Moira Gordon: ‘Athletics fans know true winners from losers’

Isaac Makwalas push-ups at the end of his time trial sprint were designed to show how fit he felt. Photograph: Jewel Samad/Getty Images
Isaac Makwalas push-ups at the end of his time trial sprint were designed to show how fit he felt. Photograph: Jewel Samad/Getty Images
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Some people just can’t do right for doing wrong. Others just can’t do right because they keep doing it wrong. This week has called into question which category the powers that be at the IAAF fall into.

They say they barred Botswanan sprinter Isaac Makwala from competing because they did not want the norovirus they believed he was suffering from to sweep through the call room and infect other athletes. So, while critics claimed the authorities were unfair to deny the 30-year-old his shot at the 200m and 400m double, the governing body responded by claiming they were taking the wider view and sacrificing the individual to protect the majority.

But, while some took exception to what they did, others simply cringed at the way they did it. Although they eventually contrived a compromise that allowed the athlete to participate in the 200m, running on his own against the clock, the whole unsavoury process still spewed forth another public relations disaster that eventually culminated in a situation that proved ideal to no-one and will, undoubtedly, come back to bite them on the backside somewhere down the track as others claim illness and demand time trials and circuitous routes through the rounds.

In the absence of Team GB medal winners to splash across the newspaper pages or fill the hours and hours of BBC coverage, few who took an interest will forget the images of the Botswanan runner trying to make his way into the stadium for the 400m final.

It was like watching a Saturday night drunk who has indulged in one too many libations still enthusiastically try to convince bouncers he is sober. The desperate athlete told anyone who would listen that he was fit and well and when that didn’t work he attempted to duck and dodge his way past stewards who had been instructed to keep him away. It was comedy heaped upon farce, all built on tragedy. And there was more to come.

Had the illness and the repercussions been handled more effectively and explained more sympathetically by the IAAF, such a PR disaster might never have occurred. Had they done that they may have been spared the backlash and prevented the swell of public sympathy that necessitated the surreal sight of the lone runner being put through a time trial on an otherwise empty track, as soon as his quarantine period elapsed. It was set up to allow him backdoor access into the remaining rounds of the 200m and silence the social media outbursts and the thinly-veiled accusations from some big names who found it convenient that the quarantine had allowed South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk, the man many have tipped as the sports new golden boy, to sweep to an easier triumph in the 400m.

Which is where things became less a simple mess and more of a disgusting landfill site.

Makwala’s push-ups at the end of the time trial sprint were designed to show just how fit he felt and how ludicrous and unfair the decision to shun him from the 400m had been. But, having been forced to run two fast 200m in a matter of hours – the semi-finals were later that evening – and on the back of any illness, and topped by the emotional stress, he was a spent force by the time he headed down the home straight in the final the following day.

Van Niekerk, having been dragged into it all, was visibly upset and angry, feeling he had been besmirched and he could only manage silver as no-one came out of the whole episode with a smile on their face. No-one except the gold medallist Ramil Guliyev, who completed his lap of honour with flags of both his homeland Azerbaijan and adopted country Turkey draped around him.

Look a little deeper and even that seemed to feed into the mess, with Turkey a nation under suspicion of doping offences.

In the build-up to the World Championships it was reported that following retests, 87 London 2012 Games finalists had now been confirmed as dopers, and another 138 had links to doping. Speaking out about it, former marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe said that 80 per cent of the cheats come from four countries, citing Turkey alongside Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

“But only one of those countries [Russia] has been banned [from the Olympic and world stage]. That has to go further.

“It’s absolutely the biggest fight, the biggest reason why the [new IAAF] integrity unit had to be set up [in April], why it has to be fully independent, needs to be funded a lot more. And it needs the athletes to buy into it because it’s their reputations that are tainted.”

The whole sport has been tainted, and the reminder of that was everywhere at these championships as athletes who had been denied past glories by cheats were given their podium moment and much sought-after medals in front of the London crowds.

The IAAF is still desperately trying to recover credibility after it was exposed as corrupt and had to change leadership, but doping remains a blight on the sport. On the night that Makwala was denied the chance to race in a final because of a sickness bug, the man who has infected the sport with much worse, and poisoned public perceptions, was attempting to steal Usain Bolt’s thunder.

Competing despite being caught and banned twice for taking banned substances, Justin Gatlin, pictured, succeeded in beating the Jamaican in his final individual track outing but he did not better him. Athletics fans are knowledgeable and they know true winners from real losers. Booing the disgraced American, they were unequivocal and clear in their communication. If the IAAF learn anything from the shambles of this week, it has to be that. Until then they will be unable to do little right.