Coe-incidence: Our saviour never far from sporting murk

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Tim Hutchings: Cross country and me
May 20, 2016
Athletes compete in the South of England Athletics Association cross country championships at Parliament Hills Fields, London, UK, on 30 January 2016
On the run with… Jonny Hay
May 21, 2016

Coe-incidence: Our saviour never far from sporting murk

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Following Steve Cram’s interview with Lord Coe broadcast on BBC1 last month, our editor-at-large was royally flabbergasted and wrote this scathing piece just a couple of days later

‘It’s been an enlightening few days’ concludes Steve Cram at the end of his thirty-minute propaganda film for Sebastian Coe’s Presidency of the IAAF

If it had been so enlightening for him, it is an awful shame that it wasn’t shared with his viewers. Indeed, the title question: ‘Can Seb Coe Save Athletics?’ had been answered in the relentlessly sycophantic coverage of the great man’s ascension to the post.

Seemingly forgetting that their own journalists had contributed to the stench of scandal that surrounds the President, the producers of this excuse for an investigation opted to leave out every single dissenting voice.

Indeed, Cram made no secret of the fact that he knew Lord Coe well and – given his prior proclamations of the man’s virtue – it can come as no surprise that Coe was never once stretched. At the end of it, about all we were able to glean was that the ‘Saviour’ thinks a longer track season and a Twitter account will answer the sport’s systemic troubles.

When Coe explained that he had handled the Nike conflict really rather well and that the issue never came up during his more public organisation of the London Olympics, Cram nodded along. That was alright then.

‘About all we were able to glean was that the ‘Saviour’ thinks a longer track season and a Twitter account will answer the sport’s systemic troubles’

The issue of Eugene’s successful and unopposed bid to host the World Athletics Championships in 2021 was not seen as relevant by Cram. How had a town with a smaller population than Milton Keynes succeeded in landing the rights to host one of the biggest sporting competitions in world sport unopposed?

Had the fact that Coe was a paid advisor for Nike (whose headquarters happen to be in Eugene) helped in any way? Are the reports true that he sent an email supporting the bid true? Why were Eugene allowed to be unopposed? All legitimate questions that could’ve been asked, but Cram wasn’t interested.

When Coe made reference to an ‘Ethics Committee’ that had been set up in the wake of rumours prior to the shocking revelations coming from WADA’s 2015 report, Cram didn’t trouble him for details. Nor was any reference made to Coe’s disastrous stint as the head of FIFA’s ethics committee. Happily for him – having spotted the enormous iceberg right ahead – he fled that particular ship before it went down.

That’s the problem with Lord Coe. He is never far from sporting murk. Thankfully, Coe never got caught up in the doping scandals of the 1980s. He did – however – stay silent as the vile and totally corrupt Juan Antonia Samaranch willfully covered up the extent of doping at the two Games where Coe prospered.

As Samaranch endangered the very existence of the Olympic movement, Coe turned the other way and remained loyal to the end. When the embattled, racist man died in 2010, Coe described him as ‘a dear friend’.

‘All these were legitimate questions that could’ve been asked, but Cram wasn’t interested’

Of course, this ‘new broom’ at the IAAF had actually been the Vice President of the fiasco for 7 years prior to his promotion. How had he not spotted all the scandal? Unfortunately, said Coe, ‘the walls were just too high’ for him and his colleagues to climb over and investigate.

Cram neglected to mention the fact that many of the walls had been built by IAAF insiders themselves; that the very reason for the mess was that the Executive Committee he had served on sat and twiddled their thumbs as outright criminality took place all around them.

How is it possible that Coe hadn’t spotted this? ‘There are rumours all the time,’ His Lordship confidently affirmed. Shame these rumours turned out to be true then.

Coe was most animated when defending the IAAF’s doping record. He is clearly still furious that some journalists had ‘infiltrated’ the organisation and revealed the truth about what was going on. The IAAF, Coe argued, had ‘led the way’ on catching cheats.

Unfortunately, it now seems that they were quite good at ‘catching’ them, but less good at actually telling anyone about it. Cram wasn’t interested in this minor technicality and so Coe continued. ‘If you want to catch fish, you have to go fishing’ said with all the confidence of a man who had just reinvented the wheel.

 ”The walls were just too high’ for Coe and his colleagues to climb over and investigate’

Apparently the IAAF have been the best anglers in world sport and we shouldn’t forget that. They pioneered the blood passports and other testing methods. There was now a root and branch change being conducted within the organisation. Of course, the only reason that is happening is because some plucky journalists got hold of a story and wouldn’t let it go – it was nothing to do with the IAAF’s own detection.

Talking of blood passports, Paula Radcliffe seized the opportunity to jump onto the moral high ground once more. Cram wasn’t much bothered about the question marks that hung over her head for most of last year. Or why she calls for ‘trust and transparency’ but doesn’t feel the need to open up any of her own blood data in spite of many of her peers doing so.

She was in no doubt that Coe was the man to lead the sport forward – and why wouldn’t she be? She’s been handed a nice job helping him out.

Throughout the excruciating ‘chat’ between Cram, Radcliffe and the Good Lord at a Monaco café, no mention was made of therapeutic use exemptions – the major unspoken issue to blight all elite sport.

If trust is really to be restored, shouldn’t we know exactly what is fuelling each and every athlete, illegal and legal? If such endemic corruption exists in nations such as Russia, Kenya, Ukraine, Belarus and Ethiopia, isn’t it plausible that some corrupt physicians might be signing unnecessary prescriptions? Again, the BBC were not interested in pursuing such nonsense.

‘For us, those who love and sustain the sport, hate it as we might, it is necessary to know the truth’

Cram and the BBC had the opportunity to follow up on legitimate concerns regarding Coe’s presidency – concerns publicly raised by Jon Snow and others earlier in the year. But they weren’t interested in the truth.

The majority of the populace, the people that tune into athletics once every couple of years and think that the pole vault is a gymnastics event, will think that Lord Coe comes across as a jolly good egg.

For us, those who love and sustain the sport, hate it as we might, it is necessary to know the truth.

But Coe’s career is immersed with opaque arrangements and conflicts of interests that aren’t conflicts of interest; he was rocking during the first days of his presidency and the house looked for a moment like it might fall in and we would finally be able to rebuild.

Alas, no. With a compliant media and a larger public that doesn’t really care anymore, nothing will change and this insanity we call athletics governance will go round and round.

Words by James Fairbourn
This article appears in the second edition of Left Spike from April 2016