Nations have been turning citizens into soldiers for as long as anyone can remember. And over time, no matter the nation, the process hasn’t changed a great deal, as it has proven tried and true.
First, the military breaks down the individual recruits – cutting off their hair, dressing them alike, housing them together in close quarters – in order to build a cohesive unit. Then they teach precision through constant drilling until a finely tuned military force has been forged.
One of the first lessons in unit cohesion is everyone is responsible for everyone else. And if one makes a mistake, all pay the price. For instance, if one recruit decides he doesn’t want to take a shower every day in boot camp, it eventually falls to the other recruits to drag him to the showers for a late night cold water scrubbing with a hard bristled brush. It is not the drill sergeant who does this, it is the rank recruit’s own fellow privates. That cold-water scrubbing tends to get the message across. If one recruit screws up in training, the entire platoon does extra pushups or low crawl. Eventually, life for the screw-up is made intolerable by his fellow recruits until he gets his act in order.
Bringing this analogy into the world of athletics, until the athletes themselves take some responsibility to deal with their own in this matter of doping, the situation will never be resolved. Every athlete only wants to train and race, total focus. And that is fully understandable. But that only works if the sport is in good health, and this one is not.
This week, following the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England – where a number of Russian athletes competed under a neutral banner while the rest of the federation was banned – the IAAF Council accepted a recommendation from the IAAF Taskforce not to reinstate the Russian Athletics Federation. At that council meeting, IAAF president Sebastian Coe expressed frustration with the lack of closure that continues to hold Russian compliance in limbo. The following was Letsrun.com quote of the day from an InsidetheGames article covering the IAAF Council meeting.
“We can’t just sit here if there are still gaps in the verification criteria forever and a day. It is a costly and time consuming process. Unless dramatic progress is made and we genuinely hope it is being made, we will have to review in our Council meeting in July, the status of the [Russian] neutral competitors and the potential for the Congress to decide upon the ultimate sanction, which is expulsion. It is in nobody’s interest to be sitting here in no man’s land. There is no ambiguity about the criteria and the criteria was agreed. We want the country and their athletes back, but we want the world to be in a position to trust.”
For their part, Russian officials have repeatedly said they will not accept the IAAF TaskForce findings, leaving the matter of reinstatement at loggerheads.
As we have seen, the ongoing doping scandals that have defined this sport for so long seem intractable by the current governing model. And while the IAAF is no longer under criminal leadership, it isn’t exactly 99 44/100ths Ivory Soap pure either, as its current president Lord Coe stands accused of misleading a British parliamentary inquiry about what and when he knew of Russian doping allegations. And allowing certain Russian athletes unaligned with their federation to compete in Birmingham under a neutral banner only obfuscates the problem.
We also saw in Birmingham how minor medalists Laura Muir (GBR) and Sifan Hassan (NED) snubbed gold medalist Genzebe Dibaba (ETH) on the 1500m award podium for her association with Coach Jama Aden who was arrested in a hotel outside Barcelona in June 2016 as part of a joint anti-doping operation conducted by Catalan police, the IAAF, and the Spanish anti-doping agency. That small gesture of disregard by two athletes against another was a start, but like army recruits looking to clean up their barracks, it has to go deeper.
In 2018, the IAAF is adopting a new worldwide ranking system that mirrors that of golf and tennis. But what those sports have that athletics doesn’t have is a professional athletes’ association, the PGA and ATP. At some point, it has to be the athletes themselves who act out, not just speak out. As long as the athletes continue to allow outside agencies to be their only form of governance, they will continue to be frustrated pawns in a game in which they are the pieces but not the players.
Only when enough athletes stand as one, will the sport will begin to scrub itself clean.