What's gone wrong in world athletics

11 November 2015 -


A Russian doping scandal has rocked the world of athletics, but what went wrong in a sport that has often battled the demons of performance enhancing drugs?

Jermaine Haughton

Barely two months into his new job as president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and Sebastian Coe faces arguably the biggest challenge in the sport’s recent history, routing out the answers to the alleged state-sponsored athlete doping in Russia.

Following the release of a ground-breaking report yesterday by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), Insights takes a look at the state of the IAAF in the wake of the doping scandal, and the challenges facing its current leader.

Carried out by the IAAF’s former president Dick Pound, the 350-page dossier revealed Russian competitors were given performance-enhancing drugs and paid bribes to track officials to keep their positive tests a secret. Reflecting a "deeply rooted culture of cheating at all levels" within Russian athletics, the scathing report alleges more than 1,400 blood and urine samples were "intentionally and maliciously" destroyed by a Moscow laboratory - even after a WADA plea to preserve them for further analysis.

The revelations follow a German documentary titled Top Secret Doping: How Russia makes its Winners aired in December last year, which brought to the public’s attention suspicions towards the drug policy of athletes in Russia.

WADA has recommended lifetime bans of five athletes, five coaches and one doctor who participated in the doping scandal.

One of the athletes named in the report was Russian marathoner Liliya Shobukhova, who was excluded for life from all the world's major marathons because of doping, but had a separate doping ban cut in August after agreeing to cooperate with the WADA probe. She was permitted to compete at the London Olympics in 2012 despite abnormalities in her biological passport, after paying a bribe of £320,000 to the Russian track federation.

Track and Field is, of course, no stranger to drug scandals – with Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson shocking the world when he tested positive for performance enhancing substances during the Seoul 1988 Olympics just one example.

However, particularly damning on this occasion is WADA’s uncovering of a strong culture of doping within the Russian athletics federation (ARAF) and the Russian anti-doping agency (RUSADA), with the corruption apparently reaching the most senior figures in the sport.

When asked by reporters yesterday whether the doping was “state-sponsored,” Pound replied: "In the sense of consenting to it, there's no other conclusion." Valentin Balakhnichev, who was the head of the ARAF from 1991 to early 2015, was identified in the WADA dossier as “ultimately responsible, both individually and as an ARAF representative, for the wrongful actions that occurred while he was president”.

When allegations of his involvement in a Russian doping scandal arose earlier this year, he denied them as a “well-orchestrated plot against me” in a letter to the IAAF. The Russian track federation’s medical commission chief Sergey Portugalov is alleged to be the senior figure who gave banned substances to its competitors.

Accused of playing a prominent role, Portugalov was “very active in the conspiracy to cover up athletes’ positive tests in exchange for a percentage of their winnings.” Equally, the “inaction” and the “inexplicable laissez-fair policy” of the sport’s global regulators, the IAAF, and Lord Coe’s predecessor, former long jumper Lamine Diack, who led the governing body from 1999 until this August, allowed the doping campaign to flourish.

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) ethics commission recommended that the 82-year-old be provisionally suspended as an honorary member of the organisation as he continues to be investigated over allegations that he accepted €1m (£708,000) in bribes to cover up positive tests.


WADA’s independent commission has urged the IAAF to suspend ARAF and its athletes from competition and declare it "non-compliant" with globally agreed doping regulations.

But despite this statement being supported by a number of media outlets, former competitors and track and field fans, such a move may be difficult for the watchdog to enforce without further investigations.

Firstly, Lord Coe and the IAAF are still waiting upon an official reply from the Russian authorities. Secondly, even WADA admits the report is not comprehensive evidence, as it only shows that it is “highly likely” the athletes were using drugs.

Whereas, in the past, the governing body has handed out bans to athletes and also taken away Olympic and World Championship medals, this latest report may not have enough evidence on its own to make a similar punishment.

Lord Coe, who was part of the less-than-rigorous management of the IAAF serving as vice president between 2007 and 2015, has spoken in the past about working with federations to help crack down on athlete doping, rather than isolating them.

In the past, nations have been banned, but in each occasion it has been due to politics, such as the suspension of Japan and Germany following the Second World War. Ultimately, however, the IAAF must balance this with the need to make a big statement displaying a no tolerance attitude to doping – especially at this alleged scale – and with athletics’ name being dragged through the mud, it is likely to suffer potentially alienating young participants, fans, broadcasters and sponsors.

And with a number of doping accusations cast about other nations, this case may just be the tip of the iceberg. As Guardian columnist Sean Ingle suggested, Lord Coe will be forced to open up about the lackadaisical nature of the IAAF’s regulation of the sport in recent years, and be more willing to listen to different perspectives.

Renee Anne Shirley, the former head of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Agency, for example, believes the answer is to empower federations with greater financial support to focus on athlete doping. She has called for a greater percentage of TV rights to be used to fund a vigorously independent anti-doping agency to handle testing, investigations and case management for elite athletes and individual federations.

But as this this latest scandal to envelop world athletics continues to play out, all we can do for now is wait and see how far the stain spreads and what the ultimate damage to the reputation of the sport is.

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