Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Immoral Imperatives

Diane Modahl

In 1991 I wrote a book, Athletics: The Golden Decade (still available from Amazon!) which was well received critically. In a chapter Sporting Salem I wrote at the unease I felt at some of the hysteria being induced by undue zealotry in drug testing which had followed the sensational dope positive of Ben Johnson at the Seoul Olympics of 1988. Three years after publication all those worst fears were justified by the case of Diane Modahl who, in 1994, went through two subsequent years of emotional and financial hell to clear her name after highly dubious drug testing procedures at a laboratory in Portugal, sanctioned by the then British federation.

Seventeen years on from The Golden Decade we seem no further forward. Last year Christine Ohuruogu underwent unpardonable tabloid abuse for her forgetfulness in missing three tests. Now, following the BALCO scandal and the subsequent jailing of Marion Jones, we find ourselves gripped by a similar hysteria and worry. It has caused witch hunting of the kind experienced in the Massachusetts village of Salem in 1692, an hysteria compellingly dramatised by the late Arthur Miller in his play (and later film) The Crucible.

In the Golden Decade I wrote:

“…drug cheating strikes at the very core of a lifetime’s belief for so many people; belief in the ethos of fair play, in the purity of equal competition. If Britain was the mother of modern sport and its Olympian ideals it was felt right that we should impose the most Draconian penalties upon those who abuse the concepts that we invented. The danger in our approach would come – and there were some so passionate about the issue that they could take us there – when, as Miller had written ‘the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organised.’ “

Drug taking in sport is a highly emotional issue, it stirs visceral and understandable anger, it goes against almost every reason to take part in sport at all. For those who have been denied Olympic fame and fortune by drug cheats the anguish must be great. It is why, for so many, the punishment is clear and simple: banishment from sport for life.

But there are many problems. Drug testing procedures are far from watertight; the whole concept of strict liability goes against natural justice; the quasi-courts seem loaded against the alleged transgressor who, guilty or no, is forced into very expensive legal representation in order to face the “prosecution.” And if cleared there is no compensation as Modahl would angrily verify; quasi drug courts cannot offer costs.

And there is the million dollar question: just how serious, how widespread is the problem in actuality? Do a handful of high profile cases really warrant Miller’s “heavy repressions of order”? Are we, by listening to some, in danger of wandering, with our eyes wide shut, into an Orwellian world, where tagging (as seriously suggested by some) is a portent of quite absurd ideas of repression and where athletes’ human rights would be far more abused than they are now?

This year is the 20th anniversary of the year that the Olympic movement suffered, through Ben Johnson, an almost mortal blow. You would think that two decades is long enough for sport to get its act together but that is far from the case. Combating doping in sport is still a mess. There have been fluctuating periods of banishment from four to two years and now in some cases back to four again; sports and countries vary in their attitudes and implementation of the rules; there is uncertainty about some of the prohibited substances; the World Anti Doping Agency was set up in 1999 and literally tens of millions of dollars have been spent on its work with little or no change in the overall picture in nine years and now UKA, a signatory to WADA laws, is contemplating subverting the ethos of them by introducing bylaws.

All this is caused by anger that legal restrictions and human rights frustrate the most zealous in their attempts to eradicate sport doping. Their problem is that repression is the name of their game; no mention by UKA of educating young athletes against doping; no attempts, as UK Sport’s former head of anti-doping Michelle Verroken has pointed out, at our federation rehabilitating the very few offenders that we have had, back into the sport. .

I am also angered by those who pervert sport by taking drugs; they must be severely but legally punished. But I am angered as well by slackness or even deliberate manipulation of testing procedures to obtain “the right result”. I am angered too by the smug sanctimony of the British Olympic Association and its infringement of sportsmen’s human rights by injustly trying them twice for the same offence.

According to the Gospel of Luke “joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth over ninety and nine just persons who have no need of repentance.” I have not seen over the past two weeks any Christian redemption offered by UK Sport or UK Athletics or the BOA to the battered but still in there punching Dwain Chambers.

Now we have an “independent” review headed by Dame Tanni Grey Thompson who has already supported UKA in its recent endeavours and indicated that she thinks eight years is a suitable punishment for serious drug offences. What is actually needed is a truly independent international review of doping in sport, similar to the Dubin enquiry in Canada after the Johnson affair.

So I am also angered (as you may have read) by UK Athletics’ new CEO, Nils de Vos, who through naivety and lack of background in the sport, opened a Pandora’s Box of hysteria, of verbal and media lynching of an athlete, Dwain Chambers, who under WADA and IAAF rules is eligible to compete both in Britain and Valencia. de Vos has also failed to acknowledge UKA’s very serious blunder in not testing Chambers for fifteen months because the organisation assumed that he had retired.

The American writer Joan Didion wrote:

“…When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking…that it is a moral imperative that we have [something] then is when we join the fashionable madmen and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.”

Dwaine Chambers

But we must be thankful for small mercies. Congratulations must be in order to UK Athletics, under its present management, for surely being the first ever federation in the world to select an eligible athlete for a championship and then, with the connivance of UK Sport and Fast Track, do all it conceivably can to impede his chances of success.

Bring in the clowns? Don’t worry they’re here.


slimjim said...

You have left out Athletics Weekly from the list of DC's persecutors. The Editorial two weeks ago was extraordinarily vitriolic and appeared to have the sole purpose of supporting UKA after they had failed to nail Dwain.

Anonymous said...


Just a small point, the CEO of UKA is NIELS de Vos. Let us, at least, do him the courtesy of spelling his name correctly.