Sunday, 21 October 2007

Justice and Injustice

Justice …

The remorseful wailings of Marion Jones following her disclosure that she was heavily into performance-enhancing drugs will cut little ice with the sport at large. Not only is her career in ruins but her life also. The winner of five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics had, since those achievements, stoutly denied taking steroids and she committed perjury in 2003 by continuing to do so to federal agents. It is a crime that could well see her end up in jail when she comes to be sentenced next January.

Athletically this means that the top eleven women’s 100 metre performances of all time were almost certainly chemically assisted (the late Florence Griffith-Joyner, world record holder, was strongly reputed to be on steroids). The irony is, as IAAF President Diack noted, that Jones would probably have won those medals on natural ability alone.

In 2000 Jones married shot putter C J Hunter who tested positive for drugs; she then partnered Tim Montgomery before he admitted in 2004 to taking human growth hormone. Both Montgomery and Jones publicly travelled to Montreal to consult with Charlie Francis, the notorious coach to Ben Johnson. Montgomery was later indicted for money laundering and is awaiting sentence. Jones was coached by Jamaican Trevor Graham eleven of whose athletes have tested positive for drugs. She was also named by Victor Conte, indicted owner of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), who escaped jail by spilling the beans on athletes whom he had supplied with drugs. She later moved to be coached by Steve Riddick, a number of whose athletes had also tested positive. Riddick was indicted and found guilty along with Montgomery for their fraudulent activities.

At long last justice has caught up with this clique of undesirables who have brought shame upon the sport of athletics. As for Jones she is either extremely devious or extremely gullible.
So, the Sydney gold medal in the 100 metres will now be awarded to Greek sprinter, Ekaterini Thanou who came second? Well, possibly not. Thanou and fellow Greek sprinter, Konstadinos Kederis were, in 2004, before the Athens Olympics, involved in an incident worthy of a Feydeau farce when in scurrying around the Greek capital on a motor cycle, possibly to avoid drug tests, they crashed, received injuries that put them out of the Games. Both were banned for two years by admitting to avoiding three tests (their avoidance tactics had become legendary) and they face perjury charges regarding their accident. Kederis, it will be remembered, deprived Darren Campbell of a gold medal in Sydney in 2000. Their coach Christos Tzekos was banned for life.

The cheats are caught, rejoice, rejoice. Well not quite. The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) with its 25 million dollar budget and the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) with its 13 million dollar budget both failed to nail Jones through much vaunted testing procedures and scientific research. They had to rely on federal investigators to force an admission in court. Indeed Jones was found positive for the banned substance Erythropoietin (EPO) in 2006 but her B sample did not confirm the finding and she was cleared. In the cases of Thanou and Kederis both admitted to missing tests but had never tested positive.

3279 out-of-competition tests in all sports were carried out by WADA in 2006, providing just 1.74% of adverse findings. USADA similarly carried out 8421 tests that year, resulting in 0.36%.positives. In athletics the IAAF recently announced that 1132 tests were carried out at the Osaka world championships resulting in 0% of positive findings and in the past twelve months (July 2006 to June 2007) UK Athletics have announced a total of 650 tests also resulting in 0% positives.

Such statistics indicate one of two conclusions: either the test statistics show a miniscule level of drug misuse and questions have to be asked of those who continually bang the drum about the massive drug menace in sport or the testing procedures are not working and cheats like Jones, Thanou and Kederis are getting away with it. Either way serious questions about value for money should (but wont) be tendered in November at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in Madrid

… and Injustice

Paul Edwards, former international shot putter, must be the only athlete in the world to have his drugs case debated in parliament, not once but twice.

On the first occasion the matter was raised in 2002 by Edwards’ then MP Andrew Hunter. The MP, a former Minister at the Northern Ireland office, who would be well versed about bigotry and obfuscation on a grand scale, was scathing in his criticism of the sports authorities. He found the stonewalling by the then UK Sports Director of Anti-Doping, Michelle Verroken highly frustrating and suspicious. “It’s my first experience of athletics’ administration,” he told me five years ago, “and I find it appalling.” The reply by the then Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, was full of self-congratulatory guff about testing in Britain and he suggested to Hunter the various options that were open to Edwards to pursue his case.

