Scapegoating of an athlete: Richard Williams accuses the press of humbug over the ban on Livingston

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Ben Johnson got some big cheers in the Olympic Stadium this weekend. The villain of Seoul came to the races, looking hard and strong and threatening, ready to roll. A banner draped high in the stands faced him as he rumbled down the 100-metre track: 'Corre Ben,' it read. Run, Ben.

The Spanish fan who made that banner was not some isolated lunatic. Many people now turn up to cheer Ben Johnson, since the ending of his enforced exile from the athletics world, applauding not in admiration of a reformed character, debt to society paid in full, but in recognition of a celebrity. For them, Johnson's undiminished bad-guy aura adds an appealing dimension to the dramatis personae of a sport not overpopulated with high-definition characters. Football has its Gazza, cricket its Botham, tennis its McEnroe; now athletics has its Johnson, all silence, muscle and outlaw menace. It's a marketable commodity.

Inevitably, others emulate this kind of power. Among those who wanted to be Ben Johnson was 21-year-old Jason Livingston. It has been his tragic destiny over the past few days to live out in pathetic miniature the downfall of the idol whose image hangs on his bedroom wall.

There are plenty of athletes at these Olympics - maybe hundreds out of the 10,000 in Barcelona - who have made the mistake of imagining that a celebrity's actions are automatically legitimised for use by others, and who have prepared themselves for this week's career climax with the aid of illegal substances. Not just weightlifters and sprinters, but swimmers, oarsmen, cyclists, wrestlers, throwers of the javelin, the hammer and the discus. One entire national team, the People's Republic of China, are suspected of improving their fortunes through pharmacology, thanks to an influx of coaches from the former East Germany's sports-training regime. Other athletes, either as individuals or (like Johnson before Seoul) as members of tightly knit coaching groups, are unquestionably taking advantage of the development of human-growth hormones, of erythropoietin (which boosts the production of red cells in the blood), and of masking agents that disguise the presence of illegal substances.

None of this systematic application of advanced knowledge appears to have been at Jason Livingston's disposal. We do not yet know how, when, where or with whose help he dosed himself with methandianone, an anabolic steroid that builds muscle and speeds recovery from the sort of punishing training schedule any Olympic hopeful must undergo. We can be pretty sure he knew the dangers, but we can assume that he saw Johnson's example - in particular, perhaps, the Canadian reinstatement after his statutory two- year ban - as in some way sanctioning his decision. And we can imagine that Livingston did not receive the meticulous instruction in drug abuse available to the big battalions.

Of course, he had to be sent home; of course, there must be a ban of some type, of some duration. But, as one might expect, the judgement of Jason Livingston has been delivered with the maximum degree of humbug available to the British press. The word 'shame' has become the keystone of the coverage: 'Shame on us all', 'Shaming of the drug cheats', even 'Britain's day of deepest shame'. Somehow, we are being led to believe that Livingston's misdemeanour, his attempt to cheat his way to success, brings with it a general 'shame', thus turning him from a common miscreant into a traitor to his nation. It is not necessary to see Livingston as a victim of class or even racial politics to view this as an injustice; as an attempt to blame the individual for the system.

Like many young black men in Britain today, Livingston is the child of a broken home. He grew up in his grandparents' house, and adopted a way of life that he described earlier this year, when he spoke of how his aunt, the former international sprinter Sharron Burke, had been attempting to help him. 'She's been disciplining me,' he said, 'getting me into habits that I don't really like, but that have been really good for me. Basically, she's stopped me running around the streets and staying out late.' It can hardly be too romantic to see Livingston as taking one of the classic routes to self- improvement: the sort taken by musicians and boxers, whose broadening of the acceptable boundaries of behaviour is usually condoned and sometimes encouraged. It would hardly be surprising if Livingston considered himself to have more in common with Prince than with Harold Abrahams.

Look, for example, at the campaign by the hugely successful American sports-clothes company, which is sponsoring many of the leading male athletes at the Games. Under the slogan 'Just do it]', the firm works assiduously to promote an image of rebellious youth. (Andre Agassi is its standard- bearer in another field.) Such companies nowadays are often more relevant to athletes' lives than their patrimony. They run first for themselves, second for the shoe company that feeds and keeps them, and third for their country.

This is the basis of a system that, while discouraging cheating, places such importance on individual success that it virtually ensures the bending of rules. 'Go on, Jason,' somebody may have said. 'Everybody's doing it. You don't want to start five yards behind. Take one of these.' To judge the Terminator generation by the Chariots of Fire rules may satisfy some people's distaste for the modern world, but it hardly shows much of a grip on reality.

(Photograph omitted)

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