“These are days of reckoning for track and field, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and for fans of athletics everywhere, as details of systematic doping and well-paid cover-ups make their way into the public eye. It’s a familiar taste for the cycling fan, a cocktail of distrust and despair.” – Caley Fretz, Seven Things Track and Field Can Learn from Cycling
I’m a runner, a coach, and a fan of track and field. I spend most of my time and attention on my own little world of high school athletics, local races, and the tight-knit community of runners in the Boston area, where I live. I read LetsRun fairly regularly, and try to keep up with wider world of running, but at this, the height of cross country season, I’m usually far too busy to devote much time to national or international news.
So over the last few days, as the story of systematic, state-sponsored doping within Russia exploded and was picked up by major news outlets, my first instinct was to bury my head in the sand and defer thinking about it until after the last high school meet. But yesterday afternoon, my resistance gave out, and I opened up the roughly 300-page report from an independent commission that had been chartered to investigate a number of allegations against Russia first aired in a 2014 German documentary.
It didn’t take long before my numbness to yet another doping story gave way to a new conviction: this is it; this is the big one.
There are slightly less than nine months before the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Between now and then, I think the sport of international track and field is going to blow up. While it’s tempting to think that Russia is the bad guy here, and that banning Russia from the games will somehow contain the contagion, I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking. The existence of a massive doping operation AND the evidence that former IAAF president Lamine Diack accepted bribes to, among other things, suppress or ignore AAFs (Adverse Analytical Findings) points to a problem that has spread well beyond a rogue state or two.
Diack was arrested in France a few days ago. Diack’s successor, the newly-elected Sebastian Coe is facing sharp criticism for his close ties and effusive praise for his predecessor (whom he calls “my spiritual president“), as well as for an ongoing professional relationship with Nike. It is conceivable, maybe even likely that Coe, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, will be brought down by this scandal and the rising tide of outrage.
Meanwhile, the Russians are acting like the isolated, paranoid federation we remember from the Cold War, but that doesn’t mean they are alone. A year ago, I wrote that drug cheats at the highest levels of Track and Field were still the exception. I no longer think that. I’m trying to prepare myself for future revelations that more athletes that I have admired will be shown to have been part of a doping culture so widespread that few athletes were able to compete without becoming part of it.
The Cycling world is warning us it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I hope they’re wrong, but I now doubt it. It’s going to be a long winter.