As usual, it was left to the athletes to save the day at the IAAF World Championships in Qatar. They almost made it! They certainly weren’t getting much if any help from the IAAF, whose major input was imposing a torrid antipathetic venue like Doha in the first place. And that decision was almost certainly corrupt, the likely result of a large backhander to Papa Diack, son of disgraced former IAAF President Lamine Diack.
This is not exactly news, but my informed opinion on this score is fuelled by a conversation I had at the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore 2010, when I was button-holed by a leading Singapore official who asked if I knew Papa Diack. I barely had time to answer before he added, ‘because he’s just offered us (ie Singapore) the World Championships if we pay him five million dollars’.
This and other indiscretions may come to light if the 86 year old Lamine Diack ever makes it to court in Paris early next year on corruption charges. Papa Diack, meanwhile is holed up in the family hometown of Dakar, where the Senegalese authorities may even yet be wavering about refusing to extradite him, as they initially responded to French judicial requests.
The unsuitability of Doha as a venue was immediately exposed when almost half the women in the marathon failed to finish, despite the race beginning at the unconscionable time of midnight. And the facile excuse of introducing the sport to a new and different audience was shown up almost every day when a medium sized stadium, which had already had its capacity reduced considerably was still displaying wide-open spaces three quarters of the time. As Dina Asher-Smith’s mother acidly tweeted when her daughter set off on a lap of honour in front of around 1000 spectators after running a 10.83sec 100 metres’ national record, mom had seen more people at an age-group championships in Bedford.
It didn’t help that the anniversary of Ben Johnson’s bust in Seoul ’88 fell the day before Christian Coleman won the 100 metres gold. Reminders of Johnson’s bust always refer to it as a watershed moment for athletics. Nowadays, we don’t know where to look, there are so many breaches in the dyke. With such pointed pre-race publicity, that a man who only avoided a drugs related ban on a technicality and set a personal best of 9.76sec in winning was closely followed home in Doha by someone whose career record could be written on a medical pad only compounded the pervading sense of continuing perverted standards in elite athletics.
In a career spanning 20 years, silver medallist Justin Gatlin has won an Olympic title as far back as 2004, survived two drugs bans and a four year exclusion from the sport, only to come back and repeatedly run under 10sec for 100 metres – something that Johnson signally failed to do – then win a world title at 35 years of age, and run 9.89sec at 37. To misquote the great Tour de France cyclist Jacques Anquetil, it is difficult if not impossible to believe that Gatlin has achieved all this on no more than mineral water.
At least Flo-Jo had the good grace to retire after running 10.49sec, then winning the sprint double (and a relay medal) by a street in Seoul. But, given that the decision to reveal Johnson’s positive test was passed by just one vote of the Olympic council meeting in Seoul, the likelihood that Flo-Jo also failed a test and was told to retire, as she did six months later (forgoing millions in race fees and endorsements) rather than bust both sprint champions and blemish the Games irremediably, remains a favourite theory among insiders.
Speaking of unlikely performances by 37 year olds, the morning following the men’s sprint final in Doha, Kenenisa Bekele ran 2.01.41, just two seconds outside the world record in the Berlin marathon. Admittedly, Berlin is recognised as the fastest marathon course in the world, and Bekele is one of the all-time great distance runners, but for a man who had done little more than drop out of races in recent years, this again raises more questions than answers.
There was worse to come, if possible, with the suspension of celebrity coach Alberto Salazar after a lengthy investigation by WADA, the US anti-doping organisation. I think it is safe to say that no one in athletics is surprised by this ‘revelation’. Salazar has even admitted experimenting on at least one of his sons with testosterone in the past. A former marathon ‘great’ and long-term employee of the sportswear giant Nike, Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project (NOP) is part of a long-term (26 years) $460 million funding deal with the USA federation. Or as one of my US based colleagues observed, ‘Nike owns USA Track & Field’. Given UK Athletics’ close connections with both Salazar and Nike, the British administration is not far adrift. Within hours of the Salazar ban, Nike announced backing for his appeal.
The implications for anyone connected with Salazar and NOP are obvious, and no amount of bleating from the likes of Sir Mo Farah and Sifan Hassan and their supporters is going to disguise it. Farah’s multi-gold medal winning performances while under the aegis of Salazar, and Hassan’s frankly unbelievable 10,000/1500 metres double in Doha (having gone to Salazar when he was already under investigation by WADA) are forever going to be suspect.
IAAF connections with Nike and Salazar are also going to have long term ramifications, not least for current President Seb Coe, who can blame his predecessor for creating Doha 2019, but given that he assumed his presidency in Beijing 2015, when Eugene, Oregon was given the World Champs 2021 on the nod, ie without a contest, he had to be closely involved in the decision. Eugene is, of course, Nike’s backyard, where its founder Phil Knight went to university, and is just down the road from company HQ in Portland.
That Lord Coe had to shamed into forgoing his $100,000 per year Nike ‘ambassadorship’ when taking up the IAAF presidency was already extraordinary enough; and, indeed an object lesson. Even one IAAF insider was moved to say, ‘Why can’t he see it; it’s a massive conflict of interest?’
This sort of behaviour betrays the sense of entitlement at the top that has brought UK politics into the gutter, and made the country the laughing stock of Europe. As for the world stage, I suppose we Brits should be glad that Donald Trump is without peer in dispensing sewer politics. At least from that perspective, those of us who argue that sport is merely a mirror of the society it serves are right on the money.
A further point for those in the UK who criticise the BBCTV commentariat for going easy on Salazar and Coe, remember one thing, Gabby Logan is the only person on the team remotely justified in calling herself a journalist. As for the rest, the bottom line is just that – having paid whatever sum to buy the rights to screen Doha, BBCTV is not giving you a critical view of modern sport, it is selling you a product. BBC announced this morning that their product remains safely with them for the next two Championships.
Nevertheless, the last word must go to the majority of athletes in Doha, whose excellence shone out of the gloom. Dalilah Muhammad setting her second world record of the season, the elegant Stephen Gardiner lighting up the men’s 400 metres, the men shot putters splitting the medals by a single centimetre, and Mutaz Essa Barshim finally getting a few locals out to witness his successful title defence, to name but a few; and particularly for a UK audience, the sight of Dina Asher-Smith and Katerina Johnson-Thompson finally underlining their potential with world titles. All of those and many others contributed unforgettable moments.
The gold, so to speak, among all the dross.