January 14th occasioned anticipation on the order of the Second Coming for track fans and athletes. Indeed, it was the second revelation (press conference) of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s independent investigative commission, headed by former WADA director Dick Pound.
Two months earlier, Pound et al had torn through Russian Athletics, taking names, kicking ass, and laying bare state-sponsored doping, destruction of blood samples, bribery, coercion, a carnival of corruption. Finally, thought the long-suffering people of the lightweight trainer, an insider with clout and the guts to speak truth—our savior has come! Very lean people everywhere wept. Pound really whipped the congregants into a frenzy when he advertised that part two of his revelations, dealing with the International Association of Athletics Federations’ involvement in Russia’s sins, would make chapter one pale in comparison. Presser #2 would have a “wow factor” Pound promised the already wowed disciples.
Enraptured followers surmised that, with past IAAF president Lamine Diack and his henchmen under criminal investigation and Russian athletics banned from major competition, current president and long-time student of Diack, Sepp Blatter and other criminals Sebastian Coe was about to get a public Pound-ing, a routing of the whole nest of them there in Monaco quite possible. A real housecleaning seemed imminent. Under the circumstances, it was puzzling to see Lord Coe amongst the journalists at the conference—didn’t he know he was about to be exposed?
Pound started down the road to the promised land, reading off in flat, measured tones a litany of bribery and extortion of athletes by Diack and company, a stinking sack of poo Pound said “no one in the IAAF executive council could have been unaware of.” He said this knowing that Coe was a member of that council as IAAF vice-president. And Pound rehashed how very bad the Russians were.
But pretty quickly, the excitement in the press conference leveled off. Anxious viewers were still waiting for fresh revelations (nothing was revealed that was not already outed in the November press conference), and for the promised “wow factor,” when Pound wrapped up his comments and opened the floor to questions. He’d reported actions by the IAAF that violated its own and WADA’s code, but stopped short of saying the words, The IAAF is in violation of its sworn code of conduct and therefore should be banned. He said the council could not have been unaware of the corruption, but he never uttered the words, Lord Coe knew of this rot but did nothing about it. He came agonizingly, puzzlingly close, but didn’t deliver the coup de grace. That was a little disappointing.
Then, at about 32 minutes into the coverage, Dick Pound, truth talker, the savior of athletics, sold his soul, or at least, paid the bill. A journalist asked if, given the damning evidence Pound had just reported, did he feel Seb Coe was the right man to lead the foundering organization out of its filth. Without visibly changing character or growing cloven hooves, Pound replied that he couldn’t think of a better man than Lord Coe for the job. He heartily and consistently endorsed the guy who had only the day before denied all the nefarious goings-on Pound subsequently revealed. Coe sat in the audience calmly.
Question: Given what you’ve said about the IAAF Council and that it must’ve known what was going on, do you believe Lord Coe’s leadership of the IAAF remains tenable?
Pound: We have, as you probably know, other than the athletes that were extorted, not descended to any individual athletes or sports officials. We were careful to point out that the Council could not have been unaware of the situation, and we hold to that. But as far as the ability of Lord Coe to remain at the head of the IAAF, I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for the IAAF to seize this opportunity and under strong leadership to move forward after this thing. There is an enormous amount of reputaional recovery that has to occur here, and I can’t think of anybody better than Lord Coe to lead that. All of our fingers are crossed in that respect.
It was surreal, appalling, unbelievable. I thought I must’ve had a stroke, and wondered what duress Pound could have been under to perform such a grotesque display of betrayal and self-mockery. Almost unfathomably, heavyweight media institutions like the New York Times and athletes like middle distance runner Lauren Fleshman—who have been critical of this very sort of institutional crazy talk—got behind Pound’s endorsement of Coe. In throwing their lot with the devil they know, they proffered the ridiculous, hopeless assumption that nobody else on earth could lead the IAAF ethically. Nothing, not one thing, that anyone who uses cutlery has witnessed over the past year would support the misguided fantasy that Coe has any desire to clean up the sport.