None of them bore fruit so this month, Maria Miller, Edwards’ new MP, again raised the matter in the House. Appalled by the injustice, she had taken up Edwards’ cause and its lack of progress over the past five years. She had had correspondence with Caborn before he left his post in the Brown reshuffle. What resulted from his advice was a highly predictable bout of buck passing by UKA, the IAAF, WADA and the Court of Sports Arbitration (CSA). Gerry Sutcliffe, the new Sports Minister, promised to help Miller through the mire of bureaucracy so that the case could be heard by the CSA but nobody is holding their breath.

This is a case that is not only disturbing for Edwards but has much wider implications for sport in this country and around the world; it concerns the efficacy of drug testing and it raises questions as to whether UK Sport and the London IOC accredited laboratory, that will be in the forefront of drug testing at the 2012 Olympics, attempted a cover-up in order to protect its integrity.

These are serious allegations but some believe they have credence because in another case, that of athlete Mark Hylton in 2000, the laboratory refused to accept criticism of its procedures by an eminent authority even though such criticisms were accepted by the IAAF and by the then UK Sport Chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, who was quoted as saying, “What we will be looking for is reassurance that the lapses will not be repeated. If the situation arose where there was a lack of confidence [in the laboratory] then we can send our samples abroad."

In 1994 Edwards tested positive for an anabolic steroid and was flown back in public disgrace from the Commonwealth Games in Canada, along with Diane Modahl (who subsequently cleared her name at the expense of personal bankruptcy). Edwards lost on appeal and was given a 4 year ban. From that moment he has suffered from the age old adage of “once a cheat, always a cheat.”

He was out-of-competition tested in June, 1997 and from that very moment there have been doubts and suspicions about the integrity of this particular test. Edwards was duly accused of taking a prohibited substance and was, because it was a “second offence”, banned in 1998 from the sport for life. He appealed and lost.

For the next eight years he and his team of advisers, including MPs and scientists, have fought to uncover evidence that they believed would clear his name. They met with years of obfuscatory stonewalling of almost unbelievable proportions from UK Sport and the Drugs Control Centre (DCC), both claiming immunity from disclosure under the Data Protection Act. Their problem was that the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) didn’t agree with them. UK Sport successfully stonewalled, despite being formally warned by the DPC, until in December, 2003 the laboratory doors were suddenly flung open and Simon Davis, who has a Ph.D. in mass spectrometry and is a highly respected expert in sporting drug cases, was allowed in and found 600 pages of evidence that had not only been withheld from Edwards but crucially also from the disciplinary and appeal panels that heard the case. Further evidence, it transpires, is still being withheld.

What he found convinced many people that there had been a serious miscarriage of justice. Not only that but they also raised the possibility in people’s minds that the prolonged stonewalling was undertaken so that when, inevitably, the evidence had to be produced, the time for Edwards’ to appeal would have elapsed. He was in Catch 22. He had no new appeal until he saw the evidence; he wasn’t allowed the evidence until it was too late to appeal.

Doubts surrounded this whole process from the moment that Edwards gave his sample, to its journey to the laboratory and to it being tested at the Drugs Control Centre. These could be summarised as follows:

1. The length of the test was recorded as taking 3 minutes. Any Independent Sampling Officer (ISO) would tell you that to carry out all the correct procedures is impossible in that time.
2. The ISO did not follow set procedures laid down by UK Sport. Without the pH being recorded there is no way of knowing if the sample degraded over the weekend – in the same way that Modahl’s did under exactly the same circumstances.
3. Many doubts surround the transportation of the sample from the ISO to the laboratory and the necessary paperwork was withheld from Edwards’ team by DHL, the transporter, on apparent instructions from Verroken (who mysteriously left UK Sport under an unspecified cloud almost to the day that Davis was allowed entry to the laboratory). The transportation took 3 days over a hot June weekend so the possibility of some sample degradation is high.
4. Davis highlights gross errors in the calculation of Edwards’s testosterone/epitestosterone (T/ET) ratio.
5. The B sample container was damaged and had to be opened with a hacksaw.
6. A component was missing from the methods of calibration thus making them useless.
7. There was contamination of the water (which should be pure) used to test levels of T/ET.
8. Edwards produced 170ml of urine; the amount required for the laboratory to carry out, under its own protocol, the 51 analyses it says it did, was 200ml.
9. In a direct infringement of the then IOC Medical Code (now the WADA Code) Edwards’s A and B samples were checked by the same person in the laboratory.

