Has our applause been for nothing?

So how much is true anymore in a drug-fuelled world? How many of those medals won and records set can we rely on.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Last fortnight Paula Radcliffe broke the world record in marathon in London by a margin labelled as Beamonesque. She is a vociferous anti-drug crusader but even for her eyebrows will rise. The ugly have made the good look bad. Superhuman has a more damning connotation to it these days. — Pic. AP-

THE worst thing in sport is to be deceived. The cruellest part of adulation is to find that the heroes you embrace are cheap, roadside fakes; that those feats of athletic splendour that moved you to compose paeans are now tainted by an asterisk alongside them; that the courage you witnessed which made you wake up your children and say `watch' was hollow.

So how much is true anymore in a drug-fuelled world? How many of those medals won and records set can we rely on, with what conviction can we speak about human achievement, how can we be expected to cast aside cynicism with every formidable feat?

If there is no truth, if nothing is as it seems, then every star looks a paper-mache hero, every moment built truly from sweat and honest endeavour is second-guessed, every word we took for granted, like Olympian, has a phony ring to it.

The revelation, in documents provided by former United States Olympic Committee director of drug control administration Dr. Wade Exum, that 19 American Olympic medallists between 1984-2000 tested positive for banned substances but were allowed to compete is beyond disgrace. It does not just raise arguments about dishonesty or an American cover-up. It is a powerful blow to the vital trust that exists between athlete and audience. Has our applause been for nothing?

We have erased (some of) the East German records from the books; we have done the same for the Chinese swimmers; we have seen syringes collected in piles at India's National Games venues, discovered steroid use from schoolboy American footballers, heard about tennis players who snort and footballers who sniff. Still, we believe in our champions, because we need to believe, we want to believe they are the best of us.

So we have learnt to live with the vulgar monies they earn, the excesses, the failure often to be role models, the bending of the rules during play, the unpleasant behaviour, and we explain it and excuse it even when we don't always admire it, but we live in the hope that at least, if nothing else, they are clean.

Then we hear Carl Lewis tested positive for pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine and that his disqualification was overturned, and every dream begins to fall apart like a cheap pack of cards. So many of these substances can be found in cold medicines that can be bought without prescription, and we cannot ascribe motives to the athletes who took them (Lewis's excuse was inadvertent use, that it was an innocent oversight), but that is not the point. Track and field has long been turned into a laboratory exercise, its performances viewed as one might a politician's speech. Exum's disclosures again make us wonder how much of excellence is a sham; the very act of subduing these findings for so long fuels suspicion.

Worse, we are infected with doubt and even clean athletes of virtue and virtuosity are viewed with scepticism. (India will know the feeling, for match-fixing for a while scarred our perspective.) Last fortnight Paula Radcliffe broke the marathon world record by a margin labelled as Beamonesque. She is a vociferous anti-drug crusader but even for her eyebrows will rise. The ugly have made the good look bad. Superhuman has a more damning connotation to it these days.

Lewis was not just an idol, not just an athlete of such supple beauty that he looked not so much to run but glide. He was also, this fascinating man, a pin-up for natural talent in a steroid-fuelled world. He said, once, years ago at the Rome world championships, when yellow-eyed Ben Johnson was making an impact: "I feel a strange air at these championships. A lot of people have come from nowhere and are running unbelievably. It's worse than ever. There are gold medallists at this meet already that are on drugs. We have always run away from the problem. We haven't been facing the issue ... there is a problem and it is a problem that we must resolve to clean up the sport. The leaders of the sport have to try and clean things up."

We cannot throw these words back at Lewis, for there is no proof yet that his performances were not through any substance but sweat. We cannot compare him to Johnson either. Still, his positive test shakes further the foundations of fair play, it rattles our willingness to believe the best of such men. The absolute truth as we know it has eroded just that little bit more.

American athletics has lost much of the moral high ground it insisted it had. Unquestionably, we must draw distinctions. This is not East Germany where the state ensured pills, blue and yellow and white, were put on plates for athletes to swallow, no questions asked. But others might argue it is but a matter of degree, that here too the very lack of transparency, the refusal to publicise these even minor infractions, has done sport a terrible disservice. After all, it will be asked: if this was hidden, then what else?

Many of the American athletes may have been let off claiming inadvertent use; that they were unaware a cold medicine, or one for asthma, or whatever, contained among its minor ingredients a banned substance. It does not pass muster. It is a standard defence worldwide and athletes have been censured regardless. They are supposed to know, it is the rules.

Of course, it might be argued that the rules are flawed, exceptions must be made. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, gymnast Andreea Raducan was stripped of her gold medal for taking pseudo-ephedrine. The fault was her coaches, the fault was the team doctor's who gave her two pills for a cold, and there was widespread condemnation for the substance gave her no competitive advantage. But the ban, unfair or not, stood. If the rules were applied so forcefully there, we might ask why it was not in America. The level playing field is intrinsic to fair competition.

But most of all, the tests should have been revealed when they occurred. All sport is dependent on you, the public. The public that buys ticket, purchases merchandise, puts posters on the walls, waits in line for autographs.

It means they have earned the right to be informed, to make their choices, to watch or stay at home, to worship or disdain. They do not wish to be gullible, to be unknowing participants in a possibly counterfeit competition.

They must know whether their heroes are real. And decide whether they wish to withhold their applause.