Wednesday 16 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Pig of a sport rotting in hell on earth'

Tiers of empty seats have been a constant backdrop at the World Athletics Championships in Doha. Photo: Andrej Isakovic
Tiers of empty seats have been a constant backdrop at the World Athletics Championships in Doha. Photo: Andrej Isakovic
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The World Athletics Championships are the championships from hell. You can see a once great sport rotting up there on the screen as different factors combine to produce a perfect shitstorm.

Problem number one is the location. Their siting in Doha has proved a gross insult to athletes on two levels. From a physical point of view you had the carnage of a women's marathon where only 40 of the 68 starters finished and a makeshift hospital had to be set up at the finish line with athletes being brought in on stretchers from all over the course.

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Sixteen of those athletes didn't even make it to half-way. Even the winner, Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya, ran 15 minutes slower than her personal best and collapsed while talking to reporters after the race. "It was a mistake to conduct the championship in such hot weather in Doha, especially the marathon race," said Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie, "I found it unacceptable. God forbid but people could have died in such weather conditions."

The race began at midnight yet the temperature was still over 30 degrees celsius which combined with 80 per cent humidity to turn the marathon into a cruel parody of an athletic contest. Fifth placed Volha Mazuronak of Belarus hit the nail on the head when observing, "A bunch of high-ranking officials gathered and decided they would take the world championships here but they are sitting in the cool and they are probably sleeping now."

On the track there was the sorry spectacle of the women's 100m final taking place in front of a smaller crowd than you'd see at a club meeting in most countries and an eerie near silence greeting the medalists on their lap of honour. Tiers of empty seats have been a constant backdrop.

The IAAF seemed unconcerned by the utter lack of local interest in these championships. Qatar put up the money and that was enough. Visiting fans will fill some of the seats at the 2022 World Cup but the struggles of the marathon runners show just how irresponsible FIFA's decision to bring the world's best footballers there has been.

It also gave you a further inkling of how horrendous the working conditions have been for the virtual slave labourers who built Qatar's stadiums. Had an athlete actually died it would have made headlines worldwide. The deaths of immigrant workers barely raised an eyebrow.

The second big problem for the championships is that it's impossible to believe in them anymore. The men's 100m final used to be a global sporting highlight as a huge audience watched the mesmerising Usain Bolt in action. Athletics was always going to struggle to replace Bolt but the current state of play at the top of men's sprinting is a kind of dystopian nightmare.

Winning gold was Christian Coleman, banned from the sport for missing three dope tests inside a year but reinstated on a technicality. Right behind him was Justin Gatlin, twice banned for doping and coached by Dennis Mitchell, banned for doping as an athlete and caught on camera two years ago attempting to buy human growth hormone.

At the time Gatlin made a big deal of cutting links with Mitchell yet the two have since reunited and were working together in Doha. They don't care how it looks anymore. So why should anyone care about their sport?

To underline how rotten things are at the moment, on Tuesday the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced that their four-year investigation into coach Alberto Salazar had found him guilty and imposed a four-year ban on the American.

Among Salazar's athletes at the Nike Oregon Project are Sifan Hassan, who won the women's 10,000m title last Saturday, and 800m runner Donovan Brazier, who set a new championship record when winning gold on Tuesday.

Former world 1,500m champion Jenny Simpson, pulled no punches when talking about Salazar: "I'm a believer in lifetime bans. I wish it was longer," before adding, "Anybody who knows anything about this sport knows there is a black shadow over that group. Why anyone chooses to be a part of that group I have no idea. Anyone that is shocked isn't involved in the sport."

Why would anyone choose to train with that group? Perhaps because many of those who did saw their performances improve stratospherically, the classic example being Mo Farah. Farah moved to America to join Salazar's group a month before his 28th birthday.

The English runner's best performance at world level up to that had been seventh in the 5,000m at the 2009 world championships. Yet under Salazar's tutelage he went on to win four Olympic and six World golds over 5,000m and 10,000m.

Anyone with a working brain can come up with their own conclusions. We have seen this story unfold before which is why the Salazar verdict doesn't just devalue the current worlds but every championship in the last decade. In the words of Jenny Simpson, "I don't think you can be that closely affiliated with anyone and not have people point fingers and I'm not sorry for you."

The implications of the Salazar ban for Farah and those who've defended him as the circumstantial evidence has piled up of late are obvious. Which may be why it provoked one of the most bizarre and morally repugnant pieces of punditry I've ever seen.

On BBC, Paula Radcliffe not only suggested that USADA "are trying to save a little face for the Coleman fiasco and all that's gone on," but declared that the money spent on the Salazar investigation would have been better spent elsewhere.

And in the coup de grace she claimed, "Alberto has been very conscious of trying to find out where the limits lie and how close he can push it to get those little bits of gains to compete with athletes that in his mind in other parts of the world are REALLY cheating."

Poor old Paula. Shitting on the side of the road was dignified by comparison to this steaming pile of double talk and whataboutery. The BBC didn't bother to inform viewers that Radcliffe is married to Farah's coach Gary Lough and is employed by Nike as a brand ambassador.

The second of those facts may be the more pertinent. The investigation looked into claims that Salazar had briefed Nike CEO Mark Parker and other senior company officials about his experiments with performance enhancing substances.

Nike also have a connection with serial offender Dennis Mitchell. A couple of months back promising sprinter Kenny Bednarek told an interviewer the company had sent him to train with Mitchell.

Nike's fingerprints are everywhere to be seen. When the Salazar investigation began, another one of their brand ambassadors was Sebastian Coe, now president of the IAAF, who sprang to the coach's defence. "Alberto is a first class coach. Don't run away with the idea that this is a hole in the wall circa 1970s Eastern Bloc operation. It's not."

Coe is technically correct in the sense that Salazar's project was funded by a corporation rather than a government. But it's hard to see much difference otherwise. You might even suspect that if Nike was a country rather than a company, it might be in line for the same kind of ban imposed on Russia a couple of years back.

Instead the next world athletics championships will be held in Eugene, Oregon, Nike's home city. Back in 2015 it emerged that Coe had discussed Eugene's bid to hold the championships there with Nike executives who passed on the information to those making the bid.

The resultant furore forced Coe to quit his £100,000 Nike gig which he did with signally bad grace.

When that same year the German broadcaster ARD revealed that the IAAF had ignored suspicious blood tests for years he described it as "a declaration of war on my sport," and accused them of "breathtaking ignorance and malevolence." The story turned out to be accurate.

Coe was at it again last week reacting to some mild criticism of the venue by BBC sports anchor Gabby Logan by storming: "It's very easy to sit there and make all sorts of Gabby Logan-type judgements over three or four days and clear off back to Match of the Day." This Lord and former Tory MP is a pig of a leader for a pig of a sport.

Doping has in the past given rise to some ludicrous excuses. One of the best came from Dennis Mitchell who, when testing positive for testosterone in 1998, claimed his levels were high because he'd had sex four times with his wife the previous night, explaining, "It was her birthday. The lady deserved a treat."

The IAAF didn't believe him. But, whatever about Mrs Mitchell, it is true that thanks to Dennis, Alberto Salazar, Sebastian Coe and Nike, athletics is comprehensively f****d.

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