Paul Lewis: Cleaner picture emerging

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As 2012 draws to a close, it is to be hoped that track and field does not follow cycling down a drugs-strewn path next year.

Four medallists from the 2004 Athens Olympics were relieved of their medals late this year after the drugs hounds caught up with them. That gave rise to the tempting thought that the cheats are confined to throwing and strength events.

Shot put gold medallist Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine, hammer throw silver medallist Ivan Tskikhan of Belarus and bronze medallists in the women's shot put, Svetlana Krivelyova of Russia, plus discus thrower Irina Yatchenko of Belarus were all disqualified. They joined London 2012 shot put gold medallist Nadzeya Ostapchuk (also of Belarus - anyone else seeing a pattern here?) who was stripped of her medal after testing positive this year.

Tempting - but then you factor in the Alex Schwazer element. Schwazer, the discredited 2008 Olympic road walking champion, was questioned by the Italian Olympic Committee last month following his exclusion earlier this year from the London Games for doping. Schwazer won the 50km event at the 2008 Beijing Games in record time (breaking a 20-year-old record by a full minute) but failed a drugs test before arriving in London; he was dropped from Italy's team. He then admitted using the blood-boosting hormone EPO and said he was quitting the sport.

The 27-year-old caustically told waiting journalists after being grilled by Olympic officials: "I am disappointed that you are all here - when I won the gold at Beijing, there was one-fifth as many of you as there are now. That says a lot about sport."

No, it says a lot about those who use performance-enhancing drugs and who are caught. It also says a lot about the worldwide interest in drugs cheats, particularly those who rubbed shoulders with Dr Michele Ferrari, said to be Lance Armstrong's physician and who was banned for life by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in July before being named as a key figure in the Armstrong case.

Schwazer, who now faces a four year ban, has also been linked to Ferrari and the tragedy of drugs saw the splatter from his downfall splash his fiancee, world champion figure skater Carolina Kostner. She has been implicated by being at a meeting with Ferrari.

There is no serious suggestion (nor evidence) that Kostner has ever used drugs but the stain from the Schwazer business will be hard to rub off her little skating costume.

She and Schwazer were a kind of royal couple in Italy and he is not out of the woods yet. Italy pursues criminal cases bearing prison sentences against drugs cheats and, as a member of the carabinieri (Italy's national military police), he may yet have to face another form of justice.

When he made his tearful announcement earlier this year that he had been using drugs and was quitting, Schwazer opened the door on a way of life much at odds with the supposed glamour and celebrity of a top athlete. He remembered the exact date of his last self-ministered injection because it was on his mother's birthday.

"Even if they say doping makes you stronger, it has been terrible for me because I have had to tell lies. Getting up at 2am or 3am because at 6am there might be an anti-doping test," he said. "I went to Turkey, to Antalya in September and in a chemists I bought EPO. In Italy you need a prescription and there (Turkey), with €1500 in your hand, no-one causes a problem. I took the package and brought it back to Italy.

"But I did not have the strength to lie any more. And I wanted it all to end. I am so ashamed but I am also glad I can start my life again."

He apologised to Kostner, saying: "It was not easy for me to lie to her. I told her the medicines in the fridge were vitamin B12. Psychologically it was terrible to lie to her and when the anti-doping test result came through, she was the first person I told."

The irony, as drugs detectors catch up with the cheats by developing detection agents that can be retrospectively applied to athlete samples, is that international competition is probably the cleanest it has been for a long time.

The result of a comparatively cleaner field in cycling's Tour de France is that the gobsmacking efforts up the big hills by riders like Lance Armstrong, going impossibly fast in impossibly big gears, is gone. The climbs are more about survival now.

This year's winner of the prestigious alpine stage did so in a time over four minutes slower than the record - set by renowned climber and doper Marco Pantini in 1997 - even after all sorts of equipment, training and technological advances in those 15 years.

So a Tour without Armstrong and his ilk is nowhere near as colourful as a Tour with them. You can see why some people involved might have looked the other way.

Athletics, too, is comparatively cleaner than in past years. You need only look at our own Valerie Adams and the distance the world's premier female shot putter has to throw to break a world record that seems clearly out of her reach.

The one many remember is Flo Jo - Florence Griffith-Joyner, whose world records in the 100m and 200m still stand, 24 years after they were set.

I attended a press conference at the 1988 Seoul Olympics where Flo Jo held court - mainly because I wanted to see if she looked as much like she came out of a bottle as the rumours suggested.

She was superbly muscled; a good-looking woman with a charming manner. But critics maintained she had improved her times and changed her body shape too radically.

Her untimely death ended matters but perhaps the last word should go to Jamaica's seven-time Olympic medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown - who won 200m gold in 2004 and 2008, as well as at last year's world championships. Her personal best, 21.74s, is 0.4s slower than Flo Jo's world record.

"It is beyond my reach," she has said. "It's disappointing to not get the respect that the males do, because they are capable of breaking the record and people are excited to see them run because they know the possibility of breaking the record is close. I don't have that luxury."

- Herald on Sunday

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