When I retired from running in 1991, one reason was because I’d become a father and I had decided I wanted to focus on being a family man rather than an absent parent who was off running all the time. In the background to deciding that, I’d also reached a point where I’d become disillusioned with the dishonesty in my sport. The Ben Johnson scandal was still fresh and I’d reached a point where I just couldn’t trust the legitimacy of a performance anymore. When I saw a world record I truly didn’t know if it was real (achieved clean) or not. I recall the final straw for me being the drug bust of Katrin Krabbe for clenbuterol. Krabbe, in 1991, was the golden girl of German sprinting who won World and European gold medals (medals that still remain in the record books today). She received a one year ban by the German federation, however when the IAAF extended her ban to two years, which ruled her out from competing at the Barcelona Olympics, Krabbe’s response was to sue the IAAF and she was awarded damages for 1.2 million Deutsche Marks.
As sexist as this may sound, I was a fan of Krabbe. She was attractive and I liked the idea that a normal attractive woman could belt out a 100m in 10.89, and that female athletes didn’t all need to become as masculine as a man to do so. Of course as an attractive woman, Krabbe was a marketing dream and poster girl for the sport.
It was many years before I again started following athletics closely. I came back in to follow the sport around 2011/12 in the run up to the London Olympics. Of course there was no avoiding the deeds of Usain Bolt during the time when I wasn’t watching closely, but Bolt aside, whenever I heard about athletics it was about who had been busted for drugs, and there was a long list of athletes who were due to the Balco scandal which uncovered Marion Jones and many others. But it wasn’t just athletics that turned me off. Lance Armstrong didn’t help matters much either.
What I found when I returned to follow athletics was nothing had fundamentally changed in spite of all the advances made with the introduction of the ABP (athletes blood passport). Of course the ABP was instrumental in showing up anomalies in an athlete’s blood to uncover many cheats. It’s just that the IAAF then compromised the value of the ABP by using the data instead for the benefit of corrupt officials as the recent WADA reports conclusively evidenced in detailing a litany of nefarious activities directed towards drug cheats that has never been worse, and that’s saying something considering the era that I competed in; the 1980’s has been labelled as the dirtiest era of our sport thanks to the likes of Ben Johnson, Marita Koch, Randy Barnes, Florence Griffith Joyner, Jarmila Kratochvilova et al.
With the release of the first WADA report, New Zealand middle distance runner Nick Willis mused that the best thing that could happen to our sport was for it to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
I wholeheartedly agree with Nick’s sentiments. What surprised me was it took an elite athlete to make the suggestion. I thought it might have come from others like me. Maybe it did, but as ‘no names’ no one was interested in what we had to say. If I needed any more convincing then WADA’s somewhat contradictory part II report on anti-doping gave it to me.
Right from the beginning of the WADA revelations my gut gave me a sense of what was right and wrong in the sport. My time outside and away from the sport provided me a distance and objectivity to the situation and ensured my instincts were not compromised. How could they be? As a fan I have no political agenda or bias. I just want clean sport and I’m not precious about how we get there. In fact I don’t much care.
My objectivity reminded me that just because you might have won multiple Olympic medals and run world records and used that success to leverage building a career for yourself, it doesn’t in any way equate to being better equipped than an anonymous person who has run as a club athlete and attained excellence and success in business.
Lord Sebastian Coe became President of the IAAF largely thanks to his exploits on the track and due to significant UK government funding to back is campaign. The British government did so because they saw value to Britain in having more influence in how the world’s main sports are run for the benefit of British athletes. They also provided funds into getting their candidates into a top spot in cycling and other Olympic sports.
Given Coe’s track record at the IAAF, I can’t sign up to him being the best person to lead the sport back from the crisis that has beset it. I’m struggling to reconcile how as a vice president of the IAAF, Coe alone was not complicit in any internal corruption that saw protection, extortion, bribery and the covering up of doping offences of Russian and Turkish athletes. Was it just dumb luck or a biblical miracle that Coe alone knew nothing so wasn’t able to do anything? My gut yells at me, “No way.” Why? Because aside from Coe’s backtracking and then later, his excuse of using clumsy language to excuse his back-peddling, we have Coe’s apparent lack of wider awareness in understanding what perceives a conflict of interest and his inexplicable reluctance to resign as a Nike ambassador after being elected IAAF President. Awarding the 2019 World Championships to Eugene with it’s entrenched association with Nike, and all done outside of governance frameworks, which as WADA’s report highlighted, was at the very core of the systemic corruption pervading the IAAF with regards to it’s anti-doping failures.
