Wise up, and let’s catch the real cheats

Christine Ohuruogu, 400m world champion, this week had her appeal against a lifetime ban from selection for Britain’s Olympic teams granted following her one-year ban for missing three drugs tests. SIMON BARNES says 2.9 cheers to that
She is the most reviled British gold medal-winner to have run on the track. And that’s rum, really, because normally we are as soppy as hell about our golden girls. But when Christine Ohuruogu won the 400 metres at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, in August, she was promoted to the company of those who can do no right.

“Please don’t let this be the face of our London Olympics,” The Sun, our emotional sister, begged. The face in question is strong, female and black: never a good combination for red-top editors. Ohuruogu made admirable casting as villain of the week.

Well, now the way has been cleared for her to run at the Olympic Games in Beijing next year and, if we are all saved, in London four years on. No doubt the ranters will have their say again. And they’ll be wrong.

Ohuruogu did not test positive for drugs. Nor did she swerve a test when she knew that the testers were waiting for her, which was the offence of Rio Ferdinand, the England footballer. Her error was all to do with the complexities of out-of-competition drugs testing.

An athlete has to be available at certain agreed places and times in case the testers show up. The whole point is the random nature of the business. There is a certain tolerance in the system and it works like the high jump and baseball. Third failure and you’re out.

Ohuruogu failed to show up at the right place and time three times in 18 months and, frankly, that’s pretty bloody stupid. It’s also a sporting crime; it has to be if we want drug-free sport. Ohuruogu was banned for a year, and so she should have been. Grow up, get your act together, try to behave like a professional.

She will always have this crime on her CV. Again, quite right. Every time we write about her, no matter what she has just achieved, the missed tests will have to be mentioned. That’s only right. The consensus in athletics is that Ohuruogu was guilty of bad diary-keeping rather than evil practice, but, hey, nobody takes anything about drugs on trust these days, not from anybody.

But she has done her porridge. She saw out her year; not, like Ferdinand, doing only eight months on full pay. She kept the faith, stayed in training, won her gold medal, kept up with the testers and has never tested positive. Me, I’d say the punishment was about right and her record of error neither should nor could be expunged. Now let’s move on.

Track and field has suffered more than most from drug cheats, most especially from high-profile cheats (Marion Jones just this year). But at least half the problem comes from the sport’s desperately sincere efforts to be clean; no sport has tried harder to catch drugs cheats, no sport has succeeded in catching so many.

We should continue to pursue the cheats with unending determination, but it does no good to make villains for the sake of it. And it is my belief that if Ohuruogu had been blonde and lipstick-comely and possessed a more traditional English name, she would have been routinely praised, with the missed tests getting a mention in maybe the third paragraph.

That’s the way it is. And more athletes will miss tests and find themselves in the Ohuruogu position because people in sport don’t really live in the real world. Even now, though admitting that it was all her fault, Ohuruogu said that athletes should “get as much help as possible from their coaches, from the people around them, just to remind them not to miss a test”. Wrong point. Athletes in all sports, not only track and field, should instead be encouraged to take responsibility for their own lives. Otherwise, how will they ever take responsibility for their own actions?

Wise up: keeping your own diary is a crucial part of fighting the war against drugs in sport. Having said that, I hope the sadder, wiser and more gilded Ohuruogu will go from strength to strength. I look forward to seeing her run in Beijing and, despite what The Sun says, in London, too. And if she wins, I’ll cheer. About 2.8 times.

No, 2.9.

Simon Barnes is the chief sports writer in The Times. This is an abbreviated version of an article first published in The Times.
To read that article in full, click here

Positive contradictions in reporting drugs. Click here

An alternative view – from spiked. Click here

Britain has abandoned the Gold standard. Click here for more

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