Monday 18 December 2017

Bug sanctions a lose-lose situation for athletics but doing nothing would have been worse

Thomas Barr of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Thomas Barr of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

What's better? To punish a few to protect the masses or to close your eyes, roll the dice and hope for the best? That's a question the world governing body of athletics, the IAAF, has had to deal with repeatedly in recent years, but this time it's not about doping or the eligibility of intersex athletes, but an illness that has ripped the stomach out of many athletes' chances here in London.

A highly contagious infection is just about the last thing organisers wanted to show up this week, given the manner in which athletes from over 200 countries mingle together with media and fans in one giant bubble.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the Irish team had its first and only case of gastroenteritis, Thomas Barr spending the day bed-ridden and having no option but to withdraw from his 400m hurdles semi-final.

Of course it wasn't his choice alone. The IAAF, acting on advice from Public Health England, circulated a letter to team management the previous evening advising that any affected athletes "must remain isolated for 48 hours after the last episode of vomiting or diarrhoea".

It was 11 hours before his semi-final when word reached us that Barr (right, top) had withdrawn, and if that seems a long time it's because the Irish team observed the guidelines to protect not just him, but also his fellow athletes, from the debilitating bug.

Isaac Makwala and the Botswana team managers, however, felt differently. The sprinter had been a medal favourite in both the 200m and 400m, entering the championships in the form of his life, but on Sunday night he started showing symptoms remarkably similar to what Barr and others presented.

Botswana's Isaac Makwala. Photo: PA
Botswana's Isaac Makwala. Photo: PA

Nonetheless, Makwala showed up to the track on Monday for his opening round of the men's 200m, but vomited shortly after stepping off the bus. Feeling unwell, he reported to the medical centre in the stadium, where he was assessed by an IAAF medic and reportedly vomited again.

The doctor on duty recorded his symptoms and the timing of his illness, and concluded he had also caught the strain of norovirus - better known as the vomiting bug - that had been identified in other athletes through laboratory testing over the weekend. Makwala (right, below) was blocked from competing and, at that point, both his management and the Botswanan medical team were aware his period of quarantine would last until after the following night's 400m final.

Nonetheless, Makwala showed up for it with his manager Jos Hermens by his side, feeling ready to compete but finding out he was not allowed enter the stadium.

This is where it gets tricky. Botswanan team delegates said it was never communicated to them that he could not compete, but the IAAF said it informed them in its letter and in a meeting with multiple teams that any athlete affected must remain isolated for 48 hours to contain the virus.

It was a rule, not a law, but given what Makwala missed out on, he may well seek legal compensation. After all, an agent I spoke to estimated him not winning a 400m medal would cost him around $200,000 when prize money, shoe contracts, medal bonuses and endorsements were all considered.

On BBC, Michael Johnson remarked that Wayde van Niekerk was an IAAF favourite, implying Makwala had been blocked to ensure the South African won. While that's a tinfoil-hat conspiracy of epic proportions, it also ignores the fact that Makwala never stood a chance against Van Niekerk, especially after two days of vomiting.

But what were the organisers to do? Let him run and they risk the ire of other athletes - who would have no choice but to share a call room, bathroom and other facilities with such infected athletes - along with Public Health England, who have the concerns of 60,000 people at the stadium to also think about. Block him and they risk lawsuits and a PR nightmare.

All the same it would be fascinating to observe whether Usain Bolt or Mo Farah would have been allowed to compete in the same situation. Something tells me the rules wouldn't be quite so inflexible.

Having missed the opening round of the 200m, Makwala was allowed to run a time trial on his own yesterday evening to advance to the 200m semi-finals in what appeared an effort by organisers to make amends with him.

There is, of course, a curious irony that this whole drama has unfolded in London, a city that loves to tell us how they're the best in the world at organising big events.

Few will forget how the British media portrayed Rio last year ahead of the Olympics, as some sort of cesspit of grime where disease was awaiting at every turn.

How will they react now when a big chunk of the world's best athletes have fallen ill by staying in their hotels and eating their food?

Last night we got confirmation the outbreak was present at every one of the team hotels, and such a threat to the vitality of the championships - which has so far proven that athletics is very much alive - is not to be taken lightly.

You have feel for Makwala and Barr, their seasons flushed away through rotten luck, but if we've learned one thing in recent years it's that inaction by the sport's governing body is the worst path imaginable. Overall, they did the right thing.

Irish Independent

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