31 Aug OPTIMISM IN SHORT SUPPLY AT LORD COE’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
– From W.B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’
Exciting, weren’t they? The 2015 World Athletics Championships delivered stories aplenty in a jam-packed nine days of competition. There were heroes, villains, tears and tantrums. The sport was catapulted back into the public eye and held the headlines. People were engaged in athletics again.
So why the despair? Why can we not just bask in the glory of a pantomime well performed? Well, for me, it’s the hypocrisy of it all. If you get too close to this murky political system that we call a sport, you learn not to believe the vast majority of what you see. And – whilst it enthralls global audiences – speaking as someone who loves the sport, you know that this pantomime cannot continue forever and that sooner or later, the music has to stop.
The week started with euphoria when the saviour of athletics – Lord Coe – was anointed as President with barely a dissenting word. Coe has promised to clean everything up, sort out all the conflicts of interest and get the sport growing again. Happily, he is going to be able to do this whilst still receiving a salary from a global sportswear giant who have given sponsorship to some of the most prolific drug cheats in history. Now, there has never been any serious hint that Nike were aware of the illicit conduct of Jones, Gatlin, Armstrong and others, but by continuing to be on their payroll Coe is starting his Presidency on the back foot – wide open to conflicts of interest.
The good news for Coe was that the UK’s state broadcaster has decided to surrender its commitment to impartial, top quality journalism and basically regurgitate whatever he gives it to say. And thus top billing was given to the Good vs. Evil battle – one created by Gatlin’s own actions but designed by the IAAF’s PR department – with commentary so bias that the BBC was forced to defend itself.
Pundits were clearly oblivious to their own thoughts and musings off camera as they gushed over stars linked to scandal and then piled in on Justin Gatlin. It was unseemly, it was unfair, it was bullying and – from a taxpayer funded news organisation – it was totally unacceptable. Gatlin is far from blameless, but he is also the least of the sport’s worries right now.
The BBC almost completely forgot that they had themselves broadcast a fairly damning documentary on (soon-to-be Sir) Mo Farah’s lead coach and UK Athletics consultant, Alberto Salazar. Salazar has denied all the charges leveled against him, but surely any journalistic outfit worth its salt would interrogate the UKA position on their hired hand? Instead, Steve Cram used his commentary to put distance between Farah and Rupp: ‘they don’t train together anymore’ and spun the situation (caused by themselves) as a hard luck story for Farah. Only Daley Thompson was brave enough to point out that his ‘situation’ has been caused by the company he keeps.
Farah’s performances have been extraordinarily impressive and deserve a great deal of praise, but in rushing to fawn over Farah, the BBC disregard the negatives that surround the man’s treatment of other athletes and his troubling connections. This simply doesn’t fit the script. Farah thanking his Instagram followers does.
The wider sport is struggling. How can we maintain this charade? How can people call for life-bans knowing that they have dodgy pasts themselves? The double-standards and conflicts of interest are enough to make you sick from dizziness. Athletes call for transparency and yet do everything within their power to protect themselves. Those around them are happy to stand aside and watch, probably taken in by the unreality of it all.
Governing Bodies are overcome with the demands of their superstars and heed to their every demand. Younger athletes leave their homes, their set-ups their safety nets in search of better lives only to find the whole thing is just a game-show. Those athletes who actually try to speak the truth are chastised and silenced (or just dropped from the team).
The principles of this sport are the greatest in the world because its disciplines underline all others. It is the battle of who can run the fastest, who can jump and throw the furthest or highest. It is the story of who can keep their cool under pressure and in excruciating pain; of who can find that last ounce of energy when their body is spent. It is the story of humanity: faster, higher, further, stronger.
But in comes corporate greed, therapeutic use exemption, outright cheating and mass cover-ups. And the purity of competition we once loved is decimated until all that is left is a farcical circus.
Last year, Christopher Rainsford wrote an article for this website where he highlighted the ‘constructed reality’ that was Mo Farah’s ‘win’ in the 2014 Great North Run. And so, alas, it is now true of almost all of top-level Track and Field. A great show is guaranteed. You’ll be entertained, aghast, excited and outraged all in equal measure.
Look carefully and there are hard working, legitimate athletes not playing in this increasingly grey and mucky system. But the vast majority are just pawns in a game of elaborate corporate chess, all reading from a very familiar script.