Monthly Archives: April 2012

Dwain Chambers and the politics of drugs use


The Mail and the Guardia are reporting this morning that the World Anti-Doping Agency has won its challenge the British Olympic Association’s lifetime ban on some athletes found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs. Knowing that the decision was due, I recently read Dwain Chambers’ biography Race Against Me.

I write “some” deliberately. Of course, the BOA would strenuously deny that it applied its policy selectively. One compelling theme of Chambers’ book however is the arbitrariness of the BOA’s enforcement of the ban. He shows that where a person accused of drug use tells the BOA that a banned substance was in their body accidentally, as a result of a one-off fluke (which was Linford Christie’s line in both 1988 and 1999) or insists that they had innocent motives for repeatedly missing drugs tests (e.g. Christine Ohuruogu), the BOA does not impose a life-time ban. In practice, the ban is applied only to that smaller group of athletes who accept and admit their guilt.

The lawyer in me knows that there are all sorts of reasons why you might get to this situation. If a person says that they deliberately took drugs then the wrong they have committed is greater than that of someone who did so accidentally. In court cases about motive, juries always struggle to deciphere what a person intended. Because a positive drugs test will inevitably lead to suspension, it is usually open to any drugs user to say they were caught the very first time they cheated. Without a culture of whistleblowing in the sport, inevitably decision-makers have to take what they are told with a certain degree of trust.

But, however you get there, it’s offensive to penalise those who admit to drug taking while not penalising those (not Christie, of course, and not Ohuruogo, but others must exist) who take drugs and falsely deny that they did so deliberately.

The most interesting sections of the book are the one which deal with Chambers’ motives for drug-taking. A key moment for him was the 2001 World Championships at Edmonton, at which an injured Maurice Green won the 100 metres with a time of 9.82 seconds (three hundredths of a second outside his own world record), with another American Tim Montgomery in third. Chambers describes thinking: “By the time I’d run the first twenty metres I was done! What was happening? Within those first twenty metres the Americans Maurice Green and Tim Montgomery had taken yards out of the field … What were the Americans doing that I wasn’t?”

The following year, Chambers accepted an invitation to work with a Miami-based coach Remi Korchemny: as he explains the decision, to catch up with the American sprinters. Kirchemny introduced him in turn to the nutritionist Victor Conte, who told Chambers “You need pharmacology, Dwain.”

John Regis warned Chambers but he refused to listen.

Chambers met Conte again and told him that he had been clean all his life. Conte’s replied; “They’re cheating you, Dwain … You’re a very talented athlete, but you are not competing on a level playing field, my friend. Most of the top sprinters are on steroids; every time you race them, you are at a disadvantage.”

Chambers recalls: “I was thinking I had been conned and cheated; I felt as if I’d been mugged off since I’d started competing as a junior. At that point in the proceedings I was seething and I was thinking how many medals and how many championships I’d been cheated out of because the men who I was running against had been able to train harder, longer and smarter than me. thanks to the help of THG and other undetectable substances.”

Reading this passage, I believe it is an honest description of the mental state of false victimhood which allows someone to cheat, steal, etc. It’s not an attractive admission – on Chambers’ own account, he did not quiz Conte on what he was saying, but accepted it as truthful (when probably it is not). In all of this, Chamberlain, was very clearly lying to himself. As people do.

Chambers says that in 18 months of drug use he was training harder than he ever had before, but his track best for the 100 metres was reduced by just 0.1 seconds, from 9.97 to 9.87 seconds. This is the sort of improvement that a sprinter might well achieve anyway, by training and competing at the top level for an extra year.

A number of people come out badly from this book. One is Seb Coe, who Chambers describes as having encouraged him privately, before later condemning him publicly, in order to play up to the image the media likes to have of him.

