Athletics doping scandal: Lord Coe must salvage credibility

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Russia could be suspended - Coe

As the man responsible for organising London 2012, Lord Coe is used to chairing important meetings.

But when he hosts an IAAF council conference call on Friday evening at a secret location in London, he will be aware that not only is his reputation on the line, but that of his sport.

Coe and his 26 council colleagues must decide whether to suspend Russia from international athletics as punishment for the World Anti-Doping Agency's (Wada) damning report. They are almost certain to do so.

This is not a decision to take lightly. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the sport's governing body, has never before banned a nation for cheating.

A few countries have been suspended for government interference, but not for state-sponsored doping. And this is Russia, one of the richest and most powerful sporting nations on earth, both as host and medallist.

Next year alone, Russia is meant to be hosting May's World Race Walking championships in Cheboksary, and the Junior World Championships in Kazan in July. Both may have to be staged elsewhere if the threat of a suspension is carried out. And what sort of message would isolation send out with the 2018 World Cup on the horizon?

But given that the IAAF itself is reeling from devastating accusations that it was an accomplice to the cheating, the pressure to be seen to act decisively, to set a proper example and to establish a real deterrent - as requested by one of the Wada report authors Dick Pound - has become intense.

Former Olympic 1500m champion Sebastian Coe
Former Olympic 1500m champion Lord Coe became the new president of the IAAF in August 2015

The IAAF's Constitutional Objects include "eradicating doping from the sport and safeguarding the authenticity and integrity of athletics". Russia appears to have flouted such a pledge, so a suspension seems certain.

And with Pound admitting that all this is merely "the tip of the iceberg", if a precedent is set, then further bans in other countries and in other sports could well follow.

A hearing will have to be held before any provisional suspension is fully signed off, but with that regarded as a formality, the main question of course is when such a ban would be lifted. The IAAF may well make the suspension indefinite, but set out conditions that Russia must meet before it is allowed to be reinstated.

The sense is Russia will simply do what is required, say it has cleaned up its act, and be back in time for the big one - the Rio Olympics - next summer, making it look like a mere slap on the wrist. That is hardly something that will help win back confidence in the sport - or its new leader.

Many will want the Russian federation to receive the same punishment that athletes get for cheating - a four-year ban. But International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has already said he expects to see Russia participating in Rio.

Even Pound suggested something similar. And with Russian President Vladimir Putin striking a rather conciliatory tone, it is easy to see where this is heading. In March 2016, the IAAF council will meet again in Cardiff.

Do not be surprised if that is when Russia is able to prove it is now Wada-compliant again, and allowed back into the fold, to the inevitable howls of protest that athletics has not been tough enough.

But whatever the IAAF decides to do, for its president Lord Coe, a dream job as the most powerful man in athletics risks becoming a nightmare.

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Russia doping crisis in 60 seconds

The fact he was an IAAF vice-president for eight years before taking over from Lamine Diack - now under investigation by French prosecutors for accepting bribes to cover up doping - has led many to question whether he was either complicit in the wrongdoing, or, as he insists, just ignorant of it.

Either way, it does not reflect well on a man who must now somehow rebuild trust in his sport. The last thing Coe needs is to appear like track and field's version of Fifa's Michel Platini or cycling's Pat McQuaid - an insider tarnished by association.

Those close to Coe say his role as vice-president involved just a few meetings a year at the IAAF, that for most of that time he was far too busy organising the London 2012 Olympics to be across all that was going on in Monaco and he is genuinely stunned and horrified by what has been exposed.

They also point out the criminal investigation into extortion allegations restricts what he can say and he should be judged on what he does now he is in power, rather than during his election campaign, when winning votes was the priority.

All this may be true. But others make the point Coe has not helped himself. Why, they ask, did he lavish praise on his "spiritual" leader Diack in August when he succeeded him, despite plenty of warning signs - the outgoing president's son (along with other senior IAAF officials) had stood down last December, already under investigation by the IAAF's own ethics committee.

Why did he describe media reports of a cover-up as "a declaration of war", and pour scorn on the "so-called experts" used by German broadcaster ARD and the Sunday Times to analyse leaked blood samples?

Coe has said "it was not a criticism of any journalism or any media, it was simply a reaction to the selective use of data to call into question the reputation of clean athletes".

But why does he continue to refuse an interview with Hajo Seppelt, the German investigative journalist who exposed the scandal?

And why - when the IAAF had already charged several senior officials (including its anti-doping chief), and when it was already widely known that Wada's report would be terrible news for Russia - did he tell the BBC's Sportsweek programme on Sunday he would rather not ban countries - before hearing the full commission report?

