Sebastian Coe must put money where his mouth is to justify Pound support

Questions may always linger about level of knowledge IAAF president had of widespread corruption in his sport, but the time has come to rebuild from the wreckage

When Sebastian Coe, sporting a beard and a long leather coat that would not look out of place in Game of Thrones, boarded his flight on Thursday he did not have the air of a man off to face a firing squad.

Clutching a brown envelope, filled with briefing notes rather than the folding kind to which the French lead financial prosecutor made such lurid reference later, Lord Coe had already read Dick Pound’s second report and was ready to strike a more contrite tone as he sought to pull his sport and his IAAF presidency from an ever accelerating death spiral.

Under continued pressure over what he knew and when about the fetid stench of corruption at the governing body and for his initial intransigence in refusing to give up his Nike role, he must also have had an inkling that Pound would deal him a vote of confidence as he took his seat in a hotel on the outskirts of Munich.

Yet there was such an apparent contradiction between the contents of the report, which said the IAAF Council (of which Coe was a member from 2003) must have known about the extent of Russian doping and the subsequent delays in sanctioning, and Pound’s ringing endorsement that it was no surprise it jarred to many.

In all likelihood Pound was being pragmatic. He either had to back Coe to sort out the mess that had been building on his doorstep for the seven years he was a vice president or effectively call time on his nascent presidency. The best outcome in the best of all worlds might be to start again and re-imagine international sporting structures from the bottom up.

Backing Coe and trying to empower him to make the changes required may have seemed the least worst option. Yet it could not help but appear to a watching public whose faith in the sport has hit rock bottom that this was another example of the establishment looking after its own. The onus is now on Coe to prove them wrong.

One intriguing unseen presence is IOC president Thomas Bach. The German, an Adidas executive under Horst Dassler at the birth of the marriage between sport and commerce that led indirectly to the spiralling crises at Fifa and the IAAF, has been close to Coe since they were among the first athletes to address the IOC in 1981. Bach is also close to Vladimir Putin, who was first to congratulate him when he took over in 2013.

Following the publication of the first explosive part of Pound’s report that led to the suspension of Russia, Bach was among the first to say they could be back in time for the Rio Olympics.

Pound, the founding president of Wada, is very much his own man. But he is also an IOC veteran and had a front row seat as it went through the fire over the Salt Lake City bribery scandal. “For a council member to say at the time, ‘Lamine, what the fuck? You’ve got your personal counsel being paid, you’ve got two of your kids working here. This doesn’t look good for us’, that’s the sort of thing that’s very hard to have happen,” he explained.

It is. But only because the IAAF and its federations are bound by the stultifying protocol and lack of oversight that allowed Diack to sign unilaterally a marketing deal with Dentsu that lasts until 2029. Or to hand the 2021 world championships to Eugene without a bidding race. Or to brush off attempts to challenge him from within. Or, indeed, to employ two sons as “marketing consultants” and give his legal adviser oversight of the anti-doping process. Or allow corrupt payments to flow like water, often disguised as sponsorship or television deals. When Pound also said it was normal to praise your predecessor when asked about Coe’s embarrassing eulogies to Diack in August, it was impossible not to think of Michel Platini protesting it was bad manners to return a gift when quizzed about the luxury watches he had accumulated. As ESPN’s Bonnie D Ford pointedly observed, it is reassuring to know etiquette was being upheld even as Diack’s cabal ransacked the sport and undermined the efforts of clean athletes.

If it was not so serious, the attempts of the hapless Diack and sons to fill their pockets by shaking down sponsors, bidders, athletes and officials would make for darkly comic material. Their web of influence seems to have permeated almost every major contract and bidding race for more than a decade, even before one gets to the doping cover-ups. And what does it say for Wada and the IOC that this was going on under their noses?

Pound said he believed Coe had “not the faintest idea of the extent” of the corruption. That may be true. But what is also true is that Coe must have harboured suspicions of what was going on in Russia, Kenya and elsewhere. He must, like everyone else, have heard the whispers and rumours about bidding races and marketing deals.

He must have been aware that Lamine Diack had been censured by the IOC for his part in the ISL scandal and claimed the money was a gift from friends after his house burned down. But the rarified world of the IAAF and its federations is one built on patronage, nepotism, loyalty and pork barrel politics. It is shocking but not surprising that Diack and Sons were able to hide in plain sight.

Pound’s backing, for all that it might smack to some of circling the wagons, has bought Coe time. Now the onus is on him to do more than drive through change and prove he is capable of outrunning the mistakes of the past. He must also show, if he can, that he can re-imagine the way that these outmoded institutions do business.

Coe, who defied the wishes of Margaret Thatcher to compete in Moscow in 1980, instinctively recoils at mention of bans and boycotts. But the decision on whether to readmit Russia to the sport in time for the Rio Games is fast becoming his defining moment.

Pound believes it is possible for Russia to reform its conduct if not its culture in time for this summer’s Olympics. Bach may do all he can to will their return. But if he really wants to do what is best in the long term for his sport, to take a stand against cheating on a grand scale and prove he can see beyond the cosy club he has inhabited since before he retired from the track, Coe may be well advised to listen to Usada’s Travis Tygart instead: “Where we are right now [with] them still denying, them still attacking the whistleblowers and the truth, with no lab, with no testing a few months before the Games, it’s impossible to correct,” he said.

It is hard to disagree.


Owen Gibson

The GuardianTramp

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