ONE TRICK PONY

Posted on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020 at 3:16 pm and is filed under Butcher's Blog | 5

 

When former IAAF President Lamine Diack was sentenced to four years in prison, two suspended, for corruption by a court in Paris last week, I was going to revisit the whole sorry saga; but, apart from the fact that the 87 years old Diack is never going to get banged up (he’s already been under house arrest for three years), there was little to add except that Diack’s son Papa Massata, holed up in Dakar, Senegal and refusing to budge, thus avoiding arrest, was, in my view the principal instigator of the corruption at the heart of darkness that was the IAAF that Seb Coe took over four years ago. But during my researches for a potential piece, I came across something I wrote ten years ago. It touches on many of the problems affecting international athletics back in 2010. Now, I don’t see myself as any sort of prophet, of doom or otherwise in these matters, but there seems to be a lot of stuff in the piece that is still germane. Enjoy! Or not, as the case might be…

Sebastian Coe, Carl Lewis, Zola Budd, Steve Ovett, Mary Decker, Steve Cram, Ed Moses, Merlene Ottey, Said Aouita, Sergey Bubka, Daley Thompson, Florence Griffith-Joyner aka Flo-Jo, even Ben Johnson, before the Fall. Twenty five years ago, athletics featured a constellation of stars. And now? Usain Bolt, and, well, that’s about it; the more so since the elegant Russian pole vaulter, Yelena Isinbayeva has chosen to take a year off, and the Ethiopian running machine Kenenisa Bekele has what looks like a long-term injury. Inside two decades, the sport has gone from a packed stable to a one-trick pony.

The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), the sport’s world governing body ‘relaunched’ athletics with the Diamond League in May. You could be forgiven for having overlooked it. The six-meet Golden League, itself obscure to vanishing point, has been expanded to take in fourteen meetings worldwide. But a starting point in Doha, Qatar, without Bolt, and on the BBC red-button (digital channel) for potential UK viewers (and similar elsewhere) was distinctly underwhelming.

The difference in public access between then and now is underlined by Steve Cram’s comments to the Scotsman recently, on the 25th anniversary of his record breaking season.

‘Channel Four had not long started, so there were effectively just three channels that everyone could watch, and that was reflected in the audiences. Dennis Taylor winning the snooker world championship had a massive audience. Twenty million people watched Barry McGuigan become (featherweight] world champion when he beat Eusebio Pedroza. And when I broke the (1,500m] world record in Nice both BBC and ITV showed it. You couldn’t miss it…’

But it’s not the proliferation of TV channels that has almost killed off athletics. It is the drugs or perception of, abetted by domination of distance running by anonymous Africans, and the major success of the ‘people’s game’ football, being aggressively marketed across the world’s networks.

But nor has athletics administration recovered from the death over a decade ago of its president, the ebullient Primo Nebiolo, a man who could have taught his compatriot Silvio Berlusconi a few tricks about selling himself, and thus his sport, while managing to upset almost everyone else on the planet. But, as one critical Italian journalist once remarked about Nebiolo, “His first thought on waking is, how can I improve athletics? And that’s all he thinks about until he goes to sleep”.

Since his death, in 1999, it’s the administration that seems to have gone to sleep. As senior Vice President at the time of Nebiolo’s death, Lamine Diack, a one-time presidential candidate in Senegal (and touted so again now, if rumours are to be believed) took over as interim president. Until he got elected in the subsequent IAAF Congress. Since then, despite concerns about the lack of impetus and direction of the IAAF, Diack has been re-elected on the nod. The last time, in Osaka in 2007, prior to the World Championships there, Diack dampened opposition by making it known that it would be his final four years. Until that is, he sprung it on a horrified athletics world three months ago that he wants to continue, if he gets reelected at the next Congress in Daegu, South Korea, prior to the next World Championships there in 2011.

It’s a classic story of international sports administration. A VP or general secretary (eg Sepp Blatter at FIFA) accedes to the top role, promises to share the TV and sponsorship money with the constituent federations, and, bob (or dollar bill)’s your uncle, and you’re president for life; a term (without term) that has particular resonance, given that Diack is the first African president of a major sport’s federation, with all the support that a 50-member regional federation, ie Africa can afford him.

