Wednesday 25 April 2018

Money trumps morals in murky world of athletics

To truly move on, athletics needs a concerted effort to wash away the filth. Stock photo
To truly move on, athletics needs a concerted effort to wash away the filth. Stock photo

Cathal Dennehy

In the race against its demons, athletics has many miles left to run. On the eve of the sport's showpiece event, that hard truth is illustrated by a couple of tales which many won't want to hear.

It's July, 2017, in Iten, Kenya, and I'm told a story that most who frequent these parts have heard many times before.

A few years earlier, two of the world's best athletes had come here to train, lured by soft trails, high altitude and relative remoteness.

One day, however, drug testers showed up to their training camp, the last thing this pair of champions wanted to see.

They think fast, though, hurrying towards the back of the camp, climbing a 10-foot wall and setting off down the town.

According to local legend it was a day-and-a-half before they arrived back, coincidentally enough time for any traces of their deeds to be expelled from their bodies so that they could safely submit to the testers' demands. For dopers, knowing the clearance times of drugs is every bit as important as any training data.

Despite a consistent, concerted effort to test the living daylights out of these athletes in recent years, they have only ever come up clean. Neither has gone down in flames, even if there's enough smoke to suffocate what remains of their reputations.

In February, 2016, I sat listening to an athlete half the world away explain where it all went wrong.

He explained how his former coach, one of the sport's most powerful figures, treated him like a son in his teenage years, developing him into one of the sport's most exciting talents.

The coach would flog him in workouts during the day and give him an assortment of recovery products at night, the contents of which were never explained.

"What was it?" I asked him. "Pills, injections, creams?"


"Everything," was his response. Occasionally he would ask the coach what he was getting, but the answer was always the same. "Just trust me," he was told. "It's for recovery."

The coach remains under investigation by international authorities, but pinning a conviction is astonishingly tough.

After all, the people who try to destroy athletics from the inside out operate with the secrecy of drug traffickers, dope with the precision of pharmacists and hold enough power to create a terrifying imbalance of resources against any potential whistleblowers.

Tomorrow, to coincide with the start of the IAAF World Championships in London, Netflix releases its acclaimed docu-thriller, 'Icarus', which lays bare how Russia implemented widespread doping before the London 2012 Olympics and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

The detail revealed is staggering, the contempt for anti-doping structures considerable, and it's all made public by key witness Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, a scientist who was mired in the system of corruption in Russia before fleeing, fearing for his life, in 2015.

Of course, thanks to whistle-blowers like him we now know how poisoned the Russian system became, but a more troubling fact to ponder is that Russia, for all their win-at-all-costs approach, only finished fourth in the medal table in 2012 behind USA, China and Great Britain.

Athletics has been the one sport to ostracise Russia, quite rightly, until it proves the doping culture has been eradicated, but there are sufficient offenders elsewhere to soften the coughs of indignation from those in the west.

After all, since 2003 four Irish international athletes have served two-year doping bans, so we're no angels, but as the big show starts in London the question now is where all this leaves those tuning in?

Bereft of belief, it's no wonder so many retreat to the generalisation that they're all at it, but that's grossly unfair to what remains - however big - a clean majority.

The establishment of the Athletics Integrity Unit, headed by David Howman, is a colossal step for the IAAF in that anti-doping is now a truly independent arm, one which should prove impervious to the tentacles of corruption. Testing structures, while imperfect, are also improving in hard-to-reach places like Kenya, Ethiopia and Jamaica.

To truly move on, though, athletics needs a concerted effort to wash away the filth. A wall-hopping athlete and a teen-doping coach will play major roles in London this week, and while there's little in the rules that can stop them, promoters, sponsors and shoe brands all have the ability to shun these cheats.

Sadly, in a contest between morals and money, we know which side usually wins.

Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport