Oh what a tangled web.
I’m not going to say that the crisis facing world athletics is worse than that facing world football. They’re on a par, and they’re cut from the same cloth. They both show a crisis of leadership, governance and culture. The question in this case is whether Lord Sebastian Coe is up to the job.
When investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt for German TV network ARD, together with The Sunday Times, made public allegations about a sanctioned, systemic doping regime and cover-up for athletes in Russia, Seb Coe did what people in power in sport always do: shoot the messenger. I wrote about it here.
Coe denigrated two experts – both Aussies as it turns out – Michael Ashenden and Robin Parisotto. At the time, Coe was in the middle of his campaign to become IAAF President and he couldn’t afford to upset the apple cart.
Michael and Robin were right. Hajo, ARD and The Sunday Times were right. They are not some anonymous social media crank with delusions of fame and grandeur in a suburban bedroom somewhere, but serious professional anti-doping blood experts and serious journalists.
However, unlike Sepp Blatter, who has been in charge at FIFA for decades, Coe has the benefit of being the ‘new boy on the block’ at the IAAF. He is also an outstanding elite athlete who wasn’t involved in doping and who is not corrupt, as far as we know. From that perspective, he comes to the role with some credit in his bank.
I stress some, because if Coe is going to rescue athletics from its ‘darkest hour’ and restore any of semblance of a reputation, then he also needs to address these six personal matters.
- Lamine Diack
It was only three months ago that Coe praised his IAAF predecessor, Lamine Diack who was arrested on the weekend for accepting bribes from the Russians, as world athletics’ “spiritual president”. I’m not suggesting that Coe ought to have known about Diack’s extra-curricular activities but the rest of the world was given a big clue by Marius Vizer back in April.
Coe needs to acknowledge he was wrong.
- FIFA role
Coe chaired the infamous FIFA Ethics Committee for three years from 2006-2009. As the inimitable Andrew Jennings wrote: “Coe achieved nothing at FIFA that anyone can remember. The thieves stole, the bribes flowed unhindered. Panorama tried to interview him but Coe fled.”
Coe needs to explain why he said or did nothing at his time in the FIFA hierarchy.
- Nike relationship
How can anyone be an independent President of the IAAF and be sponsored by Nike? I can’t imagine how Coe can possibly think this is acceptable to anyone except he and Nike. If Coe can’t see it, Nike – supposedly a great American company which prides itself on its business integrity – should do the right thing.
If Coe can’t withdraw from this sponsorship, Nike should withdraw it from him.
- Chime Communications
Coe is Executive Chairman of a significant communications company. One of their clients is the President of Turkmenistan.
It is worth noting that Turkmenistan is not a secular democracy, it doesn’t have free elections and it is subject to authoritarian presidential rule by someone who sees himself in the job for life. Don’t just take my word for it – read what Amnesty International has to say.
Is this good company to keep? I say this as someone who is also Executive Chairman of a company. I pick and choose whom I will do business with. I am prepared to debate my decisions if they’re controversial, and listen to other viewpoints. Coe should do the same, as it’s hard to understand this one.
There is a broader issue also. How can the President of the IAAF also be Chairman of a major communications company, which includes athlete management as one of its business units?
It’s one or the other, not both!
On the one hand, there is an eminent person like Dick Pound who has delivered an independent report that takes no prisoners.
On the other hand, there is the IOC-appointed President of WADA, Sir Craig Reedie, who only last April was busy wringing his hands – metaphorically – in correspondence with Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Sports Minister (and, by the way, FIFA Executive Committee member).
It’s not a question of what type of WADA world sport merely wants. It’s the type of WADA world sport needs. I suggest the Dick Pound style of leadership may be more beneficial for sport in the long run than the Craig Reedie version. The IAAF should be demanding change.
- Treatment of whistleblowers
Finally, I want to return to Michael Ashenden and Robin Parisotto. The way Coe dealt with them following the ARD report is what lesser people and organisations do to whistleblowers – like FIFA.
They told the truth. They are experts in the field.
Quite simply, athletics and Coe owe them an apology. And, by the way, ARD and The Sunday Times were not “waging a war” on athletics. They were acting in the public interest.
Dealing with these issues satisfactorily would be a start to restoring some confidence and credibility in Lord Coe, ahead of the mammoth task of doing the same for athletics.
My fear is that he isn’t up to the task. I fear that he is another one of those disappointing and all-too-common ambitious sports administrators who turn a blind eye to the corruption and bad behaviour going on around him.
It is how people progress up the very smelly pole of world sports administration. I’ve seen so many people like it – football is littered with them! – and Coe hasn’t yet reached his ultimate goal as President of the IOC. How many more people does he have to please and appease before he reaches it?
Or … will he be the leader that not only the IAAF and athletics need, but which the global community so desperately wants to see?
Steve Cram said of Coe’s 1984 Olympics 1500 metres win that: “On the day there was only one man and on the day Seb Coe was that man.”
Let’s hope Seb Coe is that man again now.