Commentary

It's a make-or-break moment for Coe and the IAAF

Bribery. Corruption. Extortion. The grand themes and key players - including senior officials and Russian track and field athletes - behind the scandal engulfing the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) - are long established.

So is the staggering fact that Dick Pound's independent report details "a whole different scale of corruption than the Fifa scandal or the IOC scandal in respect to Salt Lake City", according to Richard McLaren, one of its co-authors.

What we do not yet know is how Sebastian Coe, the IAAF's new president, will respond to Pound's forensic dissection of his federation's failings.

But we can guess: Solemn words, promises of change, perhaps a cosmetic gesture or two on a similar scale to cancelling the IAAF's awards gala last week. It is the equivalent of a ship's captain who faces a perfect storm yet hopes that by putting on a waterproof jacket, everything will be all right.

(Coe) could start with some mea culpas, including admitting he was wrong to lavish praise on Lamine Diack and say that journalists were "declaring war on his sport" when they published claims of suspicious blood values.

But that will not be enough, not this time. Instead Coe urgently needs to perform a vigorous 180-degree turn. Where he has been defensive, he needs to be open. Where he has made mistakes, he needs to hold his hands up.

He could start with some mea culpas, including admitting he was wrong to lavish praise on Lamine Diack and say that journalists were "declaring war on his sport" when they published claims of suspicious blood values. They were trying their damnedest to expose cheats - something that we now suspect was not always the case with some IAAF figures.

And it was not the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) or the IAAF which discovered the systematic doping in Russia but investigations by the Mail on Sunday and the broadcaster ARD.

Yet, what did the IAAF do? Ignore them. As the German documentary maker Hajo Seppelt says: "I told the IAAF that Vitaliy Stepanov, our whistleblower from the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, wanted to talk to them but they never did anything."

In Seppelt's view, Coe is "more interested in protecting the IAAF's reputation than tackling the very serious issues in track and field". So why not give Seppelt a call? Belatedly thank him for what he has done? Better still, meet his whistleblowers and promise to act on their information?

And now, surely, is the time for Coe to cut his ties with Nike. He believes that telling us there is no conflict of interest is enough. But it was not in the summer and it is certainly not now.

Coe also needs to realise that, while he is right to say athletics' response to doping is better than most sports', it is still insufficient and he must promise to do something about it.

One approach, as suggested by Renee Anne Shirley, the former head of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Agency, is to call 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.

There are other ways this could be funded. In July Coe promised to give US$100,000 (S$142,000) over four years to each of the IAAF's 214 member federations if he became president. That sweetener won him the election. But imagine the goodwill if he were to say "we are postponing this handout for two years and will use that US$11 million to start to tackle the cheats".

Coe also has to look backwards even if it unearths more skeletons. He should announce greater scrutiny of the IAAF's anti-doping department under Gabriel Dolle's watch and promise to restest as many frozen samples as possible.

The IAAF also needs fresh blood untainted by scandal and incompetence. Recruiting a world-class chief executive and financial director would shake up an organisation riven by institutional lethargy.

This is a make-or-break moment. As Shirley, who bravely blew the whistle on the lack of drug testing in Jamaica, puts it: "Any attempt by Coe to dodge a full-out frontal assault on this issue will condemn him to being a silent accessory. He was the IAAF's vice-president from 2007 onwards, when corruption was taking place. He can't be a politician in managing this issue any more."

Coe's friends point out the difficulties of turning round an organisation where he is still not sure whom he can trust and sees ghosts on every door. Others believe such an attitude gives Coe too much of a free pass.

Either way, we can probably at least agree on this: Athletics finds itself in the gravest of holes and Coe's tenure as president - and possibly the future of the sport itself - will be judged on whether he is able to pull it out of the mire.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline 'It's a make-or-break moment for Coe and the IAAF'. Print Edition | Subscribe