Athletics doping crisis: Will Coe follow words with deeds?

FROM an Irish perspective, there is bitter irony in the fact that China is where former Olympic 1,500m champion Sebastian Coe won the race to be president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the body that governs world athletics.

Athletics doping crisis: Will Coe follow words with deeds?

The people of Cobh will never forget the China connection in the World Championship of 1993, when three unknown Chinese athletes swept past Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan, hot favourite to win gold in the 3,000 metres, dashing her hopes of gaining a medal of any colour.

As the story goes, they had prepared for that eventful race on a diet of turtle soup, thus sparking rumours of doping. Whether by coincidence, or whatever the explanation, soon after that astonishing performance, and a handful of similar victories in other races, the mystery deepened when it transpired that the three Chinese runners concerned vanished just as quickly as they had appeared, never to be heard of again on the international track-and-field scene.

Despite widespread allegations and strong suspicions of doping, none of the three runners was found by the authorities to have taken any performance-enhancing drugs. Obviously, turtle soup is mighty stuff.

This ironic Chinese link brings us back to the importance of Mr Coe’s victory at the IAAF meeting in Beijing. When he takes up the position at the end of the world championships — which begin on Saturday and run to the end of August in Beijing — the first task facing the former chairman of the London 2012 Olympics, who replaces 82-year-old Senegalese Lamine Diack, who was in charge for 16 years, will be to clean up the tarnished image of the athletics organisation.

In common with other drug-ridden sports, the athletics umbrella body has been accused recently of turning a blind eye to suspicions of widespread doping. The problem for Mr Coe is that he has aggressively defended the IAAF’s record on doping, claiming it had “led the way” by helping to weed out the cheats through out-of-competition testing and by introducing blood passports in 2009. Despite vowing to crack down on drugs, he has been accused by his critics of playing politics with doping in order to get the top job. They claim athletics spends a fraction fighting drugs compared to other sports.

However, following his election he said: “There is a zero tolerance to the abuse of doping in my sport and I will maintain that to the very highest level of vigilance.”

How often have such pledges been uttered and then broken by officialdom in other sports?

For her part, Sonia O’Sullivan is on record as regretting not raising questions and her voice about the legitimacy of some of the Chinese athletes who beat her when she was performing at the top of her game in the 1990s.

However, so focused on running was she, that she wanted to avoid the distraction of getting into a war of words about what they might be doing. Looking back, she adds: “In some ways, you kind of wish you were a bit more vocal and dug in a bit more.” Along with thousand of other genuine athletes, Sonia will be looking to Mr Coe to deliver on his pledge.

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