The positive test for Diane Modahl, the 800 metres runner, is particularly shocking. No British woman in international competition has previously tested positive. If a second sample confirms the findings of the first, Britain's women will almost certainly be disqualified from the World Cup at Crystal Palace next month.
This is a sporting crisis for Britain. It should provoke the same soul-searching that the Canadians experienced during the Ben Johnson scandal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Too often, sporting bodies are equivocal about stamping out abuses, for fear that drastic action may weaken the country in international competition.
The temptations to take drugs are strong. Which athlete does not yearn for the celebrity and millionaire status that success has brought figures such as Linford Christie? Ms Modahl came fourth in the World Championships in Stuttgart last year. Like dozens of others on the edge of world fame, she faced the choice of taking drugs that might bring great wealth - or abiding by the regulations. Even Ms Modahl, who has strong religious convictions, could find those pressures irresistible.
'Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,' George Orwell claimed. 'It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules.' He exaggerated. Even so, the authorities face a daunting task cleaning up the activities of both professionals and top amateurs. The sophistication of modern pharmacology adds to the difficulties: new drugs are always a step ahead of tests. But the Sports Council must act to ensure that the best possible example is set.
Random testing should increase: already a British athlete cannot refuse an official who turns up on the doorstep clutching a bottle. Repeat offenders should be banned for life and lose their titles. Top athletes could be tested weekly during preparation for events. It would then become as difficult as it should be to reach for stardom on pills.
Every sport relies on respect for the rules. If that is lost, the sport is gradually destroyed. Britain's athletics authorities cannot afford to take anything but the strongest action in response to this week's news.Reuse content