Athletics is dying and yet people like Paula Radcliffe and Lord Coe blame… Gabby Logan

Paula Radcliffe

At the end of a week when athletics stared into the void that once contained its soul, it felt only proper to be reminded that Alberto Salazar, until recently the darling of UK Athletics, coach of Sir Mo Farah and friend of IAAF president Lord Coe, once used his own son as a lab rat for an experiment with performance-enhancing drugs when he was in charge of the Nike Oregon Project.

It wasn’t even a secret. Athletics has got so twisted no one seemed to care about the things he did. It was almost as if he were venerated for them. ‘We’ve all talked in the past about how Alberto, in particular, will push it right up to that line,’ Paula Radcliffe said in the course of an interview with the BBC that wasn’t so much car-crash television as massive motorway pile-up with a 10-mile tailback.

To say Radcliffe’s performance when asked about the four-year ban handed down to Salazar by the US Anti-Doping Agency was awkward would be an understatement.

Paula Radcliffe’s performance when asked about Alberto Salazar’s four-year ban was sad

Actually, it was really rather sinister. Most of all, it was sad.

It was heavy with the weight of vested interests and corporate loyalties. It was freighted with denial and the fear of outsiders.

Athletics is dying and yet still people such as Radcliffe and Lord Coe circle the wagons around their little patch of scorched earth. Sometimes it feels as if it’s all that’s left of their muscle memory.

I watched Radcliffe grinning uncomfortably in that studio and wondered what had happened to the woman who held up that ‘EPO Cheats Out’ sign in the stands at the 2001 Worlds in Edmonton. Where has all that anger gone?

How has it got to the point where Betsy Andreu, one of the whistleblowers who exposed Lance Armstrong, feel so enraged by her stance that she berated her about it on Twitter?

To be fair to Radcliffe, she was not the only one who made herself look stupid last week. Confronted by a championships playing out to an empty stadium in Doha, a women’s marathon run in such conditions that it became less a race and more a desert field hospital, and a men’s 100m dominated again by drugs issues, Coe stared into athletics’ heart of darkness… and blamed Gabby Logan.

Athletics is dying and Lord Coe circles the wagons around a little patch of scorched earth

Athletics is dying and Lord Coe circles the wagons around a little patch of scorched earth

Logan had committed the calumny, apparently, of mentioning that there were swathes of empty seats at the Khalifa International Stadium. Logan is one of the BBC’s best presenters. She is thorough, professional, knowledgeable and challenging when she needs to be. 

But because she had the temerity to tell the truth, Coe dismissed her as if she were some kind of airhead. ‘It’s very easy to sit there and make all sorts of Gabby Logan-type judgments over three or four days and clear off back to Match of the Day,’ Coe said, making all sorts of Seb Coe-type judgments over three or four days before clearing off back to Monte Carlo to fiddle while his sport burns.

If I didn’t know better, I would have said it was a diversionary tactic to deflect attention from the shambles in Doha and the profound embarrassment over Salazar. But that would be too pathetic. And too shallow. And too cynical.

It was not Coe’s fault that USADA announced Salazar’s ban in the midst of the championships and that it hung over Doha like a toxic cloud but his attack on Logan betrayed once more the fear that people like him, Radcliffe and Steve Cram harbour towards anyone who is not inside their tent.

Even now they have not grasped that they need to reform their sport from the inside and welcome attempts to clean it up. When Cram referred to forensic, diligent, responsible journalistic investigations into Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project as ‘a witch hunt’ four years ago, it made you wonder what he wants for his sport.

Cram is one of the greats of modern athletics. So is Radcliffe. They are people we all admired when they competed. The sad thing is they have allowed themselves to become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. They have become symbols of some of the obstacles the sport faces.

When the US Anti-Doping Agency said it had banned Salazar, Radcliffe seemed unimpressed

When the US Anti-Doping Agency said it had banned Salazar, Radcliffe seemed unimpressed

When the US Anti-Doping Agency said last week that it had banned Salazar, one of the most powerful coaches in the sport working for the most powerful organisation, for trafficking testosterone, infusing athletes with a prohibited amount of L-carnitine and trying to tamper with doping controls, Radcliffe seemed distinctly unimpressed.

Forgetting to mention that she is sponsored by Nike and that her husband, Gary Lough, is now Farah’s coach, she was not in the mood to celebrate the bravery of whistleblowers Kara Goucher and Steve Magness who had helped to expose Salazar’s nefarious practices. 

Instead, from somewhere, she summoned a ridiculous conspiracy theory that the punishment of Salazar might be a cunning ruse by USADA to save face after it misjudged whether Christian Coleman, who won the men’s 100m last week, was eligible for a ban because he had missed three drugs tests in 12 months.

It was this that enraged people such as Andreu. The theory was absurd. The case against Salazar has been ongoing for years. Recently it had been stymied by legal struggles. To suggest the punishment had been cooked up as a pragmatic gesture was bizarre. And damaging.

‘How much money has gone into this investigation over the last four to six years?’ Radcliffe wondered aloud as she spoke to Logan on air. ‘How much went into the Coleman one? And how much has gone into research and development into anti-doping and into trying to improve the testing out there and doing something to really protect the clean athletes?’ 

Well, where to start with that kind of claptrap? Just a wild guess but when USADA banned Salazar, who had pressured runners under his control into taking legal medication they did not need, maybe they thought that would help to protect clean athletes. Not a theory that occurred to Radcliffe, apparently.

If Christian Coleman is to be the face of the sport then it's closer to the end than we thought

If Christian Coleman is to be the face of the sport then it’s closer to the end than we thought

And then there is the reference to Coleman. Sure, USADA misjudged the case against him but the reality is he escaped a ban on a technicality, an arcane measurement that meant his three missed tests did not fit the time frame necessary to trigger a suspension.

So please let’s not pretend there is any valour in that for Coleman. Or that he is somehow a wronged party. If he is to be the new face of athletics, the sport is even closer to the end than we thought. There are so many apologists now for athletes who miss tests that Coleman did not even appear to feel the need to be remorseful about his transgressions.

And so athletics is reduced to this, a sea of detritus dotted with islands of inspiration like Dina Asher-Smith; a place where people have stopped believing what they see; a directionless sport, a wasteland of empty stadiums and dwindling audiences; an arena where it is hard to discern progress in the fight against drugs.

For evidence of that, look at the the men’s 100m. Won by Coleman, who was followed home in the silver medal position by two-time drugs cheat Justin Gatlin. Who, of course, was rewarded four years ago, despite his cheating, with a new sponsorship deal from Nike.

That’s athletics. Dissembling, denying, its integrity compromised beyond belief. Still running. But running from something now. Not giving chase. In flight.

The end is nigh for Pochettino

When Tottenham started this season badly, I thought it was absurd to question Mauricio Pochettino’s place at the club. It was only a couple of months since he had led Spurs to the Champions League final. It was only a couple of weeks more since the melodrama of that semi-final victory over Ajax.

Spurs should have built on the achievement of getting to the final in Madrid but the opposite has happened. Teams of their quality, teams that got to the final of club football’s most prestigious competition so recently, should not be losing 7-2 at home to anyone. Nor should they be crashing 3-0 at Brighton.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Mauricio Pochettino is on his way out at Tottenham

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Mauricio Pochettino is on his way out at Tottenham

Pochettino has been playing games with Spurs for a while. Should I stay or should I go? How deep is your love? How deep are your pockets? All those questions.

In the space of a few days Bayern and Brighton appear to have provided the answers. It will be a seismic departure for Spurs but it is hard to escape the conclusion now that their manager is on the way out.

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