Seven things track and field can learn from cycling
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.
On Monday, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released a report compiled over 10 months, detailing systematic, state-sponsored doping within the Russian federation. The report came less than a day after French authorities announced an investigation of 82-year-old Lamine Diack, former IAAF president, for taking over 1 million euro in bribes. His son, Papa Massata Diack, is also under investigation, as is the head of IAAF’s medical and anti-doping department, Gabrielle Dollé.
In many ways, the scandal is even worse than cycling’s darkest years. Though high-ranking cycling officials were accused of covering up doping positives, most notoriously Lance Armstrong’s 2001 test for EPO at the Tour de Suisse, the allegations have never been proven. Track and field is simply more vast, and more wealthy, than the smaller sport of cycling.
We’re not perfect, but we’ve been through this. From the darkness of the EPO era, cycling clawed its way to a new, ostensibly brighter future. As athletics follows us along the same path, here’s what it can learn from our decades of pain.
1. It’s worse than it seems
The first sport-rocking scandal is always the hardest. So come here, have a hug from cycling, and then take a seat. We have something important to tell you.
This is tip of the iceberg.
WADA alleges that high-ranking officials like Diack were paid vast sums to cover doping violations. Perhaps the allegations against Dollé, the IAAF’s head of anti-doping, are even worse. WADA also alleges that Russia’s anti-doping agency was tasked with protecting doped athletes, not outing them, and that its coaches were “out of control.”
If individuals in the highest stratospheres of the sport are proven to be corruptible, then systematic cheating certainly does not end with the names released Monday, and likely does not end with the Russians. According to WADA, the Russian system was state-sponsored and state-protected, the doping levels extreme, and yet Russian athletes were good — not dominant. You do the math.
2. Off with their heads
The heads of international sport either think very highly of their intelligence or very poorly of ours. Probably both. How many times did cycling’s leaders sit behind microphones at hastily-called press conferences and tell us that everything was going to be okay?
Our minds are not so weak as that.
The IAAF and the Russian federation need to change leadership immediately, and the change needs to go farther down the chain of command than they’d prefer. Old leadership needs to be barred from contact to prevent shadow governors. Anyone at the top of these organizations was either involved, complicit, or ignorant. All are equally embarrassing.
Sebastian Coe is track and field’s version of Pat McQuaid. Trust us, you want to move straight to a Brian Cookson. The first perceptible turnaround in cycling came after Hein Verbruggen and McQuaid were both removed.
3. Don’t trust the state
State-sponsored programs have a bad track record. State-backed cycling programs have proven to be fertile ground for doping. Think back to the U.S.’s development of blood transfusions before the 1984 Olympics, or the Italian Olympic Committee’s backing of Dr. Conconi as he developed the use of EPO in cycling in the 1980s and 1990s. The combination of government cash and nationalism is a bad one. More oversight of state-run programs — and much of athletics is state-funded — is needed.
4. Follow the French
They got Festina in 1998, and are the primary force behind the legal takedown of Diack now. His son can no longer set foot on French soil. French anti-doping laws allow for tougher prosecution, even jail time, and this makes the country a valuable asset in the fight against doping and corruption.
There is much debate surrounding anti-doping law. In most countries, doping for sport is not technically illegal, though dealing and moving drugs usually is. The French method, including tough anti-doping laws on the books, opens up investigative resources not available in most other countries. Turns out that government bodies designed to investigate are good at finding things — better than sport governing bodies with a vested interest in not finding anything. Independent commissions are great, but government investigations are better.
5. Be draconian
Cycling has proven that tough anti-doping measures — a complete needle ban, 24/7 out-of-competition testing, increased use of the biological passport — can and do work.
Athletes will fight back against increased anti-doping measures, even if they’re clean. Ignore them. It’s for their own good. National federations, athletes, and coaches have proven themselves incapable of self-policing and have thus given up their right to complain. The price of clean sport has just gone up, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
6. The athletes are pawns
In a healthy, relatively clean sport, the “bad apple” argument can be made effectively. But athletics is not healthy. It is not clean. When the words “systematic” or “state sponsored” enter the vocabulary, attention needs to be turned toward athletes’ support structure.
Cycling made the bad apple argument over and over and over again until we finally realized that it was the trees that were bad. A bad tree makes new bad apples every year. We know from cycling’s past that in the darkest days of doping, it is those in positions of power that push athletes toward doping. This is why investigative powers must be increased, so that coaches and doctors can be tied definitively to an athlete. Chop the bad trees down. Cut the whole orchard down, if you have to. Just stop plucking bad apples off the tree and hoping they’ll be replaced by good ones.
7. It’s a cultural issue, not a moral one
Yes, moral and ethical failures abound, but the assumption that an entire group of people (all Russian athletes) or an entire sport exists without integrity is foolish.
How do we know? Because dozens of “nice guy” cyclists doped. They were nice before, they were nice during, and they’re nice now. They still put needles in their arms. Doping is a culture, and so a cultural shift within a sport or a federation or a single team — wherever the disease has weaseled its way in — is required for eradication. This has to start at the top (see #2) and the bottom.