Right now, thanks to yesterday’s media explosion following the publication of the report by the Independent Commission appointed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) into systematic doping in the sport of athletics, there is no shortage of data, analysis and expert comment available for the general public to absorb and reflect upon.
Within the inner sanctum of the Rust’s editorial team – whilst always sticking to our freewheeling principle that there are no rules, or indeed if there are, they’re there to be broken – we have a low-key understanding that we try to avoid publishing articles that simply duplicate those of professional journalists and commentators. Instead we encourage our regular contributors to seek out alternative/novel angles, or indeed offer personal perspectives, upon events and issues of general interest as they occur.
This piece is definitely one of the latter – my own scatter-gun appraisal of and reaction to what was revealed yesterday:
A VOTE OF THANKS
First of all, and overwhelmingly, my response to yesterday was one of deep gratitude to Dick Pound and his team, to WADA, to all the journalists and programme-makers – and most of all the various whistle-blowers who risked ridicule, retribution and possibly harm – for the courage and resolution they have demonstrated in ‘doing the right thing’ and exposing what they have to the cold light of day.
Many of them – perhaps all of them – will be sports lovers themselves and must have taken no particular pleasure in bringing these matters to public attention.
The Establishment [define that how you choose] often denigrates the actions of whistle-blowers and journalists – the former for potentially breaching supposed confidentiality rules or contracts and ‘ratting’ upon their employers, the latter for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story (and, whilst we’re at it, the bigger and more potentially explosive and outrageous the story, the greater the likelihood that our Fleet Street reptiles will ride roughshod over all legal and moral restraints – self-imposed or otherwise – whilst citing the justification that ‘the end justifies the means’).
In response, I prefer to rely upon the principle that I believe was first expounded by an editor of The Times (whose names currently escapes me) in the middle of the 19th Century. It was he who, possibly in reaction to Establishment outrage at the publication of William Russell’s pieces – some of the first genuine war reporting – from the Crimean campaign, commented to the effect that ‘News is that which someone, somewhere, does not wish to see in print’.
It was inevitable that this sporting outfit – just like FIFA and the FA when it comes to soccer, the UCI when it comes to professional cycling, the RFU when it comes to English rugby, and indeed every single governmental and corporate organisation in the world – would first deny that there was any scandal brewing within its organisation, or indeed within things for which it was responsible, simply because the natural default position of such bodies is always that everything upon their watch is going smoothly forward just as it should be. In which context, of course, any suggestion to the contrary is distinctly unwelcome and inconvenient – a ‘story’ to be ridiculed, dismissed and ‘killed’ at the earliest opportunity.
Organisations confronted with possible scandals always deny them and ridicule the messengers who bring them. By maintaining that there is nothing wrong – and there is no story – they fundamentally misunderstand how public perception and the media work, especially if they hope or believe that that strident assertions (or even, if they adopt this line, similar ‘No comment’ responses) will make the problem go away. It rarely will.
Instead, in my experience generally, distain and condescension towards the cohorts of the media only makes them more determined. Sometimes a campaign of engaging with them, giving them quotes and an apparent air of openness and transparency, is more fruitful than ignoring them.
He’s under great pressure at the moment and I suspect I know why. Firstly because, when the story first broke (and he was vice-president, plus a candidate to become president, of the IAAF) he was utterly dismissive of the story and indeed the facts and questions that the German programme-makers and the Insight team of The Sunday Times had raised. His attitude then could be summed up as “I am outraged. This is a concerted attack upon the sport I love and I really resent it. Our systems for drug-taking detection are watertight, we have been making consistent progress and we’re as tough on this problem as any governing body in world sport …”
It sounded hollow then and it sounds even more hollow now.
The trouble with Seb – and it happens the world over – is that he loves his sport, he wanted to put something back into it … and his past CV, ego and ambitious nature caused him to hatch the goal of succeeding to the post of president of the IAAF.
What better role could there be to enable him to burnish his image as a sporting statesman and UK public figure of substance?
When he first set out to climb the greasy pole within the IAAF it was inevitable that he would have to play politics and abide by its internal (often unwritten and unspoken) rules. In order to progress he knew he’d have to sup with some pretty unsavoury devils but he did it anyway.
You rarely get votes by criticising the existing order.
Furthermore, despite himself, he fell prey to what I call ‘non-executive director’ syndrome. In the past – when a huge crisis or disaster has enveloped some commercial organisation – I’ve heard people shouting “But what I want to know is what the hell were the non-exec directors doing?”
My answer to that is always “… Doing what non-execs always do, why do you expect this example any different?”
You know the sort of thing. You’re a man or woman of significance yourself and some company CEO or chairman approaches you and offers a non-executive directorship. The terms are pretty easy – e.g. Board meetings, each followed by a pleasant three course lunch in an oak-panelled dining room, every three months and an annual stipend of say £60,000 per annum with all expenses paid. You get the Board papers pretty late, usually on the morning of the Board meeting concerned, and then you go through the motions of listening to the presentations and reports, all of which give the impression that all is well and the company is driving ahead in all directions. The lunch is excellent and afterwards you pick your wife up at Waterloo station in the evening and go to a West End show.
What’s not to like?
Until the solid suddenly hits the fan and the company concerned is proved to have been selling arms in contrary to some governmental embargo. Or goes bust. This isn’t what you signed up for at all. You signed up for an easy number, the opportunity to earn some pocket money and be involved in something that you can talk about with your cronies in your club and/or at dinner parties. You didn’t sign up for ‘problems’ and ‘issues’ that might involve serious work and/or personal responsibility.
So it has been with Seb Coe. For him, becoming a vice-president of the IAAF was a form of non-executive directorship that gave him potential prestige and privilege. He was never going to begin a root-and-branch crusade to rid the organisation of any inherent drug-testing or financial/corruption problems. Rather, he regarded himself as having done no more than sign up to get free tickets to all elite athletic meets around the world and enjoy the perks of being an important man in world athletics.
And this with bells on, if he could just get himself elected as IAAF president, as he now has.
I suspect Lord Coe had been looking forward to a stint of say five years at the helm of one of the most important sporting governing bodies in the world – jetting around the world, basking in the glow of publicity and respect that it brought, making speeches full of platitudes to audiences great and small … and just perhaps then leaving the world of athletics in a slightly better state than he left it.
Instead, now he’s woken up to find himself presiding over the biggest pile of horse manure (covering corruption, ‘blind-eye turning’, inadequate drugs-testing systems, financial mismanagement and potential criminal activity) ever uncovered in world sport.
Instead of a cosy little number that he could cope with practically on a part-time basis (just to keep himself occupied in semi-retirement), he’s now been saddled with responsibility for clearing out an Aegean Stables-worth of problems whilst all the world is watching intently.
I don’t envy him at all.
What causes me greatest disquiet about this IAAF scandal – and indeed the FIFA one, and please add your own personal choice of others you have come across here here – is the impression I’m getting that, if this is truly ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ as one investigator remarked yesterday, as a committed sports fan I’m beginning to worry whether anything I watch in any world sport is quite what it purports to be.
If that is the case then we all might as well pack up and go home …