The BOA apparatus also comes over badly. Chambers says that he made considerable efforts to offer his, and Conte’s, services in order to give drugs testers an insight into the techniques used by drugs cheats and to improve enforcement. The BOA took no interest in his offer. It may be that they felt that they already knew all they could need to know about the circumstances of his drugs use. Chambers’ own conclusion is while athletics officials undoubtedly care about their sport looking clean, they do not care in the least about the actuality of drugs use.

I hope, as I’ve written before, that the challenge to the BOA life-time succeeds. I do so because in my professional life I am confronted repeatedly with people who are punished more than once for a wrongdoing which they acknowledge (people who are jailed and lose their house, people who do something stupid and lose access to their child), and I am very strongly of the view that – in general – people should get second chances.

But there’s more to it than that.

Let me end with what may seem like a detour, but isn’t:

In my teens I began to read up on the history of the British left. Imagine my disappointment to discover that the first British Marxist, Henry Myers Hyndman, was a former stockbroker and that Hyndman’s standard device when he spoke to public audiences was to attend dressed in a frock coat and top hat. Hyndman would thank the audience for so generously supporting “my class”, i.e. the boss class. But socialism, if it is to mean anything, should mean the majority of people taking control of their lives. How could they do this, if they had to be led by a boasting toff? Hyndman’s approach struck me as flagrantly wrong.

Somewhere around my mid-thirties, my view of Hyndman changed. I didn’t stop being a socialist; I hadn’t read any more of Hyndman’s work. The penny that dropped was rather this: Hyndman was far from the only middle-class socialist in the 1880s or 1890s (his party the Social Democratic Federation included at various times George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and dozens more of a similar stripe). The style of most left-wing journalists, teachers, etc was – even then – to “prole up”, speaking in regional accents, emphasising their supposed personal poverty (think Ken Livingstone’s tax affairs but 120 years earlier), etc. Hyndman could not by himself solve the problems of poverty and class which really explained why many workers deferred to the middle classes even in the meetings of the socialist groups, which tried to be better and failed.

Simply from the vantage of personal integrity, HM Hyndman’s approach was truer to who he was. And this has increasingly seemed a virtue to me.

Chambers has been brutally honest about his drug use; and it is that honesty which explains why he, unlike other athlets (Christie, Ohuruogu) is still being punished, years after he stopped doing anything wrong.

Surviving the London marathon


Just in case anyone reading this blog has an entry for the London Marathon on the weekend, and hasn’t been overwhelmed yet by the volume of free advice that can be obtained in magazines, on other blogs, and all over the web (in almost all cases by people who’ve run considerably further than I’ve ever managed), I thought I’d offer my own tips:

  1. If you really haven’t trained, it’s not too late to pull out. Sorry, this is probably the last thing you want to be told, but there’s a reason Phidippides died running 26 miles. It’s long and it’s brutal, and if you haven’t trained enough it will hurt
  2. Carbo-load; I know there’s a lot of hype about it and it sounds incredible, but it works
  3. If you end up using sugar as an analgaesic, go for artificial sugar (it takes longer to dissolve)
  4. Motivate yourself incrementally: almost everyone who runs their first marathon, irrespective of their fitness level (well, with the possible exception of Jade Goody), “should” find it possible to complete a marathon, even if theircardiovascular fitness is atrocious, by reducing their intensity to a pace they can sustain. If you are nervous about the distance, time your first mile, and then fix in your head the thought “I just ran a mile in ten minutes. It didn’t hurt. I can run the next mile in the same time.”)
  5. Motivate yourself negatively: by which I mean, focus on finishing. “I’ve done a quarter of the distance – it was ok, I’ve only got three quarters to go.” Particularly in the second half of the race, and especially at around 18 miles in or so, you should be able to motivate yourself by counting down the miles to go. “It’s only 8 more miles; I know what 8 feels like.”
  6. Don’t think that just because someone looks like a joker, they’ll run like a joker. If you’re relying on someone in a costume to pull you round the course – don’t be surprised if they’re a multi-marathon runner, with a planned negative split, who after running 10 miles at 10-minute a mile pace, will suddenly drop down to 7-minute pace or less.  Some runners dress like idiots because they are idiots. Many more dress like that because they’re brilliant runners and they don’t care.
  7. Enjoy it. And if you enjoy it a lot (and you haven’t completely knackered yourseld), run again. 

