World must guard against this vial habit

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The Independent Online
WILL sport ever be able to kick its drugs habit? You know the one I mean. Mention the word drugs and everyone is in the habit of registering immediate convulsions. Eyes bulge with outrage, temples throb and a massive spurt of piety courses through the veins at twice the speed of adrenalin. Happily, the attack is easily curable. A sharp release of indignation, a few denouncements all round and the symptoms subside.

It may well be, however, that the discovery of a vacuum-flask containing vials of the human growth hormone Somatropin in the luggage of a Chinese swimmer at Sydney airport on Thursday was an event of more lasting significance than the normal scandal that mounts the anti-drug crusaders on their high horses. Now we'll see what they are really made of.

The hormone concerned (HGH) is the rich man's version of sport's bete noire, anabolic steroids. HGH does a similar job of helping an athlete to train harder to build up strength and bulk but is very difficult, if not impossible, to trace in tests.

It also costs 10 times more than the equivalent dosage of steroids which raises the question of how a 21-year-old girl breaststroker, Yuan Yuan, could afford to be toting such expensive contraband on her arrival en route for the world championships in Perth. The quantity wasn't significant enough for the Australian customs to prosecute her but was damning evidence against the Chinese team who came up with the preposterous explanation that the stuff was put in her bag by one of their coaches, Zhou Zhewen, who was delivering it to a medical centre and didn't have room for it in his own.

Neither knew what was in the consignment, claimed the head of China's Olympic Committee. That didn't stop the immediate homeward dispatch of Yuan and Zhewen by the Chinese with the threat of disciplinary action ringing in their ears. Unfortunately, the international swimming body, Fina, are showing every sign of being daft enough to fall for it and poor little Yuan will end up carrying the can, as well as the vacuum-flask.

The spectacular performances of Chinese athletes in recent years have raised many questions in the minds of the ultra-suspicious - a description that fits most of the athletic world. The Chinese have modestly put the dramatic improvement of their sportsmen and women down to hard work and the natural assistance that comes from turtle blood and various herbal compounds.

No one should ridicule the contribution that hard work can make to sporting endeavour - indeed most drugs merely assist you to work harder and recover quicker - but sophisticated substances of the sort Yuan was carrying bring a new dimension to the problem. Enough Chinese have failed tests for steroids for us to have suspected wholesale chicanery but, for the first time, evidence of a large measure of collective guilt is to hand and the entire team should be sent packing. Otherwise the championships won't mean a thing.

The Chinese do have many friends, not least the International Olympic Committee, who are intent on seeing the Games go to Peking before the new century is very old, but Fina must act quickly and fearlessly to remove the cloud that now hangs over the World Championships. I recognise the difficulties that these governing bodies face in such circumstances. On the same day that the Australian customs pounced, Fina were legally forced to restore accreditation to Germany's team manager, Winfried Leopold, who has admitted taking part in the doping of swimmers while a coach in East Germany.

Revelations about the extent of drugs use in East Germany and other totalitarian states in years gone by have caused several British athletes to demand the medals they were cheated out of but, as sympathetic as we might be, it is difficult to run races retrospectively. And who can tell by how much drugs affected their performances?

One of the great tragedies of the devastation caused by drugs in sport is that we are still unaware of the exact effect the various substances have on performance. State- sponsored athletes had so much in their favour that the extra stimulation might not have made a great difference. I suspect that the drugs suspicion made the West feel more comfortable. To be able to criticise countries that did everything for their athletes enabled us to feel less guilty about doing nothing for ours.

If the front line of the war against drug abuse hasn't advanced very far it is because sport has been content to go for the easy targets. As long as we've been able to summon up the fires of hell to devour the odd wretched culprit every now and then, the conscience has been clear.

The Diane Modahl saga dragged athletics down into the pits of this witch- hunt. Sent home in ignominy from the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, she saw her career ruined by a faulty test and has yet to be compensated. In addition to those wrongly condemned are the many who, willingly or otherwise, have taken some drug whose powers are doubtful. Solomon Wariso was a case in point. The runner took an over-the-counter restorative called "Up Your Gas", which contains ephedrine, and was banned for three months. Many have fallen foul of ephedrine, a drug that helps those with respiratory problems and is to be found in most cold and cough cures.

More than one doctor has testified that ephedrine is more likely to destroy performance than improve it. It's not the only drug whose qualities have been exaggerated to mythical proportions. Sport would be better served if the money used to fight drugs was directed towards discovering their real effect. There is another option. The war against drugs in society has reached a stage when a growing body of opinion is calling for some to be decriminalised. This newspaper is not far from the vanguard of that movement. If sport acted similarly and concentrated its efforts on the more sinister drugs, we might get somewhere.

In the meantime, may I offer to all those brave crusaders in sport a transgressor who is slightly less puny than their normal targets but who will demonstrate their determination to tackle the problem - China.

WHEN the referee Steve Dunn blew for time a split-second before a Wimbledon corner was headed into the net by Marcus Gayle for what would have been the winning goal against Wrexham, my first reaction was one of outrage. Dunn wasn't even looking at his watch when he made his impossibly precise decision.

I have long campaigned for time-keeping to be taken out of the hands of referees but suddenly changed my mind after reading a report from the Football Expo 98 global trade show now being held in Singapore which stated that Fifa were considering an offer from Major League Soccer in the United States to use them as a guinea pig for any rule changes.

One suggested experiment was the introduction of electronic timing as used in American football and basketball with time-outs - i.e. advert breaks. This convinces me we should stay as we are. We might have to contend with the odd referee who believes his mind-clock is infallible - but the alternative is unthinkable.

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