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Little Changes in Athletics

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3 March 2008

 

Column by Ed Warner, Chairman of UK Athletics, as seen in Athletics Weekly Magazine

 

 

I've read two sports books back-to-back in recent days - a new account of Jesse Owens's feats at the Berlin Olympics acting as a welcome antidote to Game of Shadows, the account of the BALCO affair that puts lead in your emotional boots.

 

Nothing in Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams's expose of BALCO is any longer novel - the book itself is now in an updated paperback edition and the pertinent facts well known. However, the two investigative journalists' book still punches a shock with the sheer scale of deception by athletes, coaches and their 'nutritionists'. Required reading indeed - as an aid to understanding the recent past as a warning for the future.

 

Fainaru-Wada and Williams manage to convey something of the motives of the cheats and their co-conspirators, but they still do not quite manage to answer the question: why do it? Perhaps the logic of the cheat - including the belief that it's the only way to succeed - will baffle those not headed down the same path. But if we don't attempt to understand, we can never hope to root out such deep-seated propensity to subvert the rules of our sport.

 

Game of Shadows makes especially dismal reading for America's baseball authorities, whose anti-doping efforts were desultory at best. This is a small comfort for athletics by comparison, but the over-riding lesson is clear - that the fans ultimately vote with their feet if they feel they're being cheated.

 

Jeremy Schaap's Triumph is an altogether more uplifting tale. The story of Jesse Owen's quadruple gold success at the 1936 games has been told often. What is prominent in this retelling is not the blow he dealt to Nazi pride but rather the extent of the prejudice and sporting politics in American athletics that Owen had to overcome en route to Berlin.

 

As if to prove there is nothing new under the athletics sun, Owens was briefly suspended over doubts about his amateur status and his coach had to fend off an attempt by rivals to poach him within weeks of the games.   

 

Athletics: all human life is here. Part of its pleasure, if often too its Achilles heel - in 2008 as in 1936.

 

The World Indoor Championships are now only a week away. After the events of the past few weeks it will be a pleasure to watch some top quality athletics, including the Men’s 60m.

 

While many of our athletes and their competitors will have their sights focused on Beijing, I'm sure that the Norwich Union GB & NI team will give us much to cheer in Valencia next weekend.