Like his predecessor, Diack is a former long jumper. Unlike Nebiolo, he is an accessible and personable character, who nonetheless suffers from being primarily francophone in a largely anglophone world. And his tendency to say yes too readily to new ideas, without the wherewithal to follow through has earned him the sobriquet ‘Lame Diack’.

Lord Coe seems to have got unduly exercised by Diack’s intention to stand again. Having secured the Olympic Games 2012 for London, and remaining CEO of the local organising committee (LOCOG), Coe was being widely touted as the next IAAF President, this despite the term beginning before the London Games take place. If Diack succeeds again, he would be there until 2015 (aged 82), and the danger of an interim candidate/president is the likelihood that he, inevitably he, doing what Diack did, keep on going. To the exclusion of Coe.

One time ally of Nebiolo, and a man widely acknowledged to be one of the few intellectuals, but also eminently capable administrators in sport, Luciano Barra has been virulent in his criticism of Diack. Former administrator at the Italian Olympic Committee, and deputy CEO for the Winter Olympics in Torino 2006, Barra keeps abreast of performance levels, sponsorship figures and television statistics for all the major Olympic sports. But, athletics is his principal concern, since, as he reminds everyone, he was a schoolboy volunteer at the Olympic Games in Rome 1960.

Having been a member of an IAAF working group, created in 2004, on a ‘World Athletics Plan,’ three years later, Barra couldn’t stand the gathering inertia any longer. He wrote an open letter (of eight quarto pages) to Diack, pointing out the precipitously diminishing audience and financial reserves for athletics, along with the reasons, but his emphasis was on Diack’s lack of direction, and the president’s advancing years.

Despite a raft of suggestions, ‘nothing has happened,’ wrote Barra in 2007. ‘The IAAF compares itself to brands like Coke or Nike or McDonald’s. If this company would have run business like the IAAF is doing, they would have gone bankrupt, and their executives would have been fired’.

Barra lists calendar conflicts, of independent meetings with championships, the sterile pace-making, and top athletes avoiding one another, whereas, ‘In other major sports, their competition system obliges the top athletes to match (compete against) each other’. While appreciating the necessity of managers/agents, he berates the IAAF for not curbing the excesses of those he calls ‘pimps’. That, of course is little different to attitudes to agents in other sports. On the continuous scourge of doping, the laments the scape-goating of athletes, ‘Can we believe that they have done it themselves, without the complicity of coaches, doctors, federation officials and managers?’

But on Diack himself, Barra notes that, while the International Olympic Committee was responding to criticism of senile adminstrators by introducing a cut-off age of 70, Diack was hastily coopted onto the IOC the day before the legislation was enacted. Barra then delivers a prescient coup de grace (this, remember was three years ago), ‘If at the next IAAF Congress – as it looks like – nothing will change, the alternative will be to have another five years of decadence, and for you to pass to the history (sic) as the sinker of athletics of the Third Millennium’.

Having been accused of feeding scare stories about IAAF finance to the British press earlier this year (allegedly to boost support for Coe’s potential Presidential bid, as yet unannounced), Barra returned to the attack just before the launch of the Diamond League, pointing out that global audiences for athletics, and IAAF income had diminished to danger levels.

Some of Barra’s previous criticisms were addressed when the Diamond League was launched a month later, since it integrated some of those independent meetings which had conflicted with the defunct Golden League; and there was an attempt to ensure more head-to-head matches. But having launched the series without a title sponsor, then announcing one just before the fifth meeting, in New York in mid-June, seems characteristically maladroit. But if that was a cause for latterday celebration, there was dismay in the Big Apple, when Bolt couldn’t compete as expected, due to injury. He did turn up to watch, suitably compensated, one imagines. But in any case, the world was already glued to screens relaying events from South African stadia (FIFA World Cup).

There are still terrific performances, for example, Richard Thompson of Trinidad won the New York 100 metres in 9.89sec, a time that the multi-talented King Carl (Lewis) only ever bettered once (Bolt’s world record, incidentally is 9.59sec). And Bekele (along with over 50 others) has run far faster than Aouita, the first man under 13mins for 5000 metres, ever did.

