OLIVER HOLT: What can we still believe from this golden era if we can't trust the drugs busters?


The fight against doping in sport feels like an unequal struggle even at the best of times. There is, sadly, a pervasive sense that the cheats are always a few metres further down the track than the people trying to catch them. There is a sense that the cheats are hidden from us by medical technology, by the omnipresent obfuscation that is a feature of much modern sport and by walls of lies.

But in the struggle against the cheats, the one thing we have to believe in is the absolute impartiality and rigour of the drugs-busters. We have to believe that they are The Untouchables. We have to believe that they would never collude in any way with a cover-up. We have to believe they would never look away if they found something wrong.

If we do not believe that, if we even doubt it, then all is lost. If we believe that a drugs-testing agency or another body fears the damage done to the sport by exposing an athlete more than it fears the corruption of events, then all is lost. If we believe that sometimes governing bodies look the other way when they deem it commercially expedient to do so, then all is lost.

We have to believe in the impartiality and rigour of drugs-busters in the fight against cheats

We have to believe in the impartiality and rigour of drugs-busters in the fight against cheats

It is not as if it has never happened before. It was revealed in 2003, for instance, that the all-conquering US sprinter, Carl Lewis, had failed three drugs tests for stimulants during the 1988 US Olympic trials. He should have been banned from the Olympic Games in Seoul that year but the results were covered up by the U.S. Olympic Committee after it accepted his plea that he had innocently taken a herbal supplement.

That is what happens when a testing agency or a governing body fears the damage a drugs bust will wreak more than it fears the cheating itself. Lewis is one example that came to light. Who knows how many national heroes across other sports and other countries have gained the same illicit benefits from organisations too scared to expose them?

Organisations such as UK Anti-Doping, the United States’ Anti-Doping Agency and the Russian Anti-Doping Agency have to be the last bastions of defence in the war against the corruption of sport by drug-takers and cheats. They are sport’s policemen and enforcers. We have to believe they are doing everything they can to catch the cheats. They have to be above suspicion.

Organisations like UKAD or the Russian Anti-Doping Agency have to be the last bastions of defence in the war against the corruption of sport

Organisations like UKAD or the Russian Anti-Doping Agency have to be the last bastions of defence in the war against the corruption of sport

If they are not, then it throws everything into doubt. It makes it even harder for us to believe in what we are seeing on the running track or in the velodrome or in the swimming pool. That is why the idea of a drugs-buster tipping off a sport’s governing body about an anomalous finding is anathema to us and to everyone engaged in the quest for clean sport.

And that is why the revelations in the expose of UKAD and British Cycling in this newspaper are so disturbing and why they have prompted an immediate response from the World Anti- Doping Agency, which has announced its own investigation into UKAD by its independent Intelligence and Investigations Department.

The idea that UKAD tipped off British Cycling about an anomalous finding, where a British rider’s urine sample from an out-of-competition test in late 2010 contained irregular levels of nandrolone, a banned anabolic steroid, rather than prosecute the matter themselves raises more difficult questions, sadly, about the legitimacy of our Olympic achievements in the velodrome at successive Games going back more than a decade.

Questions have been raised about the legitimacy of our Olympic achievements in the velodrome stretching back more than a decade

Questions have been raised about the legitimacy of our Olympic achievements in the velodrome stretching back more than a decade

Those achievements had already come under suspicion earlier this month when Richard Freeman, British Cycling’s chief team doctor between 2009 and 2017, was found guilty at a Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service hearing of ordering banned testosterone ‘knowing or believing’ it was for an unnamed rider to improve their performance. 

These new revelations of cosy co-operation between UKAD and British Cycling, and the agreeing of a private testing arrangement which appears to fly in the face of established rules at the time, casts an even darker shadow over British achievements in the velodrome which became a source of national pride at the Games in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro in particular.

The investigation’s findings also pose more worrying questions about the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality that dominated Olympic sport in those years and which has since been widely criticised.

In the lead-up to the London Olympics, in 2011 and 2012, 91 athletes from eight sports were involved in an experimental trial of ketones

In the lead-up to the London Olympics, in 2011 and 2012, 91 athletes from eight sports were involved in an experimental trial of ketones 

Looking the other way appears to have become something of a theme, something also uncovered by a previous investigation by The Mail on Sunday into the use of controversial ketones in that era.

Through 2011 and 2012, in the lead-up to the London Olympics, 91 athletes from eight sports – including cycling – were involved in a secretive and experimental trial of ketones (an energy source derived from fat stored in the liver) in the desire to gain a competitive advantage. Athletes were told to sign non-disclosure agreements, and a waiver absolving UK Sport of any responsibility in the event of anti-doping complications.

So, once again, British Cycling has more questions to answer. And so does UKAD. No one wants to see British achievements in Olympic velodromes tarnished. No one wants to have their memories of golden nights tainted. But simply looking the other way would be far worse. Because then, all is lost.

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