Methods of detection, of course, have become much more sophisticated since then. Whereas suspect witches were considered guilty until they could prove their innocence in a trial by ordeal, their modern sporting counterparts have all the benefits that the constitution of their sport can bring. This often represents a legal whirlpool into which the culprits are thrown. If they eventually sink without trace - like the American runner Butch Reynolds and Germany's Katrin Krabbe - all well and good. If they manage to clamber out they are pushed back in again.
Thus, Diane Modahl is likely tomorrow morning to feel again as if she has been hit on the back of the neck with a sock-full of testosterone. Angry at the effrontery of a British athletics appeals panel in setting aside a four-year ban imposed last December on the 800m athlete, the International Amateur Athletic Federation are expected to demand an unprecedented third test on the tired old urine sample taken from her in Lisbon 13 months and two weeks ago.
This was the sample that showed an unbelievably high ratio of the male hormone testosterone - 42:1 which compares with the count of 10.3:1 that showed up in Ben Johnson's infamous sample in the Seoul Olympics in 1988. No one explained what benefit she could have possibly gained from that amount of the stuff - they never do in these cases - and she was banned despite obvious doubts about conditions in the Lisbon testing laboratory.
Last week, Modahl's representative produced scientific evidence that persuaded the appeal, which was headed by Robert Reid QC, that a reasonable doubt existed about her guilt arising from the unrefrigerated storage of the samples. Not an organisation from which wisdom enjoys an uninterrupted flow, the IAAF reveal by their peeved reaction that they are more concerned with the slur on their drug-testing procedures than with the rights of the athlete concerned who, even in the unlikely event that she was guilty, has suffered more than a fair punishment.
But the paranoia with which sport treats even the mildest suspicion of drug abuse was exposed last week even before Modahl's sample hit the fan. James Kimberley was 17 years old when he was banned for two years last year after a test taken while he was representing Britain at the world junior modern pentathlon championships showed the presence of an illegal drug. Kimberley became the youngest British sportsman to be banned for a drug offence. This dubious honour was imposed upon him by the British Modern Pentathlon federation despite the almost laughable fact that the drug Kimberley had taken was contained in a headache-relief tablet given to him by one of their officials.
As if this wasn't grotesque enough, the federation rules did not allow Kimberley to put his case or to have a legal representative. He couldn't even appeal except to the annual congress of international federations at which months of campaigning by him and his family produced acquittal by a huge majority in Basle last week.
Kimberley was fortunate in that his campaign was supported by the Daily Mail and the British Olympic Association. But his unfair punishment may not be over. In support of his campaign, he had to fly to see the international federation in the midst of his A-level examinations. "My mind," he admits, "wasn't where it should have been. I've been so angry and upset for so long."
At least one British federation official had the decency to own up about the stupidity of their rules. "It was a disaster waiting to happen," he said. "The one good thing to come out of it is that it will prompt many sports to look at a problem that is just waiting to erupt for them. Only athletics has got its rules sorted."
That last sentence will no doubt keep Diane Modahl amused while she waits for the wrath of the IAAF to fall on her. What made her experience all the more reprehensible was that the drugs procedure the IAAF are trying so desperately to defend meant that the sample she gave on 18 June last year took several weeks to reveal its astounding results.
When they were relayed to the British Athletic Federation on 24 August, she was at the Commonwealth Games in Canada and was within an hour of going on to the track to defend her 800m title. I would be the last to allege that it was anything but an amazing coincidence that the announcement of her test failure should come at the moment of maximum embarrassment for her. She was duly whisked out of the Games village and put on the next flight to London where she arrived under a media spotlight that could not have been more intense if she had been uncovered as the brains behind the Brink's-Mat bullion robbery.
What has followed since has been a nightmare. She and her husband and coach Vicente - who are expecting their first child in October - have incurred large debts to finance her defence. If her innocence continues to be proved, no doubt she will have great pleasure in recovering those expenses from her tormentors. But she can never be recompensed for what has happened to her in the past year.
Athletics officials will no doubt maintain that the fight against drugs is worth any sacrifice. This doubtful sentiment seems to have made them more obsessed with drugs than some addicts I know. They have programmed themselves to think the worst of those whose interests they are supposed to be protecting. What have they achieved over these years of slavering at the pulpit, calling upon the fires of hell to consume the sinners, other than to convince everyone that sport is riddled with illegal substances?
If it is, then what is to be blamed other than their lamentable policies to combat the problem? If it isn't, why do they persist in giving a misleading impression of their sport? Sport needs to take a more enlightened look at the situation. It may no longer be enough to find victims whose stake they can dance around.
SPEAKING of clouds that won't go away, the decision to prosecute Bruce Grobbelaar, Hans Segers, John Fashanu and others for conspiracy to accept money to "influence the outcome of football matches" will not cheer up the new football season.
Meanwhile, there's the problem of what to do with them while the wheels of justice grind on. Fifa have sort of suggested they shouldn't play in the interim. Fashanu is injured, anyhow, while Segers is only on the fringe of the Wimbledon team.
This leaves Grobbelaar, by the side of whom Southampton are standing with commendable resolution. Since it is their goal he is guarding, it is entirely up to them whether he continues to play. I hope he does. It may be a lesson to sports such as athletics and modern pentathlon. Stand by your man, or woman, as the case may be.
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