But that latter example tells part of the story of why athletics is, well, so boring nowadays. After all, it’s the running (not the poorly presented thus incomprehensible field events) that keeps the sport afloat. Of the three score and ten runners who have beaten 13mins, all but four are African. It is hard not to sound racist about this, but legions of runners raised, for the most part, in country communities in the Third World, with the commensurate media-phobia that that implies, are not going to raise the sport’s profile.

Not everyone is a Haile Gebrselassie, with the talent to break multiple world records, and get himself recognised, and the longevity which afforded the Ethiopian time to learn English, and attach a ‘story’ and a personality to that winning smile. “Remember,” says his manager Jos Hermens, “how long it took Haile to speak English properly. And I’d stand behind him at interviews, saying ‘fagegta’, ‘smile’ in Amharic”.

It worked, Haile (second names are patronymics in Ethiopia) is one of the world’s most recognisable athletes, but even that longevity is running out. He is now 37, although many in the sport, including opponents, believe he is over 40. Characteristically, when told of this, he roared with laughter. But, what comes naturally to US athletes, who seem to be born with a mic in their mouths, is strictly a one-off, in Haile’s case.

This largely East African (Kenya and Ethiopia) dominance of distance running is not going to end soon. It has long been established that being born and raised, or living long-term at altitude hugely benefits distance runners. But translating this tidal wave of African talent into publicity has proved largely impossible. Agents and managers and, to a certain extent the international federation are to blame for this. They don’t do anywhere near enough to ensure that athletes get media training. At worst,  managers who see athletes as nothing more than meal tickets for themselves have been jailed, for housing runners in squalid conditions, and fleecing them of their prize money.

The rise of East African athletes, facilitated by their governments relaxing restrictions on foreign travel (due to the hard currency that they bring back) has concurred with a rapid decline in standards in long distance running in the First World. This is partly due to the recognition that no matter how hard, say Brits or Yanks train, they are never going to match the altitude-nurtured and trained Africans, either in quality or quantity. Events from 800 metres to the marathon are dominated by Kenyans and to a lesser extent Ethiopians (and increasingly Eritreans, Ugandans and Tanzanians, who also live at altitude on or near the Great Rift Valley).

Less time given over to sport in schools has contributed to a decline in First World athletics standards, as has the lure of the internet and allied pursuits, leading to rampant obesity. But the other principal reason for the demise of distance running in the wealthier nations is, perhaps incongruously, the fun-running boom. The year after the London Marathon was launched in 1981, ie when club athletes embraced it rather than treating it with suspicion, scores of club runners broke two hours, twenty minutes for the 42.195k. Nowadays, it is startling if more than half a dozen British men break 2.20. When Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s only world class distance runner set the women’s world record of 2.15.25, in 2002, she was the fastest Briton that year, man or woman.

The reason Radcliffe is so good is that, in addition to having a talent which revealed itself as a youngster, she is one of the very few Brits willing to put in the extraordinary amount of training necessary to reach world level. Yet 25 years ago, hundreds of club runners were regularly running 100 miles and more per week in training. And few of these ever got a sniff at an international vest.

Nowadays, people don’t run – they jog. I like to say that I used to be an expert on long distance running (being one of those good club runners), while nowadays, with the jogging or fun-running boom, next door’s grandmother knows, or thinks she knows, more. The problem is that these folks seem to have believed the Olympic imprecation that’s it’s not the winning, but the taking part. The result, or rather, the lack of result is that walking round a marathon course is a cause for celebration. And the upshot is that the clubs, which were once the mainstay of British running, are now organised and administered by these latter-day joggers who, never having trained hard themselves, are in no position to advise anything other than what they did. Hence the running club is now the jogging club in everything but name.

