The Ron Pickering Memorial Award for Services to Athletics was presented to veteran athletics writer Mel Watman, a founder member of the British Athletics Writers’ Association and the organisation’s honorary president. Watman, a former editor of Athletics Weekly and author of numerous books on the sport, is now co-editor of the highly respected newsletter, Athletics International.
MEL WATMAN fell in love with track and field athletics when seeing was believing. Forty years on, esteemed worldwide as one of the sport’s foremost statisticians, he sadly shakes his head.
His dilemma is not hard to understand.
As publisher and co-editor of Athletics International, he is preparing his year’s end edition, updating the records of his sport. His very name on the cover is usually the imprimatur of his authority and integrity.
But what now? What does he do about that sudden rash of Chinese world records in the wake of the horrific revelation that no fewer than 11 Chinese athletes were caught using drugs during their national championships in Peking last month?
Watman paused. Then he said: `I am going to have to include them.’ He had all the conviction of an Old Bailey judge compelled to release a terrorist through some legal loophole.
For a month after watching Chinese women runners similarly scythe down world records by margins of near fantasy at the World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart, I was reluctant in these columns instantly to assume they were fuelled by anabolic steroids.
The Chinese are a funny lot. They were into acupuncture 1,000 years before we stopped amputating limbs with battle axes. I have witnessed Chinese kids, intensively state-coached, become scratch golfers within two years of discovering that such a ball game actually existed.
Suspicion was one thing, proof another.
But now we have it. In a statement of imbecilic deviousness the Chinese Olympic Committee triumphantly announced that the Misses Wang Junxia and Qu Yunxia, whose staggering new marks at 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 metres have turned world athletics on its head, were tested for drugs and found blameless. In the same breath they conceded that 11 other of its athletes at the same meeting were tested positive. And then it failed to name them.
China is not exactly Cheltenham. Confronted by stroppy dissidents it shoots them or runs them down with tanks. Pestered by a surfeit of female babies it starves a percentage of them to death. And, when it determines to make its mark on outside cultures, it pursues its mandate with a ruthlessness unknown since the demise of the late and unlamented East Germany.
So how is it that in this scary, authoritarian regime that young athletes, training in remote camps, governed by military-style discipline, can get their hands on drugs which even in Britain cannot be obtained without prescription or bootlegging?
The answer, disgracefully, is obvious.
By now you will have grasped the immensity of Mel Watman’s problem: an honest man confronted by a smokescreen of duplicity. Yes, he is right to publish the new Chinese records as they stand. But he will be sick in the stomach as he does so.
Already he knows, as do we all, that there is at least one world record in his publication which does not bear scrutiny. It was achieved by an American athlete – nameless to obviate the near certainty of colossal libel damages – whose advisers were so smart in preventing rocket fuel detection that they got clean away with it.
On the other hand Watman was present in the Mexico Olympic Stadium in 1968 when Bob Beamon produced his prodigious long-jump record with an improvement so vast it would now be shrouded with suspicion. Many pundits asserted it would not be broken in a thousand years. In fact it was re-broken by Mike Powell, his American compatriot, in 23.
`The thing about Beamon’s jump, unbelievable though it was at the time,’ recalls Watman, `was that there was a rationale about it: high altitude, a following wind-speed right on the legal limit, a passionate atmosphere. I could accept it. But now . . .’
He points out, too, that suspicions become even greater when it is women, not men, runners who are suddenly piling up a stack of astonishing records.
Hormonal differences make it easier for the female of the species to mask drugs.
It is imperative now for the International Amateur Athletic Association (prop: Dr Primo Nebiolo) to act with a decisiveness which both it and the Olympic movement has not shown in the past to prevent track and field athletics from destruction.
Both have long paid lip-service to cracking down on drugs but neither has followed through with the ruthless action necessary to preserve what is left of their plausibility.