Davis’s report has been read by six independent eminent scientists all of whom unreservedly support his findings. Any one of the above nine reasons alone would clear Edwards. All nine deliver a devastating critique of drug testing in this country. Gerry Sutcliffe said that Edwards’s case had been reviewed in 2002, 2004 and 2005; what he neglected to say was that those reviews had been carried out internally by the laboratory and UK Sport.

What is needed is the evidence to urgently go before the Court of Sports Arbitration (which should demand the release of evidence still being withheld) followed by an independent enquiry into this whole affair. In a criminal or civil court case the withholding of evidence by the prosecution would, irrespective of its validity, result in a case being thrown out. Paul Edwards’s human rights have been shamefully and mightily abused in the name of the greater good of drug testing. That is an Orwellian concept that should have no place in our society, let alone sport.

Friday, 12 October 2007

There'll always be an England

There'll always be an England/And England shall be free/If England means as much to you/As England means to me. (Parker & Charles)

The hoary and jingoistic wartime refrain above has been the theme song of those of an elderly persuasion who have fought tooth and nail to retain an English identity in British athletics. Most of them can hark back to those supposedly halcyon days of yore when the Amateur Athletic Association dominated not only the sport in Britain but, in its formative years, the world. This domination got up the noses of the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish but it was probably justified for England had (and has) approximately 85% of the athletes and clubs and 95% of any international team. At the last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne 18 of the 22 medals won by UK athletes were captured by those from England and two each by those from Scotland and Wales.

So it might come as something of a surprise that at the last count Scotland has a full-time staff of 20 operatives; Wales 13 and Northern Ireland 6. Total staffing – 39; England has 5 staff and the nine regions a maximum of 4 each. Total: 41. Try to explain to any alien who might enter into our orbit the fact that the “Celtic fringe” (15%) collectively has almost the same staffing to operate athletics as does England (85%) and you would, from a logical viewpoint, have some difficulty. You might also question the logic of the policy setting body (UKA) having the same number of staff as all those organisations who have to implement it But then as it does not do radical so our sport does not indulge itself with logic either.

The NW of England has four staff. The population of NW England exceeds that of Scotland and Northern Ireland combined and is well over double that of Wales. Further investigation would probably show that these statistics are reflected in terms of numbers of athletes, coaches, clubs etc. So, why the extraordinary imbalance in staffing? The answer lies in the politics of devolution over which no one in sport has any control and the politics of top athletics administrators who seem to have an irrational fear of the clubs and their more vociferous members. It is patently obvious, given the complex planning that is required in all areas of athletics, that a staff level of 4 is totally inadequate to do the job; the real question for debate is: what is the optimum number required to successfully run a particular region? Unfortunately that figure has already been arrived at in England and the answer is a blanket figure of four.

This firmly stipulated number is obviously not the outcome of considered consultation but is a result of the angry backlash by the grassroots against the overblown UKA bureaucracy that inexorably grew under David Moorcroft. The worry for those attempting to revive an English administration from the doldrums of seventeen years is that sensible staffing would invoke yet another grassroots rebellion.

Some would say that it has already begun. Having four professional operatives was just too much for the inaugural chairman of the NW region. In a much publicised resignation with a few others he felt that three was a perfectly sufficient number and objected to the imposition by England of a fourth. We must have democracy he cried. He’s about a hundred years too late.

At the forefront of criticism (much of it well founded) of UKA and undoubtedly of England when it finally gets going, is and will be the Association of British Athletics Clubs (ABAC). It will disappoint some I know in the organisation when I say that I have always had doubts about it. I’m not sure who it represents; I know what it’s against but haven’t a clue what it’s for so I have some scepticism.

A few weeks ago I caught a debate on radio between a mild mannered women MP who chaired a Commons committee and an exceedingly arrogant, loud mouthed biker. The subject was the considerable number of deaths incurred by motor cyclists on the roads of Britain. All attempts at coming up with an agreed solution to the carnage failed because the biker shouted the MP down by constantly bawling: “Back off, back off. Leave it to us.” I think that UKA Chairman Ed Warner had a similar experience with a club man early in his tenure.

This mantra, common amongst club officials, shows a collective amnesia to even the recent past. They invoke a halcyon time that never was because the history of athletics politics in Britain is worthy of Shakespeare, full of conspiracies, plots and treason. Not many top officials have left our sport without a metaphorical knife between the shoulder blades, plotted to oblivion by some faction or other.

