Positive contradictions in reporting drugs

By Steven Downes
I wonder what Hank Aaron is thinking today? Actually, we can probably guess, because Aaron, now the former holder of baseball’s career record for home runs, has seen the juiced-up juggernaut that is Barry Bonds heading his way for a few years now, ever since the San Francisco Giant was outed as one of the best customers at the Bay Area Laboratories – or Balco, the source of America’s greatest ever doping controversy.

But more to the point, what must the journalists who broke the story of Bonds, Balco and the pills, creams and potions that prolonged and propelled the slugger’s record-breaking career, be thinking?

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams have made their career reputations from the Sports Illustrated cover stories, the best-selling book, and the often near-daily front-page exclusives which over the past five years or so have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the Balco story, changed perceptions of steroid use in the United States for ever, and which nearly saw the reporters going to jail to protect their sources.

It was Fainaru-Wada and Williams who nailed Bonds’ false reputation. And it was their newspaper which today carried the triumphal headline celebrating Bonds’ achievement: “The new king of swing”. So how must they be feeling about that?*

Even after the Balco revelations, Bonds actually tested positive for amphetamines last year, but again escaped all punishment. So his “achievement” of 756 home runs is full of ambivalence for the American public. There is a sense of acknowledgement of the fact, but disapproval of the methods used to attain it. And a reluctance to do anything about it at all.

“Some cheered. At least as many booed. But in baseball there is no arguing with statistics. Barry Lamar Bonds, the most divisive figure in American sport, has hit his 755th home run, to own a share of American sport’s most revered and celebrated record,” was how Rupert Cornwell, writing in The Independent, covered Bonds’ pre-record homer.

There’s a line from the funeral scene in Julius Caesar, about being there to bury Caesar, not to praise him. It ought to be apt for sports reporters covering Bonds’ so-called record. Yet few seem prepared to say that it is no sort of record at all, because without being juiced, Bonds would probably have retired, well short of the record, like a ball whacked towards the outfield but which trundles to the boards after being hit with only a fraction of the power he has been able to display.

Our whole attitude to the issue of what is, and what is not, allowable in sport, and how we report on it is replete with confusion and contradictions.

Heike Drechsler, the former East German long jumper, used anabolic steroids in a career that saw her twice win Olympic golds. We know this because we have documents from the Stasi secret police and the woman’s own admission. But Drechsler, pictured left, never got caught with a positive test, and her admission came after she was forced to admit her lifelong lie in a German court.

Germany’s sports authorities now say that as Drechsler behaves herself and makes all the right noises (having banked all her steroid-boosted medals, winnings and endorsement income), she is a suitable person to put forward for election to high office with the world athletics body. There is a convenience to that sort of argument that once saw NASA recruiting German rocket scientists because it would help them to put a man on the moon.

Earlier this week, a colleague, Natasha Woods, produced a compelling piece of work when she sought out the views of an unnamed (and un-namable) former athlete on what it is like to know you are competing against running chemical experiments.

“In my time it was a really strange state of affairs, very in your face,” the ex-sportsman confided in Woods. “The athletes who were taking drugs knew the rest of us were aware of what they were doing. Basically, they would just look at those of us who weren’t doping and shake their heads. It was as if they were wondering why we even bothered turning up when we knew we couldn’t beat them.”

Then, this week, an athlete who has never failed a drugs test, and whom the Court for Arbitration in Sport confirmed was certainly not using drugs, started her comeback after a year’s enforced absence.

It is the widespread belief that Christine Ohuruogu has had to serve a one-year ban for three missed out of competition tests because of her administrative error in trying to operate an unmanageable system.

Ohuruogu has been rushed back into the British team by UK Athletics, the very organisation which oversaw the original situation that led to the Commonwealth 400m champion missing three out of competition tests.

Whether Ohuruogu (pictured right) is able to compete at the Olympics next year remains in doubt. The British Olympic Association has a rule (under review at present) that bans anyone with a doping offence from ever competing for Britain at the Olympics. Except those who appeal: so far, in the past decade, the BOA has granted 25 of 28 appeals against its rule.

But such appeals cost money for the appellant, and after a year off the track (when, as Commonwealth champion, Ohuruogu might have expected to capitalise) and incurring the costs of fighting against her missed tests ban, the former student is skint and does not expect to be able to appeal.

Now here’s a strange twist. Ohuruogu’s agent is none other than the copper-bottomed drug cheat Linford Christie, who despite twice failing drugs tests during his career, is doing alright for himself. Indeed, his management company has just received more than £270,000 of public money from Sport England to run a series of kids’ street sprints.

The national newspaper and local TV coverage of Christie’s street sprints has been lavish and fond – and supported by Sport England’s PR machine and by athletics sponsors Norwich Union. But not a word has been uttered about Christie’s steroid-stained background. Like Drechsler, that inconvenient past is all best forgotten, apparently, by us hacks as well as sports officials.

Maybe we could really have something to report if Christie, even if only out of enlightened self-interest, were to fund Ohuruogu’s appeal against her Olympic ban?

* 5pm update: A few hours after this was posted, Williams and Fainaru-Wada filed a piece for the SF Chronicle. It does not quite put their view, but you may be able to read a little between the lines by clicking here

The views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the official position of the SJA

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