Then, on the wider athletics scene, there is the Ben Johnson effect. Rumours about drug-taking in athletics were second only to those in cycling (among relatively media-friendly sports) in the 1960s and 1970s. But Johnson’s ‘bust’ after his cataclysmic victory over Carl Lewis in the Seoul Olympic 100 metres in 1988 must rank as one of the biggest shocks of 20th century sport. I got a lift back from the stadium after that race from a well-known sports photographer, who reckoned, with the help of automatic cameras, Johnson v Lewis was the most photographed ten seconds of anything in history. That stat was subverted two days later, with the announcement of Johnson’s bust, by a scrawl on the wall of the Canadian quarters of the Olympic Village – ‘From Hero to Zero in 9.79sec’ The Canadian press was even more vitriolic, one newspaper contributing the deathless headline, ‘Thanks A Lot – You Bastard’. Incidentally, the IOC sub-committee who decided to ban Johnson did so by a majority of just one vote. Over a dozen members wanted to cover it up, begging the question of how often that had happened before.

Since then there has been a constant drip-feed of doping bans, many of which have similarly resulted in champions being stripped of titles, the most notable being Marion Jones, one-time golden girl of US track and field athletics. It says much for the anti-doping procedures that Jones never tested positive, but got caught up in the aftermath of the BALCO scandal, when a renegade coach blew the whistle on the (San Francisco) Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, which was helping athletes avoid and cover up doping positives. It was only Jones’ lies about not having doped to a senate sub-committee (shades of Capone and the IRS), which resulted in her being jailed and stripped of the trio of golds that she won at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

A major expulsion after Beijing 2008 probably escaped many people’s notice, and says more about the impact of international athletics nowadays. Vagaries of dope-testing and the attendant legal hoopla meant that the winner of the Olympic men’s 1500 metres in Beijing, Raschid Ramzi, a Moroccan-born Bahreini was not banned for using a new drug CERA, until November 2009, fully fifteen months after snatching the golden egg in the Birds’ Nest. The 2008 Olympic men’s 1500 metres champion is now Asbel Kiprop of Kenya (who, of course has also now tested positive – Pat, Sept 2020)

Speaking of 1500 metres runners, the rivalry between Lord Coe and Steve Ovett during the late seventies and early eighties is often described as the peak of athletics’ popularity. But Coe himself always points out that the universal panacea, football was also at a nadir at that time, due to the Heysel and Hillsborough stadium disasters, and the ongoing problem with hooliganism. Coe could also point out that athletics was, and remains female-friendly. Television demographics suggest an even split between male and female viewers, whereas football and rugby and even cricket would be male dominated whereas gymnastics would have a preponderance of female viewers. Mothers worried about their offspring attending football matches urged them onto the running track instead.

Then came BSkyB Television, which turned around access to the game of football to a degree that still astonishes, as a personal anecdote illustrates. As a Staffordshire man, watching a Premier League game in sweaty Singapore two years ago (having watched most of the 2006 World Cup in Beijing), I was gob-smacked to see, at half-time, a preview of a forthcoming game, to be broadcast worldwide – Port Vale v (non-league) Chasetown in the first round of the FA Cup.

The rise and rise of football, without the hooligans (mostly) is also reflected in the written press, with reporting of other sports suffering. Without the Coes and Ovetts, the Crams and Moorcrofts and Elliotts, the Christies and Gunnells, the Sandersons and Whitbreads, and the Jacksons and Edwards, domestic athletics barely gets a mention in the British press nowadays. One of my colleagues on a national daily was told as long ago as 2004 that when he retired (now imminent), the paper wouldn’t have an athletics correspondent anymore.

But at least, there is Bolt. The Jamaican is now back on the circuit, and winning, though he has dismayed Indians by refusing to compete in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in Autumn. And, ultimately, he needs some opposition, otherwise fans will tire even of his record breaking dominance. But, for the time being, as long as he stays fit and visible, athletics will have a major calling card, all the more so since he is the closest that any other sport has had to a Muhammed Ali character – bright, personable, eloquent as well as loquacious, jesting, photogenic, but most of all a grandstanding winner.

Imagine the fall-out if he ever tests positive?

 

5 responses to “ONE TRICK PONY”

  1. Luciano Barra says:

    Thanks for the “intelectuals” !

    Luciano

  2. Butov Mikhail says:

    Very powerful and smart

  3. Guy McCallum says:

    Excellent aticle, Pat. Very lucide. Spot on.

  4. Richard Tuson says:

    Excellent article as always.

  5. Gerard Herens says:

    Great analysis! It does make you think…and despair.

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