This is not an easy thing to say, especially for a former fan of the English middle-distance great whose running career took off in 1977, the precise year when my interest in athletics turned into obsession, but Sebastian Coe has truly made a fool of himself.
Last week, headed by Coe, the IAAF suspended Russia from international competition due to ‘systematic doping’. In other words, 87 years after banning ‘doping’ (which neither Coe nor anybody else has ever defined in a meaningful manner) the IAAF established that indiscriminate use of performance-enhancing drugs is rampant – in one particular country! ‘We are clear that cheating at any level will not be tolerated’, Coe opined, according to news reports.
As an ex-athlete who knows the world of elite sport inside out, Coe can hardly claim to be surprised at drug-related discoveries. Cheating has thrived in athletics for 87 years, which merely means that the sport ought to adopt pre-1928 principles and abolish restrictions which were never respected by the stakeholders.
In Coe’s heyday, in-competition urine control already existed, but knowledgeable athletes had no reason to get concerned about adverse findings. Performance-enhancing substances and techniques such as testosterone, human growth hormone and blood transfusion could not even be detected at the time. In Britain, for example, out-of-competition testing wasn’t introduced until the late 1980s.
Besides, many if not most athletes were assisted by highly qualified health professionals. A particularly helpful doctor to the British Olympic team ‘provided steroids to British athletes, monitored the effect of the drugs on the athletes and provided advice about how to avoid testing positive’ in 1979–87, as Coe’s compatriot Ivan Waddington wrote in Drugs, Alcohol and Sport (2006).
Nevertheless, Coe himself allegedly tested positive on the eve of the 1983 World Championships in Athletics. According to a British source quoted by the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti, Coe’s mishap was duly covered up, after which he chose not to travel to Helsinki (where I kept waiting for him with my camera and autograph book).
Thirty years later, however, the newly elected IAAF president added his voice to the sanctimonious chorus of Russia-bashers. Why didn’t he start by cleaning up his own backyard? To Coe’s credit, he did refer to the poverty of anti-doping, but instead of elaborating on the control system’s uselessness he took a cheap shot at defenseless athletes.
Lord Coe, you let your former fan down! You lowered yourself to unworthy blame game. Is this what happens to respectable runners when they get old and assume responsibility for corporate images?
For the sake of childhood memories, I won’t call you names yet. I’d just like to give you some free advice. Resign! Step down! Bow out! Then learn a few Russian phrases, fly back to Moscow where you won your first gold medal and offer a heartfelt apology to Mother Russia’s hardworking offspring.