Monday, 31 March 2008

Telling it how it isn't

The philosopher and secularist Bertrand Russell once gave a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question (as philosophers do). The question was: what will you say if you die and are confronted by your Maker? His response was:”I should say, oh God, you did not give us enough evidence.”

I’ll remember his reply in case I arrive at the Pearly Gates to be met by the former President of the European AA and anti-drugs campaigner, Sir Arthur Gold to be accused of being soft on drugs and then handed irrefutable proof of widespread doping in sport. But Arthur, I would say, over a glass of our favourite malt, why aren’t these figures available down below?

The IAAF drug testing figures for 2007 indicate the problem. They tell us the number of tests carried out (3277), they tell us the number of positives (10) and they even name the athletes tested. What they don’t tell us is what the figures really mean.

You will have worked out that the percentage of positives of those tested is 0.3%. The IAAF says that the results of a number of cases are still pending so that the number of positives may well rise. But even if there were 100 positives they would only comprise 3% of the total. In Britain, in 2006-07, 7143 tests were carried out in all sports; 27 proved positive - 0.38% of the total.

What we do not get from the various bodies are their thoughts on what their testing figures indicate. They indicate, in actuality, one of two things: either the level of doping in athletics (and sport) is miniscule or the much vaunted testing programmes aren’t working. Either way the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) has a problem in justifying the hundreds of millions of dollars globally being spent on testing in sport.

We’ve been here before, of course, and undoubtedly will be back again but it is the backdrop to some of the latest pronouncements on the subject. “It has been a long time since Dwain [I love the familiarity] was caught and there has been no effort by him to actually share information…there has not been a willingness to point fingers at those who helped him or to be honest about the drugs he was on.” The speaker is John Scott of UK Sport. Is this the same UK Sport that swiftly jumped on the bandwagon of the demonisation of Chambers through its CEO Liz Nichol? She made public a letter she had sent to UK Athletics, reminding them not to support its future World Indoor silver medallist. I’m afraid so. Some of you will recall that similar appeals were made to the accused in the witchcraft trials of Salem with one notable exception: the appeals in Salem came with an offer of redemption as were, incidentally, similar entreaties in the McCarthy political witch hunts of the 1950’s. Scott also urged athletes to grass on those they thought were into doping which may give an indication of establishment uncertainty about the efficacy of the drug testing programmes. It must rankle that Marion Jones was not caught cheating by USADA testing but by the fact that she committed perjury.

British sport and in particular UK Athletics (UKA) has come out of the last couple of months looking very silly indeed. Lamine Diack, the President of the IAAF, said as much in an interview he gave to the Observer this last weekend. He indicated that the actions of UKA’s Niels de Vos and others in attempting to stop Chambers running in the UK Indoor Championships and qualifying for Valencia were always doomed to failure because Chambers had served his time and had indeed previously been selected by UK Athletics, in 2006, after his two year ban was over.

Perhaps, most importantly of all for British athletics, was Diack’s anger that UKA's crass and unlawful stance on Chambers took away the limelight from other athletes in the British team. “The one who came back from suspension became the star,” Diack said. “Why was there all this fuss on Dwain Chambers?”

The UK Athletics board needs to seriously consider this question and its answer. It is because Niels de Vos lit the fire that is still, weeks later, still smouldering. The fact that those in the offices in Solihull clearly did not anticipate the consequences of the actions they were to undertake indicates an alarming lack of media savvy in the heart of the organisation.

Thirteen – unlucky for some

I don’t know if anyone in Team Chambers has a sight of this Blog but they should pass on the information that if history is anything to go by he should avoid Castleford and Rugby League like the plague.

Two well known British international athletes (also with no previous footballing experience) have, some time in the past, made such a move and neither lasted very long in their new sport.