He was then forced into a humiliating U-turn the following evening, when a windswept Coe arrived at TV studios in Millbank, Westminster, and was put through a series of media grillings.

During a long and overwhelmingly successful career as an athlete, politician and administrator, Coe has faced plenty of challenges, from chairing Fifa's ethics committee to advising former Conservative party leader William Hague. But nothing quite like this. The aura appears to have gone. The judgment seems, at times, to be missing.

Despite concerns over a potential conflict of interest, Coe continues to refuse to give up his £100,000-a-year role as a special ambassador for sportswear giant Nike. Coe insists the arrangement is merely to support a corporate social responsibility project. And it is important to note the IAAF presidency is an unpaid role, so he has to earn a living elsewhere.

But it does not help that Nike supplies Russian athletes with their kit, or that Coe appears to have a permanent parking bay at the company's headquarters. It does not help that their leading coach Alberto Salazar is under investigation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) over alleged doping violations, which he denies. It does not help that they sponsor two-time doper, US sprinter Justin Gatlin. It does not help that Eugene, a city with close links to the company, was awarded the 2021 athletics World Championships without a vote.

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Paul Sinton-Hewitt is the founder of Parkrun, the increasingly popular, non-profit running movement, that boasts two million registered members and 125,000 weekly runners. He describes Coe's Nike links as "unbelievable and bizarre".

"Seb says he is doing everything in his power to clean up the sport," he told the BBC.

"I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and to support him if he disinvests himself from any organisations which might have an influence over any decision that he may have to make. This means he should remove all personal ties with Nike - and with (sports marketing company) CSM.

"Without this break I will continue to question his independence. He has to be whiter than white. It is absolutely wrong he should be getting income from anyone who could force him to be compromised. He now has very little time to prove he's the right man for the job."

Others are equally critical. Renee Anne Shirley, the whistleblower who exposed Jamaica's lack of testing levels told the Herald that Coe "had his head in the sand".

British 400m runner Martyn Rooney - Team GB's captain at the World Championships in Beijing this summer - told the BBC: "It is pretty disrespectful to everyone involved in athletics to believe that the vice-president did not know what was going on within IAAF.

"That is his job and if he believes he did not know what was going on he has not been doing his job properly."

Coe is not responsible for the crisis athletics finds itself in. It is not his fault that the worst doping scandal in sports history has been exposed so early in his tenure, or that athletics was already struggling for fans and sponsors with competition from much bigger and more popular sports, let alone now. It is not his fault that doping is a global problem.

He is not to blame for the fact Wada seems drastically underfunded, and chronically compromised by a lack of independence from the very sports it has to get tough with.

He is not to blame that the IOC signed a $7.75bn (£5.1bn) deal with NBC last year but only gives about $15m (£9.9m) a year to Wada (half its budget), or that Wada is not responsible for the testing of samples, with many labs under the jurisdiction of national governments or federations, with the obvious potential for a conflict of interest.

It is not his fault that lifetime bans are not legally enforceable, and that in so few countries is doping a criminal offence. To be fair to Coe, he has been calling for an independent body to handle drug testing in track and field for some time.

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Russian doping 'worse than thought'

It was Wada who failed to act on the information offered to its officials by Russian whistleblower Vitaly Stepanov back in 2013, and then an expose about Russian doping in the Mail on Sunday the same year. Coe cannot force the anti-doping community to follow UK Anti-Doping's lead and place more emphasis on intelligence and investigation.

It is not down to him that the resources for testing regimes around the world are so inconsistent, and so simple for the cheats to evade, or that sports appear so incapable of running themselves properly, so vulnerable to people for whom power and wealth seem more important than integrity.

It is not down to him that the boom in the money and status of sport has so incentivised cheating and political exploitation.

In time these issues must be addressed but right now they offer Coe little comfort. He got his way and was elected to the job he wanted. Now it is his responsibility to salvage whatever credibility is left in his sport. He owes it to the clean athletes around the world who dedicate their lives to honest competition.

He owes it to the volunteers who give up time for the sport they love and to the fans who will watch the action in Rio and wonder whether they can believe what they are seeing any longer.

Athletics is yet to hit rock-bottom. That will come in due course when Wada's commission reveals more sordid details of this unbelievable scandal. This goes beyond Russia. But at least this week's events could just be a catalyst for change. Coe said he wanted to help his sport. Now he has the chance.

Once, Coe may have thought he would be remembered for winning races. Later, that the triumph of London 2012 was how he would be judged. Instead, it turns out his days of reckoning are now.

Sadly the task is proving harder than he could ever have imagined.