Ring the bells, put up the bunting, pop the corks - you might have missed it but Great Britain's 4x400m men's relay team stormed to golden glory last night.

What started with British star Iwan Thomas bursting out of the blocks at the World Athletics Championships in Athens on 10 August 1997, ended with Antonio Pettigrew, who ran the second leg for the Americans that evening, telling a San Francisco court on 22 May 2007 that he was doped up to the eyeballs in Greece.

As that race took place more than eight years ago it is outside the statute of limitations for drugs violations, so those medals aren't exactly in the post, although the US Olympic Committee has already said they are "tarnished and should be returned".

Whether the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) will forward them to Thomas, Roger Black, Jamie Baulch and Mark Richardson is anybody's guess, but what is certain is that our quartet will not get their moment on the podium with the flowers, the national anthem and their own grinning mugs on the big screen in the stadium. This is a victory of the moral variety.

Roger Black, Iwan Thomas, Mark Richardson and Jamie Baulch with their silver medals at the 1997 World Athletics Championships

But a win is a win and we should probably get used to these courtroom medal ceremonies, there may be a few more before the month is out.

Pettigrew's confession came in perhaps the most important contest on the athletics calendar this year (the Olympics included), the US Government v Trevor Graham.

Officially, what is happening in San Francisco is a fairly straightforward perjury case. Graham, a hugely successful coach, is accused of lying to federal investigators in 2004.

The Feds weren't after him at the time - they were building their case against the key players in the Balco scandal - and Graham was granted immunity from prosecution providing he told them the truth about what was really fuelling his athletes' success.

They say he didn't keep his side of the bargain; he says he did.

Twelve good men and women will decide who they believe at some point next week. If they back the government, Graham is looking at a long stretch. The maximum sentence is 15 years and he should expect longer than the six months his star pupil Marion Jones got for the same offence earlier this year. Of course, the jury could believe him and he could go home a free man.

But what happens to a controversial coach from Jamaica isn't the reason this trial might be the most important single event for his sport this year because he isn't the only one on trial - athletics is in the dock too.

Among the high-profile athletes Graham coached are Jones (currently residing in a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility in Texas), her former boyfriend Tim Montgomery (to be found in a similar establishment in Virginia) and Justin Gatlin (heading to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to ask for his four-year ban for doping to be reduced to two years so he can run in Beijing).

That's America's face of the Sydney Olympics, a former "world's fastest man" and the defending men's Olympic 100m champion.

Marion Jones wipes tears from her eyes after admitting perjury at a New York court

You can add Pettigrew, Jerome Young and Dennis Mitchell to that list too - all Olympic gold medallists, all coached by Graham and all testifying against him in San Francisco.

Graham, who won a silver medal for Jamaica in the 4x400m at the 1988 Olympics, also coached the Harrison twins, Alvin and Calvin, Michelle Collins and CJ Hunter. What, apart from Graham, have they all got in common? Yep, they've all served bans for doping.

But as depressing as all this is, Graham's camp was not the only one with an interest in pharmaceutical shortcuts.

The Balco scandal, which started this orgy of public dirty linen washing in American sport, has already accounted for a number of leading lights, including our very own Dwain Chambers, and the prosecution's star witness in the Graham case is another big-time dope dealer with reported links to other stables.

That man is Angel Heredia and while his testimony wasn't as explosive as its advance billing (documents linking him to another Olympic champion, Maurice Greene, were published in the US media) it was another kick in the teeth for the prone body of US track and field.

Greene has since denied any wrongdoing - and he never failed a drugs test during his long and largely glorious career - but from a PR point of view this was a disaster of the highest magnitude for a sport whose reputation has never quite recovered from the drug-related chicanery of the Cold War era and Ben Johnson's unforgettable break for infamy at the 1988 Olympics.

America's current crop of talented athletes are doing what they can to repair their sport's credibility but it ain't going to be easy - their exploits on the track have been shunted to the results page of most American newspapers, and US broadcasters and sponsors are giving athletics a wide berth in Beijing.

An Olympic gold for an American track star used to be an instant passport to wealth and Wheaties but not anymore - it's more likely to be a millstone of suspicion around their necks.

Athletics, sprinting in particular, is now synonymous in the public's eye with doping. Rightly or wrongly, because of Balco, Gatlin, Jones and now Graham, the world's fastest men and women are guilty until proven innocent and no amount of testing is going to change that because testing on its own just doesn't work.

The irony of all this for Graham is that he started it. Jealous of a rival coach's results, as Balco boss Victor Conte believes, or concerned about the integrity of his sport, as he claims, (you decide) it was Graham who anonymously sent a syringe with the previously undetectable steroid THG to the anti-doping authorities. The cosy, chemical world of elite sprinting has been unravelling ever since.

A shot in the arm of Olympic heroics this summer will help the sport's rotten reputation but it will only be a start. Athletics must first rid itself of its drug-tainted baggage and that needs to happen now.

Then and only then can we get back to the old-fashioned way of celebrating successes on the track where they happened and not in a courtroom a decade later.

Matt Slater is a BBC Sport journalist focusing on sports news. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


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