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Sebastian Coe faces a monumental task in cleaning up athletics

Reuters/Toby Melville

Sebastian Coe faces a monumental task in cleaning up athletics

Reuters/Toby Melville

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 furthest are some of the most fundamental asked in any physical competition. The disciplines were at the heart of the ancient Olympics and it’s hard to argue that any events capture the imagination at the modern Games quite like track and field.

But the allegations raised by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report on November 9, of widespread and systematic doping, collusion and cover-up, are as far removed from the Olympic spirit as can be imagined. It is not too dramatic to say that they have rocked athletics to its core and it is is going to take a long time before it fully recovers. In fact, it is quite likely that things are going to get worse, quite plausibly much worse, before they get better.

Dick Pound, the former president of WADA, has published the report of his investigation into allegations by a German TV programme that Russian athletes have systematically been taking performance enhancing drugs. Even more damning, the report alleges that the Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF) has been just as systematically helping them to cover their tracks.

Everyone knew this report was in the works and that ARAF was going to have some explaining to do, but no one quite expected it to come up with the high-octane recommendations that they did.

Among other things, Pound calls for Russian athletes and coaches to be suspended from international competition. The report also promises further revelations once criminal investigations in France into alleged corruption by the former president of the IAAF, Lamine Diack, are completed. This story will clearly not be going away any time soon.

A long time coming

The IAAF, the sport’s governing body, has itself got plenty of explaining to do. It has been accused of accepting “cheating at all levels” and of being “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.

The report’s main ire was directed at the ARAF and associated bodies but WADA pulled no punches when claiming that the corruption goes far beyond one rogue federation. It’s become so bad that the IAAF is in danger of making scandals in world football look like petty misdemeanours.

Sebastian Coe faces his biggest challenge yet.. Reuters

How did athletics get itself into this state? It is not as if doping allegations are anything new. And athletics has 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, while the biggest doping case of them all – involving 100m sprinter Ben Johnson – sent shockwaves through not just athletics but the whole of world sport. The evidence was there for the guardians of the sport to find. Yet the IAAF never quite saw fit to look.

Outspoken critics such as the UK’s Paula Radcliffe, marathon world record holder, 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 has tried to wish away its problems.

Cleaning up a dirty sport

Where does the IAAF go from here? The initial responses of IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, have indicated that he is at least 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. If the IAAF doesn’t go on record as realising that the situation is terrible, then reform will be impossible.

Coe will also be well aware that if Russia and its athletes go down, then they are very likely to take others with them. We don’t know who else is implicated in this, but if others have transgressed, the Russians won’t take the fall for them.

Successful anti-corruption drives always have a strong leadership dimension to them. In Coe, the IAAF has a leader with a reputation not just for integrity, but for getting things done. While some are questioning Coe’s judgement it appears that he now has a chance to show that he can take control of the situation – and he will need every ounce of the good will that he brings with him to push reforms through.

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.

The IAAF has to create institutional structures that have transparent processes at their core. There must be clear lines of accountability and rigorous monitoring. Drug-testing centres, in particular, need to be beyond reproach. 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 Coe and those around him will be able to rise to the challenge remains to be seen. He used to win athletics 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 has been 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.