You know it’s bad when you’re making FIFA look good

The corruption virus spreads to athletics as the IAAF finds itself facing a monumental task to clean up the sport.

Athletics is in many ways the purest of all sports. Questions about who can run the fastest, jump the highest (or the longest) or throw the farthest are some of the most fundamental asked in any sport. Indeed, fiercely contested though all sports certainly are, it is hard to argue that any catches the attention at the Olympic Games – the biggest of all sporting jamborees – quite like track and field does. Ask Brits, for example, about what their most vivid memories of the 2012 London Olympics are, and it is likely that the events of ‘Super Saturday’ (when British athletes won three gold medals on the track in little more than an hour) will quickly come to the fore.

The events that unfolded on Monday 9th November are as far removed from the spirit of Super Saturday as can be imagined. Indeed it is not too dramatic to say that they have rocked athletics to its core – and it is going to take a long-time before it fully recovers. Furthermore, it is quite likely that things are going to get worse, quite plausibly much worse, before they begin to get better. The background to this is that Dick Pound, the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), has published a report investigating allegations by a German TV programme and a Russian whistleblower called Vitaly Stepanov (a former employee of the Russian Anti-Doping Association, Rusada) that Russian athletes have systematically been taking performance enhancing drugs and, even more damningly, that the Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF) has been just as systematically helping them to cover their tracks. There was, so the report claimed, a “deeply rooted culture of cheating in Russian athletics” and this had led to a “sabotaging” of the 2012 Olympics.

The report’s findings had been well trailed; everyone knew that ARAF was going to have some explaining to do, but no one quire expected the report to come up with recommendations as high octane as they were. Amongst other things Pound’s report has recommended that Russian athletes be suspended from international competition, something that if the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) follows through on could quite possibly mean that Russian athletes wouldn’t be eligible to compete both in the next World Athletics Championships in London in 2017 and also the next Olympic Games (in 2016 in Rio). Furthermore, the report promised further revelations as and when criminal investigations in to alleged money-laundering and corruption by former president Lamine Diack in France are completed; this story will clearly not be going away any time soon.

The IAAF, the sport’s governing body, also has plenty of explaining to do itself. It has been accused of accepting “cheating at all levels” and that this cheating “is widespread and long-standing”. Indeed, the IAAF had been “inexplicably laissez-faire” in its approach to dealing with what the WADA report regarded as obvious and unmissable warning signals that cheating was taking place.

Whilst the the report’s main ire was directed at the behaviour of ARAF and associated bodies, WADA pulled no punches in highlighting how the corruption went over and beyond one rogue federation, noting that “corruption and bribery practices” were to be found “at the highest levels of international athletics”. It’s got so bad then the IAAF is in danger of making the scandals that have recently engulfed its footballing equivalent (FIFA) look like they might not actually have been *that* bad. Yes, the allegations really are that serious.

How did athletics get itself in to this state? It is not as if doping allegations are anything new and it is not as if athletics has not had ample opportunity to up its game.   Athletes from a variety of eastern bloc nations have revealed that they systematically took drugs through the 1980s, whilst the biggest doping case of them all involving 100m sprinter Ben Johnson in 1988 sent shockwaves through not just athletics but the whole of world sport. The signs were there, the evidence was in front of the guardians of the sport’s very eyes. Yet the IAAF never quite saw fit to react to them.

From an anti-corruption perspective, the signals could hardly have been clearer. Allowing self-assessment of compliance procedures is asking for trouble and the IAAF’s carefree attitude to due process where allegations of doping were made left many fearing the worst. Outspoken critics such as the UK’s Paula Radcliffe, Marathon world record holder multiple medallist on the track, knew something was deeply wrong, but without the support of the IAAF she knew that her public accusations of cheating would fall on deaf ears. At long last her concerns are being shown for what they really are; the reality of a sport that for far too long wanted to wish away its problems.

Where does the IAAF, under the still new leadership of Sebastian Coe, go from here? The initial responses of Lord Coe have indicated that he is at least well aware of the gravity of the problem. That is one key step in the right direction. There is no point trying to deflect the blame or somehow find a way of arguing that it isn’t as bad as it looks – it looks terrible and if the IAAF doesn’t come clean and go on record as realising that, then reform will be impossible. Lord Coe will also be well aware that if Russia and its athletes go down, then they are very likely to take others with them. As of yet, we don’t know who else is implicated in this, but if others have transgressed like the Russians are alleged to have done, then it is highly unlikely that the Russians won’t try to take them with them as they go. The storm is a long, long way from blowing itself out.

Secondly, successfully anti-corruption drives always have a strong leadership dimension to them. The IAAF is now led by a man with a reputation not just of integrity, but also of getting things done. Coe’s work around the 2012 Olympics will stand him in good stead, and he will need every ounce of the good will that he brings with him to push reforms through. However, without ‘buy in’ from prominent stakeholders within the IAAF and the attendant organisations under its jurisdiction, all attempts at reform will fail. Anti-corruption talk is cheap, but actually changing prevailing cultures is very difficult indeed. If anyone can do this, then someone like Seb Coe can.

Finally, the IAAF has to create institutional structures that have transparent processes at their core, where clear lines of accountability exist and where the monitoring and oversight procedures are rigorous. The doping testing centres in particular need to be beyond reproach, and Lord Coe will know that this will entail the type of root and branch reform that national federations are, in the cold light of day, likely to resist.

In many cases genuine reform only takes place when evasion, delusion and plain old incompetence have all run their races. That is exactly where the IAAF is now. Whether Lord Coe and those around him will be able to rise to the challenge remains to be seen. But, Coe used to win titles by patiently following lead runners around the running track and then coolly sprinting past them in the home straight. His running style was thoughtful, elegant and ultimately effective. His record as an administrator is equally as good. Let’s hope he manages to carry this on and meet one more challenge. The very fate of his sport might well depend on it.

Dan Hough

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