“I think the pressure may have been brought by the IOC [International Olympic Committee], because that is the ultimate ‘family,’” said Ross Tucker, a Professor of Exercise Physiology and frequent research consultant to world sports organizations, who has also had some professional dealings with the IOC.
Paunchy, ring-kissing men in the corner offices of world sports look out for each other in a way that brings to mind the Sicilian business model. Remember that the very greasy Seb Coe, who sees no conflict of interest in being on Nike’s payroll while the head of track and field, and whose reaction to the exposé of massive Russian doping and bribery was to blame the whistleblowers, was also on FIFA’s ethics board (lol) as that organization was overrun by rampant corruption. This corruption completely eluded Coe and the rest of the ethics board.
To be clear, anti-doping—Dick Pound’s baileywick—should be and is separate from sports federations, as often their missions conflict. Federations seek the highest scores, fastest times, and most medals, sometimes achieved with the help of PEDs. It’s very difficult to both a member of the family of sports insiders and the watchdog. But Dick Pound, the fox guarding the henhouse, has straddled this line for a long time.
“The IAAF, remember, is by far the most powerful organization in the Olympic Games,” Tucker continued. “The Games ARE athletics. Swimming, gymnastics, yeah. But the main stadium is built expressly for track and field. Its tickets are most expensive, broadcast rights the highest. It’s the cornerstone of the Games. There’s no way the IOC family would allow this [IAAF] scandal to affect that. Not in a million years. The IAAF is too big to fail.”
“WADA, the IOC, IAAF—they’re all intimately linked somehow. What I suspect happened is that at some point, the reality of the repercussions [of Pound’s committee’s investigation] must have dawned on someone, either Pound himself or those within the IOC.”
Pound, a lawyer by trade, represented Canada in swimming at the 1960 Olympics, and later served on the Canadian Olympic Committee. In 1978 he jumped to the IOC and served on the executive committee there for 16 years, the key to the backslapping insider’s club. But Pound has always been a little too prickly, a little too fond of his high and mighty ethics. At the IOC he was a vocal advocate for stronger drug testing, and particularly critical of USA Track & Field. This is the sort of behavior that makes the family nervous—either you’re in or you’re out, there’s no in between. Distancing himself from his pals at the IOC, Pound helped found the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999, and served as its first president. So the sport’s watchdog was founded by an IOC insider and originally received 100% of its funding from the IOC.
“Pound, who is very much part of that family, though I suspect is a conflicted member of it, would have been under pressure, perhaps overt, explicit, perhaps subtle, to manage the fall-out,” said Tucker. “I don’t know how that pressure was applied, nor by who. Could it be the IOC president, [Thomas] Bach? Would it be the head of WADA, IOC and Pound, together with Coe, talking about the ramifications of a decision? Could be anything. Financial pressure? Maybe. Maybe Pound was just held hostage by his desire to remain involved.”
“Part of managing that fall-out meant backing Coe, to maintain stability and keep the status quo, and certainly avoiding the uncomfortable reality that the IAAF are very much in violation of the WADA code.”
Sometime between Pound’s release of the first and second parts of his investigation, Dick Pound saw the light. He had a vision of what he must do: Protect the family. Even if that meant contradicting himself from one second to the next, even if that meant sacrificing those morals he’s fought to hold onto, even if that meant saying he thought Lord Coe was the best man for the job without gagging the tiniest bit. And even if it meant betraying all of the simple idiots who actually believed he’d clean house, who actually believed clean sport is possible.
“There’s astonishing hypocrisy, but the IAAF is too big to fall,” said Tucker. “And that’s what I think got into Dick Pound. He took the audit 99% of the way, and maybe had intentions of going 100%, but he couldn’t take the final step because it threatened the very foundation of the fraternity.”
photo credit: AP