Sebastian Coe facing a cultural revolution in athletics

After the worst week in the history of the sport, IAAF president Seb Coe faces the unenviable task of guiding athletics through crisis and ending the doping culture, writes Cathal Dennehy.

Sebastian Coe facing a cultural revolution in athletics

It seems, at last, the sport of athletics has reached rock bottom.

After a summer in which its reputation was battered by a succession of doping storms, this week’s revelations about systematic doping in Russia and allegations of corruption at the highest level of the IAAF arrived with the devastating force of a tsunami, washing away the remaining vestiges of its credibility.

As athletes, fans and followers of the sport sift through the wreckage, searching for answers, the conundrum now is how to recover.

“I think sometimes you have to burn something to the ground and rebuild it rather than paper over the cracks,” says Derval O’Rourke, who retired from international athletics last year. “I wasn’t hugely surprised when I found out. On the circuit, people were always talking, and there’s no way the people running the sport wouldn’t be hearing the same whispers. I was surprised at the level of corruption though.” At a hotel in Geneva on Monday, the extent of that corruption was laid bare by Dick Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who chaired an Independent Commission which revealed a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” in Russian athletics.

Perhaps more troubling was his admission that the report found “corruption and bribery practices at the highest levels of international athletics”, details of which were withheld as French police continue their investigation into former IAAF President Lamine Diack, who was arrested last Sunday over allegations he accepted bribes to cover up positive doping tests.

“If he’s done that, he’s absolute scum and should go to jail,” says Brian Murphy, who was part of the Irish 4x400m team at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing this year. “If it’s proven, it’s stunning.” Since his departure, the man tasked with cleaning up whatever mess was left behind by Diack is Sebastian Coe, who took over as IAAF president in August.

For some, Coe shines as a beacon of hope amid the gloom, a natural leader who makes all the right noises about fighting the scourge of doping.

For others, his words resound like the hollow political speak they’d expect of a former Tory MP, one who has been a member of the IAAF Council since 2003 and a vice-president since 2007. After winning the presidency in August, Coe praised Diack’s “shrewd stewardship” and spoke of his “great admiration” for the 82-year-old Senegalese, but had changed his tune in light of the allegations this week, which he described as “abhorrent”.

For Brian Murphy, Coe’s apparent ignorance of Diack’s conduct is hard to believe. “Anyone with any knowledge of the IAAF would have known [Diack] was a suspicious character,” he says. “Coe really wanted that job, and I’m not sure why you’d want it unless you really wanted to change things, but he has a hell of a lot to prove.” One of the first steps Coe took in response to Monday’s report was organising an IAAF council conference call yesterday evening, which resulted in Russia – which was shown to have operated a state- sponsored doping programme – being suspended from international athletics.

Having spent his entire career suspicious of Russian rivals, retired race walker Colin Griffin was not surprised at this week’s revelations. As far back as his first major international at the IAAF World Youth Championships in 1999, he can recall talk about the systematic doping in Russian race walking. “I don’t blame the athletes,” he says. “They did what they did, but the extent of the corruption was an eye-opener.” While Griffin admits that suspending Russia will hurt some innocent athletes, he believes it’s a necessary step. “If you look at (the state-sponsored doping in) East Germany during the 70s and 80s, they cleaned up a lot afterwards, and the same can happen in Russia. They just might have to pay the price for a year or two.” Others, though, feel the Russian suspension is the wrong approach.

“To single out one country is unfair,” says Michel Boeting, a Dutch agent who manages many top international athletes. “How can you ban a whole country for what a few people did? This is a problem that’s bigger than Russia, bigger than track and field.” Boeting believes that Coe can repair much of the damage done during Diack’s reign.

“I don’t think the problem is individuals using drugs or whether the testing system is good or bad,” he says. “The problem is the corruption and politics that goes with it.

“It doesn’t matter how much you test if there’s a corrupt system behind it.

“They need to hand over drug testing to someone who’s independent.” Over the last month, Boeting has seen positive changes brought about by Coe, who – through the creation of independent special advisory groups – has given a voice to those in the sport who previously went unheard.

“What happened this week will slow things down because he has to sort out a lot of shit,” says Boeting, “but the questions he’s asked to stakeholders in the sport within the few weeks he’s been our leader is more than Diack ever did. Coe can clear it up if he gets a chance.” For Griffin, that may require Coe to risk close friendships by rinsing the IAAF of any implicated parties. “His actions will speak louder than his words,” he says. “There needs to be a total clear-out of those involved in corruption or those who turned a blind eye to it before trust will be earned back.” Murphy would like Coe to move the anti-doping chase from one relying on testing to one guided by intelligence. Doping, he says, also needs to be disincentivised through longer bans and harsher financial punishments. If that is done, he believes the sport can regain not just its popularity, but its long-lost purity.

“Doping has killed our sport over the last few years, and it’s been in freefall, in terms of public exposure,” he says.

“If you have a pure sport, people will engage with it again, because they’ll believe what they see.”

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