21 August 2015
Category Opinion
21 August 2015,

Athletics is going into its World Championships in Beijing not so much under a cloud as in a fog. None of us really know how things stand in the sport’s war on doping. I’ve read the allegations in the Sunday Times and the responses from the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF), and I’m still not completely clear on the truth of the matter.

Close examination of the Sunday Times coverage shows the IAAF has done more than it is being given credit for. The paper led with the claim that 800 of 5,000 athletes on the leaked medical database had recorded abnormal tests over a 12 year period, but its coverage buried the fact that only 70 of these had been since the IAAF introduced a biological passport in 2009. In other words, the ‘insufficient’ action taken by the IAAF led to a 75% reduction in abnormal tests.

What’s more, if the 63 blood-profile doping cases the IAAF says it has pursued since 2011 are among the 70 post-2009 cases found on the leaked data, we could be talking about less than ten suspicious athletes slipping through the net.

My own experience of the Sunday Times makes me sceptical about their tendency, at best, to play down facts that don’t suit their story, but I do recognise the IAAF has a case to answer, especially after its own apparent suppression of an unflattering report on doping by German academics. If they did that that in the belief they were protecting the sport, they were poorly advised – it’s far better to tell people the bad news yourself than wait for them to hear it from a hostile source.

So Seb Coe will have his hands full when he takes over as IAAF President – and he won’t have oodles of money to throw at the problem.

The IAAF is a poor relation in the family of sport: its budget of $60m is peanuts compared to FIFA’s $712m, and my worry is that the current doping controversy could leave athletics vulnerable to unhealthy commercial pressures.

In April, the IAAF controversially awarded the 2021 World Championships to Eugene in Nike’s home state of Oregon without a competitive process. How much influence Nike had on that decision is anybody’s guess, but we do know – by its own admission – that the IAAF felt under pressure to ‘access the most powerful economy in the world’ because the opportunity ‘may not arise again’.

This isn’t corruption in the cash-in-envelopes sense of the term, but when powerful countries and corporations have a sport over a negotiating barrel the effect can be the same.

Lord Coe is reported to have been tetchy when asked after his election about giving up roles with sports marketing agency CLM and Nike, but he really must shed those interests if he is to be uncompromising in extracting deals that serve rather than sully athletics.

By the time Lord Coe clocks-on as president at the end of the World Championships on August 30, we will have had more drama – and probably some controversy – but hopefully all of it will be about the action on the track and field.

Behind the fog of the doping crisis, British athletics has seen an exciting new generation emerging. Only a few weeks ago, 19-year-old Dina Asher-Smith became the first British woman to clock under 11seconds for 100m, giving us realistic medal hopes in the 200m, the event she has chosen to run in Beijing.

In the men’s sprints, Zharnel Hughes, C J Ujah and Richard Kilty – all making World Championship debuts – could join 2013 finalist James Dasaolu in challenging the US and Jamaican grip on individual medals.

Then, there’s the heptahlon where rising star Katarina Johnson-Thompson will battle for gold with returning mother Jessica Ennis-Hill and Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton.

And in the women’s high jump, 22-year-old Isobel Pooley could be in contention for a medal after setting a new British record of 1.97m this year to rank fifth in the world,

Of the more seasoned athletes, there are also plenty with medal potential such as Elidh Child (400m hurdles), Tiffany Porter (100m hurdles), Shara Procter (long jump), Greg Rutherford (long jump), Christine Ohuruogu (400m) and Robbie Grabarz (high jump).

And that’s before we get to Mo Farah, who has subdued the doping doubters by revealing his blood tests and is looking in good shape to retain his 5,000m and 10,000m titles.

The doping issue is not going to go away any time soon, but I for one will be watching the TV coverage of the World Championships as much as possible, enjoying the primal power of athletics to excite and entertain.

Steve Howell


Steve is author of Over The Line, the story of an Olympic athlete whose career is threatened by a police investigation into the steroid-related death of an old school friend.

Photo above: Britain’s young women sprinters take a selfie on their way to Beijing.

Over The Line in paperback (£7.99) is on sale at Waterstones and other bookshops or online via this website (post free), Amazon or www.gwales.com. A Kindle edition of Over The Line is available at £3.49 on Amazon.

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