IT seems a very long time ago that athletics was at its zenith. In its hey-day, athletics was on prime-time television with the top athletes household names.

However, in global terms at least, the sport has lost much of its shine in recent years.

These days, it can be almost impossible to find television coverage of all but the major meets, while the raft of doping stories has caused severe harm to athletics’ reputation.

It is this notoriety that should be worrying those within the sport. Which then makes it so surprising to have observed the blow athletics inflicted on itself last week.

Salwa Eid Naser, the Bahraini world 400m champion, had her anti-doping violation charges dismissed by the World Athletics Disciplinary Tribunal, a move that has caused outcry.

In June, Naser had been provisionally handed a suspension having been charged with missing four drugs tests, but rather than being banned from competing, she is now free to race again.

In normal circumstances, three missed tests would constitute an anti-doping violation and would see the athlete handed a suspension but Naser’s defence was that three of her missed tests were not within a 12-month period, and the fourth test was missed because the doping control officer went to the wrong address.

In relation to her fourth violation, there was confusion over the address given by Naser on her “‘Whereabouts” form – which every athlete must provide in order to make themselves available for anti-doping testing for one hour a day.

As a result, Naser has been shown what many, myself included, consider incredible leniency.

Four missed tests is shocking for any professional athlete, never mind a world champion. In fact, Naser should never have been given the chance to race at the World Championships in Doha last year. The 22-year-old had missed three tests in the lead-up to those championships which, she claimed “is normal. It happens”.

To the majority of athletes, this doesn’t happen. Nor should it happen. Whatever one’s opinion on the Whereabouts system and the invasiveness of it, they are the rules and if you want to be a part of the sport, you must abide by them. Most athletes manage this without too many problems so for Naser to suggest missing three tests is normal is patently untrue.

The backlash to her exoneration was rapid. Numerous high-profile athletes expressed their displeasure with the decision with Olympic 400m champion and world silver medallist Shaunae Miller-Uibo from America, who was beaten by the Bahraini in 2019, furious. She laid into World Athletics, demanding the president of the governing body, Seb Coe, details “each step of all the failures that unfolded from this case”, before adding she believed Naser should never have been allowed to run at last year’s World Championships.

Emily Diamond, the British 400m internationalist, said she was lost for words, while her compatriot, three-time Olympian in the 400m, Martyn Rooney, said the results of Naser’s case were “taking the p*ss”.

Sprinter Adam Gemili, also raised an important issue. “Being a world champion should not mean you get special treatment,” he said.

It is on this point, athletics loses its credibility entirely.

Compare the treatment of Naser to that of Mark Dry, the Scottish hammer thrower who was banned last year for four years for one missed drugs test. The double-Commonwealth medallist wrongfully claimed to UK Anti-Doping he went fishing on the day of his missed test and was hit with a four-year ban, effectively ending the 33-year-old’s career.

There are few who would suggest Dry deserved no punishment but I have yet to encounter anyone who thinks the Scot’s punishment was anything other than completely disproportionate.

In light of the decision to clear Naser, Dry’s ban for four years seems even more ludicrous.

How can anyone, both athletes themselves as well as the general public, have any faith in the authorities when inconsistency is so blatant?

Such discrepancies only fuel the belief that punishments are influenced significantly by the prior achievements of the athlete. Had Dry been world champion, would he have been treated so harshly?

Athletics has given itself even more work to persuade everyone it is a clean sport. The message being given out is you are far better to miss an anti-doping test than risk failing one.

Compare the punishments handed out to athletes for missed tests to that of athletes who fail a test. GB cyclist Lizzie Armitstead escaped a ban for missing tests, as did four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah, while his fellow runner Christine Ohuruogu was hit with only a one-year suspension for three missed tests.

Missed tests by no means mean any of these athletes were doping, but I know that if I was a high-profile doper, I’d take my chances with missing a test and hope for the lenient treatment that has been dished out in such cases.

The Naser decision seems something of an own goal by World Athletics. Yes, individual athletes may feel hard done by for being hit with severe bans for what they see as a lesser crime of missing tests, rather than failing them. But for the sake of the sport’s credibility, there should be no alternative, whether the athlete is a superstar or not.