Who will turn down a little help from the chemist?

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The Independent Online
Five years ago, Linford Christie threw out an unequivocal challenge to anyone who doubted that his records, and his muscles, were for real. In response to an escalating whispering campaign suggesting the former World and Olympic 100m champion was chemically assisted, he invited the sceptics to put up or shut up.

"I'm clean," he declared. "I'll take any test they like. They can put their money up against my money and I'll prove I'm clean." And so he did, consistently, until February of this year when, as we learnt last week, Christie, at 39 and now more of a fun-runner than a front-runner, tested positive for Nandrolone, a substance that may sound as if it might do for cleaning windows but actually does dirty work for athletes.

Christie will be cleared, of that there can be little doubt. Not because he is the biggest name since Ben Johnson to have failed a drugs test but because it will be argued, as it was in the case of another British athlete, Dougie Walker, that proof of a drug's presence is not proof that it was illegally ingested.

Ignoring the well-aired pros and cons of the Christie case, those of us who have been tramping the international sports beat for a few decades have become increasingly and depressingly convinced that doping in all its forms is rife and that the cheats are now winning hands down.

Some of the best-known names in sport are at it. We can't prove it, but we know it. All are blithely beating the system. Even the International Olympic Committee is aware that the race to keep sport clean is virtually lost. The committee has become largely impotent in the war against drugs, because so many of them are undetectable. The IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, got into hot water when he almost suggested that this was the case. He modified his stance by claiming that all he was doing was seeking a redefinition of doping.

Now Britain's new sports minister, Kate Hoey, seems to be calling for the same thing. But does redefinition mean loosening the grip rather than tightening it? Christie is the most tested of British athletes and he is certainly the one who has been most testy about it. Despite his persistent protestations of innocence and a successful libel case, he has failed to dislodge all the doubters. There are those who remain unconvinced that such marvellous muscle definition in a man nudging 40 is achieved by push- ups rather than pills. But, unless the inquiry instituted by UK Athletics tells us otherwise, we have to believe it.

And Christie, I'm sure, would agree absolutely with Sir Rodney Walker, chairman of UK Sport, the body responsible for supervising domestic drugs tests, that to abdicate the fight against drugs in sport, whether it is pot-smoking snow-boarders, coke-sniffing celebrities of rugby, football and cricket, cyclists on human growth hormone (HGH) or steroid-swallowing sprinters, would send out all the wrong signals.

"If you start making any concessions about drugs in any walk of life it is only a matter of time before pressure starts on all young people to take them," said Sir Rodney. "It's the road to nowhere. We all know that the money available to those at the top makes the temptation to succeed with a little help from the chemists a very serious one."

And that temptation is everywhere. In the current edition of the US magazine Runners' World, a back-page advertisement for a product called Ming Gold, said to have assisted Chinese athletes to six world records in a year, exhorts: "Take it before it is banned." In this country, Athletics Weekly this week has a full-page advertisement for a secret supplement given to Arab racehorses that is now available for athletes, claiming it will increase performance in 99 per cent of cases.

Any lessening of the hard line against sports drugs will surely encourage those who openly advocate the packing of the syringe and steroids alongside the Deep Heat and Elastoplasts. The athletics coach Wilf Paish is one who has long believed that the cause is lost and I have heard others argue that there is little difference between those who pop a few capsules of Viagra to boost sexual performance and those who shovel HGH and other hormones into their system to achieve an athletics climax.

In the end, I fear, the cheats will prosper because that is the way big- time sport is going. There is no hope unless an authority such as the IOC assumes all responsibility for dope-testing, including the financial liabilities, because the domestic governing bodies will have neither the gumption nor the resources to fight costly legal battles that could bankrupt them.

Christie may, indeed, be totally innocent, but others are not. They know how to manipulate the tests and how to mask the drugs, often quite a simple task. Female athletes, in particular, can be prescribed large doses of the birth control pill to disguise traces of steroids; several glasses of red wine are said to have a similar effect. The Rollerball scenario may be upon us sooner than we imagine.

As the French sports minister Marie-George Buffet says: "Athletes have become instruments of commercial interests, overloaded by obligations to produce results at cost." She was commenting in relation to the drugs- riddled Tour de France but her despair goes right across the spectrum of sport where cheating is no longer a hidden agenda and is thumbing its nose at those vainly trying to maintain some sort of level playing field.

When competitors whose urine samples are shown to contain Nandrolone - which remains a prescribed drug - can successfully claim that, in one case, it came about by eating spaghetti bolognese and in another by having oral sex with his pregnant wife, then we are entitled to wonder whether they are taking the piss as well as giving it.