Exiting with dignity



I will always associate Vienna 2012 with the solidarity shown by those running in aid of Iranian workers. For the press, a different story was at stake, the staggered half marathon race between Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe, billed as the Emperor versus the Queen, which the Ethiopian runner won easily (too easily: he made up an eight minute deficit by15k).

Gebrselassie is by universal acclaim a fantastic athlete: a double Olympic gold winner over 10k, the winner of 4 world indoor and 4 world outdoor championships over a range of distances from 1500 metres up to 10k. He is also kind, courteous and genuinely modest. He was on Radio 5 a few months ago. None of the main presenters have even a passing knowledge of distance running, yet he charmed the entire studio. He remains an outstanding athlete; his time at Vienna was 60 minutes for a half marathon. He will not be competing at London 2012, simply because he has the misfortune to be competing against a brilliant generation of younger Ethiopian runners. In 2012, nineteen Ethiopian men have surpassed Gebrselassie’s best recent marathon time of 2 hours 8 minutes. (By comparison, the fastest UK finisher at the 2011 London marathon, Lee Merrien, came in at 2 hours 14).

Paula Radcliffe has run the three fastest three women’s marathon times in history. Her closest competitor Liliya Shobukhova has a best time of 2hr 18min 20; thirty-eight seconds slower than Radcliffe’s third-fastest time of 2hr 17min 42sec; and three minutes behind Radcliffe’s best ever time of 2hr 15min 25sec. She, Radcliffe Gebrselassie, will be at London. However, she seems to be 10 years past her peak. It is a long time since Radcliffe won a really top race, and few people seem to give her any real chance of winning at London. Her defeat at Vienna, where she had to be comforted by Gebrselassie is being taken as further evidence of her decline.

Radcliffe doesn’t seem to be a very popular athlete in Britain. You have to look right in the corners of the press coverage to see what the press think of her: a perfectionist, driven (too much so?), over-influence by her husband, who is also her coach. It is almost as if people have not forgiven her for her defeats at Athens, etc.

Both Radcliffe and Gebrselassie would be capable of competing as veterans should they so choose. Twenty years ago, most athletes -irrespective of their sport – seemed to peak at 26 or so and then decline rapidly thereafter (certainly neither McEnroe nor Borg got far past that milestone), and if better nutrition and sports science have pushed that milestone a couple of years back (just think of the longevity of Roger Federer) the frustrating reality remains that even marathon runners, with all their slow-twitch muscles, which are supposed to go more slowly than fast-twitch muscles of a sprinter, decline as they age.

 This injured ex-runner, 12 months Radcliffe’s senior, wishes them both well.


Marathon records: men’s and women’s


“At one of my first OCS sessions, at Moscow in 1980, the IOC, in its elderly all-male splendor, considered the matter of whether the marathon event for women should be added to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic program. There was considerable discussion and a basic reluctance to proceed. Once or two members offered the view that it should not added because it would be too difficult for the ‘weaker’ sex … [but, in the end,] the event was added in time for the Games in Los Angeles.”

(D. Pound, Inside the Olympics (Montreal: Wiley, 2006 edn), p. 135)

Here, by way of context, is how the world record for the marathon has progressed since 1980s, for male and female runners.