In 1953 Emmanuel McDonald Bailey, Olympic bronze medallist (1952) and winner of fourteen AAA sprint titles decided that a very generous financial offer from Leigh was one he could not refuse. He had just one extremely petrifying game, was tackled, injured and taken off. In 1961 a somewhat more robust figure tried his hand at 13-aside rugby with Oldham. This was the European Shot Put champion Arthur Rowe, a man particularly fed up with lack of support from the athletics establishment. His career lasted only a little longer than McDonald Bailey's.
Meanwhile as reported in Inside the Games there is a growing feeling in the higher echelons of world sport that the BOA lifetime Olympic ban would be overturned under international law. The BOA is looking more and more isolated, despite the posturing of its Chairman, former Conservative Sports Minister Colin Moynihan. The BOA is now the only Olympic association or indeed national bodyin the world to have a byelaw that contravenes the charters of both WADA and the IAAF.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Have we the Vision?

In the days before the 1982 European Championships in Athens the IAAF called a special Congress to discuss the future of the sport. Britain was to spearhead the drive for open athletics and the man chosen to make the crucial speech was the late Andy Norman, the hard-talking British entrepreneurial promoter already a dominant figure in what was becoming known as the European circuit.

Andy knew how important this speech was. He knew that if the Congress failed to accept the concept of open athletics and of payments to athletes then the world of “shamateurism” involving the world’s best runners could well destroy the sport that he loved. What Andy wanted was help in moulding his thoughts into a cohesive, telling speech. He turned to John Rodda of the Guardian, one of the most respected of sports writers.

The two men sat on Rodda’s room balcony at the Hotel Olympic in very warm sunshine. It was early morning and Rodda had had an ultra convivial evening with colleagues the night before; he had forgotten about the arrangement with Norman. The shrill ringing of his bedside phone therefore came as something of a shock. Now as he sipped orange juice to help his dehydration John listened and took notes as Andy hammered home his crucial points. He converted them and typed them into tough, cogent, convincing words and handed the script over. Rodda went back to bed and Norman was ready to conquer the Congress.

Two other factors were in his favour. The year before the new President, Primo Nebiolo, had powered (some say elbowed) his way to the most important post in world athletics. Nebiolo realised that, to survive, athletics had to come into the twentieth century, had to accept some form of professionalism. Secondly, many of those sitting in the Congress hall were former athletes who knew that Andy knew that they had enjoyed financial fruits from their athletic labours. It would be an intelligent guess to think that some arm twisting had gone on.

It is important to remember that athletics had fiercely fought professionalism for a century with some of the great names of track left strewn around the battlefield; men like Walter George, Alfred Shrubb, William Snook (see earlier Blog), Paavo Nurmi, Gunder Hägg, Arne Anderson and finally in the mid-1950’s the American miler, Wes Santee - all banished for succumbing to the temptations of Mammon in brown envelopes.

The federations, including the IAAF had, after Santee, turned a blind eye to “illegal” payments and by the time Congress met in Athens it was an open secret that hundreds of thousands of dollars from the promoters of major European meetings had entered the pockets of star athletes; unless action was taken the IAAF could lose control of the sport.

In the end Congress accepted the majority of the proposals but there were crucial caveats: it baulked at prize money, it hid payments to athletes behind words like ‘subventions’ and ‘trust funds’. It took just the minimum measures required to save itself. The spirit of de Coubertin was (and is) still embedded in the collective psyche of the sport.

The reason for re-telling this episode is to not only show how important the moment was for athletics but also to indicate how the moment was lost. By not biting the bullet and opting for a dynamic professional sport at levels lower than the glitzy, razzmatazz projected world championships and grand prix meetings, the delegates at the Athens congress stifled all competitive development for twenty-six years.

If an athletics supremo from some far off planet visited Earth every twenty years or so to see what progress had been made he or she would gain a distinct sense of déjá-vu and disappointment. They would note the continuing tremendous enthusiasm and excitement engendered in stadia and on television by the major championships and in some rare cases by the grand prix events but they would also note that in each country it was but a fleeting annual glimpse of the very best that track and field had to offer.. The difference between what is served up on the IAAF World Athletics Tour and what is provided in domestic competition is as stark as it can be.

