Hard to sprint past the elephant in the room


TIPPING POINT:Athletics is an aesthetic representation of humanity’s impulse to push the limits of physical capability. And I can’t believe any of it, writes BRIAN O'CONNOR

THE WORLD Athletics Championship begins in South Korea on Saturday, in a place called Daegu. No, me neither, even though apparently it’s at least twice the size of Dublin. Anyway, Daegu is getting its shot at being the centre of the sports world.

Well, not really. The physical scale of it will be immense but for most of us, it will be a comparative sideshow, little more than a highlights clip on the tail-end of the news, the role athletics is used to.

Athletics you see is the sport you should like, as distinct from the ones you actually do. It is athletic endeavour at its purest: running, throwing and jumping, rippling muscle and lean gristle, an aesthetic representation of humanity’s impulse to push the limits of physical capability. And I can’t believe any of it.

That is distinct from not wanting to believe it. Anyone can wearily look at the detritus of athletic ideals that have been scattered throughout the last number of decades and conclude the whole thing is a corrupt, syringe-wielding, piss-tampering mess. Such cynicism is easy, fun too, sometimes.

But Daegu is being billed as the start of a new era. For the first time every one of the athletes arriving at the World Championships will have to provide a blood sample. Theoretically the IAAF want to create a blood passport, develop a haematological map of each athlete where any sudden suspicious variation can be pounced upon.

However only those willing to park their credulity a long, long way from sporting reality will be able to look at Daegu and truly believe what they’re looking at. We might want to, but no amount of wanting will be able to stop that tick of prurient doubt burrowing its way into your brain every time something remarkable happens. Like the Tour De France, too much has gone on in the past, much of it conducted under the very watch of those who are building Daegu up as the start of a new sporting epoch.

Is that unfair to those athletes who remain the real deal? Of course it is, on so many levels. Tarring with the same brush is by definition unfair, and yet impossible to avoid. Possession of a large throbbing vein of scepticism when it comes to top-flight athletics is essential. Those pretending otherwise should really be housed in a particularly cosy incubator.

There have already been a number of high profile positive drugs tests on the run up to the championships. Steve Mullings, the third fastest man in the world this year over one hundred metres tested positive for a masking drug on Friday and faces a lifetime ban. He was one of the Jamaican 4x100 metre relay team that won the World Championships in 2009. Mullings served a two-year ban from 2004 for having too much testosterone in his system. This time Mullings says he unwittingly took the drug by taking vitamins.

That news came hot on the heels of Mike Rodgers, the American sprinter, and fourth fastest in the world this year, testing positive for a banned stimulant. Rodgers’ agent says no way is his man a “druggie,” says he drank an energy drink he reckoned was Red Bull but wasn’t. Familiarity though has made the excuse game a lot harder to swallow than any kind of Bull. Or has it? The insidiousness of the whole drug issue is how hard it is to be definitive.

LaShawn Merritt is the reigning Olympic and world champion at 400 metres, the event once dominated by his fellow-American Michael Johnson. In 2009 Merritt failed three dope tests, testing positive for a steroid. He got a two-year ban. But Merritt’s excuse was a beauty, or not, depending on your proclivities.

Merritt said the steroid was contained in a “penis enlargement product” he bought over the counter. Johnson’s heir was trying to grow his Johnson! The American authorities have reduced Merritt’s ban to 21 months to allow him take part in the upcoming World Championships, taking a charitable view of their man’s actions, something that can normally be put down to self-interest but which in this case might have some merit.

Because it is hard to credit how any man could come up with such an explanation as a first resort. Forever more, LaShawn Merritt’s name will be linked with his penis. And not in a good way like the prodigiously gifted porn star Ron Jeremy.

Merritt’s best friend might never have been a source of confusion during the handover in the relay but due to its owner’s insecurity, it is eternally damned to a diminished reputation.

Men as a species will reach for most things to justify their actions but provoking mental images of fervent testosterone-rubbing is such a last shake of the dice it is hard to ignore the suspicion that poor old LaShawn might be so naive he is actually telling the truth. He even provided the perfect quote to complement his fervent regret.

“To know that I’ve tested positive as a result of a product that I used for personal reasons is extremely difficult to wrap my hands around,” he said.

Usain Bolt apparently has no such issues. The man with the shyness quotient of a toilet seat has revealed he keeps a plentiful supply of prophylactics by his Kingston bedside, another piece of information guaranteed to keep the champion sprinter’s media profile firmly poking the public’s consciousness.

Bolt is again the poster-boy of the World Championships, the focal point around which everything will revolve. The Jamaican superstar is in many ways a sponsor’s dream.

He gives every impression of actually enjoying the worldwide adulation that has followed him for the last half decade and, although exuding plenty casual Caribbean charm, actually says very little. Sponsors like that. Mouthy is good, just vacuous mouthy, like Dáithí Ó Sé.

Not that it’s a requirement. In fact the only real requirement of Usain Bolt is that he runs very fast over a hundred metres, something he has done faster than anyone ever has. At the last Olympics he smashed to smithereens a world record that had previously been lowered in tiny increments, and he did so while showboating for the last third of the race.

It was spectacular, graceful, almost beautiful in its own way, and it has become an iconic image of man pushing the limits. And it would be great to be able to really believe it.