Can Sebastian Coe get the IAAF out of the gutter?

Russian doping claims pose major challenge for head of federation

During the run-up to the London Olympics in 2012 Sebastian Coe was often asked what kept him awake at night. Every time he replied: "I don't have sleepless nights over anything."

From a tripling of the budget to a last -ditch panic over security staff, Coe remained unruffled throughout.

It is tempting to wonder how he is sleeping now, ensconced in the offices of the International Association of Athletics Federations in Monaco (where else) and working long days trying to get his head around the scale of the challenge he now faces in the face of devastating Russian doping claims.

With senior former IAAF officials facing criminal action and an IAAF ethics committee hearing in December, it will get worse before it gets better.


Accepting what he said then was his "dream job" in August with an ill-judged hymn of praise to his outgoing predecessor, Lamine Diack (who he said would always be his "spiritual president" and who has since been arrested), Coe already knew he faced a task tougher than winning double Olympic gold or delivering London 2012.

The swirl of longstanding rumours surrounding the alleged activities of a cabal that included IAAF legal adviser Habib Cisse and marketing adviser Papa Massata Diack, Lamine’s son, had reached fever pitch.

A new wave of allegations from the German broadcaster ARD and the Sunday Times claiming the IAAF had failed to follow up on suspicious blood tests had been greeted with an ill-advised response in which Coe declared them to be "a war on my sport".

It is a phrase that will haunt him, although he claims to stand by it.

He would argue he was then in election mode, trying to win over some of the countries he would need to vote for him to overcome Sergey Bubka in the race to succeed Diack, who yesterday resigned as president of the International Athletics Foundation, a Monaco-based charity best known for its work with the year-end world athletics gala in Monte Carlo.

But that did not explain the other missteps which deprived Coe of much needed capital in the battle he now faces to restore credibility to his sport in the face of widespread public outrage and disappointment.

Links to Nike

Coe has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that retaining his role as a global adviser to Nike is a conflict of interest, somehow arguing that his longstanding links to the company make it OK. Others close to him have argued that he doesn't deserve to be financially penalised for taking an IAAF job that carries no salary.

Yet to almost everyone outside Coe's circle it is clear that maintaining a relationship with Nike – with its backing of twice banned Justin Gatlin, its sometimes controversial Project Oregon and the extent to which it bankrolls US Track & Field – is a clear and clanging conflict.

Nor do Coe's expressions of shock and alarm at the horrors contained in Dick Pound's report really ring true. Last December, when the Guardian revealed Dr Gabriel Dolle, the longstanding head of the IAAF anti-doping unit, had left suddenly after being interviewed by its ethics committee, we were assured that he had simply retired on age grounds. Last week he was arrested by the French police probing an alleged cover-up linked to the Russian doping scandal.

When the same newspaper reported that Papa Massata Diack had requested a $5 million (€4.7m) payment from Qatar at a time when it was bidding to host the 2017 world athletics championships, the IAAF replied on his behalf to say he had no knowledge of the claims.

In short order, the IAAF treasurer and head of the Russian athletics federation, Valentin Balakhnichev, and Papa Massata Diack were forced to step down from their roles. Yet come the world championships in Beijing both were in town and, extraordinarily, Balakhnichev was allowed to deliver a financial report that showed the IAAF still spends four times as much on administration, meetings and committees as on anti-doping.

Cisse, an IAAF legal adviser who helped negotiate many of Papa Massata Diack's commercial deals and was inexplicably put in charge of handling anti-doping cases, was quickly on the phone to the Guardian to insist that he was only employed as a consultant and as such hadn't stepped down from anything.

Storm clouds

Last week Cisse was arrested and French prosecutors said Papa Massata Diack would be too if he set foot in the country.

In short, it is not credible to suggest that Coe was not aware of the storm clouds gathering. Yet his shock when Lamine Diack, the 82-year-old who he said had mentored him since he joined the IAAF Council in 2003, was personally alleged to have pocketed €1m in bribes to cover up tests, appeared genuine.

He was said to be white with fury when he heard, though given Diack's history with the ISL case (he claimed the money he received from a $100m slush fund was to help him when his house burned down ) and his subsequent censure by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) it might have been wise to remain a bit more guarded in his praise.

He said this week that when he delivered his eulogy to Diack he “did not have a list of allegations in front of him”. In truth, he was probably thinking more about his narrow constituency of sporting blazers than the world beyond. “Perhaps we gave him the benefit of the doubt once too often,” said one IAAF insider last week. Perhaps they did.

Coe has been understandably criticised for being a vice president under Diack for eight years and apparently noticing nothing untoward. He would argue that his was not a full-time role and that it involved attending a handful of meetings a year.


Coe’s rhetoric can too often seem that of the emollient sporting politician rather than the passionate advocate for his sport that can emerge when he is off mike. Perhaps he has spent too long amid the false, superficial banalities of the plush hotel lobbies that pass for the boardrooms of this self-satisfied club of sporting blazers.

This is a club that turns whistleblowers into pariahs and often treats the media with disdain. Hajo Seppelt, the German journalist praised by Pound for his fine work in exposing the Russian scandal, has complained of being refused an audience with Coe.

The IOC, in whose world Coe is enmeshed, has been quick to call for change at Fifa. Yet while the IOC has made strides towards reform since the Salt Lake City scandal, it also has much further to go.

Whether the IAAF has the guts to suspend Russia is one question for the coming weeks. Whether the IOC has the will to properly police athletics and the other sports under its umbrella is another. Yet another is whether Wada, the world anti-doping agency, is fit for purpose and has the funding to do its job properly.

Coe would argue he has to tread carefully in order to ensure there is collective will behind whatever decision is reached by the IAAF council on Friday. - (Guardian service)