Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Racing Demons

At the Seoul Olympics in 1988 the sprinter Ben Johnson, who had won gold in the 100 metres, tested positive for an anabolic steroid, was immediately stripped of his medal, his world record and unceremoniously bundled back to Canada midst a global media frenzy.
He became demonized. Humankind always seems to need an embodiment of what it loves or hates and as far as athletics and indeed sport was concerned Johnson perfectly fitted the bill for “cheating”. He was banned, vilified and hauled before the Dubin Enquiry in Canada and the nation expected public recantation and remorse. Other Canadian athletes were caught up in the Dubin net and confessed to drug taking. It was a dark time for Canadian athletics. But Johnson would not do what everyone wanted and creep away into the night. He attempted a comeback; it was unsuccessful. Sport was mightily relieved when he finally retired; it could pretend that the nightmare had never happened.
Fast forward two decades and we now have demonized Dwain, the new European indoor champion and record holder, the third fastest man over 60 metres in the history of the sport. The extraordinary thing about his case is that after testing positive Chambers was ‘sentenced’ to a 2 year ban for THG, served his time, tried out other sports and then decided to return to athletics for a second time in 2008, two and a quarter years after he was eligible to do so.
I say for a second time because what seems to have been forgotten midst the holier-than-thou chest beating and wailing is that he actually returned from his ban in 2006, ran second in the European Cup and, more significantly, competed in the Gateshead Grand Prix in June. So what had changed by February 2008 to make his second coming such a global cause celebre and to have him banned by European promoters and constantly vilified?
It was his association with the sensational revelations surrounding the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), the jailing of Marion Jones for perjury, the insidious winks and hints from BALCO owner Victor Conte, the disclosures about world record holders Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin and baseball legend Barry Bonds. For the second time in two decades athletics had been dragged through the mud. In the eyes of many Chambers is a living personification of all that. And because he too will not creep away into the night the demonization continues apace, fuelled by avaricious tabloids.
This coming June the Gateshead Grand Prix will be held again but, as things stand, Chambers will not be there. He is the same athlete with the same sins that competed in 2006; it’s the same promoter and the same federation. The IAAF tells me: “There is no "ban" by Euro meetings - there is a recommendation NOT to invite doped athletes. They can’t ban anyone - only the IAAF can do that.” So why is UK Athletics welcoming back Dwain Chambers on the one hand (and revelling in his success) but banning him from its two lucrative televised meetings on the other? Who’s in charge, UKA or its promotions arm, Fasttrack?

I have asked UKA these questions but they have disdained to reply. We now have organizations that are no more than cabals under our sports quangos, cabals who believe that their actions are not the business of the sport as a whole.

The question as to who is the final arbiter as far as our grand prix meetings are concerned becomes even more pertinent with the news that Gerard Janetzky, the promoter of the opening Golden League meeting of 2009, the DKB-ISTAF meeting in Berlin, has decided that enough is enough and invited Chambers to compete at his meeting, on 14 June.

“I’m surprised Chambers is viewed as the root of all evil,” Janetzky said, putting it in a nutshell. “There have been plenty of athletes who were allowed to start after sitting out their ban, so why should Chamber’s punishment be worse?”

But Chambers seems determined on keeping himself a pariah. Firstly his book about his time as a doped up sprinter hit the stands around the same time as he was winning a gold medal for Britain. Secondly it has transpired that he is keeping in contact with Conte and taking his advice. Who is advising this man? Is anyone advising him? My argument is not about Chambers but about justice and underhand attempts to circumvent the law.

Chambers is a lost soul in the wilderness and if British Athletics is to continue to revel in his success it must do more to help him. It could begin by scourging the hypocrisy in its midst, and let him compete in its televised meetings.

The IAAF bemoans the fact that it did not have a rule, when Chambers returned to the sport, that specified that all his ill gotten gains from athletics (put at $200,000) when he was on drugs, must be paid back before he could compete again. With the Euromeets ban this would effectively mean a lifetime ban. The world governing body needs to make its mind up. If it wants a lifetime ban for drug taking then it should institute one and test it in the courts.

