Mike Rowbottom

A few years back I wrote a book about cheating in sport. It was not intended to be, nor capable of being, encyclopaedic. We should all cherish the rainforests.

But what it illuminated to me, as I delved through errant behaviour dating back to the ancient Olympic Games, was the indefatigable nature of the urge to seek unfair advantage. 

Or, just as potently, the desire to even things up to ensure there would be no advantage for opponents assumed to be cheating already.

The latter position was classically expressed by Lance Armstrong.

The disgraced cyclist chose to make his confession in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. To her three successive questions - "Did you ever take banned substances to enhance cycling performance?...Was one of those substances EPO?... Did you use any other banned substances?" - Armstrong replied with the same word: "Yes".

But Winfrey, in the pre-broadcast trailers to her show, said that Armstrong "did not come clean" in the way she expected. 

Perhaps that was a reference to his next statement after the startling opening salvo: "I looked up the definition of cheat," Armstrong added. 

"The definition of a cheat is to gain advantage on a rival or a foe. I don't view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field."

The impact of Lance Armstrong's TV admission to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 that he had taken EPO and other banned substances in his cycling career was huge - but his admission was tempered with self-justification ©Getty Images
The impact of Lance Armstrong's TV admission to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 that he had taken EPO and other banned substances in his cycling career was huge - but his admission was tempered with self-justification ©Getty Images

That was precisely the outlook expressed by Charlie Francis, who coached Ben Johnson to world and Olympic 100 metre titles before the Canadian sprinter was stripped of both for doping. 

"I'm not going to have my runners start a metre behind," Francis once insisted.

In the words of one senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) official, the scandal of the Johnson positive test, which emerged two days after the Seoul 1988 final, "stopped the Olympics dead".

Bad news indeed. And yet…

The central conundrum at the heart of doping revelations was voiced at the time by the then IOC President, Juan-Antonio Samaranch.

"This is not a disaster," he opined. "For it shows the IOC is very serious, and that we are winning the battle for a clean Games. 

"The gap between our aims and those who are cheating is narrowing."

Thirty years on, the seriousness with which the IOC views doping is still being questioned in many parts of the sporting landscape in the wake of the seemingly endless imbroglio over Russian doping.

But as this grim soap opera moves towards another twist in the storyline this week with the World Anti-Doping Agency preparing to consider whether Russia should be given another "last chance" having failed to produce the required data from the Moscow Laboratory by the December 31 deadline, there has been renewed criticism this week of the London 2012 Games with regard to its doping record.

A piece in a British newspaper reflects upon the rise in the total of doping positives involving London 2012 competitors, whose samples are being kept for at least 10 years at the behest of the IOC and re-tested as new methods become available.

The London 2012 total, boosted by five more weightlifting positives announced over Christmas, now stands at 116 - more than the total of 86 discovered at the previous Games in Beijing and likely to rise still further in the next three years of renewed, retrospective analysis.

"London, which was supposed to be the cleanest Games in history, turned into the dirtiest," the article adds.

The London 2012 Games have been described as the
The London 2012 Games have been described as the "dirtiest" on the basis of the growing number of retrospective doping positives following re-tests of samples - but it can also be argued that this shows it is the cleanest Games ©Getty Images

In response, Richard Ings who was chief executive of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority from 2005 to 2010, tweeted: "No Games can be clean. It now takes a decade to determine if a Games was honest or not. 

"And London 2012 was a very dishonest Games."

Another Twitter commentator, Glen Cottingley, added: "Those caught doping at London 2012 are just the tip of the iceberg. 

"Remember these retests are targeted (e.g to athletes competing in future Olympics, medal winners, etc) and only a fraction of competitors in an event are ever tested anyway."

The figures are incontestable, and much of the criticism is justified. But the description of London 2012 as "a very dishonest Games" once again begs the same question Samaranch addressed in the wake of the Johnson affair.

The point is, we only know of the dishonesty because of the honesty with which testing is being pursued.

The argument that past Games contained far higher and undisclosed doping positives is raised, but then discarded.

But given that the decision to keep samples and re-test them is now in operation, bad news - albeit, in some cases, news that throws past competitions into a frenzy of revision - is good news. After years of no news - which is really only bad news.

It seems those who have committed to a prolonged and serious effort to identify unworthy competitors from the London 2012 Games are being beaten with the stick of their own effectiveness. Damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

For sure, the process is embarrassing and disruptive. Good. Ask clean athletes now taking possession of the medals they deserve if they mind about all the fuss.