Denial plus shock, divided by the tip of the iceberg. A recipe for mistrust

10 Nov 2015 Posted by

The WADA report into the IAAF’s alleged doping cover-ups came out yesterday, and Twitter was rocking.  So many journalists and commenters wrote excellent summaries and opinion pieces (there’s a list of some of them at the end of this post), but I thought I’d share with you two brief articles I wrote on the issue.

The first is an expanded version of two points about the report, which I threw up on Facebook last night, relating to:

  1. The tip of the iceberg and Russia as scapegoat, and
  2. Seb Coe’s “shock” the allegations he had to have known about, because he did declare war on them only a couple months ago.


The WADA report

What a day…

The WADA report confirmed pretty much what the documentaries and media reports alleged, and added a whole lot of detail. It didn’t go into detail about the bribery charges (that matter is under investigation, so that will come later), but it did heavily implicate Russia in a massive doping cover-up, state-sponsored and involving coaches, officials, athletes and laboratory directors. I’ll sleep on it, try to share more thoughts tomorrow, but a couple of brief thoughts to end the day:


1. The tip of the iceberg

The most provocative, though hardly new, aspect was when Dick Pound alluded to this being “the tip of the iceberg”.

For the most part, the report confirmed what most people (aside from Seb Coe, it appears, see later) already knew. A few startling details were filled in – the Moscow lab destroying 1,417 samples is one of them, as is the presence of a mystery second lab in Moscow – but for the most part, if you’ve followed the sport for the last few years, the broad strokes were out there already.

But this “tip of the iceberg” comment was interesting. We REALLY need to see the rest of that iceberg. We know what’s happening (or not happening, in some cases) in Kenya, Jamaica and presumably the rest of the world, but what will it take to reveal it? Do we need to wait for another massive scandal to get our heads beneath the surface? This is the best chance to get wholesale change.

And this “tip of the iceberg” extends into other sports too, of that I am sure.  I do understand that the commission had a relatively narrow mandate, and couldn’t go beyond track and field.  But it is inconceivable to me that a) the problem is limited to Russia and b) it involves only one sport. Why would it? Anyone wanting medals and money has options well beyond athletics, so why would it stop there?  Maybe the money is smaller, but I’ve no doubt the problem exists.

The danger now is that it will be spun into a political West vs East battle. It already appears head this way – Russia’s response is to bring Crimea and Ukraine into it.

The Western media will be tempted to point fingers, having found their villain. By default, they’ll also find their hero, driven in no small part by patriotic biases. Ivan Drago against Rocky Balboa. Evil vs good. It feeds such an easy narrative, one in which good triumphs over evil despite all odds. Newsflash – doping doesn’t lend itself to that fairytale.

Russia, for all its very obvious problems (it deserves a ban, far more substantial than a slap on the wrist), cannot be the only focal point of cynicism and punishment. If WADA and the IAAF are to regain trust, they must act not only against Russia, but use this as the platform on which to build an entirely new approach to transparency and anti-doping.

Pound is right – this problem is not limited to Russia alone, and while it may be the epicentre of this particular corruption, it does not have exclusive rights to cheating or the ensuing cover-ups. It would be a shame if they are fingered, punished and those in power simply move on, having burned the easy scapegoat.


2. Shock. Or denial. An equation for mistrust

Dick Pound also congratulated Hajo Seppelt, the German journalist who produced the documentary that catalyzed this report, on his “fine piece of investigative journalism”

This is the same journalist, remember, whose work was dismissed as a “declaration of war” by then-campaigning Vice-President Seb Coe, who also said, and I quote “There is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug-testing that warrants this kind of attack. We should not be cowering. We should come out fighting”.


The problem is not merely that Coe attacked the reports, and dismissed the journalist’s offer to provide access to his sources, it’s that he is now also claiming to be shocked by the allegations.

The way he is carrying on honestly makes me feel like he might be the last person to have seen this coming, and given that he’s been the second-highest person in the organization, that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that he can fix it.

Have a watch of the clip below. Coe says, near the end “Should we possibly have seen this coming?”

Yes, you should, because you had a Daily Mail exclusive from two and half years ago.  Actually, WADA also knew about this, and should be held to account for not following up on it.  So the blame certainly does not belong to the IAAF alone. 

