The corruption at the top of track and field and the institutionalized doping miasma makes me tired. It’s supposed to. If it is ugly and confusing enough, lousy with unintelligible acronyms, most observers will just say, The hell with it, they’re all juiced to the gills, and most athletes will say, I’ve got a tempo run, strength, physio, and a blog to write before noon—guess I’ll get to that. But fixing it requires understanding what went wrong, and how.
Take a deep breath and into the mess we go.
In August British newspaper The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD aired a documentary based on a leaked International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, the world headquarters of track and field) database. The doc alleged that, “a third of medals in endurance races at Olympics and world championships were won by athletes who have recorded suspicious blood readings.”
Well, that’s pretty embarrassing, for a couple of reasons. The news was outed by journalists, not the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) who presumably performed or at least saw the test results before handing them over to the IAAF. And since the abnormal test results came from the IAAF database, it seems the IAAF had information but failed to issue any bans or suspensions.
The two agencies responded to this bombshell quite differently. WADA formed an independent commission, headed by a former WADA director, Canadian Dick Pound, to investigate just what the hell was going on, even if it meant digging up some unattractive things about their own agency. The new president of IAAF, knighted Brit Seb Coe, attacked the journalists for hating on the sport of track and field, and vowed to fight, not to find the truth, but to defend the IAAF’s proud tradition of opacity.
Former president of the IAAF, Lamine Diack (who stepped down in August because he is 82 years old, or because he saw the shit hitting the fan) was arrested Monday in Monaco on charges of accepting €1 million in bribes to cover up positive drug tests, as well as money laundering. Or, to put it another way: known dopers were allegedly allowed to compete in the 2012 Olympics because they bribed the then-president of to the tune of €1 million.
Also rounded up in the dragnet were Diack’s legal advisor Habib Cisse, and the head of IAAF’s anti-doping department, Dr. Gabriel Dolle. This AFP graphic is going to be incredibly helpful:
The same day Diack was arrested, the independent commission formed by WADA released the findings of their investigation. It was “worse than we thought,” said Pound. Focusing on Russian athletics like the original Sunday Times/ARD documentary, the commission found comprehensive state-sponsored doping—stuff you associate with the USSR in the 1960s—progressing unabated.
The commission found, in addition to the Russian arm of WADA, the city of Moscow paid for a secret drug testing lab. Letsrun.com’s summary of the commission’s report notes that “the Moscow anti-doping lab covered doping positives in return for cash payments” and “a second ‘shadow’ lab in Moscow, paid for by the city, helped athletes not test positive.”
There are still many unknowns, the biggest of which is how positive drug tests or abnormal blood values ever made it out of the shadowy underground Russian system into the IAAF’s hands. Were the bribes not sufficient; did an increasing number of people stick their hands out? The thing about greed is it’s never enough.
But beyond the systemic, state-sponsored doping, the report reinforced how much it sucks to be a Russian athlete. Here’s Competitor.com:
According to previous reports, [disgraced marathoner Liliya] Shobukhova claimed she and her husband paid the Russian federation prior to the 2012 Olympic in three separate installments after being threatened that she “could have problems”—i.e., she failed a doping test—and be forced to miss the London Games. German broadcaster ARD reported last year that when Shobukhova was handed her two-year ban by the Russian federation in April 2014, her husband received a 300,000 euro ($370,000) refund, adding it had linked the transfer to Russian federation president Valentin Balakhnichev, who is also the IAAF treasurer.
And here’s The Guardian:
But [Moscow lab director Grigory] Rodchenkov was not an innocent party. As the independent commission revealed he was an integral part of the conspiracy to extort money from athletes in order to cover up positive results. Staggeringly he was also involved in “the intentional and malicious destruction” of 1,417 samples to deny evidence for the inquiry. A shadow laboratory that covered up positive doping results by destroying samples was also set up by the Russian state.
It’s not awfully surprising then, that the WADA commission called for a lifetime ban on five Russian athletes, including Olympic gold and bronze medalists, and five coaches. The commission also asked the IAAF to ban all Russian athletes from future competition, including the 2016 Olympics.
What the commission didn’t do was reveal information about the Russia-Lamine Diack connection, because that information is part of an ongoing criminal investigation into Diack and his henchmen. We’ll hear about it later, but in the meantime rats are fleeing the sinking ship, and the International Olympic Committee quickly suspended Diack’s honorary IOC membership.
It’s gratifying to see WADA take this seriously and conduct an apparently rigorous investigation, as it indicates a will to reform and restore some modicum of transparency and trust. But just as WADA can only pass test results and make recommendations to IAAF—they don’t have the authority to issue bans—so too, the commission can reveal this corruption and make recommendations, but it’s up to the IAAF to suspend athletes or ban Russia from athletics competitions. Consider this.
Current IAAF head Seb Coe, who’s in charge of this track and field reformation, cut his teeth in the business of politics by chairing the first-ever oxymoronic FIFA ethics committee, and by sitting at Lame Dick’s feet as IAAF vice-president since 2007. In neither of these roles did Coe detect even a whiff of wrongdoing. Whether that is because of incompetence or corruption is unknown, but either way, thumbs up!
The same easygoing, happy Coe who failed to detect any wrongdoing at FIFA or Diack’s IAAF has also refused to give up his Nike paycheck—because there is absolutely no conflict of interest in the head of the international track and field advising Nike on how to make money in track and field. This is the mahatma who says he is going to lead the IAAF out of darkness into the light. It’s almost as if, with Sepp Blatter leaving FIFA, Coe decided to seize the mantle of most comically inept international sports leader.
There is nothing wrong with the sport of track and field. Athletes are still doing lung-searing intervals, hills ‘til they puke, and mile after 18th mile. And yes, some will try to cheat; that’s a fact of virtually any sport. Drug testing and the biological passport system, while often maligned, was, from the commission’s report, actually quite effective when allowed to work. It’s what happened, or didn’t happen, to those test results once handed to the IAAF that’s problematic.
The sport’s governing body is rotten, and some member federations are taking their cues from the top. Our own red, white, and Nike-bought USATF bends the rules to suit, continues to hire drug cheats as coaches, and turn the other way whenever Nike and cheating are mentioned in the same sentence. That doesn’t stop them from jumping on the Crucify Russia bandwagon, of course.
In a perfect world, there would be running clubs and athletes’ associations that looked out for the interests of athletes, not their own pocketbooks. Independent watchdog labs would have the funding they need, maybe by selling those pricey IAAF offices in Monaco, and Seb Coe and company would have a bake sale to fund their stay at the Motel 8 Rio de Janeiro.
But don’t worry, Vladamir Putin is on the case. He’s got a vision for a perfect world too.
photo credit: GettyImages.com