In 2002 the Commonwealth Games came to Manchester; it was a glorious week of competition that thrilled stadium and television audiences. Everybody wanted more; they didn’t get it. The stadium was handed over to a major football club because everyone realised that British athletics was incapable of providing regular, sustainable, exciting competition for public enjoyment. It is the same story in London, host city for the 2012 Olympics remember, where the only meeting to rouse the public is a Super Grand Prix meeting every August. All other meetings (from which international athletes are conspicuous by their absence) are so long, tedious and self-indulgent that the general public never attends, indeed is rarely notified of them. Nothing has changed in four decades.

Internationally the sport has tried to review competition but not so you’d notice. Early in 2005 I spoke at an IAAF conference on one-day meetings and the World Athletics Final where representatives of the IAAF, promoters, managers, athletes and coaches all contributed. We all said that the sport was failing the athletes, television and the public; we said that the grand prix meetings were too repetitive and becoming old hat; we urged the re-introduction of international matches and much more. Television representatives were particularly scathing.

The world governing body nodded sagely and said that it had listened and would cogitate. It has proved to be not only a dialogue with the deaf but with the blind as well, for the only real change has been to move the World Athletics Final from Monaco to Stuttgart. Meanwhile television viewing figures are plunging world wide. In a recent contest for coverage on the BBC (a staunch supporter of athletics) with the FA Cup and Six Nations Rugby, the World Indoor Championships from Valencia lost out badly gaining just half an hour of terrestrial coverage on the Friday night; the rest was confined to satellite inter-active. The Golden League, as it is now named, was once a given on terrestrial television, then it moved to satellite and, in Britain, is now only available on pay-per-view.

Britain too decided that a review of competition was needed. Former European 5000m champion Jack Buckner was assigned the task. He produced two preliminary reports with dire warnings that if the sport didn’t change it was doomed to mediocrity. We waited and waited for more concrete proposals; they never came. The umpteenth set of administrators to be set the task of putting British athletics to rights have obviously added the unfinished review to those collecting dust on the federation’s shelves.

Only the very best athletes can guarantee themselves a reasonable income from the sport. In Britain it is only a handful of top stars that can make a living. As I write James McIlroy, an up-and-down journeyman runner, ranked third in Britain at 800 metres last year, announces his immediate retirement, citing financial worries. “I wasn’t prepared to lose my house for Beijing,” he said. The sport does not engender enough sponsorship to make it truly professional; it needs to ask itself the reasons why.

Other sports, both domestically and internationally, have realised the need for radical change and moved on. In Britain you would not recognise professional soccer, rugby and cricket from what they were a few decades ago. But you would athletics. Our sport is stagnating and unable to have the vision to combat the professional team sports that are, more and more, dominating the media.

Athletics needs to create more meaningful competitions. It is no coincidence that what really excites people is the major international championships where the crucible of combat is at its most intensive. It is here that tribal nationalism, so prevalent in team sports, takes over. It is completely absent from the World Athletics Tour.

So here’s an idea. Let’s have a European City Cup – Paris v London; Berlin v Barcelona; Rome v Moscow et al., meetings of 3 hours or so in length full of international stars fighting it out for their domiciliary cities. You’d need massive sponsorship and television coverage but it is about time that our sport, the major Olympic sport, started to think big in terms of sponsorship instead of being satisfied with sums that Tiger Woods would consider pin money.

And such a competition could generate national competitions of a similar nature. In Britain (and I suspect elsewhere) the clubs are considered by the grassroots as the be-all and end-all of the sport; they are holy cows whose sanctity is vigorously and at times venomously guarded. But if you are to occasion public interest in competitions below international level then you have to widen that interest into teams that it can associate with. Having inter-city and town competitions would do that and also, with good marketing, could generate sufficient local sponsorship for the competition to be viable.

To continue to survive as a credible international and national sport athletics must begin thinking radically; begin thinking the unthinkable in terms of its present competitive structures. The question is: does it have the vision and the cojones to do so?

Friday, 14 March 2008

Golden Moment and Moments of Madness

Those of you who followed the World Indoor Championships in Valencia on BBC Interactive will have witnessed one of those human moments in track and field epitomised by the facial expressions of Kelly Holmes after her run in the Olympic 800metres in 2004, expressions of triumph, doubt and then total joy beamed around the global village by television.