2:09:01  Gerard Nijboer       April 26, 1980
2:08:18  Robert De Castella December 6, 1981
2:08:05  Steve Jones          October 21, 1984
2:07:12  Carlos Lopes         April 20, 1985
2:06:50  Belayneh Dinsamo April 17, 1988
2:06:05  Ronaldo da Costa  September 20, 1998
2:05:42  Khalid Khannouchi October 24, 1999
2:05:38  Khalid Khannouchi April 14, 2002
2:04:55  Paul Tergat            September 28, 2003
2:04:26  Haile Gebrselassie September 30, 2007
2:03:59  Haile Gebrselassie September 28, 2008
2:03:38  Patrick Makau        September 25, 2011


2:31:23     Joan Benoit           February 3, 1980
2:30:57.1  Patti Catalano        September 6, 1980
2:25:41.3  Grete Waitz            October 26, 1980
2:30:27     Joyce Smith          November 16, 1980
2:29:57     Joyce Smith          March 29, 1981
2:29:01.6  Charlotte Teske      January 16, 1982
2:26:12     Joan Benoit           September 12, 1982
2:25:28.7  Grete Waitz            April 17, 1983
2:22:43     Joan Benoit           April 18, 1983
2:24:26     Ingrid Kristiansen   May 13, 1984
2:21:06     Ingrid Kristiansen   April 21, 1985
2:20:47     Tegla Loroupe        April 19, 1998
2:20:43     Tegla Loroupe        September 26, 1999
2:19:46     Naoko Takahashi    September 30, 2001
2:18:47     Catherine Ndereba  October 7, 2001
2:17:18     Paula Radcliffe      October 13, 2002
2:15:25     Paula Radcliffe      April 13, 2003

Meeting the Olympics Project for Human Rights


Am just back from a meeting of the Olympics Project for Human Rights, the London-based successor to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s original campaign, which culminated in their salute at the 1968 Olympics.

OPHR’s re-foundation has been the work above all of the RMT trade union, which early in March organised a public meeting in London titled We Demand Justice, bringing together the families of Christopher Alder and Sean Rigg, two Black Britons who died in police custody, and whose families have been campaigning for justice ever since, with Paddy Hill, John McDonnell MP and several other speakers.

“OPHR 2”, as I’ll call it, has organised a further public meeting, at 6pm on 21 May at Friends Meeting House opposite Euston station, to be addressed by John Carlos (above). Other speakers will include Janet Alder (of the Christopher Alder campaign), Doreen Lawrence (of the Stephen Lawrence campaign) and the rapper Lowkey.

OPHR 2 seeks to bring together the memory of Carlos and Smith’s action with the many family justice campaigns of which the Lawrence, Alder and Rigg families are merely the best known. The campaign is calling for practical human rights victories to come out of the Olympics (and the anti-Olympics protest movement): including and end to Stop and Search, and the prosecution of the police officers responsible for deaths in custody.

The formation of OPHR 2, alongside the Counter Olympics Network, Occupy London and others, is a clear sign of the growing number of people in London fed up with Olympic organisers’ neo-liberal vision.

A flier for the event on 21 May is attached here

Meeting the Counter Olympics Network


I spent Saturday morning with the Counter Olympics Network at a planning meeting at the Bishopsgate Institute near Liverpool Street. There were roughly 50 people in the room, including journalists from the Sunday Times, London Tonight and Bloomberg. There were even a couple of police officers outside filming us helpfully as we went in.

A number of campaigns were represented, including Our Olympics, No UK Tar Sands, Coalition of Resistance, Occupy London, Save Leyton Marsh, Drop DOW Now, and the SWP, among others. The meeting was chaired in the consensus style familiar from Occupy: no applause but “sparkling”, etc.

One speaker was Clayton Thomas Muller who organised against the Vancouver Winter Olympics of 2010, and told us, “the Olympics is a real estate operation to justify the exploitation of the dispossessed.” Another international speaker told us that the Olympics reminded him of the baseball games of his youth: “while the folks played ball, their cars were getting jacked.”

The“Occupy Olympics movement” (if naming it that isn’t it to give it more coherence than it already possesses) is as keenly motivated by global as by domestic issues. If there was one single Olympic outrage to which people returned it was the adoption of BP, surely the world’s most egregious polluter, as the Games’ official Sustainability Partner (Rio Tinto, who will be striking the London 2012 medals, and Dow are also unhappily involved).

