IT is 35 years since Allan Wells won Olympic gold in the 100 metres at Moscow, a photo finish separating him from Silvio Leonard of Cuba. “They can’t see each other!” hollered TV commentator David Coleman, who had the unenviable task of trying to separate two sprinters who were seven lanes apart. It took several television replays before Coleman could call the race in Wells’ favour.
This week, an attempt has been made to cast doubt on Wells’ achievement. BBC’s Panorama, titled Catch Me If You Can, was billed as having “uncovered claims of drug-taking by British 100m Olympic gold medallist Allan Wells”. It would have been difficult to miss the arrival of these revelations. The contents of the investigation found their way on to the front page of the Sun two weeks before Panorama was aired, and subsequently into the rest of the national press after Wells issued a denial. On the day that the programme was eventually screened, it was heavily promoted on just about every platform available to the BBC, before and after the show.
And the following day, Wells was on the front page of the Daily Record – “Golden boy Wells & the drug cheat doctor”. The claim is not explicit, but the association is unmissable.
But anyone who has followed the Wells story from the start will have been left with the same sense of watching a series of action replays – although this time, without a winner.
Any athlete found to have taken drugs after years of denial deserves all he or she gets, as a cheat, a disgrace and in many cases, a hypocrite. As we know, drug-testing itself is not proof that an individual is clean. Although that is not to say that testing back in the 1970s and 80s was completely ineffective. Just ask Willie Johnston.
But did Allan Wells take drugs? Only Wells can say for sure. He insists he did not. What we do know is that the allegations have failed to establish anything that approaches fact.
In the past 35 years, there have been three serious attempts to put Wells on the front pages. Each one succeeded. The first was in 1991, when a former Scottish international athlete claimed in Scotland On Sunday that it was an “open secret that many of the so-called top people were taking gear [steroids].” Although there was no specific allegation against Wells, the article was accompanied by a story which said: “Alan [sic] Wells, the Olympic gold medallist, last night failed to gain an interim interdict preventing publication of an article in this paper concerning the use of banned anabolic steroids in sport.”
The story resurfaced four years later, in the Sunday Times. This time, the same former athlete admitted to having taken performance-enhancing drugs during his career and made various allegations about others, including that an Edinburgh doctor, Jimmy Ledingham, had supplied competitors with drugs and advised them on how to avoid detection. Wells again became part of the story, and issued a denial that he had used drugs.
This week’s revelations amount to the following: same former athlete accuses doctor of supplying steroids to athletes, including Wells. Two unnamed athletes also made allegations about Wells but were not prepared to go on the record, and quotes implicating Wells were attributed to the now deceased doctor.
The problem is that the only named witness, Drew McMaster, lied about his own drug-taking for many years, and he and Wells have a history of animosity.
The Panorama investigation was just about over before it had begun. Alarm bells began to ring when presenter Mark Daly began his investigation at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where he looked up back issues of newspapers to “reveal” details which have been in the public domain for 20 years and more.
This led the reporter to two people who were prepared to speak on camera – McMaster, and Andrew Malone, the reporter who could add no more to the story than he had published in the 1990s. Then there were the two other sources who could not be named, but were allowed to have their opinions broadcast in any case. The only other new evidence offered was a transcription of a conversation McMaster had secretly recorded with Ledingham, in which the doctor allegedly said that Wells took drugs. Oddly, no attempt was made to explain why the original recording was not broadcast, which would normally be the focal point of any such investigation for television, although Daly stated that he was satisfied the written transcript was accurate to the recording. Nor was any attempt made to explain why this recording had not come to light before now, for instance when McMaster first made his allegations in 1995, three years before Dr Ledingham died.
So, this latest attempt to associate Wells with drug-taking has the usual omissions: a failed drugs test; a reliable witness; or a confession. It was a reheat of allegations which prove nothing, but leave their mark.
When Daly visited the library to trawl the archives, what he didn’t tell the audience was that in 1991, McMaster was asked by Scotland On Sunday if he had taken steroids. “No,” he replied. “Categorically not.”
Or this extract from a report in the Herald, the day after McMaster’s 1995 confession that he had taken drugs: “On the pretext of researching a book, McMaster travelled the length of Britain interviewing athletes, doctors, and coaches. While secretly wired to recording equipment, his tactics were to admit his own guilt regarding drugs in the hope of provoking revealing or incriminating comments.”
One of the athletes he visited was former team-mate Cameron Sharp, who suffered physical and mental impairment from injuries sustained in a car crash.
Sharp’s wife Carol said: “Both Cameron and I are outraged by the way Drew McMaster has tried to take advantage of someone with a brain injury. You can’t sink much lower than that.
“Cameron has said he never wants to see or hear from Drew again.”
McMaster’s bitter rivalry with Wells should also be taken into account when considering the former’s evidence. In the mid-70s, McMaster was the leading 200-metre runner in Scotland, and arguably in Britain, and was unfortunate not to go to the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Within two years, he had been overtaken by the emerging Wells. In their book The Past Is a Foreign Country – a History of Scottish Athletics, authors Colin Shields and Arnold Black said: “The rivalry between them [McMaster and Wells] was of rather more than healthy proportions throughout their career and resulted in neither agreeing to receive or hand over the baton to each other in relay races, necessitating in all relay team selections that Wells ran the second stage, Sharp running the third leg, handing over to McMaster for the final run to the finish.”
There is another aspect of this issue which nags. When those who will point the finger in private are challenged, especially in the cynical world of the Scottish press, it is never long before the underlying belief comes out: no-one from Scotland could be the Olympic sprint champion. It’s just not possible. What next, then? Eric Liddell was on amphetamines?
It’s a similar attitude that forms the opinion that Wells only won in 1980 because the Americans boycotted the Games. True, their absence made it easier, but the lazy theory ignores the fact that Wells beat all his American rivals that season.
This week’s events have not been journalism’s finest hour. Investigations should be about revelations, not rehashes, and serious allegations that cannot be established as fact fall into the territory of smears, which give the business a bad name. No doubt it will be open season when Wells dies, but until someone can produce new, convincing evidence which substantiates allegations made, no-one comes out of this episode with any credit.