One-track minds

Coe.jpgSeb Coe’s continuation as head of athletics is just more of the same. But as a filthy, unforgivable past is dragged into the present don’t be fooled by talk of change, with chatter about this being just Russia, or by the idea it should be part of the Olympics, writes Ewan MacKenna.

‘You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no west. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone.’
Arthur Jensen [Ned Beatty], Network 

Dick Pound was one of the good guys. Maybe the only good guy. Given the totality of his career’s work, we’d chalked his November comments that Russia could get its house in order by summer down to a moment’s weakness. We’re not sure what to make of him now though. 

The former head of Wada chaired it’s independent commission which on Thursday released part two of its report into everything from corruption to doping to bribery to extortion by the IAAF, but it wasn’t what was in those pages that grabbed attention. Instead it was his contradictory words afterwards. Asked if Sebastian Coe’s position as president of world athletics is untenable, he responded: “There’s an enormous amount of reputational recovery that needs to occur here and I can’t think of anyone better to lead that.” The world had its distracting headline.

Rather than focus on unsubstantiated opinion though, it’s vital we return to the facts that emerged from a detailed investigation. The document stressed that “the IAAF council could not have been unaware of the extent of doping in athletics” – the same council Coe became a member of in 2003. It stressed that it was “not credible that elected officials were unaware of problems in Russia” – the same elected officials whose ranks Coe joined in 2007 before serving eight years as vice-president to the disgraced Lamine Diack. It stressed that the IAAF’s “continued denial will simply make it more difficult to make genuine progress” – the same denial Coe has engaged in all along.


So here we are yet again, one more sport taken away, asking when is enough enough? Why is it that these administrators first ruin what we love and then treat us like fools when they’re finally pulled up? Is that simply accepted as human nature now? And in this case, how can Coe possibly lead athletics out of a swamp when he says he’s never seen water or mud?

While there was endless hinting, Coe’s name only cropped up once in the report but it was enough to show his politicking is most vulgar and his network went beyond even doping. An email sent in 2013 from Nick Davies (who was deputy general secretary and last year was appointed Coe’s chief of staff such were their ties) talked about a cover up of Russian cheating ahead of the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, adding, “This will require specialist PR skills (working only with me directly) from London, but I believe we can also benefit from Seb’s political influence in the UK. It is in his personal interest to ensure that the Moscow World Champs is a success and that people do not think that the media of his own country are trying to destroy it… We can work extremely hard in stopping any planned ‘attack’ on Russia from the British press in the coming weeks.”

Of course when the contents of this email were set to be exposed by journalist Hajo Seppelt, Davies sent him a threatening solicitor’s letter and even had lawyer Jonathan Taylor show up in an audience at a lecture by the German in a blatant act of bullying. Still think Coe was immune to it all? Still think this is a man to trust when he was a huge part of a regime that destroyed all trust?

After the report on Thursday, while on a BBC Five Live discussion on the future of athletics with Paula Radcliffe, she tried to argue that Coe is somehow a fresh start. But this is the same jockeying for position in a power vacuum filled by the same people who put themselves above the sport in the first place. Radcliffe even had the nerve to suggest journalists behaved like a “pack of dogs” when going after Coe. But without them where would we be? How many associations have spoken out? Her own UK Athletics threw up the mother of all smoke screens when suggesting world records be reset for a clean era when the sport isn’t anywhere near clean.

And how many athletes have actually spoken up? Conversing with one Olympian, they said under anonymity, “I know exactly who is dirty and who isn’t. And I don’t particularly care anymore. The sport is broken but it’s broken beyond drugs. Athletes don’t get a lick. Cities like Rio were bought and sold. But in terms of athletes and doping, we all know but saying something without evidence can be defamatory so they are scared. And why speak when the IAAF can control the narrative?”

For just a little while back in 2013 it was the João Havelange arena in Rio that was of concern as it was closed indefinitely as engineers found the roof to be dangerous. The world pondered if there’d be a stadium fit for the biggest draw of the Games. But with the countdown now on, it’s the sport that is no longer fit for the stadium. Plain and simple, athletics should be booted off the Olympic programme. It won’t due to the money of sponsorship and television deals, but what’s left now for us to see? A circus?

Coe Olympics.jpg

Put it this way, there are few that would disagree Russia should be excluded from the track-and-field competitions but their governance was no worse than that of the overall governing body. Sure enough clean athletes would miss out, but clean Russian athletes would miss out too and few care about that. The IAAF have shown they are unfit to control their sport and with Coe to remain as president, they are dragging an inexcusable past into the present. We fund all this and if the IAAF don’t have the will and Coe doesn’t have the decency to face a horrible reality, why bother?

The truth is that Russia is a bulbous head of a vast iceberg. Doping doesn’t do borders and boundaries, and athletes do what works and what they can get away with. Jamaica’s boom from the blocks came at a time when they all but stopped testing. The United States is still tethered to Nike with their links to Alberto Salazar. And in one African country, a source spoke of chemists showing up to training, talking of former customers who’d made it, while the sight of testers at camps saw athletes take off into forests. In fact while this week’s report mentioned demands from IAAF officials from Russian marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova and Turkish 1,500m runner Asli Alptekin for money in return for cover ups, sources spoke of similar unconfirmed tales from Africa. In one instance it was suggested that an athlete was asked to hand over €100,000 to make a test go away, and the response was that the IAAF must be involved as his own association came much cheaper.

Pound’s report stated that “the IAAF was insufficiently firm in dealing with a number of countries ” however it made no mention of those countries or what happens next. Meanwhile it again spoke of the pathway back for Russia. But does it really matter if they return? Cheats will still run at the Olympics. And they’ll do so under a governing body headed by a man so close to the heart at a time it stopped beating. All we can suggest is you run the other direction.

Sunday Business Post
17 January, 2016



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