Wading through yet another report that reveals in jaw-dropping detail the level of corruption, cover-ups and general malfeasance at the heart of world athletics it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that the “roadmap to reform” unveiled by Sebastian Coe at the beginning of this week can possibly plot a way through the wreckage left by his utterly discredited predecessors.
Yet he continues on the one hand to defend defiantly the work of the anti-doping unit that was accused by the Sunday Times last summer of failing to follow up on suspicious blood values while at the same time betraying his anger at those who perverted it for their own ends. It is a high-wire act that is dangerously close to ending in disaster.
The wheels of justice have turned slowly in the 20 months since Sean Wallace-Jones, the senior manager of road running at the IAAF, first took the Liliya Shobukhova case to Michael Beloff’s independent ethics commission. It is not fashionable at present to give Lord Coe much credit for anything but if he had not been one of those who pushed for an independent ethics commission in the first place we might not be here at all.
While all this has been playing out there have been those at the heart of the IAAF machine who insist they were good people doing their best in an imperfect system. They clung to the hope that a change of regime would act as a fire break for the raging flames threatening to burn the sport to the ground.
Some hope. With each fresh development, it appears more difficult for Coe to leap free of a past to which – like it or not – he remains bound. He has endlessly argued that he was barely involved in the IAAF in the years running up to the London Olympics despite being a vice-president, so complete was his focus on delivering a successful Games.
But, notwithstanding the fact there were three years between the Olympics closing ceremony and Coe assuming the mantle of IAAF president, he seems to have at times exhibited an alarming lack of curiosity about the inner workings of the organisation he had long aspired to take over.
Shortly after winning the race to succeed Diack (and those excrutiating press conferences at which he hailed Diack and thanked him for his “unflinching support and wise counsel”), Coe addressed his staff in Monaco. “We must ensure we are an organisation fit for purpose,” he declared. “Two members of our senior management team are already known, Nick Davies will be the director of the president’s office and Huw Roberts will serve as the IAAF’s senior counsel.”
Davies was this week appearing before the ethics commission himself after agreeing to step down days before Christmas following the emergence of an email that showed he appeared to be liaising with Papa Massata Diack over whether to suppress news of sanctioned Russian athletes before the 2013 Moscow world championships.
Some will now ask Roberts why he did not take his pressing concerns over the failure to sanction Russian athletes outside the IAAF, rather than repeatedly confronting Lamine Diack and threatening to resign (which he eventually did in 2014, over two years later).
He – like Davies – might argue he had no inkling of the scale of the corruption above his head and was doing the best he could for the sport within a far from perfect system. Outsiders might wonder why he didn’t pick up the phone to someone outside the building.
Thomas Capdevielle, the man who now heads the IAAF’s anti-doping efforts and sat alongside Coe during his three-hour scattergun interrogation by a parliamentary select committee last month, admits in his evidence that it was “unusual and inappropriate” for Habib Cissé, the French lawyer who along with Papa Massata Diack appears to be at the heart of so much that went wrong, to take over the case management of the Russian blood doping cases. Yet it was late 2012 – after he had watched with shock and horror as Shobukhova competed in first London then Chicago – before he took his concerns to Roberts.
Beyond individuals, the question is one of culture. As at Fifa, can those who laboured for so long in the shadow of what is now revealed to be a horrifically corrupt regime possibly instil the sort of rigour and transparency required to rehabilitate it?
Coe has since admitted that the “walls were too high”. Did no one think about trying to breach them? Or wonder what on earth was going on behind them? Coe reacted with genuine horror to the news that Diack Sr had been implicated by French police. Should he have been so shocked?
It will get worse yet. Next week Dick Pound will produce the second part of his Wada-commissioned independent report into the whole sorry saga. If the first unveiled state-sponsored corruption in Russia on a previously unimaginable scale, the second will train its sights on the IAAF. The French police investigation continues.
It remains completely implausible that Shobukhova was the only Russian athlete involved in the cover up scheme, that athletics was the only sport in Russia with a problem or that Russia is the only country with an issue. Meanwhile, IAAF inspectors set off for Russia next week in the first step towards deciding whether they should be allowed back into international competition in time for the Olympics. The idea of Russian athletes marching around the track feels increasingly untenable.
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