A landmark decision

TIM MONTGOMERY's world record in the 100 metres, set in Paris in 2002, has become a postscript. The American has been banned for two years, beginning June 6, 2005 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Also suspended by CAS, in mid-December, was American woman sprinter Chryste Gaines. As the court itself noted, the issues arising out of these so-called "non-analytical positives", though not unique, were not normal either.

Neither Montgomery nor Gaines had tested positive for a banned substance but the United States Anti-Doping Agency managed to put together a massive amount of evidence based on test reports and documents received from the US authorities in the BALCO case. What eventually tilted the scales decisively against the defendants, however, were the statements they had reportedly made to fellow athlete Kelli White, about the use or trading of the designer steroid THG. Both White and another US athlete, Michelle Collins, were earlier punished for `non-analytical positives', the latter dropping an appeal to CAS in return for a four-year ban instead of the original eight-year suspension she was slapped with.

That the testimony given by White, who had accepted a two-year ban in 2004, was acknowledged by CAS to not only suspend Montgomery for two years, as against the life-ban sought by USADA, but also to wipe out his records and awards from March 31, 2001, should give the jitters to prospective drug-cheats. At the same time there is also a lesson for potential whistle-blowers from the example that White has set.

Nearly two months before CAS dealt with the Montgomery-Gaines case, a US Federal Judge in San Francisco had sentenced BALCO founder Victor Conte Jr. and two of his employees for their roles in the drugs scandal. Even Judge Susan Illston felt that the punishment of four months jail for Conte, with another four months in home detention, was far more lenient than what she would have handed out every day for people who were convicted of less serious crimes. But then Conte had struck a plea bargain with the US agencies even as the US lawmakers talked of bringing tougher measures to tackle the menace of doping in sports. If there was optimism that charges could be brought forward against superstar Marion Jones in case Conte was to testify, such hopes have been belied. The wait now is for the US administration to crack down on manufacturers of designer steroids as a follow-up measure to the pioneering work done by scientists like Dr. Don Catlin of UCLA, who discovered THG.

Just days before the Montgomery verdict was pronounced, another THG-user, Dwain Chambers confessed, in an interview to the BBC, that he had taken the designer steroid from 2002. The Briton, suspended in February 2004 for his THG use, possibly did not realise the implications including further action by the international federation (IAAF), when he made the revelation. Chambers had come second when Montgomery clocked the then world record of 9.78 at the Stade de France, but was target-tested in August 2003 and expectedly came up positive. His name had also cropped up, along with those of Montgomery, Jones and a dozen other world-class athletes when US Federal agents raided the BALCO premises in San Francisco a month later.

Of the dozen American athletes in the 'BALCO list', the only one left to be charged is Marion Jones. She had threatened to go to court if she was prevented from going to the Athens Olympics, where she competed in just the long jump event, took Conte to court for defamation, broke up with Montgomery, the father of her child, and pulled out of the US trials for the Helsinki World Championships.

Montgomery, in his Grand Jury testimony that should never have got into print, and Conte, through a co-authored article, had alleged that Jones had taken prohibited substances before the Sydney Olympics where she won three gold medals. But the USADA has apparently chosen not to proceed so far against Jones. Maybe, the evidence it has gathered is not so overwhelming enough as to pin down an athletics icon.

Athletes and administrators alike have praised the verdict against Montgomery. "This is a landmark CAS decision," said the IAAF President, Lamine Diack. Should present-day records be viewed with suspicion, especially in the light of the Montgomery case? Are women's records from the 1980s free of taint? The debate will continue.

Six years ago, there was a German proposal to wipe out all old records and start afresh. That did not muster enough support within the IAAF, which, however, has said in recent times that it would pursue the re-introduction of the four-year suspension vigorously. The USATF, shamed by the series of doping revelations, had proposed a life-ban for steroid offenders.