So on the same day that WADA unanimously declares Kenya non-compliant with its anti-doping code, thereby threatening the East African running juggernaut with exclusion from this summer’s Rio Olympics (along with Russia, which was also declared non-compliant last November) we also have word that organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic bid were alleged to have made a “seven-figure payment” to an account controlled by the son of former IAAF President Lamine Diack, who, himself, was arrested last year by French authorities on corruption and money laundering charges, over allegations he took payments for deferring sanctions against Russian drugs cheaters. And the beat just goes on and on and on.
I don’t know, maybe Sebastian Coe is the IAAF’s last best chance. But these latest two bombshells make you wonder if anyone involved in this filthy sport can truly be the cleansing agent needed to disinfect the body politic?
And perhaps that reflects how bad the situation really is. Looking at the entirety of the WADA Independent Commission report, along with Commission chair Dick Pound’s subsequent public support for Seb Coe as new IAAF president, the only judgement one can make is that there seems to be little appetite for the kind of wholesale reconstruction that these reports suggest is necessary.
Perhaps the IAAF is too big to fail, for what could possibly step in to take its place on the scale necessary, especially in an Olympic year? Besides, it isn’t the IAAF staff that was found at fault. To the contrary, it was two staff members who helped bring the ugliness to the surface.
But I can’t keep from thinking that the salvation of the sport lies with the events, both road and track, because it is the events that form the spine of the sport. Like other successful sports that moved from a strictly amateur formulation to include a separate professional division, athletics needs to establish a new protocol. Events are the linking elements. They have the money, connections, roots, and at the moment the necessary integrity. Athletes flow through their architecture with a governance umbrella established over a hundred years ago to govern it.
But as we have seen, that governance model has been perverted, tending toward self-consumption and corruption. You’ll never get that flaw out of human interaction totally, of course, but you must try every once in a while. And that time has been announcing itself to athletics for quite some time now, but to no avail.
Taking a long (even generous) view, you can’t even blame the individuals involved. Really, as counter-intuitive as that sounds, Lamine Diack, his two sons, Papa Massata and Khalil, and Diack’s personal lawyer, Habib Cissé, the cabal that formed what the Independent Committee called an “informal illegitimate governance structure outside the formal governance structure”, was a product of the system. And you think they were the first and only? And you tell me, has there ever been an athlete who readily admitted to taking drugs except as a means to “level the playing field”, the assumption being that everyone does it?
It’s like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. Sure he was dirty. But so was everyone else in the top 20. So, all we had was our roided-up guy beating their roided-up guys. Which is it, then, the chicken or the egg? Because this light will draw these moths, this pollen will draw these bees, and this organization will sprout these weeds.
What the sport needs is a complete re-modeling that reflects what other sports have already done successfully, separating governance and development from conducting professional touring, because it is in the realm of commerce where the problems arise.
The structure is already in place, it just hasn’t been tied together. You have some of the top road events in the world already branded as the Abbott World Marathon Majors, and you have enough events and structure within the Diamond League track season to create real self-directed pro tours. What seems evident is that it can’t go on the way it is.
In a recent report on kid’s running programs, Running USA lamented how many youth running programs operate primarily on a regional or local level, thereby losing out on the synergy a cooperative national program might engender.
But the way America’s youth programs operate is no more than a reflection of the problem athletics has shown in all latitudes, the fragmentation of the product base. Nothing ever coheres around a unified field theory. And now we are seeing the participation numbers that masked the ills of the sport for the last two decades begin to diminish, too, as a new generation finds different avenues along which to recreate.
I attended a number of invitational track meets this spring here in California. The University of California San Diego’s Triton Invitational alone listed 1700 athletes in 216 events over two days, creating 45 pages of results. But none of it amounted to anything beyond 216 individual races.
Though he set an all-time NBA record of 402 three-pointers this season, Steph Curry was not chucking up three-pointers trying to see how many he can make from how far out as a guy on the other side of the court does the same. That’s a once-a-year All-Star Game exhibition, and it’s fun. But for the rest of the season and now into the playoffs Curry is chucking up threes trying to score points for his Golden State Warriors as they attempt to repeat as NBA champions. Get it?
That is the major hurdle all aspects of the sport must overcome. The athletes need to unionize, the events need to establish a competition circuit with a narrative outcome, and governance needs to be restricted to non-commercial aspects of oversight.
Until such a union of interests can be established, the fragmented state of the sport will tend toward the kind of dissolution reflected in the two WADA-funded Independent Commission reports, and the drip, drip, drip of scandal that is threatening to slowly drown the entire enterprise.