Sprinting away from the truth

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Despite its filthy nature that extends way beyond Russia, the appointment of Seb Coe to the top position in athletics raises questions at a time for answers, and means we must all continue to look at ourselves, writes Ewan MacKenna.

It’s 1953 and Josef Stalin is lying on his deathbed when he summons Nikita Khrushchev to his side. “I know you will beat the competition and follow me,” he says, “so for your help, I’ve prepared two letters. When you are in trouble with the party for the first time, open letter one. When you get in trouble a second time, open letter two.” By 1956, the tensions in Hungary and the Suez see pressure grow on the new leader so he does what he was told, tears open an envelope and the note inside reads, “Blame everything on me”. Khrushchev follows the advice, gives a speech condemning Stalin and survives another eight years. But by 1964, he’s about to be shouldered aside by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, so grabs the second letter and opens it. It reads: “Prepare two letters.”

It’s a joke that has echoed around Russian political circles from distant past into present. But for Sebastian Coe, after years of political dealings with the single most powerful athletics nation, the great pity for his career is that he never came across it and took it on board as wisdom rather than humour. Instead of blaming his IAAF predecessor, he’s tethered himself to him to the point he can never be the man to save his sport. Right now he’s merely laying a new carpet over pipes that still spew water.

On 19 August, Coe was named as president of world athletics so he took to a podium at the Chinese National Convention Centre in Beijing for his first speech. “Lamine has left us with an extraordinarily strong foundation and one aspect of that foundation is that we are a truly global sport,” he said of the former president. “I will do my best to continue those firm foundations. In 2001 and 2002, I sought the advice of Lamine Diack about playing a greater role in the sport and in 2003 I became a council member. In 2007 I sought his advice again before I became vice-president. It has been an apprenticeship that has helped me understand greater the balances and nuances within the sport.”

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Twelve weeks on and French police are investigating Diack for allegedly accepting bribes to cover up positive tests, an implication again made in the report of an independent commission into Russian cheating earlier in the week. Beyond that, Diack’s son Papa Massata, advisor Habib Cisse and the former IAAF anti-doping chief Gabriel Dolle are also part of the formal investigation. The fact that Coe spent four years in this circle and then eight years as the second most powerful man in the sport leaves two obvious options. Either he knew what was happening in world athletics or he was so massively inept that he hadn’t a clue of what even those on the outside looking in were aware of.

When this was put to him by journalist Jon Snow in recent days, he merely replied, “We need to look at the systems that were in place. Should we have seen this coming? The answer may well be yes.”

For those who remember a middle-distance hero, the language was a reminder he’s long since become a politician. And while sources say Diack’s dictatorial style of leadership (one that lasted 16 years and resulted in Diamond League chiefs holding back progressive proposals for fear of annoying him) meant Coe had to play the game to get his shot, no one associated with that game should be near it anymore. Whether you get a splash of or a soaking in mud, you still need to wash your clothes.

But Coe’s silence isn’t the only problem when you consider his actions. Since becoming president he’s refused to give up his advisory role with Nike despite the record of many of their athletes, despite their association with so many cheats, and despite their standing over Alberto Salazar (a man Coe describes as “a good friend”) and the Nike Oregon Project after Panorama showed strong evidence of doping in its ranks. There’s more. Nike’s hometown of Eugene was directly awarded the 2021 World Championships when it was suddenly decided to do away with a bidding vote. With Gothenburg in the running it was a move that Swedish federation president, Bjorn Eriksson, essentially called corrupt.

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The first baby step for athletics to regain even a sliver of credibility is a break with a past of managing rather than tackling drug abuse that has seen it lose all that credibility. It needs a leader who knows the way, shows the way and goes the way. However Coe’s invisibility across his eight years as vice-president on the drugs issue brings to mind the saying that management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things. But that Coe is even talking his way around all this and sitting in the top chair shows him to have cojones that would be overweight for use as equipment in the shot putt.

That won’t be near enough though for, if you think this is a Russian-only issue, you’re a cheerleader for a lie. In fact the reaction of “wow” to the commission report has all the sincerity of the “wow” when you fake interest in a friend’s holiday photos. Where was the outrage and need for answers when a Jamaican anti-doping official said in 2013 that only one out of competition test was carried out between February 2012 and the start of the Olympics and when Dick Pound, the man who announced the findings of this week’s report, added: “It’s clear there’s been a failing. They were doing almost no testing on their top-level athletes in the period leading to Beijing and London.” Where was the need for answers over Nike’s questionable influence within the US? Where was the need for answers when stories emerged of Kenyan athletes fleeing training camps on foot at the sight of testers?

Just as tactics and training methods don’t obey national borders, neither does cheating. To think this stops at Russia would be the same as saying that doping in cycling ended with Festina or was only an issue amongst American riders. Trends in sport that get athletes to the top carry fast and wide and if they work, they are copied and used. Because of the IAAF, doping works and has become one of those trends.

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Closer to home, it also makes you wonder if we are mature enough to look in the mirror the morning after a heavy and messy night out. There’s a huge difference between implying wrong-doing and asking questions and such is the name of athletics now, it’s in the interest of our athletes for questions to be asked and for them to provide answers. In Irish running there has been a move to more technical disciplines and away from longer distances we simply can’t compete in, but even so… We’re coming off the back of the golden era in our sprinting history and if you think we are holier than thou, remember that two of the last seven European track athletes to test positive for EPO were ours.

That’s how far and wide the problem has grown in athletics, washing up at everyone’s shore. And it’s why Coe’s association with the past means there can’t be a better future. For the sake of his sport there’s only one letter he should write to give athletics a chance, and that’s one of resignation.

Sunday Business Post
15 November, 2015

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