Monday, 2 June 2008

Cool It

It is unfortunate for the new 100 metre record holder Usain Bolt and track and field generally that the latter has contrived to get itself into such a mess over doping that the general public, having been regularly and monotonously assured that there is a huge menace out there, will not believe that his performance was “clean.”

The conviction of coach Trevor Graham in a San Francisco courtroom last week and a possible re-trial on other charges has added to the list of those, including Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, who have been found guilty not by the multi-million dollar testing systems but by lying to US federal agents investigating the BALCO drugs affair.

It is the height of irony that it was Graham who allegedly sent a syringe containing a hitherto unknown designer drug Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) to US testing agencies thus exposing the sordid activities of Victor Conte and his unseemly crew at the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. Among those involved was the former Ukrainian sprint coach, 76 year old Remi Korchemny to whom British sprinter Dwain Chambers was successfully urged to submit his undoubted talent.

At a conservative estimate one hundred million dollars is spent annually on drug testing in sport, including 20 million on the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) based in prestigious offices in Montreal. WADA is mainly funded by governments world wide and when cases like BALCO arise surely questions should be asked about the efficacy of the much vaunted testing programmes.

One of the major problems facing sport is that those involved with its governance are, when it comes to dealing with performing enhancing drugs, like the cowhand in a western saloon finding himself cheated at cards. The reaction, in both cases, is dramatically over emotional.

A classic case of this over-emotional response came in Britain earlier this year when Dwain Chambers decided to return to athletics after trying out at other sports. The relatively new CEO of the British federation, Neils de Vos, tried, despite the fact that Chambers had duly served a two year ban, to prevent him from competing in the UK World Indoor Trials thus contravening the existing IAAF and WADA laws. Promoters around Europe joined the bandwagon, jointly affirming that they would not invite “drug cheats” to their meetings. It is as if they had never heard of restraint of trade laws. Mr de Vos, who made many pronouncements, was made to look very silly indeed; Chambers ran and won, had to be selected for the World Indoor Championships and in Valencia duly won a silver medal.

It is emotional frustration surely that leads individuals and federations to flaunt their own rules when they feel they are inadequate. The British Olympic Association (BOA) has a sanctimonious by-law that bans anyone who has committed a drug offence from ever being selected for an Olympic Games. It not only flouts universal WADA laws but natural justice as well for it means sportsmen and women being tried twice for the same offence. It is the only such by-law in the world of sport (even condemned by the former head of WADA, Dick Pound, who found it unjust).

Then there are the cases when the testing systems have failed, most notably those of Diane Modahl, a case that not only made her bankrupt but was a major contributory factor in the British federation suffering a similar fate and that of Bernard Legat one of the world’s leading middle-distance runners plus many others in a number of sports.

There are also the Greek sprinters, Konstadinos Kederis and Ekaterini Thánou who became almost legendary in athletics through their evasions of random tests. Justice was finally achieved not by testing procedures finding them drug positive but by a test evasion too far in Athens on the eve of the 2004 Olympic Games.

Sport has also felt justified in bending its testing procedures in order to make sure that those it feels must be guilty do not escape sanction. In 1998 British shot putter Paul Edwards was found guilty of failing a test for a second time and was duly banned for life. His out of competition test was deeply flawed by shoddy procedures from the moment it was taken. Ten years on the case rumbles on with Edwards and his team constantly frustrated by prevarication and obfuscation by a government quango, UK Sport and its laboratory, including the flouting of Data Protection Laws. Again it is a feeling prevalent in sport that as far as drug testing goes the end justifies the means.

Sport has long felt that it so special, so precious that it should be considered above the law. It uses emotional language like “the war on drugs” in order to persuade politicians (to cough up more funding) and the public at large that it is involved in a massive fight against widespread drug abuse, when in fact its test figures show otherwise. Certainly in terms of test results the setting up of WADA in 1999 has not been justified; the results have stubbornly remained at around one percent positive.

Independent minds and cool judgments are needed in order to further promulgate dealing with doping in sport. Hair shirt type pronouncements must be abandoned; lessons must be learnt from the wider, social crusade against drug misuse; world wide rules and sanctions must be agreed and obeyed by all; there must be greater prominence given to campaigning and education; finally more emphasis must be placed on unearthing those who are encouraging drug taking and on those who supply them.

In Praise of…The BMC

A quarter of a century ago, when British miling was at a low ebb British coach Frank Horwill, a flamboyant and controversial character if ever there was one in athletics, suggested the formation of a specialist club to revive British middle-distance running. Today that organisation, the British Milers Club, through the work of many dedicated, voluntary running cognoscenti, stages literally hundreds of races, usually with a pacemaker, throughout the length and breadth of the land. Athletes have literally travelled hundreds of miles in order benefit from the races on its programme.

Though the club also organises coaching and training weekends it is in the field of competition where its greatest impact has lain. Those great middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, benefited from the BMC and their coaches, Peter Coe and the late Harry Wilson, were activists within the organisation.

There are, inevitably, criticisms of the club, some believing that its paced races lead to a general lack of tactical nous when it comes to major competition. But it is not the fault of the BMC if some coaches and athletes over indulge themselves with its races. A judicious mix of competition is what is required.

The amazing thing is that it is only in recent years that the UK federation has properly recognised the work of the BMC; even more amazing is the fact that other events or event groups have not followed suit.

The British Milers Club still remains a beacon of hope for British middle-distance running and long may it continue its great work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article putting the drug testing regime into perspective and its lack of real progress or success.
With regard to your final comments on the BMC, I would agree they do a splendid job in trying to move our middle distance runners forward towards world class, but unfortunately they have not really succeeded since the halcyon days of Ovett, Coe and Cram and the slow demise through Elliott et al. Why UK are unable to deliver athletes who can produce world class performances, (I have almost given up on gold middle distance medals), I would be happy to see at least world top 10 times from British athletes but they seem to remain forever elusive. Where are we going wrong???