Daily Mail story Russia doping

Then there were two German documentaries, the latest of which was released just a few months ago.  You can watch it below, with the first one below that (it’s German, but has subtitles)

And best of all, you had YOUR OWN RESEARCH STUDY that hinted at the extent of doping, which was then revealed in the Sunday Times piece (this is the one where Coe dismissed world authorities on blood-doping as “so-called experts”)

How can he be shocked? He even declared war on the allegations he’s now having confirmed. He wanted to come out fighting against them. Now he’s shocked. I’m not brimming with belief that this is new dawn.

Maybe it’ll be clearer in the morning!


Thoughts preceding the report

Then the second piece is a short article I wrote for an SA daily newspaper, the Times, and which came out on Monday morning, preceding the report by a few hours.  It’s a little thin on insight and analysis, heavier on the background (the audience isn’t as passionate and in-tune with track & field), but I thought I’d share it with you anyway:


Times article – WADA report

Who would want to be a corrupt and immoral leader of a global sports governing body these days? Back in May, top executives from FIFA were arrested in a raid of a luxury Swiss hotel. That scandal has run and run, finally catching up with its Teflon Tyrant, Sepp Blatter.

Now it is the turn of athletics. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Lamine Diack, was arrested in Paris last week, along with three others, for allegedly pocketing over 1 million Euros in extortion money for making positive doping results disappear.

To understand how we got to this position, you have to appreciate that this is, once again, a case of outsiders crashing the party. As was the case with cycling and football, it’s not the sport displaying ethical leadership to reveal its own corruption, but rather media and prosecuting authorities (the FBI for FIFA, the French financial prosecutor for athletics) pulling at threads until a badly knitted scarf begins to unravel.

This particular unraveling began in August 2014, when a German investigative journalist, Hajo Seppelt, found himself some whistleblowers inside both the IAAF and the Russian Athletics Federations. They alleged that Russian athletes and officials were involved in a system of blackmail and cover-ups, where athletes paid hush money to officials to cover up positive doping tests.

For Act II, Seppelt returned with even more damaging accusations. He obtained a list of 12,000 athlete blood samples, and partnering with two highly respected scientists, reporeted that over 800 athletes, including one third of medalists, had abnormal profiles suggestive of doping.

Prof Michael Ashenden, one of the experts involved in the exposé, called it a “shameful betrayal of the IAAF’s primary duty to police their sport and protect clean athletes”.

How prescient that seems, now that the sport’s long-time leader has been arrested for an active role in hiding cheating at the expense of those clean athletes.

Sebastian Coe, who assumed the presidency of the IAAF in August when Diack retired after 16-years at the helm, dismissed Ashenden as a “so-called expert” and called the accusations “declaration of war” on his sport. He now has to address that declaration, which will be challenging with one foot in his mouth and a mountain of mistrust to climb.

More is on the way. The World Anti-Doping Agency responded to the documentary by establishing an independent commission, whose report is due out today, and which may reveal that the extent of corruption goes well beyond Russia.

Indeed, why would it be only Russian athletes? They do not own exclusive rights to doping, and where cheating exists, so too does the potential for cover-up. With compliant, unethical leadership, I fully expect others to have joined the fray. The rewards are simply too great not to.

The Russian media are alleging that other nations are involved (they may have an agenda to do so, admittedly). They have even made the claim that Mo Farah, Britain’s multiple world and Olympic distance running champion, had four doping positives, none of which was acted on. That’s either a sensational claim that warrants pursuing, or sensationally libelous, but it gives you an idea of the extent of what the sport is facing, with no end in sight.

One of the commission’s co-authors, law professor Richard McLaren, has suggested a worst-case scenario, calling the report “a game changer for sport”. He has also said that it is “a whole different scale than the FIFA scandal or the IOC scandal in respect to Salt Lake City” (bribes were paid to win the Winter Olympic Games hosting rights).

You can see his point. Yes, the money is small-fry in comparison – I get the impression that Blatter wouldn’t pick up the phone for anything less than eight figures, making Diack’s 1 million euros seem like pocket change.

However, this corruption was germane to the outcome. It affected what happened on the track and in the field. Medals and honour were sold, and (admittedly cheating) athletes, not bureaucrats, were being bribed. The ultimate betrayal was that clean athletes were competing in a charade with the mistaken belief that leadership was on their side. Strip that belief away, and what is left?



Some good reads on the report

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