I went to an IAAF press conference yesterday, for the first time in a long time. How things change! IAAF press conferences were always pretty lively affairs, due entirely to the tough questions thrown by the likes of me and the other Fleet Street ferrets (as Sports Illustrated alumnus Kenny Moore used to call us). But the big surprise in yesterday’s conference, in London’s docklands – a few underground stations from the Olympic Stadium, venue for this summer’s World Champs – was the working paper on progress in the Russian doping scandal. It’s the sort of document that used to be kept under wraps. But after his relative baptism of fire on assuming the presidency of the IAAF – the Diack scandal, his own stupid decision not to relinquish immediately his Nike ambassador’s contract (only 100gs a year), as well as the Russian doping, etc, etc – Lord Coe is now playing hardball.
The document, entitled an Interim Report and authored by Rune Anderson, chair of the IAAF Taskforce was freely distributed. And it made for illuminating reading. The gist of the report is that, despite stated intentions over the past three months, no real progress has been made. More worryingly, it seems like Russian athletics luminaries like Yelena Isinbayeva and Yuriy Borzakovskiy have been not only complicit in semi-official and media criticism of whistle-blower, 1500 metres man, Andrey Dimitriev, which has caused him to emigrate for his safety; but that they may have been urged/forced(?) to do so by a government which is altogether too close to telling sports bodies what to do and say.
The whole document is available on the IAAF website – you can find a link to it on this page – https://www.iaaf.org/news/press-release/council-meeting-april-2017 – and I urge anyone remotely interested in the current state and future of our sport to peruse it. Incidentally, Russia is not the only country to be under the spotlight. The recent positive test for Rio Olympic marathon champ, Jemima Sumgong only underlines the problem in Kenya. As we used to say 20 years ago, the Kenyans and Ethiopians are already too good; it they ever start doping, then it’s the end of the sport. Well, welcome to the present; and we are hurtling towards the abyss.
Sport does not operate in a vacuum, even less so nowadays, given the huge amounts of money involved at the elite level. In the world of ‘soft-power’ the British government and people have been basking in the sunshine of a decade of UK Olympic success from Beijing to Brazil. And there is little doubt that attempting to reproduce that sort of success in the Winter Olympics led to the wholesale manipulation of positive Russian dope tests in Sochi 2014. And, unlike what we choose to call democratic countries where we tell the government what to do or where to go (within limits) – eg Brexit, the election of Trump, and the decision of most UK sports to go to Moscow 1980 against the wishes of Thatcher and her cronies – the same cannot be said about an increasingly Tsarist stance, ie the road to absolute power taken by Vladimir Putin and his obliging band of oligarchs.
But Seb, as I was glad to hear everyone calling him, even in questions from the floor, is making no bones about the tough task ahead for Vlad and his puppets. At the conclusion of Wednesday evening’s press conference in London, Coe said, ‘(IAAF) Council was disappointed and concerned to learn that the prospect of the milestones being fulfilled this year by RusAF remains a distant one. In particular the situation of the athlete Mr Andrey Dmitriev, a champion of the clean sport movement in Russia, is alarming considering he has felt it necessary to take sanctuary abroad. Anyone with information about a system which has failed to protect the goals and aspirations of clean athletes must feel it is safe to speak out’.
I’m no mouthpiece for the IAAF, past or present. But I am mightily impressed by this tough stance; and whatever you might think about doping, and I am increasingly ambivalent about the parameters and indeed efficacity of dope testing, Lord Seb is on a roll. He made himself a hero in setting close to a dozen world records and winning back-to-back Olympic 1500 metres titles (the only man in history to do); he hit the heights again, when fronting the enormously successful Olympic Games in London 2012; and it seems that London 2017 is well on its way to being another smash hit, with the highest ticket sales thus far in the championships’ 34 year history. But being prez of the IAAF might prove the toughest task of them all.
There used to be a UK comic book character nicknamed the Tough of the Track. With his bully-boy track tactics, Coe’s arch-rival Steve Ovett used to be lead candidate for that sobriquet. But it looks like Coe has co-opted it himself; and given his parliamentary background, he is also following in the footsteps of a famous statesman, US President Theodore Roosevelt, one of whose most enduring pieces of advice was, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’.
Lord Coe is not even bothering to speak softly! And the IAAF is all the better for it.
(photo Chris Lee/IAAF)