When the facts are lost in a moral maze

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SUMMER is on its way out and with it go our sunshine sports leaving behind a regrettable aroma capable of assailing even the most gnarled nostrils and reeking of dirt, ephedrine, burning kerosene, testosterone and unknown substances yet to be separated from urine in busy laboratories set up to break the people who break the rules.

The echo might take longer to disperse than the smell, for we still have not heard the last of one of our most controversial sporting summers. The Great Britain women's team are competing in the World Cup at Crystal Palace this weekend under the strain of knowing that their presence might be retrospectively invalidated by that redoubtable sporting body the IAAF, whose grip on reality might be explained by the fact that the first A stands for amateur. What the second A could stand for is left to your imagination.

In the event that Diane Modahl, the English 800m runner, cannot satisfactorily explain the presence in her bodily fluids of a 42-to-one concentration of testosterone - a freakish amount you wouldn't get if you melted down the Wigan front row - the IAAF will take great pleasure in wiping our girls' achievements this weekend from the record books.

If that happens, we will no doubt be subjected to another bout of drug-induced hysteria on behalf of officialdom and another blast of moral outrage from the media. No wonder religion is losing its grip; the most eloquent of the righteous seem to have gone into sports journalism. Sadly, the more indignant they get the more the problem appears to worsen and so it will until it is tackled in a more enlightened manner.

Even without drugs, the brothers have not been short of subjects about which to moralise. The grand prix scene is awash with complaints of mechanical skulduggery while cricket has supplied several examples of misbehaviour worthy of sombre pronouncement. The England captain Michael Atherton's heavily fined indiscretions, however, look pretty puny when measured against the confessions contained in Ian Botham's autobiography, which was proudly launched last week.

Amid cheerful denouncements of officials and team-mates, Botham admits to finding relief in the odd joint of marijuana and in large quantities of alcohol. He was so hungover on the morning of one game on the 1986-87 England tour of Australia that he was halfway to the crease before discovering that he had forgotten his bat.

The book also recalls his magnificent innings of 149 not out at Headingley against Australia in 1981 and his Ashes-winning 118 at Old Trafford in the same series that has a serious claim to have been the greatest Test innings ever. It is not too fanciful to imagine what might have happened had he been obliged to take a drug test after one of these feats and marijuana, a banned substance, had been detected.

It could hardly have enhanced his ability to perform those feats and yet would have left a slur which he would not have deserved. I doubt if any of Botham's revelations have lessened the public regard for him. The tabloid attention during his career, about which he forever moans, was hardly surprising considering last week's admissions. Yet none of it seems to have dimmed his appeal.

It is a disquieting thought that in another decade, in another sport, such a rumbustious approach might lead to a painful downfall. Maradona, for instance, was ignominiously drummed out of the World Cup and his subsequent two-year ban has effectively ensured that his career has ended in disgrace for a drug offence that has not yet been translated into terms any of us can understand and probably never will be.

Sports bodies have a right to govern their patch in any way they choose. They can ban jelly babies if they please and woe betide anyone caught biting the head off one. There comes a time, however, when a sport has to judge if its rules are having the desired effect. There are a number which are fast reaching that stage. Athletics is certainly one of them.

The International Olympic Committee emitted the usual smug noises from their Paris gathering last week. As the father of the crusade against drugs, the IOC might have enjoyed an air of self- satisfaction about this summer's crop of culprits. But as the mother of this bloated quadriennial exhibition of nationalistic and political propaganda that undoubtedly spawned the sporting drug culture in the first place, it ought to have kept any parental preening muted.

The IOC will soon be about the business of choosing future venues and stories may once more abound about presents and favours from the competing cities. One day someone will have to measure the moral distinction between a performance-enhancing drug and a decision-enhancing gift.

Meanwhile, we are left with the debris of the summer's chemistry and although the Modahl issue may well turn out to be painful there appears to be the feeling among our athletics officialdom that they are winning the fight against drugs. The summer's evidence, however, could just as well be a sign that they are losing control of those whose interests they are there to serve. The discovery of a failed drug test should not be greeted with the sort of triumph once exhibited by those who hunted witches and heretics.

The welfare of athletes is the most important part of their brief and to have created a climate in which a great athlete like Linford Christie has to deny publicly rumours of drug assistance - and even offer to gamble money on the outcome of any test - is to have achieved nothing worth having.

Sport should listen to those medical and pharmacological experts who beg them to re-examine the list of banned substances, the levels permitted and the whole ethic involved in calculating what represents an unfair advantage. There is no point in spending fortunes on high-tech testing to support unscientific and unrealistic regulations. And more money spent on revealing more accurately what drugs can and cannot do would go a long way to countering the myths that exist.

We may be a long way from allowing the contents of athletes' bladders to be their own business but the present system is not only failing to work, it is creating doubts and suspicions that the sport will not be able to withstand.

IT WAS fitting that the great and much lamented Billy Wright should have received such a wholehearted valediction from the Press. Some of us were responsible for the low point of his playing career when, in 1973, when England were playing Italy in Turin, we persuaded him to play for the British Press team against our Italian counterparts.

He was 50 then and, as leader of the ITV contingent, was eligible to turn out, which is more than you can say for many of the opposition who contained some former Italian internationals and several ex- Juventus players.

In front of 5,000 spectators, we were 3-0 down in 10 minutes. Billy looked at the wheezing scribes around him and said: 'I've had enough of this.'

'For Chrissake, don't leave us,' we pleaded. He stayed and, sadly, some of our number took to kicking our tormentors. The game got rough, the crowd started climbing over the wire and the referee diplomatically blew for time 15 minutes into the second half. I won't repeat what Billy said to the journalist who organised the game because it is right that we remember him as a true gentleman.