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Why Sebastian Coe must form a truth commission on doping in athletics

Man of the hour. Reuters/Jason Lee

Why Sebastian Coe must form a truth commission on doping in athletics

Sebastian Coe, the newly elected president of the world governing body for athletics, will have little time to reflect on his victory. Although much media comment has focused on the prevalence of doping in the sport, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is also in relatively poor financial health.

This year’s annual review of IAAF finances shows revenues of just US$60m. Contrast that to FIFA which in the four years leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil brought in total revenues of US$5,718m Athletics’ major annual event, the largely European-based Diamond League, does not have a headline sponsor.

Coe will also face the problem that the sport’s principal asset, which is the global marketing and licensing rights for its World Championship events, have already been signed away in 2014 to a Japanese company Dentsu for a relatively modest sum of £11m pounds a year until 2019 and £14m pounds annually over the following decade. The longevity and exclusivity of that deal, entered into by Coe’s predecessor Lamine Diack can, at best, be described as naïve.

Doping shadow

The IAAF’s annual financial report for 2014/2015 was presented just prior to the announcement of Coe’s presidential victory. On stage was Valentin Balakhnichev, the former Russian athletics federation chief, who was supposed to have stepped down in February in the wake of claims of systemic doping by Russia athletes.

Russia was also at the centre of some astonishing doping-related claims in recent weeks by the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR after they had obtained access to the results of 12,000 blood tests from 5,000 athletes between 2001 and 2012.

The review of the tests suggested that Russia remains “the blood testing epicentre of the world”. The Sunday Times claims “80% of the country’s medals won by suspicious athletes”, while Kenya had 18 medals won by athletes “judged to have had suspicious blood test results”. The tests also appeared to reveal that a third of medals (146, including 55 golds) in endurance events at the Olympics and World Championships between 2001 and 2012 were won by athletes who have recorded “abnormal”.

More recently still, the Sunday Times suggested that the IAAF had sought to suppress a study suggesting that one-third of athletes surveyed at the 2011 World Champions had engaged in doping practices within the previous 12 months.

The IAAF has countered that the Sunday Times’ claims are sensationalist and the the methodology used in the 2011 survey was questionable. The federation has been forced to admit that 28 athletes who competed at the 2005 and 2007 World Championships have returned “adverse findings” from retested samples.

Generational change

The corrosive nature of these doping claims present huge difficulties for Coe. Similar to the difficulties posed for professional cycling, the sport has to prove a negative – that its participants are not doping nor are the many guilty by association to the few.

Coe’s manifesto presented a typically “governance”-related solution: promoting the establishment of an independent anti-doping unit within the IAAF; greater cooperation with the World Anti-Doping Agency; more targeted out-of-competition testing of athletes and greater emphasis on the education of younger athletes.

But it is these younger athletes who Coe will struggle to convince. Recent events seem to suggest that doping can no longer be dismissed summarily as being a deviant behaviour. This has a demoralising impact on those who might be attracted to the sport as elite participants and also as elite sponsors.

Time for truth

Golden boy. PA

Coe was a two-time Olympic Champion, winning the 1,500 meters at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. In 1980 he had been the warm favourite for the 800 meters but, having run what he subsequently described as the worst tactical race of his life, he finished second. In the days that followed, Coe took severe criticism from the British media and more personally still from his coach, who happened to be his father. Coe reflected on his mistakes, learned from them and ran brilliantly four days later to win the 1,500 meters gold.

In some way he must now do the same. Coe might think of establishing a truth commission on the doping ethos in athletics. Such a commission might have to be underpinned by amnesties – where unpalatable truths about athletics would be told by unpalatable people for what many would perceive as unpalatable forgiveness. Nevertheless, a greater sporting good would be served by a truth commission.

There is no doubt that doping is corroding the sporting credibility and financial viability of world athletics. As George Orwell said, in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. Will Seb Coe be revolutionary?