Well what a few months for the sport it has been! Doping scandals have always led to negative headlines but when it is mixed with corruption at the highest level of the sport then you have a cocktail for a complete nightmare!
This week, WADA’s Independent Commission released the second part of its report into doping in Russian athletics although it mainly focused on the conduct of the IAAF and several of their major employees, including of course the previous President Lamine Diack. In fairness, there wasn’t really the shock-value that some people were expecting, although after all the various recent sporting scandals it would be hard to be truly shocked at this point which is very sad to think about.
A lot has happened in the months since the first part of the report was released in November of last year. The Russian Athletics Federation was suspended by the IAAF and as of right now will not be able to send any athletes to Rio for the Olympics in 2016 and the IAAF began reviews into its own governances with President Coe setting out his ‘roadmap’ to regain trust in the organisation as well as in the sport.
To say these movements have been warmly received by all would be untrue however. During the press conference yesterday in Munich, there were a couple of interesting observations that I made. One, was the fact that the vast majority of the press in attendance were British journalists. This was interesting for two reasons. The first being that apparently it is really only the British who really seem to care much about this story at all, which is disappointing. Secondly the questions were largely British-centric, mainly about the suitability of Seb Coe to lead the IAAF. Now I’ve read some good, thought-provoking stuff on the issue and I’ve read some sensationalistic over-the-top stuff about Seb Coe in the last few months but I would like to remind the British press that there is much more to the story than Seb Coe. LOTS more! There are literally hundreds of pages of material for all sorts of questions, but they are like a dog with a bone at the moment and smell blood.
Not to say that questions of Coe shouldn’t be asked (although they have asked it over and over again since very early on during his presidency) but at what point does it turn into a concerted effort to get someone to resign from their position? It was literally all they asked about and I was surprised at how they were surprised with Dick Pound’s assessment. He endorsed Coe back in November when he would have already known the contents of the second report released yesterday and there are bits of misunderstanding of what is being said in the report, the ‘inconsistencies’ as I have seen. They argue that if the IAAF council (including Coe) were aware of the doping issues in Russia (which everyone did, it wasn’t really a secret!) then how could he be a good leader as he apparently must have been corrupt or incompetent.
I think they underestimate the poor governances that were in place that allowed Diack and friends to run the IAAF in the way that they wanted and could prevent information from trickling down. Hindsight is also a wonderful thing when you are not in that position yourself. Even since the press conference I’ve seen people interpret Pound’s words and twist them to suit their opinion with one saying it wasn’t really a compliment as he is the best of a bad bunch (which is something I guess). That kind of interpretation is not really new in fairness as that kind of thing happens all the time, both in the media and just general life.
It will probably come across that I don’t think Coe should step down and indeed that it would be a bad idea if he did. I can understand the logic that anyone who was part of a failed regime should not lead it in its recovery. The problem is, if not Coe, who? It’s one thing to say why someone should not lead, but then there needs to be at least some sort of criteria or suggestions about who should lead instead. Let’s face it, I doubt a lot of people would accept anyone currently in the IAAF for many of the same reasons as Coe. For example if Coe stood down tomorrow then Sergey Bubka would be in charge whose anti-doping stance was not the most convincing in the lead up to the election. So someone from the outside? Perhaps, I wouldn’t rule it out and has apparently worked well in cycling but this wouldn’t necessarily be a guarantee of success either. Having someone completely independent lead has some advantages, but it doesn’t mean they have the experience or the knowledge or an understanding of the sport in order to help grow the sport.
This is the point, the sports’ problems do not solely lie with doping and corruption (although it is clearly the biggest) as they also include trying to get younger people involved and watching the sport. It’s been said by Coe many times that the average viewer of athletics are in their fifties. I’m about half the age of the average viewer so a whole generation of potential viewers have been lost! That is yet another tragedy of the Diack legacy. Far too many people my age don’t watch and that is such a shame. They have to show they can grow it that way as well. The sport needs to change the way it’s presented and has needed to for a while although that is secondary right now.
Despite what some might claim the general perception of the sport hasn’t been great for a while. My parents, for example were fans of the sport before the world discovered what a huge cheat Ben Johnson and others were. That era is horribly tainted and still reflects on the sport badly 30 plus years later. Then you had the Chinese athletes in the 90’s with their super turtle juice, the BALCO scandal leading to bans for the likes of Dwain Chambers and prison time for Marion Jones. The perception that drug use was rife has been around for ages now so that is not really new. Many well-known dopers never failed a test so faith in the system throughout the whole of sport is pretty low right now and will be for a while until major changes are made. My worry is that the younger people who are not yet involved in the sport will turn away from it before they even have to chance to tune in and get involved. If that doesn’t happen then the sport will fail for sure.
In times like these there does need to be some perspective and reasons to believe in this sport. As much as pictures of syringes with dark backgrounds can make the sport look evil and dark, there are many things that can give you hope, that have nothing to do with the IAAF, or Coe or anyone in a position of power. We in Britain are incredibly lucky that we have the likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill and Jo Pavey who show what can be achieved by clean, talented athletes and who are both tremendous role-models and representatives of the sport.
We are very lucky that we have young, prodigiously talented athletes like Dina Asher-Smith and Adam Gemili who both show tremendous maturity for their relative young age and care about their sport. Gemili’s decision to speak about the positives of the sport in a live BBC interview at the World Championships in Moscow (after Tyson Gay’s and Asafa Powell’s positive tests) showed incredible maturity and understanding. He would make a fantastic ambassador for the sport especially for younger people if he so chose to do so and most likely already does. As well as athletes needing to point out the wrongs that go on in their sport (and not fear the consequences of doing so), it also needs them to mention the positives as well because they do exist, they always have.
I realise that I am not the person that these headlines and articles will adversely affect. There are small groups of fans who watch more than just the Olympics every four years and maybe the odd World Championship who will watch and follow and support athletics. The average person will likely feel differently and looking on social media, that does seem to generally be the case. As a Brit, I feel lucky that I have people to continue to support, such as the names mentioned above as well as many others who do things the right way. Sadly not everyone cares about doing things the right way. That’s never going to change, cheating in sport will always exist in some form in the same way that criminals will likely always exist. I can hope that one day that the general trust and interest in the sport will grow from where it is now which will take several years, probably beyond Coe’s time as President.
For now though I just can’t wait until I can just watch athletics again! In the coming weeks, action will be starting up again (already has judging by Shawn Barber’s 6 metre vault yesterday!) and it will be nice to do what I enjoy doing which is. My preview for the upcoming indoor season can be seen below:
Until next time!