Sebastian Coe must take head out of sand on doping

Candidate for IAAF presidency is damaging athletics if he continues to go on defensive when quizzed about doping

Sebastian Coe described recent doping allegations as a declaration of war on athletics. Picture: Getty
Sebastian Coe described recent doping allegations as a declaration of war on athletics. Picture: Getty

At the 2013 world athletics championships in Moscow, the subject of doping was a bigger topic of conversation than it had been 12 months earlier at the London Olympics. Which is to say, it was actually discussed.

There was no avoiding it. Some of the sport’s biggest names had tested positive, including Tyson Gay and the Jamaicans Veronica Campbell-Brown, Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson.

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Although Campbell-Brown would later be cleared, and Powell and Simpson given reduced suspensions on appeal, the Jamaican team’s head coach, Michael Clarke, was quizzed as he watched a training session and the island’s athletes, including Usain Bolt, did their drills.

Clarke didn’t seem to have a problem addressing the subject, until the team’s press officer appeared at his shoulder and leant in to whisper: “Answer no questions about doping.” Clarke turned back to the small group of reporters and said: “I’ve just been instructed by our media liaison person not to take any questions about doping.”

Even if there was nothing sinister in this, it is a good example of the sport’s clumsy – some might say inept, after last week’s allegations – handling of a subject that poses an existential threat. Last year, when whistleblowers emerged with allegations of systematic and state-approved doping in Russia, Sebastian Coe, vice-president of the IAAF since 2007, said it would be inappropriate to comment. When he did comment, it was in passive aggressive language: “We must never be complacent and we can always be better, but I don’t think our sport needs too many lectures about the efforts that it is taking.”

In June, when a Panorama programme made serious allegations about Alberto Salazar, who coaches Mo Farah among others, Coe’s response was just as defensive. He started by admitting that Salazar had questions to answer, then added: “I do know Alberto and I’m sure he will mount a stout defence.”

Salazar, he went on, “is a good friend of mine”. Coe continued: “Don’t run away with the idea that this is a hole in the wall, circa 1970s Eastern Bloc operation. It’s not.”

So, on the one hand, Coe conceded that Salazar had questions to answer. On the other, he seemed to already know the answer. The important one, anyway.

Coe wasn’t the only establishment figure to come out in support of Farah before – and this is the crucial point – some of the Panorama allegations had been investigated by UK Athletics (an interim report was published last week, clearing Farah; the full report is expected later this year and, according to a claim in the Daily Mail last week, may result in Farah and UKA severing ties with Salazar). But before the allegations had been studied, Steve Cram said: “It has begun to look like a bit of a witch-hunt against Mo. It seems as if some people are deliberately going after him and that is a shame.”

Cram will be the BBC commentator at the world athletics championships in Beijing later this month. Like Coe, Cram is a Nike ambassador. Salazar and Farah are part of the Nike-sponsored Oregon Project. Which again isn’t to imply anything sinister, but highlights the interconnectedness of the athletics family and raises questions about the independence of someone running for IAAF president, as Coe is (though he recently hinted that he could give up his role with Nike if elected).

All of this is before we get to the far more serious allegations of the past week, which came courtesy of Hajo Seppelt, the German journalist who brought to light claims of endemic doping in Russia and Kenya, where he went undercover as an agent.

Seppelt, who works for German broadcaster ARD, is one of the few journalists in the world retained solely to investigate wrongdoing in sport. Doping has been his main focus. His latest exposé came from a data stick posted to him by an anonymous source. On it was an IAAF database with 12,000 blood tests from 5,000 athletes conducted between 2001 and 2012. Seppelt collaborated with the Sunday Times, engaging two of the world’s leading anti-doping authorities, Michael Ashenden and Robin Parisotto, to study the samples. They concluded that 800 were suspicious. Parisotto said he had never seen such extreme blood values, which were strongly suggestive of blood doping. Ashenden agreed and said some of the readings were “grotesque”.

Once again Coe came out fighting. “The fightback has to start here,” he said. “It is a declaration of war on my sport. There is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug testing that warrants this kind of attack.”

The IAAF, meanwhile, mounted its own defence, pointing out that blood tests in isolation cannot be used as proof of doping. Since 2009, when the sport followed the example of cycling by introducing biological passports, which build up a profile of each athlete and his or her “normal” values, blood tests form part of a longitudinal study. Yet there are cases when the values are so extreme that, as Ashenden said, the only reasonable explanation can be blood doping.

The remarkable aspect in all this is how few doping cases appear to have been pursued on the basis of the 800 suspicious readings. “The results are there,” said Parisotto. “Someone has been collecting the results, someone must have been overseeing the results, but someone has decided not to take any action on many of those results. To me, whoever… is responsible for managing these results, they have obviously not done a very good job.”

A twist in this still unfolding story came on Friday when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), who initially expressed horror at the revelations, seemed to do a volte-face, turning their fire on the journalists and scientists in possession of the leaked database. “WADA deplores the manner in which this data was obtained, leaked to the media and analysed,” said the agency’s president, Sir Craig Reedie.

The breach of athletes’ right to confidentiality will be investigated, the statement continued, by an independent commission set up to look into the allegations made by Seppelt in his previous programme, broadcast at the end of last year. The commission will be chaired by Reedie’s predecessor, Dick Pound. Yet, confusingly, Pound appeared in Seppelt’s most recent programme, aired last Saturday. In it, Pound told Seppelt: “If all the facts that we’re beginning to investigate turn out to be true then the problem is clearly bigger than anybody’s ever admitted and bigger than the public at large would understand.”

“Athletics is in the same diabolical position cycling was in 20 years ago,” said Ashenden. There could be lessons for athletics in cycling, though. Seppelt compared the blood values of cyclists with those of athletes, noting that since 2006 the number of suspicious readings in cycling has declined dramatically.

The reason is that, in 2006, Operacion Puerto, which implicated so many of the world’s top riders, posed an existential threat to cycling. Denial was no longer an option. Fundamental change was necessary or the sport would die. As this year’s CIRC report made clear, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, had a good idea about how bad the doping problem was, but instead of tackling it, tried to “contain” it.

It was a disastrous, suicidal strategy. When a sport allows itself to sink so far into the mire the worst response is denial. Defensiveness and aggression are hardly any better. “Answer no questions about doping” might have been an instruction given to riders at the Tour de France ten years ago. These days, questions about doping dominate. Athletics had better get used to it.