Outrunning sport’s witch-finder generals

Christine Ohuruogu’s gold medal in the Olympic 400m is a victory over grey-faced, doping-obsessed bureaucrats.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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On Tuesday evening, the British sprinter Christine Ohuruogu stormed to a spectacular victory in the Olympics 400m. Having looked out of the medals going in to the home-straight, she rallied to produce one of those moments that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Such an against-the-odds victory is nothing new to Ohuruogu: a year ago she won a 400m gold medal at the World Athletics Championships in Osaka. What made this all the more impressive was that it was achieved on the back of just five prior races following a year-long drugs-related suspension from all competition. Add to that the withdrawal of lottery funding and £20,000 worth of legal debt, and you had a sporting achievement genuinely worthy of admiration.

But what should at the time have been a cause for celebration provoked something of a lament from sports writer Simon Barnes: ‘No matter what she achieves in the future 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”’ (1). Following Ohuruogu’s stunning Olympic victory, Barnes’ regretful insight has proved prescient.

‘Ohuruogu has perfect answer but the questions run and run’, anounced The Times yesterday after her Olympic victory (2). It seems no report on Ohuruogu’s achievement can do without the obligatory drug-ban caveat. Some have gone even further. ‘The rest of Britain’s Olympics medallists in Beijing are heroes and heroines’, growled Oliver Holt in the Mirror. ‘But Ohuruogu’s not. She’s just someone who got away with it.’ (3)

As is often the case in athletics, all praise and celebration is shot through with either suspicion and innuendo, or, in the case of those who’ve cheated at some point in their career, throat-scraping outrage. Even Usain Bolt’s spectacular record-breaking feats in the 100 and 200 metres have struggled to pass without the raising of eye-brows. But in Ohuruogu’s case, perhaps the suspicion is justified – after all, she didn’t incur a year-long ban for nothing, did she?

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 2006/7 alone – it shows how improbable it is that she could have used recognised ‘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 in sport. A suspicion, it seems, that can only be exorcised by proclamations of ‘being clean’, or, in the case of athletics sinners, penance ever-lasting. Hence, serving a finite ban will never be enough for some. As Dwain Chambers found to his cost, and Ohuruogu may well do, it is not sufficient simply ‘to do one’s time’; the athlete also has to show the right level of contrition. ‘Say sorry’, John Inverdale pleaded. ‘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.’ (4)

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. Indeed, it’s the crusade against drug use in sport, and not drug use itself, that has generated the grounds for suspicion and, more often, cynicism.

For spectators today, 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 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 historically limited, not to mention arbitrary view of performance enhancement, the IAAF and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) become hostages to their own prejudice. Why should the use of the latest swimsuit be acceptably performance enhancing, and a steroid not? (5) Why should the ingestion of one substance be deemed ‘doping’ and the other approved as a dietary supplement? All of these things 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 be performance enhancers, while in 2003 they were not (6).

Unfortunately, so wedded are the anti-doping missionaries to their mistaken cause that they threaten to ruin the sporting spectacle. Until the unrelenting, interminable witch-hunt against ‘drug cheats’ stops, the Kafkaesque officialdom of athletics will continue to make villains of sporting heroes, and cynics of sporting spectators. Let us be grateful that Christine Ohuruogu outran these witch-finder generals this week. For now.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black called Dwain Chambers’ fight against his ban from the Olympics sport’s last great hope. Sean Collins described how baseball’s drug witch-hunts undermined the game. Dan Travis wondered who’s afraid of drugs in sport? Elsewhere, he lamented the collapse of school sport into mere activity and Matthias Heitmann argued that Tour de France competitors should be allowed to take drugs. Or read more at spiked issue: Sport.

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

(2) Ohuruogu has perfect answer but the questions run and run, The Times, 20 August 2008

(3) Christine Ohuruogu won Britain’s 16th gold last night – but I don’t count it, Mirror, 20 August 2008

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

(5) See Geoff Kidder’s Olympic blog, part 3, Culture Wars, 14 August 2008

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

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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