This time it was in the triple jump and featured the new World Indoor Champion, Philips Idowu. It was the last jump of the competition which he had already won with a superlative, lifetime best leap of 17.75 metres, an effort of seeming ease, rhythm and grace that reminded me so much of Jonathan Edwards’ world records in Gothenburg thirteen years previously.

Philips struggled to regain his concentration. The world indoor record of 17.83 metres was within his grasp but the enormity of what he had achieved, a first global title, had obviously infiltrated his concentration. He moved around, he put his face in his hands, desperate to regain composure and the cameras followed him. Often at moments like these athletes, shed of the anxieties of the competition, can produce wonders; not this time. Philips finally sped down the runway and produced a no jump.

But he had won gold. After an up and down career spanning 13 years, with more than a fair share of injuries, the 29 year old with the distinctive dyed red hair and headband had taken three steps to an athletic heaven. Well, not quite, for real heaven, I suppose, comes in just a few months time in Beijing.

It is eight years now since Britain won an individual global gold in the men’s events (also in the triple jump with Jonathan Edwards) and, in all honesty, Philips is our only male hope for a golden moment in the Chinese capital. Wisely though, in after competition interviews, he played it cool about his prospects, for he and his coach John Herbert carry enough experience between them to know of the vagaries of Olympic competition.

And Olsson awaits. The Swedish Olympic champion, also with a career severely blighted with injuries, will be anxious to defend the title he won in Athens. His best, that world indoor record, is now just eight centimetres ahead of Philips. It will be a great battle. Interesting to note too that it is twelve years since anyone (American Kenny Harrison) jumped over 18 metres. Surely another leap of that magnitude is overdue.

Moments of Madness

That great, Anglo-Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift would surely, if he had been born into this modern age, be running a Blog to entertain us all. And should he have been interested in sport what a wonderful time he would have been having with the recent machinations and contradictions surrounding drug testing and its punishments.

Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the latest to give forth on the clearly pernicious British Olympic Association (BOA) by-law that bans British drug miscreants from ever competing or indeed coaching at an Olympic Games.

His spokesman, Emmanuel Moreau, said: “We confirm that the president would be supportive of the lifetime ban of the BOA.”

Rogge, however, finds himself in direct contradiction with the former President of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), Dick Pound who had earlier reiterated his belief that sprinter Dwain Chambers should go to court to challenge the ban which, in Pound’s view, contravenes the WADA code (to which the British government and the BOA are signatories) which specifies a two year ban for a first-time offence.

At the present time I can find no comment from the new WADA president John Fahey on either the BOA by-law or the move by the European athletics promoters to retrospectively ban for all time drug miscreants from their meetings thus also contravening WADA rules and, probably, European commercial law concerning restraint of trade.

Swift would have loved all this as sport and in particular the IOC and WADA and international governing bodies tie themselves in knots in trying to fulfil their impossible dream of all countries, governments and sporting associations working in harmony implementing WADA laws.

The problem is that individual sports bodies and associations who do not like certain aspects of the laws (mostly finding the punishments too lenient) feel free to add by-laws to please themselves. They feel free because WADA has no direct jurisdiction over them and the IOC is happy to let any of its 205 organisations set whatever punishments they like with regard to participation in the Olympics. And when you get the two men who were instrumental in setting up WADA, Rogge and Pound, at loggerheads then you have to ask what chance the rest of sport stands in harmonising. One would relish their appearing as opposing witnesses in any future action that might be brought.

Meanwhile Colin Moynihan, Chairman of the BOA, has moved to join the ranks of those who are macho-posturizing over Chambers. You would think, listening to him, that sport faces some Armageddon if Dwain is not banished from its Olympian shores, becomes as Orwell put it “abolished, a non person”. In Churchillian tones Moynihan vows that the new World Indoor silver medallist will not reach China, “"We will pay whatever is necessary,” he trumpeted, “to have top lawyers represent us and put the strongest case in support of that ban.”

The question is, has he the right to spend public money in such a cavalier fashion especially when recent polls suggest that only a third of the public favour lifetime bans, the majority finding them I suspect, somewhat repugnant, repressive and unduly un-Christian. Rogge, instead of congratulating the BOA on its stance should ask himself why the other 204 global Olympic associations have elected not to have such banishments for their sportsmen and women.