Ben Johnson, recidivist cheat, should have taught them a lesson. Banned after breaking the world 100 metres record at the Seoul Olympics, he was reinstated to run at the Barcelona Games. Soon afterwards he was found to be rattling with steroids once again.
There should be no second chance, particularly following these latest exposures from China. The simple truth is that if drug abuse on this scale is not conquered there will be absolutely no point in any Western youngster even contemplating athletics as a sport. As for Mel Watman, he can tear up 40 years of dedicated work and toss it into the dustbin.
The reaction of Professor Arne Ljungqvist, the Swedish head of the IAAF’s medical commission, is hardly convincing. From several fathoms of sand he mutters: `Earlier such performances would have been applauded and rewarded and those who succeeded would have become stars. Now they have become the victims of suspicion.’
Suspicion? What planet is he living on?
The first thing his inordinately wealthy Federation must do is wring the names of those acknowledged 11 cheats out of their Chinese masters. We know that eliminating drugs from sport is almost an inhuman assignment but pussyfooting around with such inane platitudes is getting no one anywhere.
By the way, what joy that those 2000 Olympics never went to Peking.
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MEL WATMAN – THE OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE AAA – The story of the world’s oldest athletic association. Author MEL WATMAN (Co-Editor & Publisher of “Athletics International) (Old BOy of HDS) Obtainable from www.sportsbooks.ltd.uk price £19.99
The Amateur Athletic Association, founded in 1880 during a meeting at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, was for many years the world’s most influential governing body for track and field competition. It was the AAA which established the rules and ethos of the sport. In this official history of the AAA, Mel Watman – who attended his first AAA Championships 60 years ago – brings to life the personalities and events which shaped athletics from its Victorian origins to the present day. Highlights of each of the prestigious AAA Championships from 1880 onwards are included in this sumptuously illustrated book. All the great names of British athletics are featured, from the 19th century’s most phenomenal runner Walter George through to more modern legends such as Dave Bedford, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Linford Christie and Jonathan Edwards. There is also a wealth of fascinating trivia. One of the AAA’s Presidents was the judge at Dr Crippen’s trial; another climbed the Matterhorn and swam across Niagara. Competitors at the AAA Championships have included a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a best-selling novelist, a man who took part in The Great Escape of movie fame, and a leader of the Liberal Democrat party. Exhaustive lists of champions in all age groups and other compilations round off a volume which is effectively a history of British men’s athletics and represents the AAA’s legacy for future generations of athletes. The first official history of the AAA was written by Peter Lovesey and published in 1980.
IN THIS official history of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association commissioned by the AAA, Mel Watman – who attended his first WAAA Championships at the White City in 1951 – recalls the major personalities and events during 90 years of women’s athletics. It’s all here from the pioneering days of the early 1920s right through to the London Olympics of 2012 and Jessica Ennis’s heptathlon triumph. Highlights of every WAAA Championships meeting from 1923 are included in this book, which contains more than 100 photos, mostly taken by Mark Shearman. There is also a wealth of fascinating trivia. One of the founders of the WAAA in 1922, who was also a high jump and javelin champion, later became as Lady Mary Heath one of the world’s most famous aviators. During the 1930s Nellie Halstead won WAAA titles at distances from 100 yards to 3 miles cross country. Anne Pashley, an Olympic 4x100m relay silver medallist in 1956, would become a noted operatic soprano. No fewer than seven women athletes have received the accolade of being voted the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year: Dorothy Hyman, Mary Rand, Mary Peters, Fatima Whitbread, Liz McColgan, Paula Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes. All of them, together with such other Olympic champions as Ann Packer, Tessa Sanderson, Sally Gunnell, Denise Lewis, Christine Ohuruogu and Jessica Ennis feature prominently in the book. Exhaustive lists of champions in all age groups round off a volume which is in effect the first comprehensive history of British women’s athletics and represents, as with the Official History of the AAA (1880-2010), that Association’s legacy for the inspiration of future generations of athletes.