Wednesday 21 August 2019

More in common with The Wolf of Wall Street than Chariots of Fire

IAAF President Sebastian Coe walks out to give a statement to journalists outside his office in London, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Russia's track and field federation was provisionally suspended Friday by the sport's governing body. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
IAAF President Sebastian Coe walks out to give a statement to journalists outside his office in London, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Russia's track and field federation was provisionally suspended Friday by the sport's governing body. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Come travel with me back through the mists of time, to a very different era when people knew so much less about doping in athletics that it's unfair to judge them by present-day standards.

It was a bygone age of innocence. Also known as August of this year.

Because that's when Sebastian Coe, president designate of the International Association of Athletics Federations, described the revelation by The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD that the IAAF had turned a blind eye to hundreds of positive drugs tests as, "a declaration of war on my sport". Coe mocked the two specialists who'd analysed the results as, "These so-called experts - give me a break. I know who I would believe" and added, "My sport's record of fighting drugs cheats is a proud one."

The heir apparent was not alone in his outrage at these dastardly allegations. Outgoing president Lamine Diack accused The Sunday Times and ARD of, "playing with an idea of a redistribution of medals" and suggested there was something sinister about the report emerging just three weeks before the world championships.

Coe would presumably have concurred with Diack. After all, on taking office subsequent to those reports he spoke of Diack's, "shrewd stewardship and wise counsel", and declared, "Lamine has left us with an extraordinarily strong foundation", and confessed "his deep affection and great admiration", for the man who had seen him through "an apprenticeship that has helped me greater understand the balances and nuances within the sport."

Who could fail to have been touched by this portrayal of Coe as Mowgli and Diack as Baloo, teaching his little charge the bare necessities of top-flight sports administration?

Yet last week came allegations that Diack had pocketed more than €1 million and been part of a conspiracy within the IAAF, also involving his son, his legal adviser and Gabriel Dolle, former head of the organisation's anti-doping unit, to take large bribes in return for ignoring positive drugs tests. Elaine Houlette, France's national financial prosecutor and the person in charge of the investigation, said that Diack senior's money had been routed through the Russian Athletic Federation.

Soon after came the results of a World Anti Doping Agency investigation which revealed that the Russians have been carrying out a systematic and probably state-sponsored doping programme which involved the destruction of positive samples and the extortion of bribes from athletes by Russian anti-doping agency officials. According to Dick Pound of WADA, the 2012 Olympics were effectively "sabotaged" by this programme, largely because of a "laissez-faire attitude" by the IAAF towards suspicious Russian athletes.

Perhaps you don't agree that three months ago is an era so remote from the present that different rules applied back then. In which case you probably think that stories along the lines of, "Can Lord Coe clean up athletics" are little better than sick jokes. British 400m star Martyn Rooney hit the nail on the head when declaring: "I can't believe he's been in the IAAF since 2007 and not known what was going on. Naïve is the word, I can't stand ignorance and I can't believe he didn't know what was going on."

We have been down this road before with UCI president Pat McQuaid excoriating the critics of Lance Armstrong, accusing them of damaging the sport and backing the cyclist to the hilt. And that's merely the most high profile example. These scandals always start in the same way, with the guilty and their defenders blaming 'sensationalist' journalists before moving on to suggest that some vast conspiracy against their sport is afoot. And they end in the same way, with reputations destroyed and heads rolling.

The IAAF's role in the affair is actually the most shocking thing about it. Because anyone who suggests that the Russian doping programme plumbs new depths must have little knowledge of athletics history. East Germany's state-sponsored doping programme in the 1970s and '80s made that nation a power to rival the United States and the USSR. At the 1988 Olympics East Germans won 102 medals to finish second on the table behind the USSR. By comparison ,a t the 2012 Olympics a united Germany could win just 44. And in the '90s it seems obvious that the Chinese were engaged in something similar with large numbers of their top swimmers testing positive and athletes coming out of nowhere, clocking phenomenal times and then disappearing back into obscurity. Two years ago Turkey had 31 athletes suspended for doping violations and there was speculation that the country might be banned from the world championships. It didn't happen.

