Dick Pound held Sebastian Coe’s IAAF career at his mercy – and let him live

A week that started with Sebastian Coe on the ropes ended with him being revived as Dick Pound backed him to lead reform at the IAAF

When the killer question came, Dick Pound gently rocked on his seat and took a discreet breath. “Given what you have said about the IAAF council, and that it must have known what was going on in Russia, do you believe Lord Coe’s position remains tenable?” he was asked.

There was a deliberate pause. Everyone knew Sebastian Coe’s tender career as the head of global athletics was at his mercy. A few damning words would have pulverised it. Instead Pound, that ice-veined investigator of Russia’s sporting corruption only two months ago, put a warm protective cloak around the IAAF president. And so a week that started with Coe on the ropes ended with him receiving an unexpected dose of smelling salts.

“I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for the IAAF to seize this opportunity and under strong leadership to move forward,” explained Pound, whose former role as an outspoken head of the World Anti-Doping Agency gives his words more credibility than most. “There is an enormous amount of reputational recovery that has to occur here but I can’t think of anyone better than Lord Coe to lead that.”

You could almost hear the sound of jaws plummeting through the floor of the Dolce Munich Hotel and into the basement. Understandably so. In the few minutes between Pound’s independent commission report being released and the press conference, those scanning the executive summary had noted it was severely critical of the IAAF’s response to the Russian doping scandal. Indirectly, Coe was in the firing line given the report insisted that “the IAAF council could not have been unaware of the extent of doping in athletics and the non-enforcement of applicable anti-doping rules”. Coe had sat on that very council since 2003.

Yet Pound was able to perform a curious juggling act, on the one hand lambasting the IAAF under Coe for being “in denial” about the extent of their troubles while also putting his faith in the new man to fix them. So in one breath he would say: “The IAAF displays no genuine appetite to deal with the problems” yet in the next he backed Coe to rise to the challenge of clearing up its mess, because “you learn from experience”.

When it was put to Pound that Coe’s IAAF had not moved fast enough to change, he concurred, saying: “Of course there was cover-up and delay. Acknowledge this. If you can’t acknowledge it you are never going to get past it.” Yet when asked whether Coe should have been more aware of Russian doping, the IAAF president was given a pass. “I don’t want to lay the failures of an entire council at the feet of one individual,” said Pound, who later insisted: “My sense is if Lord Coe knew about corruption he would have said something about it.”

Pound’s words were chosen with lawyerly care, by someone with decades of experience in international sports politics. He knew what he was saying. It appeared Coe was being given his blessing to continue as president – while at the same time being warned to step up his act. As Pound put it: “Continued denial will simply make it more difficult to make genuine progress.”

Two other points are worth stressing. First, while the media’s questions to Pound were predominately about Coe he is mentioned only twice in the entire 95-page report. Once in an email from his former right-hand man Nick Davies, who stepped down from the IAAF in December, and then in a footnote quoting a Guardian story. Yet even though the report does not address Coe’s role – and presumably did not thoroughly investigate what he knew or when – Pound still offered Coe staunch backing. Perhaps he considered the lack of alternatives.

The second is that Coe and the IAAF still face a long and bumpy ride. French prosecutors may yet have their day in court with the now disgraced members of athletics’ governing body. Coe’s close friend Davies, meanwhile, was the subject of a particularly damning section of the independent commission report. Davies had claimed an email to the IAAF’s former marketing executive Papa Massata Diack suggesting they delay the announcement of Russian doping bans around the 2013 world championships in Moscow was “brainstorming”.

But Pound strongly disagreed, saying that Davies knew about “Russian skeletons in the cupboard”. And he was not just brainstorming: “Instead, it was a comprehensive and considered plan proposed by the IAAF deputy secretary general and communications director to a member of the IAAF president’s inner circle.”

Yet given the scrutiny and pressure Coe has faced since becoming the IAAF’s president in August he will leave Munich with a spring in his step. Perhaps he had an inkling the day would turn out fine. Certainly the casual way he listened to Pound from the back of the conference room, often fiddling with his glasses or muttering a quiet word to his loyal lieutenant Jackie Brock-Doyle, suggested as much. “The IAAF still has an enormous task ahead of it to restore public confidence,” he said afterwards. “We cannot change the past but I am determined that we will learn from it and will not repeat its mistakes.”

They were the right words, but words are no longer enough. As the Pound report makes clear, the sport’s deep problems will not be magicked away – especially given the twin contagions of doping and corruption have spread far beyond Russia. While Coe has started to make some welcome structural reforms to track and field’s governing body, its overly defensive and closed culture does not yet appear much different. A sceptical public will want more before relaxing their gaze. For now Coe and the IAAF remain on notice.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

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