Leading Article: A battle far from won

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The Independent Online
WHEN Ben Johnson was found to have taken a concoction that helped him to run the fastest 100 metres ever recorded at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, commented: 'This is not a disaster, for it shows the IOC is very serious, and that we are winning the battle for a clean Games.' The same note was struck yesterday, with some justification, in official British comment on the discovery that three members of the British team in Barcelona had failed random drug checks in Britain more than two weeks ago.

British sport does take the drug issue very seriously. Its officials advocate life bans on those found guilty. They have demonstrated the effectiveness of random checks, and they appear to have been honest about tests that proved positive. But yesterday's news shows there is no cause for smugness, especially about efficiency: it is embarrassing that the results took so long to process.

Drug taking to enhance performance in sport is not a purely modern phenomenon. A favourite brew taken by competitors in the ancient Olympics was said (by the second- century physician Galen) to have been 'the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil and flavoured with rose hips and rose petals'. Around the turn of the last century, bizarre mixtures of strychnine, caffeine, alcohol and egg white were in vogue. Testing by the IOC for more modern stimulants began at the Winter Olympics in 1968. Steroids were first favoured by participants in power events such as weightlifting and the shot put. But they were soon found to enable track athletes to train harder. One of the most repellent aspects of the East German regime was its ruthless exploitation - with drugs - of male, and especially female, athletes for national glory. They hoped to prove, through sporting victories, that their version of Communism worked. Ideological pressure of that sort no longer exists.

Despite Britain's shame, the danger now is more from Third World countries, source of many world-class athletes but often too poor to provide adequate drug-testing facilities; and from the United States (where the chairman of the President's Council on Sport and Physical Fitness is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a confessed but reformed steroid-taker). Steroids are widely used in the US by ambitious teenagers and college boys. An even greater danger comes from litigation, increasingly deployed by those accused of cheating. Earlier this year, a judge in Columbus, Ohio, issued a temporary restraining order that allowed Harry 'Butch' Reynolds, the world 400 metres record holder, to compete in the US after he had been suspended by the International Amateur Athletic Association following a positive drug test.

A similar case involved three former East German sprinters. If rulings by sporting bodies are regularly challenged, at huge cost to the defendants, all sanctions will collapse. The biggest source of pressure of all is the sheer scale of the rewards for athletic success. That will doubtless increase, and so the war between drug takers and drug detectors will continue with ever-growing sophistication. Before long a new sporting record will probably be greeted not with cries of admiration, but cynical murmurs of 'I wonder what he (or she) has been on.'

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