John Rodda

I was deeply saddened to read of the death of John Rodda, who wrote on athletics for the Guardian between 1960 and 1992. John was the doyen and most respected of athletics writers. His contacts with the sport were at the very highest level as those of us, on the other side of the fence as it were, all too frequently discovered.
I had known John for many years but we came into closer and more frequent contact during my decade- long tenure as Media spokesman for the sport. Those were the halcyon days of the 80s and early 90s when British athletes ruled Europe and in some events the world. John was an exceptional writer; his work was incisive and imbued with tremendous knowledge. His finest journalistic moment came in 1968 and had nothing to do with athletics. He was in Mexico City for the Olympics when hundreds of student demonstrators were gunned down just before the Games opened. John was the only Guardian correspondent in Mexico and his dispatches from the capital showed that he would have been a top journalist no matter what the field.
He wrote a history of the Olympics with the IOC President, Lord Killanin; he served on the IAAF Press Commission for many years; he covered ten Olympic Games for his paper; he helped Seb Coe make a report to the IOC; he assisted Andy Norman make a presentation to an IAAF Congress that changed the face of international athletics; he knew Olympic politics inside out. John was not only a reporter on athletics but a lover of the sport as well.
His other sporting love was boxing, which he also covered for his paper, writing on some of the great title fights of the second half of the 20th century.
My best memory of John is of the European Championships in Helsinki in 1994. I was walking through the grounds of the Athlete’s Village when my mobile rang. A familiar voice greeted me and then said: “Can you confirm that a British athlete has tested positive?” I couldn’t so I said that I would get back to him. I turned heel and went back to the restaurant where team manager Verona Elder and team doctor Malcolm Brown were in very close conference. They stopped talking. “I know,” I said, “what you’ve been talking about.” It was the celebrated case of Solomon Wariso and a supplement called Up Your Gas and John had obtained yet another scoop.
John’s retirement lunch was held at the celebrated Ivy Restaurant in London. One of the gifts presented to him was a photograph of him sitting next to the then IAAF President, Primo Nebiolo, who was obviously desperately trying to talk himself out of a probing question. The expression, peering over his reading glasses, on John’s face was wonderfully sceptical. He loved athletes but was rightly suspicious of most administrators.
When you think of John it is of a remembrance of times past, of an era when athletics was always in the news. Those days are gone but we will long remember him as, in the very best sense, a fine gentleman.

1 comment:

timborun said...

Tony, I read your piece on Dwain Chambers with interest. I think many people would empathise with much of what you say on the issue.

But my question is this – if not now, just when is the "catch them, punish them, welcome them back" cycle supposed to end? The “we should forgive” philosophy would be fine if our sport were not losing numbers in droves and struggling to hold its own against a multitude of other attractions. Who can blame the closely observing parents for not taking the kids down to the local track, if their belief is that the sport is “dirty and not really trying to change”?

Or do you suggest that the cycle mentioned above is acceptable and doesn't need to have an end? One thing we do know - that every time a "big" name in any sport is caught for taking illegal substances, it grabs headlines. It is much the same whether the person is an Athlete, Cyclist, Footballer, or Rugby Player. But Athletics has now taken so many knocks in recent years - actually not all "recent", as you mention Ben Johnson and the events of 1988 - that one wonders whether it is OK to suggest, as Gerard Janetzky (meeting promoter of the Berlin Golden League) has said, words to the effect of "Why single out Dwain?".

Well, because at some point surely, the sport has to say “enough is enough!”. This can be done by making the decision to stop inviting athletes, those of the "caught, banned and returned" variety, back in to the sport. This in effect, was done last year - as you point out, by informal agreement of Euromeeting promoters - and it was a timely move. Our sport of Track & Field Athletics simply cannot take many more hits; plenty of people believe it is dying on it's feet due to these all too frequent hits, rather like a punch-drunk boxer. It is one thing catching and banning a cheating athlete; it is quite another then welcoming them back, time and time again, with open arms, to continue in the sport.

What ever the perception of you or I or anyone else deeply involved in the sport of Athletics, the public perception I believe, is of a sport that doesn't really care about athletes on drugs, so long as it is seen to be doing things “by the rules”. Welcome Dwain back? Maybe. But at some point, surely we have to say to one of these "ex-cheats" that they are, unfortunately for them (and all following), the first of a generation of cheats that are NOT welcome back. The future is bright – but only if hard decisions are made.