Of the domestic campaigns, Save Leyton Marsh is clearly the immediate focus. One speaker in purple running shoes, raised an immediate cheer when she complained “I have jogged round the marsh for years, and now the Olympics is taking it away from me.”

After I had left (childcare responsibilities meant I could not attend the afternoon planning session), the meeting agreed to announce a day of action on 28th July.

The report on the OurOlympics wesbite ends in terms which I echo:

“Further details will follow, but we call on all groups impacted by the Olympics, the misdeeds of its sponsors and contractors, or the government which is selling Britain out from under us: clear your diary and join together with us on Saturday 28th July 2012 to make your voice heard.  It’s going to be a day we never forget.”

Striking during the Olympics?


Bus workers in London met today to discuss their campaign to win a bonus payment for the additional workload they will face during the Olympic games, when London has to deal with several million more toursists even than the summer norm. As busworkers are only too well aware, London Underground staff have been offered £850 for increased shift during the Games; and Network Rail staff £500, while Docklands Light Railway employees will receive up to £2,500 each.

Busworkers are seeking the relatively modest sum of just £500. A recent indicative ballot saw 90 percent of those polled supporting action. Their union Unite union now plans to move to a formal ballot. London’s dozen or so private bus companies have made no-counter; indeed they have gone so far as to refuse even to negotiate over the issue.

The industrial context is that in 2007-2008 the bus workers balloted for strike and voted by large majorities to strike, but the employers were obtained in the High Court injunctions to prevent strikes happening; afterwards, a number of union reps were dismissed and the employers no doubt congratulated themselves on having permanently defeated the bus drivers. But if they did think that was the end of the protests, the employers were wrong. Busworkers have a very long history of union organisation, which secured for them in the past above average wages (their semi-official history is titled, revealingly, ‘Radical Aristocrats’). Thirty years without strikes has seen a sharp decline in their pay levels compared to comparable workers, such as tube drivers. It is apparent to any bus worker with a sense of the history of their profession that strikes have improved their pay and conditions,while  an unwillingness to strike  has seen their conditions worsen.

The meeting heard solidarity greetings from Egyptian busworkers, who have struck repeatedly since the revolution of  2011, and recently won a strike resulting in improved lump sum payments on retirement. The message itself can be accessed here (click “cc” for the subtitles, translating Ahmad Mahmoud Ahmad’s words into English).

UK running: in long-term decline?


An interesting letter in today’s Evening Standard by John Bicourt of the Association of British Athletics Clubs, predicts that Britain will have a poor Olympics Games on the athletics track. Funds are made available for a large bureaucracy of coaches, Bicourt writes, and top athletes have access to warm-weather training and other comforts, but their performance is indifferent compared to the athletes of 30 years ago.

For all the vast sums of public money being spent on the Olympics (£11 billion, at the last count, according to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee), and for all the talk of this being a bumper Olympics in terms of British golds, it is very clear that the strategy for British success is to spread into sports in which relatively few athletes compete, and golds are “easier” to come by. Increased spending on coaches etc doesn’t seem to correlate to success in mass participation sports.

A few events spring to mind: no male or female Briton has run the fastest 800-metre time in a season since Peter Elliott ran 1.42 (just half a second outside Joaquim Cruz’s then world record) back in 1990.

Between 1945 and January 1984 there were 25 successive world record holders at the men’s marathon, and 8 of them were British. Since then there have been 10 world record holders, none British. There were indeed more 2 hour 15 runners in Britain in 1985 than there were in 2011.

Britain won two golds and seven medals at the 2011 World Championships, but only a dozen athletes even made it to the final of their event.

