Sebastian Coe poses a very British challenge to Russia’s widespread doping | Barney Ronay

Deciding not to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow was easy compared to the diplomatic nightmare the head of the IAAF now faces

Over to you then, Seb. As Russia edged closer this week to the first national ban from competitive athletics – reward for the state-sponsored industrial-scale poisoning of its own citizens – it is tempting to reflect on how events can often tend to repeat themselves. This isn’t the first time Sebastian Coe has been forced to make a tough choice about Russia. In January 1980 Coe, a charismatic, supremely talented runner but yet to win a major championship medal, was approached privately by the British government and asked to boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Coe refused. He went to Russia. He won gold, ignited his own personal legend and has ridden the wave ever since. Later, Coe insisted history had “proved him right” because Russia carried on invading Afghanistan anyway. He said offering the hand of friendship to Russia in the 1980s had helped him secure the London 2012 Games. He also suggested, separately, that running in Moscow had helped bring down the Berlin Wall 10 years later, a remark that carries faint echoes of a condition psychologists like to call Hasselhoff’s Delusion.

Strange how things repeat themselves. When Coe was William Hague’s bagman back in the late 1990s one Tory MP described him as “nice but dim”, baffled by his energetically blunt insistence on being everywhere and doing everything without ever seeming to, you know, really get anything done. As Coe’s subsequent stellar success has proved, that Tory MP was clearly wrong. Or half-wrong. Or at least definitely not quite right.

It is worth keeping all this in mind, vaguely, at the end of a week of cold war-scale drama during which an intense Coe-related anxiety has gathered at the edge of things. Coe must act decisively. Coe will act decisively. Coe has acted decisively, but not decisively enough. Coe is/isn’t/could still be the man to clean up athletics/sport/the entire elite global power structure (delete according to level of delusion).

Sebastian Coe
Sebastian Coe, the head of the IAAF, finds himself in a difficult position over Russia’s widespread doping. Photograph: Artyom Korotayev/Itar-Tass Photo/Corbis

If there is some value in focusing on Coe in the fallout from Russia’s admission of Mutual Assured Doping it is perhaps mainly for his symbolic value. Indeed, there is something quite touching about the notion that Coe, as the head of the IAAF, may yet offer some kind of solution to all this; that in Coe (Englishman, celebrity, hammer of the Berlin Wall) there is still some vague hope of a transparently brokered, miraculously cleansing settlement.

Russia may or may not serve a full ban from athletics. It may or may not return in time for the Rio Olympics fully Wada-compliant, no longer doing the bad thing. The Coe purge may cut deep and hard. We will never fully know.

But one thing is sure. The idea that Coe is the ideal man to gouge out the poison, to go on and locate and destroy corruption elsewhere, still falls at the classic Catch-22 of all such investigations. Coe has been at the IAAF through what now look like eight years of bribes and cover-ups. It is the classic phone-hacking newspaper editor’s conundrum. Highly competent reformers don’t end up in senior management positions in corrupted organisations. Either you know it’s going on and are therefore complicit. Or you don’t and are unfit to fix it. There is no realistic middle ground here.

In his favour it does look as though Coe indeed had no idea what was going on under his nose. This is the same Coe who declared of the accusations of systemic doping against his friend Alberto Salazar: “I have no way of knowing the veracity of these allegations.” Really? No way? No way at all? The same Coe who gushed so protectively over his predecessor, a man who is currently under arrest for suspected corruption and money laundering.

The secrets of doping: how Russia makes its winners

Indeed, look closely enough and there is something very funny about the idea of Coe as a hammer of the overclass and enemy of vested interests. Consider for a moment the nature of the vast personal wealth Coe accrued from his involvement with the otherwise legacy-free London Olympics. Hilariously, in 2007 Coe even threatened to sue a TV documentary over suggestions he stood to profit personally from London 2012. And yet when Sebastian Coe Ltd, AKA the Complete Leisure Group, was sold to Chime, a sports PR agency that had made millions from contracts related to the Olympic Games, Chime noted that he was “one of the most high-profile figures in world sport” and said his involvement would help it become one of “the top three sports and entertainments businesses in the world”. Coe made millions on the deal and became a chairman of the company. Which is, of course, all fine. Or at least, to be expected.

Whatever the ultimate fate of Russia, what Coe offers is, above all, a sense of wider illumination. It is often assumed by the British that the carving-up of power and wealth are things that happen elsewhere. That if only we – the Brits, the FA, Seb Coe, David Cameron OE, HRH Prince William – could get on the inside things might finally change.

Perhaps it would be a good exercise to explain to a member of the Russian or Brazilian sporting political class that extreme personal enrichment from involvement in a taxpayer-funded sporting event is fine and different because we’re British.

Or to tell the many power-brokering oligarchs and royals and carbon kings currently domiciled in London that they have a monopoly on cronyism and the hoarding of power. It should at least raise a laugh in the dark. Right now we could all do with one of those.

The real issue here isn’t Russia or what Coe can or can’t achieve by IAAF sanction in the next 18 months. As Vladimir Putin suggested in his magnificently accusatory nostra culpa, as Dick Pound pointed out in his report, this is simply the tip of the iceberg. Just as beyond the current game of bluff and power-play diplomacy it feels, at times, as though the entire concept of sport – competition, collectivism, the marvel of human capacity – has started to putrefy a little, flesh melting off the bones, robot parts beginning to poke through.

All that really seems certain is that we are nowhere near the end of this. And that Afghanistan is still very much being invaded.


Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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