WHEN LORD SEBASTIAN Coe took the helm of the International Association of Athletics Federations he knew he wasn’t signing up for a tranquil voyage.
But even he must have been a little shocked at the scale and impact of the tsunami which broke when the World Anti-Doping Agency published a report alleging statesponsored doping in Russia.
The normally natty nobleman was pictured looking dishevelled and, for once, a little shaken and uncertain as he faced a barrage of hostile questions, most of which were, in the immediate circumstances, unanswerable. Given Coe’s opportunistic stance during the IAAF elections, when he had dismissed doping allegations as a declaration of war on athletics by the media, and his gushing public appreciation of disgraced outgoing president Lamine Diack, Coe clearly has a massive hole to dig himself and his sport out of.
It is difficult to see how much further athletics can slide
As few sports stories have ever received more media coverage there’s little point going over the details. However, what the report revealed is that the testing and control procedures in use to date are clearly vulnerable to abuse by those determined to cheat, that the problem is not confined to Russia and that nobody believes it is confined to athletics.
There have, by and large, been two types of reaction to the report. While some threw their hands up in the air and predicted the end of sport as we know it, others greeted it as the confirmation of long-held suspicions and an opportunity to consider new approaches.
It’s often said that solutions tend to be found for problems when things can’t get any worse. Of course we don’t know whether athletics has hit rock bottom but, if it hasn’t, it is difficult to see how much further it can slide.
So this is the point where the IAAF, WADA and all of the sports community renews its efforts to eradicate what all parties not profiting from it believes to be the biggest threat facing sport and, by extension, all of the businesses which serve and feed off it. All of which made it difficult to understand WADA’s response to a new blood testing system developed in the US with the help of millions of dollars of public money.
Imagine a situation in which the blood of every athlete taking part in an event is tested in the 20 minutes before it starts so that the results are known in minutes, allowing those who fail to be disqualified.
Imagine that each test costs just a few dollars and that each is instantly shared with governing bodies, athlete entourages and doctors via the internet and stored in the Cloud. Imagine that the kit is portable, allowing for competition and out-of-competition testing.
On the face of it, you have imagined a world in which drug cheats don’t get to compete. The kit that produces these results has been developed by a company called Venica Fluid Science. In the interests of full disclosure, I know and have worked with one of its principals in separate businesses over the years, but I have no business relationship with Venica.
Venica has rock solid research and development credentials and the ‘science stuff’ is led by one of the most respected people in the field. Commercially, the system has not been developed primarily to catch cheats in sport as there is far more money to be made from its application in medicine, workplace testing and other fields.
However, they have alerted WADA to the work they are doing and were amazed, if not dismayed, to receive this response: “A portable device for onsite analysis is not considered to be of significant added value in the anti-doping field.”
Really? Given that the current system is expensive, laborious and vulnerable, that sounds like far too casual a brush-off. The mantra of sports governing bodies is ‘protect clean athletes’ and it is difficult to see what can provide better protection than a system that will stop cheats getting to the starting line. Sport needs to consider significant changes to protect athletes and preserve its appeal to participants, audiences and sponsors.
Doping threatens the credibility of sport at every level and its governing bodies and agencies have a self-interest in thoroughly investigating anything that can help them beat the cheats. If they lose the battle, the future for support as a commercial force is uncertain at best. However, the apocalyptic notion that it will kill it stone dead ignores the primal nature of sport and the human instinct to play and compete.
Three years ago this month I visited the enormous Zaatari refugee camp on Jordan’s border with Syria. It remains a desolate place which exists under a cloud of shattered lives. Only one thing represented normality: kids playing. That’s something the drug cheats, match fixers and others who prey upon sport will never kill