As a schoolboy athlete in the 1980s, I was presented with the AAA Track and Field Standards, which are a measure of comparative performance. To be a top (grade 1) 800 metre, you had to run 1 minute 57 at age 16. This seemed an incredibly fast time: no-one I knew at that age had run that fast, neither had anyone at any neighbouring school. It was faster than the county record. To be a grade 1 performer in the shot put by contrast you had to throw 13.35 metres, or to be a top javelin thrower you had to be able to throw 50.55 metres. These were daunting but not impossible performances: a number of athletes at my (admittedly sporty) school clustered around these levels. Complaining that life seemed to be stacked against runners, it was explained to me that the standards mark comparative performance: tens of thousands of British schoolboys ran, therefore the general standard was high, and exceptional performance was more unusual. The pool of shot putters or javelin throwers was considerably smaller, hence it was easier to excel.

That explanation worked for a different period – one bookended by Ovett and Elliott’s success – in which British middle-distance runners excelled at the top levels, drawing young runners (including myself) into the sport.

It was also a period where the majority of top runners seemed to come from definite working-class backgrounds (Cram, Ovett, but especially Elliott, above, who became an international athlete while working as a joiner); Coe was very dramatically the exception. Athletics seemed to be a way in which people drawn from the majority could make a career for themselves on television. That doesn’t seem to be true any more in 2012.

Extracts from my father’s diary (5)


Et in Ecclesiam Catholicam

Two days ago I was received into the Catholic church.  It was strange that such a ‘joyous’ moment should in a way be so depressing.  The night before I could not do a thing except to wonder whether or not to fall in love with a certain girl and to be preoccupied like that when heaven waited…!  I spent an hour at Blackfairs just sitting or kneeling.  Put one-self into the hands of God and it is all right one need not worry.  Perhaps I did succeed in doing that and things became looser.

But the next day holding a card and making the vow – this wasn’t becoming a Catholic and I was mainly worrying about what other people were thinking anyhow.  But the form had to be gone through perhaps I had become a catholic before.

Then Communion and the body of God sticking to one’s mouth.  I was unable to swallow the flesh of our Lord.

Then all was over and it might as well not have happened.  Or might it?

The world is the same.  I am the same yet I have eaten of the flesh and received the mark.  Perhaps also it is the cry of the murderer – why chase me I am the same as I am before?  Not what have I done?  I know what I have done and he knows what he has done.  But why am I different?  I know that you can apply a different name to me, but that is something you are doing not something I am doing; and I really eat the same way and drink the same way and talk the same way as before.

Running for the 96


Solidarity greetings to Dominic Williams and the other five runners who are raising money for the Hillsborough Families Support Group (HFSG) and the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) by running the route from Hillsorough to Anfield, which is equivalent to 3 marathons in 3 days.

I was not at Hillsboborough, but found myself watching the game on television, sobbing at the images of so many people killed for so little good reason. I was 16 at the time and had been a Liverpool fan for several years. I wasn’t from the city, but had adopted Liverpool  in part because so much of the city’s culture (comprising music, art and politics as well as football) was bound up with resistance to the Thatcher government, which I too loathed.

I had started going to football matches for the first time that season, and used to travel up from London to Liverpool by train, joining a group of regular Liverpool fans who made the same journey. I didn’t buy tickets in advance; you didn’t need to in those days.

I attended the match before, which was an away game conveniently in London against Millwall, and found myself talking to a man in his late 50s or early 60s, an amateur referee. He was kind and generous; he saw me as a young fan attending a game by himself, and took me under his wing.

The following game was Hillsborough of course, and it was especially poignant to see that among those killed was a former amateur referee John Anderson, aged 62. Looking back on the events of twenty years ago I have no way of knowing whether it was John who I had met at the game before.

In a sense, what does it matter? Whether I knew them or not, people had been killed who were a part of me.

This isn’t the place to go into the ways that the powerful in Britain worked together to ruin the lives of the Hillsborough survivors: first by spreading lies about them in the Sun, then by re-writing the rules of the tort of neligence so that the families could not obtain compensation from the police for what the police did that day.

It just seems right to me that people should still be fundraising for the campaigns which are needed if we are ever going to have full disclosure of all the records from the day; and that this campaigning should take the form of running.

More details of how to donate here;