Spectator sport

Seb Coe is a fine man… but his roasting over the Russian athletics scandal is justified

12 November 2015

3:00 PM

12 November 2015

3:00 PM

So Smiley was right all along: the bloody Russians were the baddest of the bad. The Pound report on the epic scale of their state-sponsored doping and cheating in athletics was indeed seismic. It can’t have come as that much of a surprise, though. In a remarkable investigation in July 2013, Martha Kelner and Nick Harris of the Mail on Sunday blew the lid on the whole cesspool of Russian corruption.

This was the headline: Drugs, -bribery and the cover-up! -Russian athletes— including those who robbed Brits of medals — ‘ordered to dope by coaches’ and officials ‘demanded cash to mask positive tests’. Pretty much what we got this week from Dick Pound, the gunslinging sheriff brought in to clean up the sport. But what a pity that athletics’ governing body, the IAAF, hadn’t felt like doing anything a bit earlier.

Its main job has been to say: ‘Move along please, there’s no story here.’ After the Sunday Times revealed that suspicious blood samples had been taken from athletes, Sebastian Coe, then campaigning to become head of the IAAF, said it was ‘a declaration of war on my sport’. Killing the messenger the best policy, eh? I don’t think so. Coe, a fine man of immense achievement, has now come in for a pretty justified roasting. He must be looking back nostalgically to the days when his toughest assignment was to be William Hague’s judo partner. His IAAF predecessor Lamine Diack is now under investigation by French police after accusations of corruption over doping tests. Coe has described Diack as the ‘spiritual leader’ of -athletics. Some spirit, some leader. Coe needs to use his (record-breaking) levels of determination and discipline to get this straightened out.

Russia should be kicked out of Rio, if not banned from all competition until it gets its house in order. That will not be so easy: the country has hosted innumerable global events and is at the heart of world sports politics. Steve Cram told 5 Live the other day he had been complaining about Russian cheating since he was 17. ‘And I’m 55 now.’ That’s a long time to be banging on about something with nobody much listening. And Russia is the tip of the iceberg. There should be another Pound operation in, say, Kenya and one or two other countries. Morocco perhaps.

Coe has wanted to lead athletics for years and is determined to get the sport back into the mainstream, as it was in his day. The World Championships in Beijing in August were a wonderful celebration of the sport. But how clean were they? Who knows now? Anyone who cares about the sport must pray that this won’t be too much for Coe. But I don’t buy into all the hysteria about ‘the greatest crisis sport has ever faced’. Bigger than in ad 393 when the Christian emperor Theodosius, banned the Olympic Games for being pagan? And banned they stayed for 1,500 years or so. There’s a proper sporting crisis for you.

The fact is that man has always cheated — it’s part of being human. But that is no reason to stop doing anything about it. Perhaps the best thing to happen in sport this year is the spate of Fifa arrests. Wizened autocrats being charged and, hopefully, banged up should change a few habits. The crucial force here was the Americans, who don’t take kindly to corruption in their own backyard. Until anyone can get totalitarian states like Russia to take the same approach, things are unlikely to get better. But here’s where it can: the cyclist Chris Froome is a shining example of what one sport can look like after its rulers have taken a rigorous approach to cleaning it up.

So Slammin’ Sam will slam no more, at least not on the rugby union fields of England. Sad, I say. He was picked too early. Four more years to learn the game and he would have been as devastating as Sonny Bill Williams. English rugby need players who can run and pass, not stick it up the jumper. It looks like he was homesick too: getting lots of flak can increase homesickness (ask any prep school boy). Still, enjoy the Sydney sunshine Sam. We will miss you.

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