The tragicomedy of athletics staggers onwards. Round the bend, the sight of part two of WADAs report into IAAF corruption and Russian state sponsored doping looms into view. Former WADA chief Dick Pound, a stern sort not given to hyperbole, has already provided a little teaser. Apparently the sequel has a “wow factor” and is “even more explosive” than part one. Given the contents of the material released at the end of last year, that’s some going. I’ll certainly be watching. Thursday promises to be a long day for Sebastian Coe’s PR team.
In a bold, pre-emptive move UK athletics has released a 14 point manifesto to clean up the sport. Most eye-catching of all is their proposal to nullify all existing world records. A complete re-boot. It’s a divisive proposition that has predictably come in for a barrage of criticism. Whilst the idea is a flawed one – more on which later – and unlikely to ever be adopted, UK athletics (UKA) deserves credit. In publishing the manifesto UKA has at last started a meaningful conversation about the legitimacy crisis that faces athletics. Finally, a recognition that the mess the sport finds itself in is so dreadful that it can only be addressed by year zero, radical thinking
Yet, the proposal and accompanying statement from UKA exec Ed Warner illustrate one of the more curious aspects of this sorriest of sagas. In presenting the document, Warner said “the integrity of athletics was challenged as never before in 2015” and that it was at its “lowest point for decades”. However, the world records idea is itself a tacit admission that the sport has really had no integrity for the past 30 or so years. It might just be plumbing new depths.
This contradiction fits a more general pattern throughout the current crisis. The strange narrative that there is somehow something new or different here. That athletics is in crisis all of a sudden. That the public is only now slowly waking up to the scale of drug use. True, the complicity of the sport’s governing body in the whole sordid business is a novel feature. But, the fact of drug abuse being endemic in athletics has been well established for a very long time.
Athletics has lurched from one drug crisis to the next over the past quarter of a decade. The end of the cold war brought to light the scale of state sponsored doping in the Eastern bloc. Dr Wade Exum told us all about the extent of drug use in US athletics throughout the 1980s and the subsequent cover-ups. In the BALCO scandal we learned about designer pharmacists and commercial labs. Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay, Kelli White, Rashid Ramzi, Trevor Graham. This could go on and on. Russian state sponsored doping and IAAF corruption is merely the latest chapter in a long running saga and by no means the seediest.
It’s this longer term perspective that explains the slow receding of athletics from the public consciousness. Just as drugs in the sport did not start and end with East Germans or Ben Johnson, athletics’ fate has not and will not be decided by recent events alone. The public’s faith in what they watch has been steadily eroded by scandal after scandal. Athletics has been in a state of near permanent crisis for over two decades.
This is the point that I think has been missed, perhaps wilfully, by many involved in the sport. They underestimate the extent to which athletics has already been discredited by much of the watching public. There is a degree of denial about the scale and nature of the problem. It was evident in the relentless focus on Justin Gatlin at last year’s World Championships and the embarrassing celebrations of the BBC team at his defeat. It was maddening to watch them reduce the issue to such a simplistic and personal level (with the honourable exception of Michael Johnson) It was also there in Sebastian Coe’s bizarrely defensive reaction to the Sunday Times’ allegations as a “declaration of war on my sport”. Athletics has a huge task on its hands to win people back over.
It’s in this context that UKAs efforts should be applauded.
At the very least it seeks to address one of the great absurdities in all of sport, let alone athletics. A cursory glance down the list of current world records and half a dozen immediately jump out. Everybody knows they are tainted. Nobody to this day has come remotely close to them, let alone bettered them. Yet there they are, etched in time and serving as a reminder in the bottom right hand corner of the TV screen that athletics is dirty. Regardless of anything else it’s one of the single biggest factors holding back women’s athletics.
There are some obvious practical problems with the idea. Chief amongst them is that athletics is presently in no position from a testing point of view to declare that any results achieved after a re-set should be considered any more valid than those achieved before. This is enough on its own to sink the proposal as a viable option.
The best suggestion I’ve encountered is the idea of making any records provisional, with a set window for re-testing before they are ratified as official world records. A drawback to this is what an acceptable arbitrary time limit would be. A flashing ‘NEW PROVISIONAL WORLD RECORD’ on screen doesn’t send out the best message or hold quite the same dramatic appeal either.
Much hard thinking remains and easy answers don’t exist. Still, UKA has been brave in taking a lead. Though its ideas are imperfect it’s heartening to finally see someone in athletics give an indication they understand the existential threat the sport faces and the type of thinking it will take to turn things round.
All eyes on Thursday.