Athletics: British athletics should be wary of Dr Arbeit
By Sue Mott
Published: 12:01AM BST 29 Apr 2003
Golden days: Denise Lewis following her Olympic success in Sydney
Why has it all gone so quiet? The response to the news that Denise Lewis is being coached by a man prominent for two decades in the East German drug programme has been strangely muted. You might have expected an outcry that our reigning Olympic heptathlete gold medallist had teamed up with Dr Ekkart Arbeit
, described by a German state investigator as a mastermind of "the largest pharmacological programmes in history". But since the news broke last week, nothing.
It is not a case of ignorance being bliss. Dr Arbeit's past is fully documented, not least in 1,000 pages of files he submitted to the Stasi, the former East Germany's secret police and in the telling testimony of previous athletes under his care. The former women's European shot-put champion, Heidi Krieger, has spoken out against the man instrumental in the steroid abuse that so ravaged her body she underwent a sex-change operation in 1997.
In two other countries in the last six years his prospective employment has provoked a furore and a swift volte face from sporting bodies involved. Australian Athletics were poised to appoint him head coach in 1997 until a high-profile media campaign, including opposition from the Prime Minister, and an athletes' rebellion shamed them into changing their mind. Less than a year ago Athletics South Africa were forced to abandon their offer to employ him as head coach after a sustained campaign in the media.
Yet here, the official view of UK Athletics is one of mild indulgence. "We don't run the athletes," said David Moorcroft, the UKA chief executive. "If Denise and her coach, Frank Dick, are comfortable with their choice, we would support them. As far as we know Dr Arbeit has no court convictions and he should be treated the same as anyone with no convictions. I don't think any association, real or imagined, with drugs is helpful to athletics as a sport but equally you have to be fair to the athletes."
This does look rather like weak will masquerading as justice. It is true Dr Arbeit has no convictions. Under German law, criminal retribution could only be secured against those coaches who directly fed anabolic steroids to the athletes, some of them teenagers and many without their knowledge or consent. He was, however, exposed by the parliamentary investigator, Prof Werner Franke, in 1995 as one of the men overseeing the project that achieved so much success for East German athletes by pharmaceutical means.
It was evidence enough for South Africa and Australia to regard him as an ever-tainted figure. The comparison is with Charlie Francis, the former coach to Ben Johnson, who caused the convulsion of controversy earlier in the year when the American athletes, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, turned to him for coaching. The association was hastily disbanded
when the athletes were accused of sabotaging their sport, threatened with being thrown out of high-profile European meetings and, perhaps most significant of all, Nike were rumoured to be less than pleased.
There may very well be a subtle difference between Francis and Dr Arbeit. One coach to the highest-profile drugs cheat in the modern world, the other fully implicated in a cynical state programme. But does athletics need either of them at this highly sensitive time?
In the immediate aftermath of the revelations that Carl Lewis was among those many Americans whose positive drugs tests
before the Seoul Olympics were covered up by complicit administrators of US Athletics, the last thing the sport needed was another link to doping.
The ramifications are not confined to the athlete herself. As a 'high flier' on the world performance programme, funded by UK Athletics, Lewis benefits from the Lottery. The funds for such things as medical care, warm-weather training and coaching are in this case directed to the athlete via Dick. According to Max Jones, the director of the performance programme, there are no qualms about the payment. "If Frank's happy with it, we'll back him," he said.
But at a time when this source of funding is already feeling a vice-like pinch, it will hardly encourage the sale of Lottery tickets if the public take umbrage at their money potentially finding its way to a former Eastern Bloc drug administrator.
UK Sport, who hand out the Lottery funding, might have been expected to take a view on this case. Even a noisy view. But the position as expressed by chief executive Richard Callicott is that Lewis, being over the income threshold, is not directly funded by their Lottery grant, and therefore outside the bounds of direct interference.
By some freakish coincidence his view of the overall situation exactly coincided with that of Richard Caborn, the sports minister, who said: "It may be best for all athletics if Dr Arbeit used this opportunity to reassure the sporting world of his commitment to the World Anti-Doping Agency's code, especially given his involvement with one of the UK's best-known and best-loved champions."
Funnily enough for those whose memories backtrack three months, this is precisely what was said about Francis's involvement with Jones before the outcry became too loud for them to sustain the connection.
Lewis herself is in training for a comeback after the birth of her daughter last year and dividing her time between Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom. Her agents, Miriam Stoppard Lifetime, said that they preferred not to issue a statement on the subject, but would stand by the comments made by UK Athletics.
Perhaps, from the athlete's perspective at track level, it looks like a little local storm. It is true that Jones's first reaction to the hostile reception she received was a bewildered: "What's all the fuss about?" Once properly advised, she changed her mind. In fairness to Lewis, it could be that when she fully appreciates the background of her new technical coach, she is persuaded to change her mind.
Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said: "Didn't we go through this before with Marion Jones? One might think that athletes would have learned something. The image is not great. My philosophy is, if there is anyone at any level of coaching who condones or administers drug taking, we should get him or her out of the sport.
"We have not been as diligent as we should where coaches are concerned. But the new anti-doping policy we are formulating and which will be in place not later than the Olympic Games in Athens will redress that issue."
Just common sense should tell you that any athlete getting involved with a coach with a drug-clouded past is endangering their own preparation. Inevitably, questions will be asked and focus compromised. And where is the wisdom in re-hiring these characters for a sport desperate to clean up its image after decades of taint and revelation? Then sponsors become queasy. Television is less fond. Parents of athletically talented youngsters aspire to Arsenal's forward line instead of the Olympian start line. Soon you have sport in terminal decline.
Athletics deserves better. It needs people who mean to clean up and not those in a perpetual state of mealy-mouthed terror that somebody will come along and sue them. If something is wrong, if a perception is damaging, you would like to think that those entrusted with running sport in this country would have the guts to come out in public and say so.
If Dr Arbeit was recently considered such a no-go area by South Africa and Australia, it seems odd in the extreme that Britain is so unfussed by this man and his dodgy past.
The excuse that he "must be a bloody tremendous coach if so many people are willing to take on his past", as propounded by one apologist, is countered by the argument that the Australian athletes put forward six years ago. "Of course he got results. His athletes were on drugs."
Dr Ekkart Arbeit profile
Dr Ekkart Arbeit, who is to assist British heptahlete Denise Lewis in her comeback, was East Germany's throwing coach from 1982 to 1988 and also head track and field coach from 1989 to 1990. Although he was a sports scientist, he never personally gave drugs to athletes, but allegedly oversaw such use and helped the East German government develop their doping policy from 1968.
Arbeit was also exposed as an informer for the East German secret police, the Stasi. In 1995, Professor Werner Franke led a German parliamentary investigation into the use of drugs in sport in the former Iron Curtain country, and unearthed files that showed that Arbeit, operating under the codename Claus Tisch, had filed more than 1,000 pages of spy reports to the Stasi. Franke also said that Arbeit had reported two doctors to the East German authorities for refusing to administer drugs to athletes.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Arbeit left Germany and spent several weeks in the mid 1990s as a fitness adviser with West Hartlepool rugby union club. He was later offered the position of athletics performance director in Australia and then South Africa - but both these offers were withdrawn when full details of his past were revealed.