I don’t know Sebastian Coe. I’ve never met the man and most likely never will.
I did, however, grow up idolizing him for his athletics prowess.
In high school, I watched endless videos of his Olympic and world-record races, marveling at his elegant, yet powerful stride. From Running Free to The Perfect Distance, I delved into books about his running accolades and storied rivalry with Ovett. As I became more interested in training, his father’s books—Winning Running and Better Training for Distance Runners—became bibles to me. In fact, the latter was one of the inspirations to write my own book.
But this column isn’t about my idolization of Seb Coe the athlete; instead it’s about the governing body which he has been elected to lead—the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF)—and their reaction to a recent documentary by German broadcaster ARD revealing that 12,000 leaked blood tests suggest one-third of the medals awarded in the distance events at the world championships and Olympics from 2001-2012 went to athletes with suspicious results that are “highly suggestive of doping” according to experts.
The IAAF and Coe issued stern responses, digging their heels in
to defend their organization (and athletics as a sport) regardless of the
outcome. The IAAF in particular appears more concerned with who leaked the blood passport data—they’ve called in the police—rather than the actual claims made in the documentary.
Their response was to attack the messengers, as Coe came out swinging at the journalist in the name of “my sport.” It’s sad (and very telling) that his first
instinct was to look at the journalism as an attack on the sport. If the
journalism was an attack, individual’s names would have been named from the get go in order to get the greatest response. Instead, the blood passport data was simply revealed to show the vast problem of doping in “our sport.” In fact, the vast majority of the documentary used interviews from Russia and Kenya to show the depth the doping issue.
The IAAF and Coe completely missed the point by focusing on the
leaking of blood passport data. It’s not about the leaking of data. Quite honestly, very few people should have anything to worry about if they followed the letter of the law and did not try to skirt the rules—but that’s beside the point.
The point of the documentary wasn’t to leak data. It was to show the extent of the doping problem in track & field.
Finally, and perhaps most disappointing, Coe pulled the “so-called”
adjective card in the same manner his friend, Alberto Salazar, did in his attack on the journalism I was involved with as part of the BBC and ProPublica reports on allegations involving the Oregon Project. In his diatribe, Salazar called respected ProPublica journalist David Epstein and the BBC “so-called journalists,” In the same manner Seb Coe has repeatedly called two very well-respected researchers “so-called scientists.” Both of these researchers were heavily involved in setting up and evaluating the blood passport system in their own research. To me, this was the most telling aspect of his response. I’ll leave the analysis of Salazar and Coe’s responses to those versed in psychology, but any time you start attacking the messenger instead of the data or the message, it’s usually not a good thing.
Attacked researcher Michael Ashenden countered brilliantly and demonstrated that he understood the point of the documentary. It wasn’t to name names and shame the IAAF, instead it was simple. Are you protecting clean athletes. Ashenden remarked: “So I would pose the same question to you. Does the IAAF pursue its anti-doping mandate with the same single-minded, all-consuming dedication that athletes adopt in their pursuit of winning? Based on what I saw in the leaked database, my view is No.”
If we completely ignore the allegations surrounding the blood passport numbers, the documentary is still damning. There is even more evidence (and taped recordings) of top Russian athletes talking about their drug usage. Add to that the part where a couple journalists go to Kenya and find that EPO is easily accessible through several doctors, along with reports of athlete deaths due to said usage. Can you hear the alarm bells? Something isn’t right here. Our sport has a problem.
At one point, I had faith that Coe might be the man to tear apart the bureaucracy that engulfs track & field at every level. I thought that maybe some fresh blood from someone who spent years in the trenches and saw the injustices would be able to come in and save the sport many of us love so dearly.
Coe’s comments and retaliation speak of someone not truly concerned with supporting clean athletes and the integrity of the sport.
Perhaps I’m looking at the situation through a biased lens, but his responses to the recent ARD documentary and the BBC and Pro-Publica reports surrounding the Oregon Project have left me underwhelmed. He seems more likely to hold the bureocratic party line and stick with friends rather than step back and attempt to be truly independent, looking out for the sport’s best interests.
Coe, the IAAF and the rest of the bureaucracy in track &
field are missing the point. The goal should always be to protect the clean athletes. By protecting the clean athletes, you protect the integrity of the sport—integrity is sacrosanct and above everything else. And right now, they are failing. Miserably.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Look no further than New Zealand’s Nick Willis, whose 2008 Olympic bronze medal in the 1500m was upgraded to silver when Rashid Ramzi’s gold medal was stripped following failed a drug test, stating that “at this stage sadly, all of us should be suspected. We must make every effort to create a reason for fans to believe otherwise.”
Similarly, Olympic Champion Robert Harting went as far as unleashing the social media campaign #HitIAAF about his frustrations with his governing body not protecting clean athletes. Or look at 3-time Olympic race walking medalist Jared Tallent of Australia, who said, ”I definitely feel let down by the IAAF. I contacted them earlier this year about the case of some Russian walkers that were competing while they were banned. The IAAF said they were going to investigate it, and clearly they had enough evidence, but nothing was done.”
When athletes like Willis comment they’re “not surprised by
any of it, but glad that the masses will now see how bad it is,” in
regards to the German ARD documentary, there is a problem. It’s people like Willis, Harting, and Tallent who have been competing in the sport long enough at the highest level that they’ve seen the inner workings and the drug problem surrounding it. There are many more high level athletes screaming of outrage, lack of care or intervention from bureaucracies, and so much more, and that’s the issue.
Unlike cycling, where there was a feeling of omerta, or code of silence in regard to doping, in track and field we have actual world-class athletes speaking out and pleading for something to be done. Yet, the governing bodies seem to be sending the opposite message.
When governing bodies name former suspended drug cheats as
coaches of world championships teams (like USATF has done with Dennis Mitchell and others), the message you are sending isn’t one that says you support a clean sport. When you have the potential future head of the IAAF childishly dismissing two acclaimed researchers that they don’t know what they’re doing instead of listening and looking at the data and what it means, there is a problem. When you have sponsors and national governing bodies continuing to support coaches who have had five or more athletes that have tested positive under their supervision, the message isn’t one that says you care about the integrity of the sport.
That might not be true—I’m not sure—but the message getting sent to athletes worldwide from top to bottom is that sponsors and governing bodies just don’t care. And if that’s the message that continues to be sent, it’s setting us up for a very dark and dismal sport. When you fail to protect clean athletes, the integrity of the sport is doomed.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Step outside of the
insulated world of athletics and look at what some of the best athletes in the sport are telling you. That should be enough. They’re crying for help and change, begging for their governing bodies to protect their ability to perform clean, and you’re letting them down.