Wednesday 28 September 2016

Paul Kimmage: Whistleblowers suffer vilification as drug cheats escape

Culture of silence must be cast aside, not those who seek justice for the world's clean athletes

Published 15/11/2015 | 17:00

Sebastian Coe is not everyone's choice to lead athletics out of its latest doping scandal
Sebastian Coe is not everyone's choice to lead athletics out of its latest doping scandal

"I would say to (athletes), to the extent that they know something's going on with respect to their competitors, they ought to report it. But that's not the tradition in sport. The tradition in sport is silence and deny, deny, deny. Most athletes in our investigation refused (to call out athletes). They didn't want to lose their chance at being on the national or international stage." - WADA panel member Richard McLaren

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In a recent edition of Scandinavian Traveller - the inflight magazine of SAS airlines - there was one of those "what I've learnt" pieces on the actor George Clooney. Now, like most men, George has never quite done it for me - the looks, the charm, the girls, the Nespresso ad - and no crummy magazine piece was going to change that.

. . . Or so I thought.

First paragraph: "I'm not a movie star. A lot of the actors in the 1930s and '40s never played anything but themselves. Spencer Tracy always played Spencer Tracy. It's the same with me: everything I do on film I'm just being me. Now, look at Paul Newman. That was a real movie star."

Second paragraph: "I've always been a liberal democrat. When I grew up, my father (Nick Clooney) was a journalist with left-wing views. He wrote a column dealing with political topics, and I felt I knew more than other kids my age. I have to accept that my views have always been politically incorrect. For instance, it was not popular to question the war in Iraq."

Fourth paragraph: "My father was absolutely immovable in doing what was right. For example, he urged me to fight anyone who used the N-word, even if it meant I got my behind kicked. He would get up and leave a restaurant if he heard anyone talk about 'those people'."

Sixth paragraph: "I refuse to accept that celebrities should keep quiet about political subjects. I say what I say as a private person. I must have the right to have an opinion, even though I am famous."

Seventh paragraph: "My father made me work and save my money during the year so our family could get Christmas presents for the poorest families in our town. Everybody loved Dad because he stood for what was right. And he still does."

Wow! Don't you just love George Clooney? And where do you start with his father?

Everybody loved Dad because he stood for what was right.

Who wouldn't want Nick as a father? Who wouldn't want that as an epitaph? "Stand up and be counted." Isn't that what sets us apart?

Not in sport. The tradition in sport is silence. The tradition in sport is sit down and start counting . . .

"One hundred."

"Two hundred."

"Three hundred."

"Four."

. . . Show me the money baby, your secret is safe with us.

Where was the outrage we wondered, when the Russian doping story broke last December and the journalist and his whistleblowers were being vilified? How many current and former champions stood with them for the truth? We've heard plenty from them last week, whining about the medals they've lost and their sense of injustice but here's what they will never say: "We told you so."

And they expect what? Sympathy?

It's been an interesting week. On Tuesday, I sat down with an insider (a man as it happens, now that we're all gender sensitive) who laid out the problem and asked me to join the dots. "Just follow the money," he said. On Wednesday, I interviewed another man who spoke not of Russia but of problems in Kenya, Ethiopia, Jamaica and some high-profile cases in Britain and the USA.

"If you asked me who I wanted in charge of the IAAF to bring about change, it wouldn't be someone who was chairman of FIFA's (ethics) commission during the greatest period of bribery in sports history," he said. "It wouldn't be someone who sat next to Lamine Diack for (eight) years and saw nothing. It wouldn't be someone who has a contract with Nike.

"I don't want someone who brought the Olympics to the UK and left us with no legacy. I don't want Seb Coe or any of his mates. Because at the moment he is sitting there with two agendas: (1) He needs to appear to do as much as possible to address the problem. And (2), because it's his livelihood, he needs to do the least possible damage to the fabric of the sport. And those two ambitions are diametrically opposed!"

It was rare to hear an Englishman speak so passionately - he was almost spitting blood - and candidly about doping but why, I wondered, did it have to be off the record? Wasn't the real problem, I suggested, that so few in the sport were prepared to stand up and be counted? "Yes, but you know how the system works," he said.

There was a moment during the press conference on Monday, as the WADA Independent Commission delivered its report, when the president, Dick Pound, highlighted this flaw: "Many sport organisations treat whistleblowers more harshly than they treat dopers," he said.

How true. I thought of Floyd Landis and Emma O'Reilly and Renee-Anne Shirley and Jorg Jakshe and the remarkable Betsy Andreu who refused, on principle, to buy anything "Nike" (Awkward things, principles). But mostly I thought of Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov:

Where were they?

What were they thinking?

Were they happy with the report?

Was it worth it?

Six years have passed since the summer of 2009 when they met for the first time at the Russian National Championships. He was 27-years-old and had just started working for Rusada, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. She was four years younger and had just started doping to run the 800m. On their first date they joked that the relationship could never work but two months later they were married.

Two years pass and their life is getting complicated. She's a national champion now, and part of a state-sponsored system that encourages and enables cheating. He is secretly talking to Wada about blowing that system apart. He wants her to stop cheating but winning pays the bills. "How will we live?" she asks.

In 2013 she is busted for a blood passport violation and decides to join her husband on the other side. They travel to Turkey and meet a well-meaning official from WADA but there's been a change of leadership at the organisation and the goalposts have moved.

John Fahey, a combative Australian, has been replaced as president by Sir Craig Reedie, a peace-loving Scot, and there's not the same appetite to take on Russia. Hajo Seppelt, an investigative reporter from Germany, has no such qualms. He meets the Stepanovs in Moscow and begins work on a groundbreaking documentary for ARD: Top secret doping: how Russia makes its winners.

In November 2014, a month before the programme is aired, the Stepanovs flee the country. Vitaly explains the reasons to David Walsh in The Sunday Times.

"We felt it would be safer for us to leave Russia, then see what the reaction was. The reaction proved that we did the right thing. Most Russian journalists don't try to understand the story, they don't see that there might be positive effects for the next generation of Russian athletes. They just say that we are liars and traitors and that we got paid and we are not good Russians.

"Up to now there is one Russian person who has emailed us saying, 'Thank you for doing this, you did the right thing.' One person so far. Russian people in general just don't believe that somebody can be fighting for the rights of clean athletes, not just in Russia but around the world, without having a personal profit."

A year later, they haven't gone back.

On Friday night, 'a mere 28 months' after failing to reply to a single email or call about the same story from The Daily Mail, the IAAF announced that Russia had been provisionally suspended from all competitions. Coe, who has refused to be interviewed by Seppelt, made the announcement.

"This has been a shameful wake-up call and we are clear that cheating at any level will not be tolerated. To this end, the IAAF, Wada, the member federations and athletes need to look closely at ourselves, our athletes and our processes to identify where failures exist and be tough in our determination to fix them and rebuild trust in our sport."

There was no word of thanks to Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov.

Where were they?

What were they thinking?

Were they happy?

Was it worth it?

I sent Hajo a note.

"They are okay," he replied. "At a safe place. And they don't want to go back to Russia. They told me they prefer to be in a country where they can raise their child safely and live in a more open-minded society."

"But are they happy?" I pressed. "Was it worth it?"

"Yes, both," he replied. "Happy and they don't regret it."

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