Christine Ohuruogu: sporting hero or villain?

In the Kafkaesque world of athletics drug-testing, admirable world champions like British runner Ohuruogu will always be tainted with suspicion.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Sporting-wise, it’s been a good year for national failure. We’ve seen Lewis Hamilton bungle in Brazil, those rugger chaps buggering it up at the Parc des Princes, and most spectacular of all, a football team prompt a booing contest at Wembley. In fact, such was the invective raining down on the wretched Steve McClaren that his decision to protect his Flock of Seagulls barnet with an umbrella looked uncharacteristically sensible.

Despite the unremitting gloom, however, there have actually been some sporting achievements worth celebrating. One such is Christine Ohuruogu’s 400m gold medal at the World Athletics Championships in August. What made this all the more impressive is that it was achieved on the back of just five prior races following a year-long suspension from all competition. Add to that the withdrawal of lottery funding and £20,000 worth of legal debt, and you’ve got a sporting achievement genuinely worthy of admiration. All the more reason, you’d think, for seeing Tuesday’s decision to overturn the remaining life-time ban from Olympic competition as the perfect coda to a triumphant against-the-odds story. Except that’s not exactly how Ohuruogu’s plight has been viewed. Rather, as is often the case in athletics, all praise and celebration are shot through with suspicion and innuendo. With good cause, you might think – after all, she didn’t incur a ban for nothing.

Well, perhaps she did. Under current International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules, an athlete must notify testers as to their whereabouts for one hour a day, five days a week. At some point the tester will then turn up at the specified location and, if the athlete is not only absent but has also failed to alert the tester beforehand, it counts as a missed test. Although an athlete is permitted two missed tests within five years of each other, should there come a third non-attendance, that’s it, they’re banned. Ohuruogu was found guilty of missing three such tests, despite providing plausible reasons for doing so. When you consider that she was tested regularly before and after each missed test – 14 times in the last year alone – it shows how improbable it is that she could ever have used ‘performance enhancing’ drugs without detection.

But evidence of drug use is not really the issue here. Rather, the problem is the inexorable suspicion of drug use. Hence, serving a year’s ban will never be enough for some – she now needs to show more contrition. ‘Say sorry’, John Inverdale pleads. ‘This case is not just about Ohuruogu. It’s about a sport that is fighting for its survival in the television marketplace as public interest and faith wane.’ (1)

But what exactly should she say sorry for? What more can she or, indeed, anyone do to redeem athletics from the corruption with which it seems permanently tainted? If she said sorry, would that not make us more suspicious? And here we encounter a key paradox: with each petty nostrum and each resulting measure, the IAAF’s attempts to assuage public suspicion actually seem to exacerbate it. It’s increasingly difficult to watch any athletics, particularly the sprints, without the suspicion of doping insinuating itself into the spectacle. It seems the desperation to enforce ever proliferating anti-drugs rules and regulations has produced a situation in which every competitor appears guilty. Kafka would be proud.

But, like (Joseph) K, what do athletes really have to be guilty about, apart from being, well, human? Such ambiguity is apparent in the IAAF’s own clunky jargon of ‘performance enhancement’. Who wouldn’t want to enhance their performance? I’m not advocating replying to emails with subject lines like ‘V1agr8’, but since we first started using tools, humans have always tended to enhance their performance, athletic or otherwise. In fact, if that historical dynamic were absent, we wouldn’t have advanced much beyond hunting and gathering.

However, by persisting with such a socially determined view of performance enhancement, the IAAF and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) become hostages to their own prejudice. Why should the ingestion of one substance be deemed ‘doping’ and the other approved as a dietary supplement? They all affect, indeed, enhance performance. Or why is a shot of Erythropoietin (EPO) prohibited and training at high altitude not? Both serve the same end: the increased production of red blood cells. That the IAAF draws its lines in permanently shifting sand is clear when one notes that in 1999 both caffeine and pseudo-ephredine were deemed to performance enhancers, while in 2003 they were not (2).

Yes, there is the problem that certain drugs – anabolic steroids, say – have serious side effects; men grow breasts while their testes shrink, and women develop beards and voices like Tom Waits. But that’s enough about PE teachers…

Aspiring to sporting excellence always involves the risk of hurting or damaging one’s body, so why make such a fuss about the risks from drugs? It’s not couch potatoes like me straining abductor muscles or fracturing metatarsals; it’s the supremely fit sports person. Pushing your body to the limit entails the risk of damaging it. Sitting down watching people pushing their bodies to the limits involves admiration. And crisps.

Until we get rid of the arbitrary distinction between what is artificially as opposed to naturally enhancing performance, we’ll be forever suspecting the latter of being the former – which, of course, it is. But for now, even the most innocent will be perceived as guilty. ‘No matter what [Christine Ohuruogu] achieves in the future’, concludes Simon Barnes, ‘every piece ever written about her will include some such line as “comma who was banned for a year for missing three drugs tests comma”’. And how petty is that?

Tim Black is a regular writer for spiked.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

Read on: spiked issue sport

(1) Christine Ohuruogu should say ‘sorry’, John Inverdale, Daily Telegraph, 28 November 2007

(2) The drugs do work, Robin McKie, Observer, 4 February 2007

(3) She can run, but this golden girl can never outrun the disasters of her past, Simon Barnes, 30 August 2007

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