MIke Rowbottom ©insidethegames

Once, a long time ago, when I was helping Roger Black write his autobiography, the inevitable subject of doping came up.

Don’t get me wrong - it had nothing in particular to do with Black. But, sadly, it was a question that needed to be asked at the time regarding athletics.

And, as the latest doping rumpus to break at the weekend indicates, it remains so.

One of the enduring and valid defences of those who are attempting to eradicate doping from the sport is that real questions are continuing to be asked of competitors, even if the answer must sometime be a doping ban.

The defence is that this evidences a real desire for improvement.

How envious those in athletics must be of other sports such as football, where - as so many of its followers will tell you – there is no significant doping problem. What a relief!

But back to Black…

Roger Black, pictured right with fellow Olympic 4x400m silver medallists (from left) Jamie Baulch, Mark Richardson and Iwan Thomas at the 1996 Atlanta Games, missed out on the moment of vicorywith the same team-mates at the following year's World Championships, only collecting gold after the US were retrospectively disqualified for a doping offence involving Antonio Pettigrew   ©Getty Images
Roger Black, pictured right with Britain's Olympic 4x400m silver medallists at Atlanta 1996, missed out on the moment of vicory at the following year's World Championships, only collecting gold after the US were retrospectively disqualified for a doping offence involving Antonio Pettigrew ©Getty Images

His opening words in the chapter entitled “The Drugs Don’t Work” were these:

“Can you win an Olympic medal without drugs? Yes, you can. I’ve done it. But only I know for sure that I’ve done it. I’d put my hand in the fire for my training partners Kriss Akabusi and Jon Ridgeon. But I can’t know for certain. The only person I can be sure hasn’t taken drugs to improve their performance is me…”

For Black, there will always be a question mark when he looks back at his career and reviews the 1991 World Championships, where he lost the 400 metres gold by 0.05 seconds to the faster-finishing American Antonio Pettigrew, who, in 2008, testified at the trial of his coach, Trevor Graham, that he had used erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone from 1997 to 2003.

The sporting record of Pettigrew, who tragically committed suicide in 2010, now contains disqualifications from four 4x400m relay victories, starting with the Athens World Championships in 1997 - where a British team including Black took silver - and ending with the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Black and Co now have gold, officially, from the Athens relay.  But as for 1991 - there was no evidence that Pettigrew was cheating then. Even so, the Briton must surely wonder from time to time…

For Valerie Adams, there is no wondering. She knows she was cheated. And even though she now has the London 2012 Olympic gold that should have been hers on the day - following the subsequent positive test returned by the “winner” Nadzheya Ostapchuk of Belarus – as she said herself, she can never have that moment back.

Valerie Adams of New Zealand (left) with shot put silver at the London 2012 Games. Before the year was out she would have he gold - following the positive test returned by Nadzheya Ostapchuk of Belarus - but not the satisfaction of victory in the Olympic Stadium ©Getty Images
Valerie Adams of New Zealand (left) with shot put silver at the London 2012 Games, which was upgraded to gold following the positive test returned by Nadzheya Ostapchuk of Belarus ©Getty Images

The 30-year-old Kiwi shot putter has announced that she will not defend her world title in Beijing later this month but will instead focus her attention on getting fully fit for next year’s Rio Olympics after returning from elbow and shoulder surgery at the end of last year.

But while the IAAF World Athlete of the Year, who won gold outright at the Beijing 2008 Games, concentrates her energies another winning experience at the Olympics, the sport is engaged in a paroxysm of doubt over the question of whether others have, or have not, followed down the dark road taken by the likes of Pettigrew and Ostapchuk.

The Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) arrived in a serious way in athletics at the 2011 Daegu World Championships, wherein every competitor was obliged to give a blood sample to which subsequent samples over a period of years would be compared, enabling experts to determine in fine detail whether normal levels of performance were being artificially raised.

Here, it seemed, was the scientific development which would enable the sport - or indeed any sport - to take a significant step beyond the impasse so well expressed by Black. Here was a means for science to know if someone had cheated, just as incontrovertibly as they themselves knew it…

But as the debate opens up on just what those leaked results of 12,000 blood tests from 2001 to 2012 actually mean, that sense of certainty is, at best, in abeyance.

When your average hopeful athletics follower, striving to remain uncynical after more than 20 years of hearing “never to my knowledge” from athletes both guilty and - no doubt - innocent, hears the “experts” espousing views at polar opposites from each other (as experts love to do) then the suspension of disbelief becomes damaging.

So, depending on which expert you believe, the elements of data leaked to the The Sunday Times and German TV company ARD ahead of last Sunday’s programme alleging widespread doping abuse in the sport - the results of more than 12,000 blood tests from around 5,000 athletes conducted by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) between 2001 and 2012 - were either highly suspicious in many cases, or simply meaningless bits of a jigsaw that only revealed its true picture across a wider span of time.

The programme claimed this data indicated that more than 800 athletes, including many from Russia and Kenya, had given blood samples that were "highly suggestive" of doping or "abnormal", according to the two scientific experts they asked for an analysis.

David Howman, Director General of the World Anti-Doping Agency, has reiterated that 'the strength of the ABP is that it measures data over time' ©Getty Images
David Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, has claimed that "the strength of the ABP is that it measures data over time" ©Getty Images

But the IAAF pointed out on Tuesday (August 4) that such an analysis was invalid given that it was not part of a monitored sequence of similar investigations.

And yesterday the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, David Howman, appeared to underline this point as he commented: “WADA would also like to reassure clean athletes that atypical blood data, which may appear within this database, is not necessarily indicative of doping.

“The strength of the ABP is that it measures data over time, aligned with WADA’s rules governing the ABP.

“It would be reckless to draw conclusions on the basis of limited information.”

So has the latest ARD documentary been reckless in its interpretation of this data? Don’t ask me, I’m not a scientist.  But even as a non-scientist, I can see the difference between forming a picture from one piece of a jigsaw puzzle or waiting to see the bigger picture with several.

If the “snapshot” judgement is correct, then why go to the bother of putting together all the pieces?

And if the documentary makers have done more than form a judgement over “snapshots”, surely they need to make that clear?

No wonder Sebastian Coe, who will seek to take over from the IAAF President Lamine Diack later this month, with a mandate that will include a massively increased budget for anti-doping, is getting snappy.

"I don't think anybody should underestimate the anger that is felt in our sport,” he said this week..

"We have led the way on this.

"To suggest that in some way we sit on our hands at best, and at worst are complicit in a cover-up, is not borne out by anything we have done in the last 15 years.”