere blip in their sports department's plans, but their campaign was undermined by some unfortunate scheduling last Wednesday. An afternoon of programmes to celebrate the 99th birthday of the Queen Mother just happened to feature a repeat of the history of the Grand National.

Des not only narrated this, but also appeared in two of the most memorable broadcasts, first as the host who had to bring order and reason to the infamous void race of 1993, interrogating officials and trainers to pull the whole story together. Then it was Des again, nervelessly holding the fort as Aintree was evacuated in 1997 after the IRA bomb warning.

The programme served to remind us that Des could not only maintain an articulate charm in the most trying of circumstances, but also that he was probably the best "pants on fire" sports broadcaster in the business.

He's unlikely to meet similar circumstances sitting in ITV's hospitality box for the European and FA cups, so maybe he'll privately miss the BBC almost as much as they privately miss him.

And Des may need reminding of Bob Wilson's first broadcast on ITV after his own defection. This featured his use of the word "eulogise", quickly followed by a sudden look of embarrassment as a producer's message, possibly along the lines of "you're on ****ing ITV now, Bob!", singed his ear-piece. Think on, Des.

Peter Corrigan is on holiday