Monday 26 September 2016

Paul Kimmage: BBC's former athletes show admirable talent for back-pedalling

Published 30/08/2015 | 17:00

But what if Justin Gatlin was British?
But what if Justin Gatlin was British?

Amid the action on the track, Gatlin's agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, has said that Gatlin is considering a boycott of the British media. Candidly, such action would be fully justified. Generally speaking, their treatment of Gatlin has not just been unfair; it has been mean, indeed venomous.

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If much of the British press has collectively decided they have no obligation to be fair to Gatlin - never mind the possibility, no matter how remote, of complimentary - then why would he have an obligation to interact with them?

As Nehemiah said after Sunday's race, in the tunnel underneath the Bird's Nest, "I feel badly about it because the human element is presenting itself in an ugly way. It's really unfair."

- Alan Abrahamson,

3 Wire Sports

A few weeks ago, during a long and reflective afternoon with Eugene McGee, we started chatting about 'Fallopia Journalistica' - the ugly and invasive knotweed of former sportsmen and women that's strangling journalism around the globe. McGee, a journalist to his core, was not a fan.

"You're not thought much of if you're not a former player these days," he said. "Unfortunately, we have this trend where these players are replacing journalists and it's disgusting. I hate it."

So you can imagine how much he enjoyed the World Athletics Championships on the BBC. Steve Cram almost wetting himself as he hailed the triumph of good (Usain Bolt) over evil (Justin Gatlin) in the final of the 100m:

"And Bolt and Gatlin are right together here! It's Gatlin . . . but here comes Bolt! And Bolt gets it . . . or does he? I think he has! USSSSSAAAAAIN BOLT! It's very, very tight but I think he's done it. He's saved his title! He's saved his reputation! He may even have saved his sport!"

Cue footage from the BBC Radio 5 Live commentary box of an ecstatic Allison Curbishley jumping up and down with Darren Campbell. And then there was Brendan Foster's soft-shoe shuffle in a video posted by Paula Radcliffe on her Twitter feed: 'This is what it means to Bren.'

And finally Cram again, who responded to Nehemiah and the criticism of their abject lack of professionalism, by insisting it was justified.

"They feel . . . victimised, I think, is the phrase going around and he (Nehemiah) has come out and decided to portray Justin as a victim in all of this. I tried to explain to Renaldo, that comment I made was not about Justin Gatlin, it was about the whole sport needed its hero to win.

"And whatever he thinks Justin Gatlin deserves now for coming back, the one thing he probably could never be is a hero. He has a right to run according to the rules, of course he does. He has no right for people to like him. He has no right for people to completely forgive him either, because the sport is severely damaged."

Then he turned and pointed to some other seats in the press box.

"This tribune here, including 5 Live and ourselves, is full of former athletes: Brendan Foster, Steve Backley, Allison Curbishley, Darren Campbell. I could go along all of the other rows here as well . . . in front of me, Tim Hutchings. Katherine Merry is here; Jane Fleming from Australia . . . Yes, they were on their feet, because they care about the sport. And they know the damage that's been done to the sport.

"Justin Gatlin, over the years, has not done himself any favours . . . I've never heard him apologise - certainly not to the sport or those of us who worked in the sport - there has been very little contrition. He (Nehemiah) said we have to be neutral, I don't think we do. We have to give strong opinions because we need to make some changes in the sport, and part of those changes is whether people like Gatlin deserve a place to come back."

But what if he was British?

In August 1999, at the Golden League meeting in Monaco, there wasn't much dancing in the BBC tribunes when it was announced that Linford Christie, the 1992 Olympic 100m champion, had tested positive for an anabolic steroid at an indoor meeting in Germany.

Roger Black, a former team-mate of the sprinter, was anchoring the coverage that night and was joined in studio by another former Olympian, Sally Gunnell. It was the second positive test of Christie's long and controversial career but the impression given was that Bambi had just been shot. "This whole Linford thing is totally ridiculous," Black announced.

"It can't be right," Gunnell concurred.

Then they crossed to Steve Cram for the reaction in Monaco. "There's lots of questions being asked but not many answers around at the minute," he said. "Obviously Linford himself is the first to protest his innocence and I would say that probably, if you did a straw poll of athletes around here, you'd have an awful lot of people on his side."

One was Allison Curbishley: "I believe Linford is innocent," she said.

Brendan Foster questioned the testing: "Until it is 100 per cent how dare they bring the name of an athlete like Linford Christie into question?" Katherine Merry and Darren Campbell also lent their support. Christie was banned for two years but continued, with the sport's blessing, to work as a coach.

The waters muddied four years later when Dwain Chambers - the second Briton, after Christie, to break 10 seconds for the 100m - was popped. Unlike Christie, there were no protestations of innocence. Chambers held up his hands, served his time and gave an interview to the BBC that was remarkable for its honesty. This is what he told Matthew Pinsent when asked if a clean athlete could beat a doped athlete in an Olympic final: "It's possible, but the person that's taken drugs has to be having a real bad day. That's what I believe." The response was fascinating. Roger Black, so unquestioning of Christie, was one of many who lined up to question Chambers.

"It upsets me when Dwain comes out with statements that you cannot win an Olympic gold medal without taking drugs," he said. "That's factually wrong and it does an enormous amount of damage to the kids who want to come into the sport. I understand him wanting to be a shining example of what you can do clean but I don't buy that. He knew what he was doing and he should be big enough to put his hands up and say, 'I need to walk away'."

And what are we to make of the remarkable Jonathan Edwards?

Four years ago, over breakfast in London, I reminded the BBC anchor and former triple-jump champion, that if there was one thing he had always done better than jumping forwards, it was jumping backwards. In 1988, he was adamant God did not want him competing on Sundays; in 1993 he was sure God did.

In 2000, he travelled to the Olympic final in Sydney with a tin of sardines in his kitbag to symbolise the loaves and fishes and was offering silent prayers to God ("I place my destiny in your hands. Do with me as you will."); in 2007, he was telling the world that he no longer believed in God. And hadn't he also denounced the "undignified" Dwain Chambers?

"No, I don't know where this has come from," he protested. "I've always liked Dwain. What he did was wrong, and I wouldn't condone it in any way, but I think athletes, young athletes, are vulnerable. They make decisions based on wanting to be the best they can be; they trust people perhaps they shouldn't trust; they defer responsibility for their decisions to other people. So, yes, Dwain made mistakes but was he the greatest sinner within that whole thing? Maybe, maybe not."

"What about Linford?" I asked.

"I think his positive test was contamination."

"What about his positive in 1988 (the Seoul Olympics)?"

"It was a different world in '88, wasn't it?" he said. "People didn't understand quite . . . "

"I think they understand that cheating is cheating," I interrupted.

"No, but in terms of our understanding and the way it was treated, it was different at that time and I'm not going to comment on decisions that were made then. The authorities deemed it minor enough not to strip Linford of his medal."

"He's a legitimate champion?"

"Yes."

Suck on that, Justin Gatlin.

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