Last year at this time I was in Durban, South Africa to give a keynote address at a Global Athletics Conference (GAC 2014). Ato Boldon was the conference emcee, and he opened with “if you love something, you are supposed to be critical of it.” With that in mind, some thoughts on the eventful goings on in this second week of November 2015.
WADA’s scathing report on the systematic drug abuse and perfidy within Russian athletics wasn’t just an indictment of one federation. Coming on the heels of the arrest of former IAAF President Lamine Diack by French authorities for allegedly taking bribes to cover up drug offenses, the WADA Report simply underlined the scope of the moral crisis facing the sport.
On the Athlete Biz website, ZAP Fitness director Pete Rea asked, “Has Machiavellianism become such a part of the DNA of sport that ends justify any and all means? I cannot help but worry about our next generation of athletes. For if our youth sees those in sport they wish to emulate acting this way – trying to win at any cost – our sport could very well be doomed.”
Pete, while there may have been an inevitability to Diack’s arrest and the WADA Report on Russia, both merely follow a long line of betrayals across a wide swath of the planet by any and every institution you can name.
(This circumstance is reflected domestically in the Republican presidential contest where, to date, outsiders Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson continue to hold greater than 50% support among a base less concerned with policy expertise than governing virginity.
Dr. Ben Carson
No wonder Jeb Bush can’t find traction. He governed quite effectively in a large, diverse state. He’s screwed.)
For its part, the IAAF had traded in lies and deceit for so long that the time for the reaping had finally come. But to think it is limited to athletics or Russia is to be willfully naïve. Consider how lax out-of-competition drug testing is in places like Kenya, and how compromised is their federation. In so many places governance has been little more than a business opportunity to exploit rather than a responsibility to uphold.
Yet the former Olympic champion was the number two man in the IAAF since 2007 in the midst of all the mendacity. What’s more, he was chairman of FIFA’s independent watchdog ethics commission. But now he knows? Now he’s shocked? That’s pretty good. Good enough for the role of Sergeant Schultz in any Hogan’s Heroes re-make.
Who in the sport with his or her head anywhere near the ground hasn’t heard and smelled these types of allegations ad infinitum? Drug cover ups go back decades, with coaches and managers and federation officials all involved. It is one reason WADA was created, to separate regulation from interest.
But by my reckoning, these Russian troubles, while acute, are by no means aberrant. Instead, they are but a particularly striking form of an all-too-human norm.
When I first traveled to Poland in the 1980s I visited Auschwitz. What struck me as I toured the horror was that it was the Germans who perpetrated this crime against humanity. The Germans, the top end of Western Civilization, homeland to science and philosophy. If the Germans could sink to this level, then Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps represented the entropy against which we must all fight in a constant rear-guard action against our lesser selves.
When I subsequently visited Ethiopia in the late 1990s with our TV production team, we kept running headlong into bureaucratic barriers to our filming requests. Not that they ever said no, you can’t film there, just never yes, either. At first it was simply confusing. But what we were too naïve to understand at the time was that between the “never-no, never-yes” stance lie the always necessary personal “honorarium” that would turn the system to your favor.
It was never said outright, but always implied just below the surface. Finally — DUH! — you figured it out, and dealt with it as you found necessary, either by complying or skirting and hoping you didn’t get caught.
When I was in Kenya for the first time driving from Nairobi to Eldoret, I kept wondering why the roads were so beat up and bad.
“There is a five-ton load limit on these roads,” explained our driver. “But the politicians own all the ten-ton trucks, which rip up the road surface. But they don’t have to comply with the five-ton limit.”
Is that story apocryphal? Maybe, but it sure rings true, especially when you consider that in a nation with an $1800 annual wage, Members of Parliament voted themselves a salary of $75,000 per year. That’s the system 2012 Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir is trying to fight, and good luck to him.
Just as we see discrimination practiced in every corner of the globe (which, BTW, is how we can be certain we are all equal), so too is one man’s corruption just another man’s way of doing business as usual.
I recall one shoe company man trying to sign a federation to a shoe and apparel deal. Well, not surprisingly, there were also a number of necessary side deals for the officials – honoraria for speeches never given — that predicated the company’s deal with the federation.
And if you think it isn’t fair or on the up and up, they’ll look at you like, “You want to play or not?” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, fair play is a luxury of the rich, but venality is every man’s possession.
As one former marathoner turned federation man told me years ago when I asked why he would want to get involved, “you don’t change the system from the outside, you change it from the inside.”
But it never happens. Instead, the minute you get inside you get co-opted or neutered. The system is too big, too self-protecting. As another friend familiar with the federation trade says, “There are too many people with too many hands in the pie. They have no motivation to change. Everyone has some sh** on them, and plenty of cause to keep quiet and keep the system humming.”
We see it in Washington D.C. all the time, we hear it in all the presidential debates. People come in with the best intentions, but they soon buckle under the sheer weight of the system. The tone of it was captured perfectly in the wonderfully cynical 1980s British TV show Yes, Minister.
Episode Four: The Moral Dimension:
Hacker: Are you saying that winking at corruption is government policy?
Sir Humphrey: No, no, Minister! It could never be government policy. That is unthinkable! Only government practice.
So there we have it. It is the bureaucrats, the people on the inside, who run the operation, while ministers, even Prime Ministers, come and go.
We can say the drugs and corruption are wrong, but as Dick Pound’s WADA investigation told it, it wasn’t the science of the Russian lab that broke down, it was the human factor, corruption in exchange for cash. Where is the anti-dote for that poison?
This is 2015, these NGB organizations were built in and for the 19th century when the world was divvied up much differently, and wink-wink, nod-nod was kept in the smoky backroom privacy of men’s clubs where they belonged.
But like that olde tyme religion, this governance model was made for that olde tyme. The model is no longer relevant. In fact, simple irrelevance would be good enough to continue, something on the order of the Hippocratic, “first, do no harm”. Instead this has been a long, cynical hollowing out of the system from the inside.
The last of the great oligarchs thought they were exempt, beyond the arm of any law. Recall when former 400-meter world record holder Butch Reynolds sued the IAAF for libel in 1992 for what he considered a botched drug positive test and suspension. Well, a court in Ohio ruled in his favor for $27 million. The old IAAF boys in Monaco just laughed. That court had no jurisdiction over them. No court had a jurisdiction over them, and they acted accordingly.
As long as they held the keys to the kingdom via the IOC, there was no choice but to go through them. Then they sealed themselves in amber by giving every nation a vote, which means, like with the United Nations, with more involved less gets done.
And with the athletes isolated, first as serfs, then as independent contractors, and agents working via federation sanction, the power brokers would have no worries with them, either (see Nick Symmonds circa 2015 World Championships).
But it finally got too corrupt, and all the raw sewage has backed up. And now the IAAF says it wants to clean out its own stall? It’s gone a little too far for that. It will be interesting to see if Lord Coe survives. But as Bruce Hormsby once sang, “That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change.”