THE Russian doping scandal might be just the thing athletics needs. The allegations made by German journalist Hajo Seppelt in a programme broadcast on MDR on Wednesday evening, that a systematic doping programme exists in Russia, with even the head of the anti-doping lab complicit, are the most serious to hit the sport since the BALCO scandal a decade ago.
Not that athletics has been short of doping scandals. There was the mysterious disappearance of nine positive tests at the 1984 Olympics. The East German state-organised doping programme. Ben Johnson. BALCO, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers. Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, etc etc.
Yet none of these episodes brought athletics to its knees, because they have always, somehow, managed to dismiss them as isolated cases. Expunge Johnson from the 1988 Olympic 100 metres and voila! – a clean final (as long as we ignore that five of the other finalists would eventually be implicated in doping in some form or other).
Sometimes being brought to its knees is what a sport needs. To take the medicine, so to speak. It was only when cycling was watching its credibility vanishing down the plughole during and immediately after the 2006 Tour de France that real, cultural change began to happen, but there had already been several squandered opportunities – Festina in 1998, an overlooked positive test for Lance Armstrong in 1999, persistent rumours that doping was still rampant.
That isn’t to say that doping no longer exists in cycling – as the controversy engulfing the Astana team demonstrates – but the point when it could no longer be denied was reached some years ago, and steps were taken to address it, externally, with the biological passport introduced in 2008, and from within, with teams demanding cultural change.
It is difficult – it must feel potentially suicidal – for a sport to admit that it has a problem. It is the same for any alcoholic, for whom it is all too easy to dismiss embarrassing behaviour at the Christmas party as a one-off incident rather than part of a larger pattern.
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The pattern in athletics is all too clear. The only response from the world governing body thus far has been to announce an investigation by its Ethics Commission, which is independent of the IAAF, but on Friday Germany’s Helmut Digel, an IAAF council member, broke ranks. “Physicians and pharmacists operate like criminals and organise, guide and support this fraud at international sporting events,” Digel told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “This certainly doesn’t just happen in Russia. This occurs in almost every high-performance sports nation in the world.” If Digel is saying that what goes on in Russia happens elsewhere, then he is saying that the problem is not individual athletes cheating, but the systematic nature of it – the collusion of governing bodies, anti-doping labs (one of the most shocking allegations in Wednesday’s programme was that Russia’s lab director, Grigory Rodchenkov, supplies drugs) and the presence of insiders on the international governing body who can help cover-up positive tests in exchange for bribes.
What is most amazing about Digel’s claims is that the former handball player is such an insider. As well as being an IAAF council member, he was president of the German Athletics Federation from 1993-2001, and president of the organising committee of the 2002 European athletics championships. He has spoken out on doping before, admitting in 2013 that it was the biggest problem facing sport: “From the perspective of the population, the anti-doping fight is not credible and the sports bodies have long since come to terms with the doping fraud.”
Note he was saying that this was the public perception, not necessarily the reality. His latest comments, however, suggest that he thinks public perception is reality. Sounds like the IAAF Ethics Commission, WADA and Professor Digel should all have been talking to each other long before Wednesday’s television programme.
The cyclical nature of life and sport gives man at the wheel of British cycling a mountain to climb
THE only guarantee in football, Martin O’Neill famously said, is the sack, but he could have been speaking about any sport. Nothing lasts forever, all great sporting dynasties die, success and failure are cyclical. All of this was on Shane Sutton’s mind when he spoke recently about the challenge that confronts him and the British cycling team.
That scale of the challenge is being illustrated this weekend in the velodrome in London where Britain’s cyclists won seven gold medals during the 2012 Olympics. They will struggle to win half as many in the kind of World Cup meeting that, from 2008 to 2012, they would generally have dominated.
Sutton, who took over from Sir Dave Brailsford in April, spoke recently about “continuous improvement,” but that’s a philosophy rather than a guarantee. “It’s all about continuous improvement, so we’d like to think that success would follow,” said Sutton.
“However, life goes in cycles,” he continued. “You have a talent pool and sometimes that gets saturated.
“I wouldn’t say we have a massive amount of talent but I do think we have the tools in the toolbox to do the job in Rio.”
If British Cycling is Manchester United, then Sutton is David Moyes to Brailsford’s Sir Alex Ferguson. Of course, there is nothing like the same intensity of pressure or expectation – nor, as Sutton pointed out, the same level of financial compensation should it all go pear-shaped. (“I’d like to think if they were going to get rid of me I would get the same as Moyes,” he joked.)
But the challenge is eerily similar, especially given the sense – profoundly felt by some at British Cycling – that the final haul of medals at the London games owed rather a lot to good luck and things falling into place at the very last minute. Whereas in Beijing the success was the culmination of years of detailed, nothing-to-chance planning and preparation, the circumstances were different building towards London with ageing stars, competing interests, with Brailsford chasing Tour de France glory with Team Sky, and other distractions.
Manchester United, with a threadbare squad heading rapidly towards its sell-by date, scraped across the line in Ferguson’s last season in 2013, and Britain’s cyclists did the same in London, “squeezing the lemon dry,” as one coach put it.
One of the challenges, as Sutton admitted, was dealing with success, which Britain’s cyclists had to do post-Beijing and post-London. “We all deal with failure all the time, we’re used to it,” said Sutton. “Success is much harder – nobody knows how to deal with success.”
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