Credibility of athletics touches a new low

The truth that hits you is that of a system full of loopholes, poorly-funded programmes, under-staffed anti-doping agencies and corrupt sports administrators, anti-doping officials and coaches. WADA will surely have to apply itself more diligently in future in evaluating "compliance".

A file photograph of the IAAF President, Sebastian Coe, who was the Chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, with Lamine Diack (right), the then President of the IAAF. Diack has been arrested on bribery charges related to hushed-up doping cases.   -  AP

Canadian Richard Pound (centre), the Chairman of WADA's Independent Commission, flanked by fellow-members, Richard McLaren (left) and Gunter Younger, at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, where they presented the final report.   -  AP

The credibility of athletics has taken an unbelievable plunge following the arrest of the former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Lamine Diack, on bribery charges related to hushed-up doping cases, and the sensational findings of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) Independent Commission that investigated ‘organised’ doping among Russian athletes.

The newly-elected IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, criticised in sections of the media for his comment “it is a war on my sport” when reports first came in about suspicious blood test results, especially among Russian athletes that were apparently not followed up during a 10-year period, has said the bribery charge against Diack is “abhorrent”.

“The architecture of anti-doping has failed athletes worldwide,” Coe was quoted as saying after the IAAF Executive voted overwhelmingly to suspend Russia provisionally, an inevitable consequence of the WADA Commission recommendation. The crucial question now is whether Russia, second in the athletics medals tally at the London Olympics, can come back in time for the Rio Games next August.

Gigantic task

As Coe, two-time Olympic champion, grapples with the gigantic task of bringing back credibility to the sport that he loves so much, that he so proudly adorned in the 1970s and 1980s and that has struggled to rid itself of the “doped-up” image for the past few decades, the media, critics and experts have had the chance to take another look at anti-doping efforts in sports at large.

The truth that hits you is that of a system full of loopholes, poorly-funded programmes, under-staffed anti-doping agencies and corrupt sports administrators, anti-doping officials and coaches. WADA will surely have to apply itself more diligently in future in evaluating “compliance”.

There is no ‘cure-all’ remedy for such a complex issue. If WADA was born in the aftermath of the Festina affair in Tour de France in 1998 when a stock of prohibited drugs was unearthed, then there is room for further evolution in the anti-doping structure. It could be either a separate testing agency under WADA or the latter itself taking over the testing role as suggested by the Olympic family under the initiative of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

It is easier said than done. There will be a question of “conflict of interest” when WADA, a monitoring agency, is asked to become a testing agency and monitor its own activity including laboratory accreditation.

Whistleblower... one of Russia's top 800-metre runners, Yulia Stepanova, whose revelations helped in the preparation of the WADA report.   -  AP

The IAAF stuck to the high moral ground of “we are in the forefront” in anti-doping even when several disturbing doping allegations were made during the past two years. The first major accusation against systematic doping in Russian athletics had come in July 2013 when the UK’s Mail on Sunday brought out an investigative report.

The IAAF ignored it, but the world had to take note in December last when the German public broadcaster ARD aired a documentary titled “Top Secret Doping: How Russia makes its winners”. The report, compiled by Hajo Seppelt, the award-winning German TV journalist, who specialises in doping stories, made an immediate impact.

Based on the revelations made in the German documentary, WADA ordered an enquiry by an independent commission headed by its tough-talking, no-nonsense Founder President, Richard Pound, a Canadian Olympian, who is also an IOC member. He was assisted by two others, the renowned Canadian sports lawyer Richard McLaren and German Gunter Younger, an expert in cybercrime, with experience of working with the Interpol, particularly in the field of drugs.

‘State-sponsored doping’

The documentary alleged that an elaborate system of ‘State-sponsored doping’ existed within the All Russia Athletics Federation (ARAF). Coaches, athletes and officials were implicated and so too the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) and the IAAF. The “deeply-rooted culture” of doping in Russian athletics was exposed.

