Sebastian Coe and IAAF get tough on Russia but his own weak spot remains

The IAAF president is leading from the front as he likes to but he needs to share the load at a time when athletics is facing arguably its biggest challenge

On the day that Sebastian Coe had expected the attention of the world to be on the unprecedented decision to ban the country that came second in the medal table in London from the next Games in Rio, he was forced to defend himself against a fresh wave of allegations over his own conduct.

As he led the International Association of Athletics Federations council to a unanimous decision on banning the Russian federation, adding a smart legal caveat to allow a handful of athletes a potential route back in through a “crack in the door” under a neutral banner in the hope of preventing the International Olympic Committee or lawyers unpicking its decision, the president found himself back on familiar turf.

Ever since ascending to the top job in the sport last August, succeeding the now utterly disgraced Lamine Diack, Coe has tried – and sometimes failed – to balance the need for tough, swift action with trying to avoid being dragged into the swamp of historic allegations of doping, cover-ups and corruption concerning his predecessors.

But his attempts to create some clear blue water have been continually dashed, most recently by a BBC Panorama programme that uncovered a series of text messages between Papa Massata Diack, the former IAAF marketing consultant now on the run in Senegal, and Coe in the run-up to his election victory.

Coe, a far cry from the defensive figure who was forced to sever his ties with Nike in December in a conflict of interest storm, insisted he was simply trying to win an election and did not behave improperly.

“It is the very nature of a campaign that advice is given whether it is sought or not. Some of it is useful. You treat information warily and civilly. Information and advice is not always accepted and not always sought,” he said.

Panorama also alleged that Coe was told in August 2014 via email by Dave Bedford about a serious corruption case involving Papa Diack and the Russian marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova but later told a parliamentary select committee he didn’t know about it until Hajo Seppelt’s incendiary documentary was broadcast in December of that year.

“Yes Dave Bedford did speak to me – by memory at the time it was at the European Championships or around that time in Zurich,” said Coe. “He talked about rumours and allegations but not details then forwarded me the email which I forwarded to Michael Beloff at the ethics committee.”

Asked why he had not opened the attachment, Coe said: “Look, it’s very simple. It was the case and has always been the case I have hundreds of conversations with people in athletics detailing all sorts of issues, sometimes rumour, sometimes allegations. There is an ethics board and my standard response has always been that whatever you know and whatever you want to relay forward to the ethics board and that’s exactly what it is there for.”

Banned Russian athletes

Whether that is convincing will generally depend where you stand on Coe. It is perhaps significant that Bedford still very much publicly backs him. Meanwhile, Coe attempted to shrug off questions as parochial concerns for which he had little time.Even a charitable interpretation will conclude the allegations, the text messages, the photos of him with his arms around the Diacks that also emphasise his closeness to the now suspended Nick Davies are embarrassing and point to a certain lack of curiosity.

Friday was in some ways a good news story as he piloted through a decision that many said back in November the IAAF would not have the stomach for. Even though Coe was obliged to say it was a “sad day” for the sport, it might at one point have set him free from criticism back home in a single bound. This wasn’t a fudge, but an attempt at a workable solution that aims to prevent the IOC from meddling next week when it holds its own summit on the issue.

It was Rune Andersen who made the more convincing case against Russia. In its way it was as quietly jaw-dropping as Dick Pound’s dramatic revelations of state sponsored doping, institutionalised corruption and sabotaged Olympics in November. For it showed that for all the warm words from the Kremlin, for all the extensive PR efforts and lab tours, for all the repentant statements and emotional appeals it was still completely impossible to trust the Russians.

“The commitment formally from the ministry has been great,” said Andersen archly. But his report to the IAAF council told a different story: the Russian culture minted over decades had not changed. And that, as had already been widely hinted, the trail went right to the top.

“There are detailed allegations, which are already partially substantiated, that the Ministry of Sport, far from supporting the anti-doping effort, has in fact orchestrated systematic doping and the cover up of positive analytical findings.”

Yet it is important in the coming days for the IAAF, and the IOC for that matter, to emphasise that the scale of the doping crisis in sport goes far wider than one sport or one country. As for Coe, he is attempting to do the right thing – to pilot through long overdue governance reforms, to take the tough action required against Russia, to actually challenge rather than mollify the IOC.

But as the split of questions in the press conference following the decision showed, it is hard to face the future without being totally clear about the past.

His case is that he is best serving athletics by dealing with the big, urgent issues facing it and not engaging in what he sees as tittle tattle about the past. But the fact is that these issues of integrity, transparency and tone are vitally important at a time when the public’s faith in sporting leaders has hit rock bottom.

Coe has always worked best as a front man rather than concerning himself with detail. The sooner he finds a capable chief executive to share the load, the better. In addition to surveying the big picture, he also perhaps needs to be more precise. He also needs to get a computer.


Owen Gibson in Vienna

The GuardianTramp

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