When the age of naivety turned to cynicism

Simon Turnbull, athletics correspondent, gives a personal account of those star-struck days
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHENEVER A chemical cloud blows along to cast the dark shadow of drugs over athletics, I can't help thinking of the star-struck teenager who was left open-mouthed, in more-ways than one, by the sprint coach at a training week for young track and field hopefuls on Tyneside in 1975. The youngster was sitting in the changing-rooms during a lunch break when the coach walked in, snatched a corned-beef sandwich from his hand and tossed it into a litter bin. "White bread is no good for you," the coach said. "An athlete has to look after his body. You should eat brown bread, not white."

I can't recall precisely when white bread slipped back into my diet but it was probably around the time the chemical cloud burst on David Jenkins. David Jenkins was that coach. And I was that teenage sprinter. David Jenkins was my hero. He was my inspiration too. To my 13-year-old mind, nothing embodied the aesthetic appeal of sprinting more than the power and grace of Jenkins in full flight. In articulating this appreciation in a fourth- form English exam I raced from the bottom of the class to the top - and ultimately came to write about life in the fast lanes for a living.

Even back then those fast lanes were cluttered with athletes who were fuelled by substances more potent than refined bread - athletes like David Jenkins, who confessed his own tainted track record in 1987, when he was jailed for masterminding a $70m steroid-smuggling ring in the United States. It was not long after becoming a professional pen-pusher at trackside that I learned the truth: competition in top-class athletics is not just between the athletes.

There was a time when the schoolboy naivety returned and I thought it might be different - that the drug testers might actually beat the drug takers. "If an athlete of Ben Johnson's experience has failed to beat the testing system, other victims seem likely to emerge in the days ahead," I wrote in one dispatch from the Seoul Olympics. "For the first time since drug taking emerged as a major problem in sport, the guardians have caught up with the cheats. As the sun rose above the Seoul skyscrapers this morning there was hope of a new era dawning."

"New error" would have been closer to the mark. Johnson's failed test might never have come to light had the story not been leaked to a French news agency by a source who feared the kind of cover-up that was effected at the Los Angeles Olympics when documents relating to a dozen positive tests were mysteriously shredded, thus preventing any action against the athletes concerned. The bizarre case of Linford Christie testing positive in semi-retirement was kept secret for six months, until the details were leaked to L'Equipe by a senior anti- doping official last week.

There are a lot of people in athletics with a lot to lose if the sport is besmirched. But even those with the most vested interests cannot ignore the almighty mess into which track and field has got itself. Whichever way you look at it, the drugs picture has become a beguiling blur of confusion.

An athlete in one country (American sprinter Dennis Mitchell) can compete for more than a year with a positive test hanging over him before being found guilty. An athlete in another country (British sprinter Doug Walker) can be suspended for six months before being found innocent. Two athletes who have twice failed tests (German 400m runner Grit Breuer and Ukrainian shot putter Aleksandr Bagach) can be free to compete. Another athlete who failed two tests (Ben Johnson) can be banned for life.

Linford Christie, of course, has failed a test before. When the stimulant pseudoephe-drine was detected in the urine sample he gave after the Olympic 200m final in Seoul the International Olympic Committee's medical commission accepted his explanation that it had found its way into his system via ginseng tea. Whether this latest trouble that has been brewing for him proves to be another storm in a tea cup remains to be seen, though the fact that nandrolone, the anabolic steroid involved, can be derived from performance enhancing supplements not on the banned list shows how blurred the line has become between the guilty and the innocent.

It was a point brought home to me over a cup of coffee with my village doctor, who happens to run a clinic for sportsmen and sportswomen who use drugs. Caffeine is on the IOC's list of banned substances. It is a punishable offence to take it in excess. Yet those of us club runners who have drunk coffee in permissable moderation to delay glycogen depletion in a marathon, the hitting of the so-called wall, are clean in the eyes of the athletics law.

"Are you not morally taking drugs to help you compete?" Dr Rob Dawson enquired. "Is that not manipulating drugs for performance enhancement?" It was all so different in the old days, of course, when the question was simply "white bread or brown?"