Seb Coe not right man to find the truth at IAAF

Sebastian Coe sat with the media at Thursday's WADA press conference as Dick Pound backed him to restore the credibility of the IAAF. Photograph: Lukas Barth AFP/Getty Images
Sebastian Coe sat with the media at Thursday's WADA press conference as Dick Pound backed him to restore the credibility of the IAAF. Photograph: Lukas Barth AFP/Getty Images
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WHEN he was elected president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), in Florence on 27 September 2013, Brian Cookson instructed Kroll, the corporate investigations firm, to raid the international governing body’s headquarters.

Kroll’s investigators were waiting in Aigle, a sleepy town surrounded by the Swiss Alps and home to UCI HQ. On Cookson’s instruction, they entered the building and seized computers and files belonging to the previous regime, led by Pat McQuaid, whose leadership – as well as that of his predecessor and mentor, Hein Verbruggen – had become mired in controversy.

Central to Cookson’s election campaign had been his pledge to set up an independent investigation into what had gone on, to understand cycling’s doping culture and establish if Lance Armstrong’s great deception had been assisted by the governing body, directly or indirectly; whether, in other words, the previous regime had been guilty of mere incompetence or actual corruption. As soon as he was elected, Cookson set up the Cycling Independent Review Commission (CIRC).

The subsequent CIRC report was not without flaws, but thanks largely to the seizure of the laptops and documents, the strongest bits concerned the governance of the sport. It was especially critical of the power wielded and relationships cultivated by Verbruggen (a “patron absolu” as he was described), and the interference of the two previous presidents in matters concerning doping.

The CIRC report did not paint a pretty picture of the UCI and the sport. But it was not as ugly as the web of corruption uncovered by Dick Pound and his team in their investigation of the IAAF, with part two of the World Anti-Doping Agency(WADA)-commissioned report made public last week. Pound is the Canadian lawyer who defended Ben Johnson when he tested positive at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and has been atoning for that ever since as a combative, uncompromising anti-doping campaigner.

Which only makes the inconsistency in his treatment of the IAAF governing body – and his endorsement of Sebastian Coe as the man to lead athletics out of the mire – all the more puzzling. When Armstrong’s cheating was revealed, Pound (a member of the IOC since 1978) suggested that the sport could be booted from the Olympics: “The only way it [cycling] is going to clean up is if all these people say ‘Hey, we’re no longer in the Olympics and that’s where we want to be so let’s earn our way back into it’.”

Where was the threat to expel athletics? A condition of taking part in the Olympics is to sign up to and adhere to WADA’s Anti-Doping Code. “No entity can possibly be code-compliant if your sport leaders extort athletes to cover up doping,” Travis Tygart, head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, told the Associated Press on Thursday.

Although WADA could theoretically still declare athletics non-compliant, it is difficult to escape the impression that rules seem to be applied differently depending on the sport, and its status at the Olympic Games. For many people, the Olympics is athletics. For the IOC, a Games without athletics would be like a meal without a main course. Like certain banks, it is too big to fail. But this is not how justice is supposed to work.

The first sign that Coe would emerge from the latest revelations with his reputation damaged but not destroyed was the fact that he sat with the media during Pound’s press conference. He saw the report 24 hours before the journalists, so he had read Pound’s remarks that it was “not credible that elected officials were unaware of the situation affecting Russian athletes,” and that members of the IAAF council “could not have been unaware of” the extent of the doping problem.

Coe, who served as IAAF vice-president from 2007 until being elected president last year, read this and yet was emboldened to sit with journalists including Hajo Seppelt, the German investigative reporter who worked with whistleblowers to expose systematic doping in Russian athletics. Curiously, Coe seems to regard Seppelt not as a friend of sport but as an enemy of athletics.

Yet Coe’s presence among the journalists indicated that he must have been very confident indeed that he would be backed by Pound to continue as president, and lead the sport out of the morass.

Pound’s backing puzzled many commentators, one exception being the American journalist Alan Abrahamson, who pointed out: “Coe is not accused of any misconduct or wrongdoing.” Abrahamson criticised the line in the report that made most headlines: that the council “could not have been unaware” of widespread doping. A “sweeping assertion,” said Abrahamson, that was not backed up by any evidence.

Nevertheless, the question put to Coe by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News, back in November, remains pertinent. Given his senior role in the organisation: “Either you were asleep on the job, or corrupt,” asked Snow. “Which is it?”

The criticisms of Coe do not only cover his eight years as vice-president (a role that, in a restructured IAAF, should come with more responsibilities and accountability than clearly applied in Coe’s time). Since being elected president he has dismissed Seppelt’s reports, failed to speak to the Russian whistleblowers, and described the Sunday Times’ investigations into the IAAF’s failure to follow up on suspicious blood values as “a declaration of war on our sport”. Then there was his paid association with Nike, which he alone seemed to regard as unproblematic, and the alleged role of his right-hand man, Nick Davies, in a strategy of managing rather than punishing doping athletes.

Pound said he couldn’t think of anybody better than Coe to lead athletics. There is a general assumption that someone who enjoyed the success that Coe enjoyed on the track, who has athletics running through his veins, will understand and instinctively know what is best for his sport. But perhaps that closeness is the biggest problem.

Compare and contrast Coe and Cookson: one a former Olympic gold medallist, one a former director of regeneration at Pendle Council. When Cookson ordered the Kroll investigators to raid the UCI offices it was to try and find out the truth of what had been going on, whatever the reputational damage to the sport. The most troubling aspect of Coe’s presidency is that he continues to seem much less interested in finding out the truth than in protecting its reputation.