While the Eugene-Nike situation is a different matter from the anti-doping corruption, Coe inadvertently entrenched the culture of working outside safe business practices. He therefore was a contributor and an enabler of IAAF corruption, and not just with regards to a lack of bidding process for a world championship stemming from a lack of governance practices.
Coe has been quoted as saying, “My objective was to get elected to make the changes that I am now in a position to make changes in.” To me such a statement implies he knew but did nothing to surface the failures revealed by WADA’s report, and in doing nothing, even in a part time role, was an enabler of corruption. It’s little wonder then that the Swedes remain incensed and are not ringing any endorsements for Lord Coe. Rather they want an investigation on Eugene, and with sound reasoning.
What I’ve found interesting is that despite Coe’s obvious shortcomings, a number of British ‘name’ athletes have since all lined up to give their support for Coe to stay on and fix up athletics, all dutifully reported on the government owned broadcasting channel, the BBC. It actually makes sense. Coe’s their guy, so there is a natural bias being expressed. British athletes understand and see the advantage for them and their country to have their guy remain at the helm. Yet elsewhere, and beyond Scandinavia, support for Coe is nowhere near as ringing, certainly not in North America where a lot of questions are still being asked.
Here in New Zealand, our athletics governing body supported Coe’s bid for President over Sergey Bubka, the Soviet/Ukrainian Olympic gold medalist and six times world champion pole vaulter, but disappointingly recently restated that support again even after the disclosures of Coe’s questionable honesty, transparency and his failure to acknowledge his conflict of interest, or indeed his lack of understanding of the perception of it, as outlined above.
I’ll put Athletics New Zealand’s stance down to an agenda and that they only have the BBC installed on their tablets.
It is my opinion there are far better, more professional people to rebuild world athletics than Coe. The thing is those people – the one’s who do understand about running businesses, about the fundamentals of business like governance, accountability, transparency, controlled process and procedures and reporting lines are the one’s who don’t always have internationally recognisable names, so don’t have widespread government backing, yet they do exist in many athletic clubs all around the world, it’s just that they’re not ‘in the family’.
Lord Coe says the IAAF will learn from the WADA findings and that he’s already acted on WADA’s recommendations, yet just prior to the release of part II of WADA’s report the IAAF were still making noises defending the integrity and enforcement of their procedures and processes around AD (anti doping).
Coe’s statement troubles me. This is business 101. Business people who lead organisations shouldn’t need to be taking on board lessons on the fundamentals which is exactly why I don’t think our sport has the leader it needs to lead us towards clean sport anytime soon, and in part thanks to those who bankrolled Lord Coe to put him into his position, but also because the likes of Athletics New Zealand, and others, who accept the status-quo. If I were to guess at it, I think that position is because Athletics New Zealand can’t envision what the future of athletics looks like without a recognisable IAAF, or how they would operate in that new world without ‘the famly’. That’s their motivation for wanting to keep things as they are under Coe, and given that, it’s also the reason why I can’t see the sport being cleaned up any time soon.
A suggestion to re-write the record books as a demonstration of a fresh start was also proposed by UK athletics and found a mix of support and opposition.
I think we should abolish the IAAF and rebuild athletics from scratch, and in doing so, start with new records. Yes, clean athletes will have their records struck out, but I’d do it as a transition in the same way records were transitioned from imperial to metric distances. When I look through the record list and see the names Joyner, Koch, Kratochvilova, Radcliffe, Shobukhova, Samitova-Galkina, Lisovskaya, Reinsch, that Chinese girl, and even Dibaba, who remarkably ran around 2 seconds quicker than the best 800m runners in the world could manage in 2015 (1:55 over the last two laps of a 1500m). Like it or not, all of them have some degree of doubt against their names. And that’s just the woman. Having the old record as a provisional record along side a new record until such time the new record betters the old record is what I mean by transitioning and would keep the likes of a Paula Radcliffe happy.
I admit to struggling with the magnificence of someone like Val Adams, who is so tall, has such reach, is so immensely powerful and someone who has completely dominated a generation of shot putters yet is throwing some 2 meters shorter than a Russian did 28-years ago! When I see video’s today of Joyner and Koch today, I feel nauseous. I watched Joyner cry on the podium in Seoul and was left wondering if her tears were from the guilt of getting away with it as much as they were for the emotion of winning big.
My gut tells me those performances are all fishy and while I have my suspicions I cannot conclusively prove a thing. I just have my instinct which has served me very well, so I’ll trust it on why Lord Coe isn’t the guy to lead athletics back into the light and why we need to put a line under the world records to – as Nick Willis says – rip the sport down and start again from scratch, or off the back marker, to use a running term.