Three principal ‘whistleblowers’, Vitaly Stepanov, a former RUSADA Dope Control Officer (DCO), his wife Yulia Stepanova, an 800m runner, and marathoner Liliya Shobukhova provided substantial amount of details including secret video and audio recordings to ARD and later to the WADA Commission implicating coaches, anti-doping officials, fellow athletes and ARAF functionaries.

Particularly damaging was the accusation made by Shobukhova that she was asked to pay $450,000 for covering up a doping infraction. Athletes claimed in the documentary and later before the WADA investigators that there was a system of coaches getting paid for keeping the doping record ‘clean’. Obviously the money was going right up to RUSADA and, as it turns out from the initial reports related to the arrest of Diack, part of it was also going into the bank accounts of the IAAF officials or their proxies.

The harried athletes were told to be either part of the system or else be prepared to be excluded from the national team. Even lives seemed to have been threatened if athletes chose to defy the system, according to the Commission report. The athletics world has been shaken. Though doubts about widespread doping in Russian athletics had been doing the rounds for long, no one could have visualised an IAAF president would be protecting dopers as he fleeced them. It was worse than the FIFA scandal that broke a few months earlier. Diack had been IAAF president for 16 years before he stepped down last August. He was forced to resign his honorary IOC membership following the police charge.

French Police and Interpol are engaged in investigating Diack’s role in the bribery issues in Russian and other doping cases. Also implicated are the former IAAF Medical and Anti Doping department Director Gabriel Dolle, from whose house police recovered $93,000 in cash, and IAAF legal advisor Habib Cisse.

Startling revelations

We can expect more startling revelations coming out of these investigations and from the portions of the WADA Commission report that had been held back for the time being. There is one more report that the Commission is working on, based on the more damaging and detailed data revealed by ARD and the Sunday Times in August last about hundreds of doubtful blood doping cases including those of Olympic and World champions having been either ignored or not followed up by the IAAF during the 2001-2011 period.

The ARD report and the WADA Commission findings and subsequent recommendations have forced men like Valentin Balakhnichev, then chief of ARAF and IAAF Treasurer, coach Viktor Chegin, the mastermind behind doping at the Olympic Training Centre, Saransk, which churned out race-walking champions by the dozen and the chief of the Moscow laboratory, Grigory Rodchenko out of their jobs. Several other coaches and officials have either resigned or else have been recommended for lifetime bans. Five female athletes including London Olympics 800m champion Mariya Savinova were also recommended for life bans.

President Vladimir Putin’s assurance that Russia would “do everything” to eradicate doping has given hope that the system would be cleaned up notwithstanding the charge made in the Commission report that the doping structure in Russia looked to have State support. Mention was made in the report about the presence of the Russian security agency (FSB) at the laboratory prying into affairs it had no business to.

The athletes around the world welcomed the report even as they expressed their frustration that they were denied their moment of glory at Olympics and World Championships by dope-tainted Russians.

The IAAF, instead of looking into the cases reported by ARD and Sunday Times was in denial mode much of the time and threatened the journalists with lawsuits. Some of the suspicious blood results revealed in the report, it now turns out, were those of Russian athletes who were helped to compete in the London Olympics by delaying action on Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) variations.

'Tip of the iceberg'

The WADA’s assertion that this could be just “tip of the iceberg” does necessitate a thorough overhaul of the anti-doping network. More attention would be needed to review the doping practices in athletics in several countries especially Kenya, Turkey and India that have in recent times reported large number of doping cases. The Russian example shows that the anti-doping structure has either failed completely or else needs correction and closer monitoring. “We have zero tolerance towards doping” is an oft-repeated, hollow assertion, quite often made by people who abet the crime.

How the rest of the IAAF including Coe missed the goings on, probably for several years, and how WADA did not get a hint of happenings in Russia may continue to defy logic. Opinion is mounting that Coe, just three months into his post, having been a vice president of the same ‘corrupt set-up’ for eight years and having dismissed the charges initially, must go.

But Coe has won the first round by quickly getting the provisional suspension of Russia approved without a murmur in his Executive Council. He still looks the best man who can guide the IAAF through these troubled times.