86 days ago, Lord Coe was elected as the President of the IAAF. He came in calling for reform and revolution, seeing the doping scandal as “a declaration of war on my sport”, indicating that one in three athletes would be tested for doping and drug usage.
With two weeks left before the magical 100 day mark by which all great leaders have been judged in recent history, athletics has somehow engineered itself into a worse position than when Seb Coe took the job.
To begin with, nothing – or very little – has been done to address the doping scandal that rocked the athletics world when it was leaked (by the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR) that, of 5,000 athletes whose blood tests were taken between 2001 and 2012, one in seven had results “highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal”. Russia was the greatest offender (over 80% of their medals), and Kenya didn’t cut an angelic figure either (18 medals).
There were a multitude of difficulties created by this whistle-blowing. It appeared that a third of medals in endurance events (at Olympic and World Championship games) were won in spite of suspicious tests. A frankly unfathomable amount, it makes Mo Farah’s achievements all the more impressive. Whilst endurance events were perhaps the worst hit by these results, illegally won medals were found across competitons with 10 at London 2012. Furthermore, it was reported that some athletes, particularly Kenyans, were warned of supposed ‘surprise’ doping tests, and that athletics officials demanded money to hide positive tests.
However the most damaging aspect of these reports was the fact that the IAAF knew about them and that little was done. It took a whistle-blower to alert the world to this crisis in global athletics, but still we don’t know who was involved, and the IAAF’s first reaction was to point out the information wasn’t obtained lawfully.
The past two weeks have only made matters worse. Sebastian Coe’s cancellation of the annual athletics awards ceremony, due to have been held in Monaco, is quite sadly the most he’s done about athletics’ scandals. Lamine Diack, his predecessor is now under investigation for involvement in a cover up of Russia’s widespread doping programme, and things do not seem to be getting any better for athletics.
Many commenters, former athletes and politicians have made comparative comments between the scandals that have brought Sepp Blatter’s FIFA career to a dishonourable finale and those that the IAAF is now facing. In truth, there is little comparison to be made at this point. Much like FIFA, the IAAF’s alleged cover ups and corruption are backdated well over a decade. However, unlike FIFA, there doesn’t seem to be any finger pointing going on. Perhaps it’s because no one knows where to point.
FIFA has its ringleader in Blatter, whose ejection feels like a therapeutic removal of some parasite from the main body. With him go his cronies, all under investigation. Whilst the corruption in FIFA is very widespread, it appears to be centralised in root cause and management, and by cutting off the head of the snake, the rest should wither.
No one knows where to start with athletics. We could look to Russia, who allegedly have the most widespread doping and drug use amongst its athletes; but Russia are not alone, nor would they be the most compliant of investigated parties. We could look to Lamine Diack, but he does not hold the same aura that Blatter does, and it does not appear that removing him would change much (as it hasn’t) in the way of athletics’ doping. Calls for introducing more and more blood tests, up to one in three as was suggested when the scandal first broke falls flat on its face when it is pointed out that we already know people are doping and – one assumes – that someone somewhere knows exactly who it is, yet nothing has been done about it.
Athletics, perhaps more than any other sport, requires its audience to believe what it sees. There is no flair, no side-line tactics, and no dodgy decisions. When it comes down to the 100m final, seen as the pinnacle of any athletics meet, despite being the shortest event, it’s really just 8 or so men or women running down a straight line. Maybe it’s because we’ve all done it on our secondary school grass tracks, and maybe it’s because there is seemingly nothing to it. For whatever reason, athletics needs its sport to believable, and its pinnacle to exhilarate its fans, not frustrate them at its lack of credibility.
How different things would be for athletics if Usain Bolt didn’t exist. Single-handedly, Bolt keeps the faith in sprinting, and perhaps therefore athletics; he is a shining light and a hope in an era of drug cheats and poor global management. But Bolt won’t be around forever, and the IAAF – or anyone – need to do something to sort out athletics whilst he’s gone.
Some British people might have a soft spot for Seb Coe; he did, after all, run our Olympics in 2012. Unfortunately, Coe simply has not done enough, or frankly anything. Cancelling an awards ceremony in the face of the previous president allegedly covering up an entire country’s doping system is hardly tit for tat. Athletics doesn’t just face a crisis in terms of how to deal with allegations of drug-users amongst its athletes, but it faces a crisis surrounding its future, its audience and popularity.
It almost doesn’t matter what action they take, as long as they show themselves to be doing something other than lip service and PR management. Start charging athletes? Harsher bans? More testing? Anything will do, and the world of athletics’ fans are crying out for the IAAF to wake up and stop waiting for the next Usain Bolt.
PHOTO 1/Thor Matthiasson
PHOTO 2/Sophie Hilton