Drug storm gathers over athletics

Last weekend, in anticipation of an unfavourable result against my beloved red and whites at St James’s Park, I took the tried-and-tested ostrich method of arranging to be out of range of TV or radio. Instead I was cycling across England from Whitehaven on the west coast, arriving in a desolate Sunderland about one hour after the final whistle. Even the seagulls looked liked parrots.

Avoiding impending bad news is something with which most of us can identify.
Next month I’m off to pay a pre-Olympic visit to Beijing and in doing so hope to avoid the latest storm gathering over athletics.

The latest episode of the continuing Balco saga will see Trevor Graham—former coach of sprinter and long-jumper Marion Jones, stripped of her five Olympic medals for drug-taking—back in court. One of the witnesses giving evidence against him is athletes’ drug adviser Angel Guillermo Heredia.

Reports in the United States have suggested that both Heredia and Graham will be naming names. The former Olympic champion, Maurice Greene, has been mentioned already as one of those likely to be involved—which in itself, if found to be true, would leave the world of sprinting in complete and utter disarray.

The athletics statistical bible has always had separate sections in the all-time lists for disallowed marks for things such as wind assistance, altitude, suspect distances and even hand timing. Now it also has a separate list of those marks eradicated because of doping suspensions.

In the 100m it’s a reminder of how the event has almost single-handedly ripped the sport apart. Justin Gatlin 9,77, Tim Montgomery 9,78, Ben Johnson 9,79 and of course, Dwain Chambers 9,87, to mention just a few.

Now the long arm of the law can reach beyond any negative drug tests and point its finger at culprits from the past where evidence is available. Already accusations have begun to fly. Greene’s former friend and training partner, Ato Boldon, has reportedly written to their former coach, John Smith, expressing disgust at his alleged actions and distancing himself from the group he was part of for so long.

But what and who can you believe? Athletes have always been quick to accuse rivals of duplicity when failing to realise that in bedrooms along the corridor their own names were being spoken of in similar terms.

Any performance slipping into the top-10 all-time list has always been met with both admiration and suspicion. In 1997 I was flying back to Tyneside after the Stockholm Grand Prix meeting in July. The star had been Boldon, who had a stunning double victory in the 100m and 200m with only about an hour between races, considered to be the quickest double in one evening: 9,95 for the 100m and 19,82 for the 200m, with Greene hot on his heels.

That night Carl Lewis ran an anchor relay leg as part of his farewell tour. He pulled me aside in the airport and without naming names he accused current athletes of diminishing the achievements of the likes of myself, Seb Coe and, most importantly, himself. He was prepared to go public—he had evidence, he said. I reminded him that many had pointed the finger at himself, which he dismissed out of hand.

His anger must have subsided and in due course his own name did surface some years later, in an alleged cover-up by the US Olympic Committee. The name-calling now looks likely to reach new heights, this time under oath.

It is to be welcomed, but it will certainly not be enjoyable. To continue the ornithological analogy I began with, the vultures will be hovering over athletics next month and I’ll be happy I’m not around to watch their pickings.—Â

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