There are calls for Russia to be banned from the next Olympics. Such a suspension would be richly deserved but there is a danger that the current scandal is conveying the idea that doping in athletics is largely a Russian problem. The German journalist Hajo Seppelt who broke the story of corruption within the Russian athletics system has suggested that there are similar problems in Kenya for one thing. Michael Ashenden has questioned why the IAAF have carried out so few tests on young Kenyan athletes, noting that at the 2010 world junior championships, for example, where they topped the medal table with 15 medals, only seven out of the 215 athletes tested were Kenyan.

The determination to present the doping story as being solely about Russia has led to some odd moments in the British media. You had, for example, the spectacle of Linford Christie being interviewed on Channel Four News about the scandal on the grounds that he was an 'elder statesman' of athletics. This was the same Linford Christie who tested positive for drugs in 1988 and 1999 and ended his career with a two-year ban.

Paula Radcliffe also cut a strange figure. Forthright about the evils of the Russian doping system last week, she had initially been critical of Seppelt's report on the matter, declaring: "This makes me so mad because he won't give it to the IAAF. The IAAF don't know what he is talking about."

Weirdest of all is the notion that Coe is some kind of new sheriff come to clean up the sporting equivalent of Dodge City. We've been here before too with the idea that all FIFA's corruption could be laid at the feet of Sepp Blatter. Expect Lamine Diack to be portrayed in the same way, as the one bad apple who gave everyone else a bad name. Organisations don't go rotten at the behest of one, or even a few, powerful individuals. The problem is an institutional one. Coe has zero credibility as a new broom. Having hitched his wagon to Diack's star, he might as well follow it into the gutter.

Meanwhile, he continues to declare his support for another old buddy Alberto Salazar, the American coach who is currently the subject of a United States Anti Doping Agency investigation and whose stable includes English Olympic hero Mo Farah. Salazar has denied the allegations although 18 former members of his Nike Oregon Project are believed to have testified against him. This story too has a familiar ring about it.

Meanwhile, Coe continues to draw a six-figure salary from Nike as an 'ambassador' for the company.

Doping scandals are easy to discuss once they're in the past. If you were to listen to people now, you'd swear that everyone knew Lance Armstrong was guilty and were just waiting for him to be found out. But the truth is that, right up to the moment he confessed, Armstrong still had plenty of supporters. And back when Paul Kimmage was initially taking on the Texan, it was the cyclist rather than the journalist who was generally regarded as the hero. Lance, we were told ad nauseam, had never failed a drugs test.

Now that the Russians have been caught red-handed there'll be a great appetite for talking about this scandal. But when Paul Kimmage draws attention to the fact that rugby obviously has a doping problem, the wagons are circled. And when he expresses his disquiet about the current professional peloton, he's told to stick to cycling from the past. There's not much desire to examine the implications of the Salazar inquiry either. Or to delve into the role of Performance Enhancing Drugs in soccer, Arsene Wenger's recent comment that Arsenal have played against teams using PEDs notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, in Russia they're claiming that the WADA report is all part of some Cold War-style Western plot. It's a common stratagem. At this year's Tour de France, The Sunday Times was suggesting that Froome's critics were Irishmen possessed by Anglophobia. And there was a notably jingoistic edge to the coverage of Michelle Smith's controversial 1996 Olympics by some in the Irish media.

Perhaps it's understandable. Many people like to think of sport as an arena where the good are rewarded for hard work and character and there's always a little moral lesson for the spectator to take away. But what we learned again last week, and what doping more than anything else shows us, is that top class international sport often has more in common with The Wolf of Wall Street than with Chariots of Fire.

And if that sounds cynical it's because, when it comes to doping in sport, cynicism is merely another name for realism.

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