Monday 20 May 2019

Sebastian Coe's pathetic statement on IAAF revelations is worrying

Coe: 'It’s a declaration of war on my sport'
Coe: 'It’s a declaration of war on my sport'
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Sebastian Coe's attempts at damage limitation last week after the revelation that the International Association of Athletics Federation had turned a blind eye to hundreds of suspicious blood tests gave me such a Groundhog Day feeling I half expected Bill Murray and Andie McDowell to hop up on the stage beside him.

We were back again with Pat McQuaid excoriating Lance Armstrong's accusers and Sepp Blatter pooh-poohing allegations of FIFA corruption. The man from the organisation at the centre of the controversy lashed out at the whistleblowers and the media and decided to get all bullish about the good name of his people. "It's a declaration of war on my sport," said the former Tory MP for Falmouth and Camborne.

As always in these cases the impression was of someone more concerned with protecting his own fiefdom than reaching out to neutrals concerned by the evidence of apparent wrongdoing. Witness his description of Michael Ashenden and Robin Parisotto, the two specialists in this field, who analysed the test results for The Sunday Times and their colleagues in breaking the story German broadcaster ARD, as, "These so-called experts - give me a break. I know who I would believe."

Well, the IAAF judged Ashenden to be sufficiently expert to have employed him as recently as 2012 while more recently he's been an expert witness in a court case concerning the doping practices of Armstrong.

And despite the IAAF's claim that last week's report was "sensationalist and confusing," both Ashenden and Parisotto are sticking to their guns, commenting: "We note the concerns raised by the IAAF with regard to the analyses we undertook of the data. We have rebutted each and every one of their so-called 'serious reservations'. We followed the same procedure as IAAF expert panellists when reviewing Athletic Biological Passport profiles, classifying results as 'likely doping' when we were able to confidently exclude all other potential causes, or instead 'suspicious' when there was genuine evidence of blood manipulation."

Ashenden and Parisotto were called in after The Sunday Times and ARD came into possession of a database showing blood test results for around 5,000 athletes. And what they found was that around 800 of these athletes returned results which suggested either likely doping or a suspicion of doping between 2001 and 2012. The athletes in question have won 146 Olympic and World medals, including 55 golds. Over a third of medal winners in the endurance events are implicated.

Apologists for the IAAF have suggested that a dubious blood test does not automatically mean an athlete is doping and that other factors can come into play. Maybe so but when the numbers are this high only the most gullible could believe in an innocent explanation, especially in a sport with such a long history of drug cheating.

Coe reckons it's unfair to accuse the IAAF of not taking any action. They have taken action, he said, and six of the 800 athletes have subsequently been banned. Six out of 800? What's that you say? "My sport's record of fighting drug cheats is a proud one."

I'm afraid that last statement brings Coe into Henry Kissinger-wins-the-Nobel Peace Prize-death-of-satire territory. Proud record? In three weeks the World Athletics Championships take place in Beijing and the favourite to take the blue riband event, the 100m, is Justin Gatlin, a man who has already served two doping bans and been allowed back into the sport.

There's also a good chance that Gatlin will win the 200m and that another returned doper, LaShawn Merritt, will win the 400m. Which makes me wonder when Coe says the IAAF's drug testing policy has "chased some of the highest profile athletes out of the sport." Even when it does take action against its drug cheats, athletics doesn't chase them out of the sport, it hands them a brief suspension and welcomes them back. We can judge Coe's outrage at Gatlin's behaviour by the fact that he is an International Adviser with Nike, a company which continues to sponsor the American sprinter.

Coe is currently standing for the post of IAAF president against former Olympic pole vault champion Sergey Bubka. In contests like this there always seems to be a presumption that the candidate from this neck of the woods is on the side of the angels. But Coe's behaviour last week is uncannily reminiscent of the way his old House of Commons colleague Tony Blair used to carry on. There's the same arrogance, the same expectation that he should be believed even if the evidence suggests otherwise, the same apparent desire to be judged by his words rather than his deeds.

But perhaps that will make him a worthy successor to current president Lamine Diack, whose response to last week's allegations was to descend into the realms of paranoia and accuse the newspaper of "playing with the idea of a redistribution of medals," while suggesting there was some sinister agenda behind the fact that the revelations had been made "just three weeks before the World Championships."

Again, we're in familiar territory. UCI and FIFA always affected to believe that those who insisted they had a case to answer were enemies of the sport, driven by jealousy rather than simple outrage at cheating and corruption. That this also seems to be the IAAF's line of defence is deeply depressing.

It's not a view shared by everyone in athletics. The great triple jumper Jonathan Edwards said: "The key thing for me is not who the athletes were or who missed out on a medal. It's what on earth were the authorities doing? It's got haunting echoes of the UCI. It's the guardians of the sport who really let cycling down because they could have stopped it but they didn't." And former World silver racewalking medallist Olive Loughnane said: "The IAAF were potentially turning a blind eye to this, that's just disgusting. That was the bit of the whole controversy that hit me the hardest."

The fate of cycling should serve as a warning to athletics. British media cheerleading notwithstanding, the sad fact is that the reaction of many sports fans to Chris Froome's Tour de France wins is not, 'What a superb athlete', but, 'Can we believe him?' This suspicion may well be unfair and have less to do with Froome himself than with the bad taste left by Lance Armstrong and sundry other doped-up champions. But it is there all the same and there is a certain irony in the fact that the minions of the Rupert Murdoch media empire have been just as eager to impugn the motives of those who declare themselves less than 100 per cent convinced by Froome as the IAAF have been to impugn those of The Sunday Times. After all, one of the leading experts on doping in sport has called for greater scrutiny of Froome's Team Sky. His name? Michael Ashenden.

Maybe the damage has already been done to athletics. There is a dread of what a Gatlin victory in Beijing will do to the sport and, personally speaking, I've never looked forward less to a World Championships. And, in a bumper week for irony fans, despite Coe's claims that athletics is second to none in trying to track down dopers, the IAAF actually lags a long way behind the UCI.

Last year the UCI took 9,483 blood and urine samples, the IAAF took 3,881. The UCI tested 3,252 competitors for EPO to the IAAF's 1,563. And the Biological Passport tests Coe boasted about last week? Cycling carried out 8,053 of them to 3,317 in athletics. Which is pretty unimpressive for athletics given that it has a much larger number of international competitors than cycling.

In other words, why wouldn't you dope if you're an athlete? For starters they might not test you at all. If your test is dodgy they might not do anything about it. And if you are caught, you'll be back on the track in no time. It's a win-win. Just like Justin Gatlin's forthcoming sprint double in Beijing. The man recently ran a personal best for 200m at the age of 33. Fair play to him, he must be training really hard. He can tell Sebastian Coe exactly how hard at the Nike dinner dance.

We have seen this story before. It doesn't end well.

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