Welcome to new Olympic sport of bluff and fluff

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GENERAL BARRY R McCaffrey, director of the White House Drug Policy Office, had concluded his briefing. For a man who was deployed to ring- fence Columbia's illegal drug operation, shaking up the International Olympic Committee on their home turf was pretty straightforward stuff.

Accordingly, the general had told the World Conference on Doping in Sport that the guardians of the Olympic movement need to get democratic, pro- active and financially accountable. Soon. This message did not appear to go down well. At the conclusion of the Lausanne conference, the beleaguered 78-year-old whose infirm hand still guides this wealthy private club made what might have been an accidental reference to his American guest as "General McCarthy".

What Juan Antonio Samaranch clearly believes is a witch-hunt appears to the outside observer as no more than the pursuit of the blindingly obvious. But seeing is not believing whenever the IOC gather to arrange their affairs.

On the eve of the conference, Samaranch had issued a long list of corrections over media inaccuracies, pointing out that had had asked "several years ago" that people stop referring to him as "excellency", the diplomatic title from his days as Spanish ambassador. As the opening speaker at the conference rose to address the gathered membership, you can guess the first word which issued from his mouth. Change takes time in the IOC.

The poster campaign supporting this latest initiative featured the word "doping" beneath pictures of athletes whose features were blocked out by what resembled a blindfold. The connotations were unfortunate: a lack of vision, if not something more wilful.

But to return to the departing figure of General McCaffrey. As his entourage gathered around, one figure broke away from the group and paused beside a reporter before placing one word confidentially into his ear. "Background." The reporter prepared himself. "This is cabinet-approved," rasped his mysterious new friend, before moving away.

A few seconds later he was back again in confidential mode. "Deep background," he announced, before supplying information of such profound import that it dropped straight out of the startled reporter's mind.

The multi-layered American approach, as it happened, was appropriate for a three-day event dominated by rancour, uncertainty and conflicting rumour. Anonymous faxes had circulated detailing the supposed indiscretions of the man widely seen as Samaranch's successor, Dick Pound. Who sent them? Someone thought they knew. Someone else thought it was more complicated than it seemed...

Samaranch was being undermined by a rank-and-file revolt over the new proposal that they could no longer vote for bidding cities. No he wasn't. The whole thing had been headed off with a deal. No it hadn't, because Samaranch said he was unaware of any such deal. But, no, he wasn't really unaware...

A new test for human growth hormone would be in place by the 2000 Olympics after the success of a four-year, IOC-funded research project. No it wouldn't. The test would be held up by further verification requiring another $5m (pounds 3.1m). No it wouldn't, said the research leader. Everything was still on course for Sydney.

The conference was a success, said Samaranch. It established a new $25m (pounds 15m) anti-doping agency and put in place a two-year minimum ban for doping. No it wasn't a success, said attending governments, because they had yet to agree with the IOC over how to run or fund the agency, and the words "exceptional circumstances" in the rule on sanctions provided a get-out clause.

Much of the conference debate was well suited to the Olympic environment, forming as it did a linked sequence of perfectly circular arguments. Sebastian Coe, a member of one of the contributing working parties, looked like a man in need of serious diversion as he took a short break from the inaction on Wednesday.

One of my colleagues came up with just the thing to liven up Seb's day - an invitation to a sports bar in town where he could watch his team, Chelsea, play Oxford United on satellite television. Unfortunately, the bar turned out not to have the correct channel. So when the double Olympic champion and former MP walked in, all he had to watch was recorded skiing.

But at least my friend was able to look on the bright side. Had it not been for a hold-up at a dinner for European sports ministers, that other well known Chelsea fan, Tony Banks, would have turned up as well. And he would probably have been less polite about it than Coe.