One prominent official sighed to me recently, “If it all crashes down athletics will still go on.” It is a false hope because a large proportion of our clubs are, as Jack Buckner’s excellent report on competition points out, incapable of coming to terms with modern society. Jack became the Dr. Doolittle of athletics – he talked to the athletes, something that officials and administrators have hitherto seemingly deemed impossible. And what he heard made him realise that the situation in our sport is far worse than he imagined. So, sorry ABAC there is no back to the future.

What should be the way forward? I suppose the first question is: should there be an England entity at all? Back in 1991 the clubs of England voted for BAF to be set up on a regional basis not a national one but in the best traditions of Tammany Hall those in charge of England added the AAA to the regional bodies that sat on the council of BAF thus ensuring, sooner rather than later, the demise of the new body. But as political devolution is here to stay the question is actually irrelevant anyway.

If there is to be an England then it must have the same autonomy as the “Celtic fringe” countries. It’s funding from Sport England must be direct and proportional by its size to the funding received by the other national bodies. Its terms of reference must be clear as must its relationship with UK Athletics – it would be so easy to return to the days of trouble and strife. It must have a good working partnership with its nine regions allowing them to exercise flexibility concomitant with the state of the sport in their respective areas.

England has a great opportunity to set a vision for athletics in this country something which UK Athletics sadly seems incapable of doing. It must show leadership; it certainly must be more transparent in its dealings with athletics at large; it must insist that the sport is athlete and not club centred. It must lessen its reliance on government and lottery handouts by gaining sponsorship and it must finally stand up to those Luddites who have vociferously opposed a registration scheme for almost fifteen years.

England’s administration and those of its regions must consist of a blend of youthful dynamism and experience – for over a decade now the sport in this country has totally ignored the experience available to it and it shows.

Its officers must display what the Spanish call cojones in its dealings with government, sports councils, UKA and the ubiquitous militant tendency within athletics. In those dealings when conditions are laid down or opposition is mooted they must be prepared to insist on answers to a pertinent one word question – Why?

Time is fast running out for 2012 and England and its regions should be thinking in the longer term with a vision to make the major Olympic sport in this country attractive and entertaining again.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Osaka Review 3

The novelist William Boyd once wrote that “hindsight is a great retrospective tidier and organiser of the forking paths we have taken” and as we look back a decade we can see that the moment the British Athletics Federation (BAF) went bust and UKA was born was a fatal moment for the sport in Britain when the downward spiral of international success, of the diminution of numbers of participants, officials and coaches began.

At just this moment in time it was decided after the Atlanta Olympics and the worst ever medal showing for twenty years by the overall BOA team that something must be done and medals must be won, so lottery funding and the emergence of UK Sport and Sport England from the shadows into the all-powerful players of British sport began. Opportunely, like manna from heaven, into their laps popped the major Olympic sport, battered, bruised and penniless.

Basically BAF, with the aggravating sore of the AAA of England in its side, had self destructed. I cannot remember a time (and I go back a fair way) when athletics has not been in an administrative turmoil: volunteers against professionals, the regions against the AAA, the AAA versus the British Board and the AAA of England versus BAF. Road running against the rest, cross country versus track and the clubs, those sanctified untouchables, against anybody they can think of. It’s never been a pretty sight and, of course, it’s still going on. I defy anyone to find me a more disharmonious (and therefore dysfunctional) sport than athletics in Britain.

The respective graphs of decline, if applied to a commercial organisation, would alarm its chairman and chief executive to such an extent that they would surely conclude that radical action is urgently needed. The first problem with British athletics is and has been that it doesn’t do radical and this frustrates some within the federation who wish to radically address failures within their remit. Secondly, because it does not have very much independent funding the federation appears in total thrall to UK Sport and Sport England.

When, in 1999, I interviewed Howard Darbon, the then Director of Organisational Development at Sport England, his anger at the amateurs who had led his sport (he was very active with Bedford and County AC) to disaster was evident. He was determined that the idea, long cherished, that amateurs could run a professional sport, would no longer prevail. In setting up UK Athletics in its own image (a completely professional individual sports quango which was totally undemocratic) it unleashed upon athletics in this country an organisation somewhat akin to the court of the Emperor Haile Selassie in Addis Ababa. UK Athletics is a huge (biggest in the IAAF family by far), Kafkaesque bureaucracy where all individuality and even freedom of athletics thought must be stifled in order for British athletics to conform with the One Stop Plan and the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) demanded by UK Sport and Sport England. Control is the name of the game.

I have had sight of two documents: the Funding Agreement with UK Sport and a letter from Sport England outlining information appertaining to KPIs, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The Funding Agreement indicates, quite clearly, that UK Sport completely controls the work of UK Athletics, that the piper does not just call the tune but plays all the instruments as well. It is full of demands and restrictions which, in view of the sport’s chequered financial history, are probably understandable. But it does not recognise (because it appears to be mainly a template document for all governing bodies) the wonderful uniqueness of athletics in that it is virtually 15 sports in one. No other major sport can produce such a variety of activity or variety of athlete (using the word in its widest context).

UK Sport has produced a High Level Goal for Beijing of 5 medals. It does not matter where they come from; it is a catch-all target that clearly has nothing to do with the overall development of the sport. So if, for arguments sake, we attained medals in all four relays and the 50k walk in the Chinese capital all would be well, the champagne corks would pop and there would be much mutual back-slapping and telegrams of congratulations irrespective of the fact that back in Britain athletics will not have changed one iota. This is a game of Fantasy Athletics, where as long as boxes are ticked the ultimate prizes must surely be won.

The Sport England document covers UK Athletics Key Performance Indicator targets for 2006-07. Two examples suffice: one shows that in the Active People survey 244,481 adults said they participated in athletics (not running or jogging) once a month whereas the baseline figure for club membership was established at 96,000. This absurdly suggests that 60% of people using an athletic track are, to use our jargon, unattached. The second shows that the target for increasing the number of Level 1 coaches between 2007 and 2009 is 2000. Level 1 coaches are not allowed to coach on their own so the figure begs the question as to where the mentors of these new recruits are to come from to enable them to function? What actually happens is that the vast majority of Level 1 coaches move no further up the qualification ladder but are content to just add it to their CVs or they coach but aren’t supervised. Have these targets been arrived through consultation and negotiation (in which case who in the sport must take responsibility for the fiction arrived at) or have they been imposed? The sport at large is entitled to know.

Such analysis is irrelevant in our tick-a-box world that produces plans and resources that do not necessarily produce relevant action. I am constantly told that a co-ordinator or a committee or panel have set up an Action Plan but I look around me and find little or no delivery. But the relevant box has been ticked and as an ancient Arab saying has it, the dogs have barked and the caravan moves on.

In what is generally known as the Golden Era of British athletics, that period of brilliance between 1980 and 1993, our athletes won a total of 72 medals, including 17 gold, at eight global championships. In the same period 9 British athletes set 23 world records. Between 1997 and 2007, also covering eight global championships and the tenure of UKA, British athletes won 36 medals including 9 gold and set no world records (though to be fair Jonathan Edwards set one in triple jump in 1995). In other words the new regime for the sport, covering an equal number of global championships and spending millions on elite athletes and itself, has seen a 50% reduction in the numbers of medals won.

There is an argument that there is a financial imperative for our sport to be in bondage to lottery funding and the bureaucrats who administer it; that imperative is that British athletes have to be financially and physically supported in order to compete on an equal footing on the world stage. It has some small merit. In the Golden Era our medal winners earnt their crust first unofficially and then officially on the European circuit of grand prix meetings mainly thanks to the entrepreneurial skills of the now sadly missed Andy Norman; today we have very few athletes who are on the promoters’ “must have” lists. But this argument falls down when you realise that in the past decade the 36 medals were won by just 14 athletes, at least seven of whom will have priced themselves out of lottery funding. It is an interesting thought that Christine Ohuruogu, our only individual gold medal winner in Osaka, received no funding in 2006-07 and indeed had to find many thousands of pounds in her attempts to appeal against the pernicious sentence imposed upon her by UK Sport and UK Athletics.

The annual turnover in the Golden Era averaged about £8 million (at its peak about £10 million) of which salaries at BAF took up about £½ million. At UKA the salaries have hovered around the £2 million mark and in 2005-06 a further £1.9 million was spent on world class performance. Look at the state of the sport today from international performances to grass roots and schools athletics and you have to question whether our sport is spending (under sport councils’ guidance) public and lottery money wisely. We are clearly not on a pathway to paradise.

The craziness goes on. Next week we’ll look at England and its nine regions (almost 90% of the sport in this country), its funding and its staffing together with the Ludditism that is still so prevalent in our clubs.