It really is faintly ridiculous when those in authority lose their faculties of discernment, as Moynihan and others have done. It is more serious, however, when almost all the media, written and electronic follow suit and do not challenge the judgemental pronouncements being made. Writers and broadcasters whom I respect seem to have lost all sense of natural justice in this ongoing saga, seem to have joined the ranks of those revelling in the zealotry that vilifies Dwain Chambers, a man, after all, who confessed his sporting crime and was duly punished for it. I have espied no cool media analysis of the can of worms opened by Niels de Vos of UKA some weeks ago and certainly have read no call for WADA rules to prevail. One expects the tabloids to behave in the way that they have but I expected the broadsheets, radio and television to at least have reasonable debate on the issues involved.

The similarity with the witch hunts and trials of Salem three centuries ago unfortunately grows. The only apparent difference is that, tragically, as we now know, there were no witches whereas today there are clearly doping miscreants. There is, however, great similarity between the puritan ethics that fired the good people of Massachusetts to do what they did and of those who quixotically fight to eradicate doping in sport today by whatever means they deem necessary, injust or no.

And news comes through, as I write, of further madness. The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA)is secretly assessing the Medicare records of athletes, without their consent, surely in direct contravention of their human rights.

“Justice or injustice of the cause,” said Samuel Johnson “[should] be decided by a judge.” He was and is right. As drug testing spins out of control it must be challenged both politically and legally. In both spheres the actions of the BOA, the European promoters and far across the world of the Australian testers must be challenged. This issue is about much more than Dwain Chambers; it is about natural justice, human rights and above all about teaching sport that it is not above the law.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

How to Lose a War

Bad laws are the worst of tyranny – Edmund Burke

Many will remember Susan Chepkemei, if not from the streets of London, where she ran third in 2006, then from the wonderful 2004 ING New York marathon when she battled to the finish with Paula Radcliffe, who won.

Last summer the 32 year old Kenyan, who was pregnant, was rushed into a Nairobi hospital where she was treated for pneumonia. Suffering from breathing difficulties the doctors administered salbutamol to aid her. It is not recorded whether she was conscious at the time. In September she tested positive for the salbutamol which is a World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) banned substance.

In February Athletics Kenya magnanimously handed her a one year ban, accepting her mitigating circumstances.

Now I cannot imagine that anyone, other than the most fundamental apologists (of which there are many) for the strict liability clause in dope testing rules, would in any way defend or even start to understand this action taken in the so called War on Doping. The IAAF, so swift to go to arbitration if they feel a sentence is too lenient, has never appealed a sentence for being too harsh and so it is in this case. It has been silent. Chepkemei is now officially a drug cheat.

If the many that have been over vocal about the Chambers affair are true to their principles then Chepkemei will not grace the London Marathon again. And even if she were allowed to run those who were urging public demonstrations against Chambers must surely once more try to rally rabble rousers to boo and hiss along the route. And if he were to stage a 10,000 metres in his prestigious Ivo Van Damme meeting Wilfred Meert would surely decline to invite her. He like many others, has suffered a conversion on the road from BALCO

I heard him on my car radio some days ago talking on BBC Radio 5 Live about the legal threat posed by Christy Gaines suing the Euromeetings Group of 54 promoters who have taken a unilateral and retrospective decision not to invite former drug cheats to their meetings. We’re okay, Wilfred seemed to saying, “because these are invitational meetings and we can invite or not invite who we like.”

Not quite. The six Golden League meetings are part of the IAAF/TDK programme where one million dollars is at stake for those who win all six meetings. Any legal action by any former banned athlete (who could afford it) taken against their prohibition from the Golden League would surely have to incorporate the IAAF as well. The promoters seem to have forgotten, or have never heard of, the Meca-Medina/Malcen case that went before the European Court of Justice. It determined that sporting cases (including doping cases) do fall within the scope of Article 81 of the European Community Treaty.

Promoters and managers, Niels de Vos and Dame Tanni (I want an eight year ban) Grey Thompson should note carefully that Dick Pound, former head of WADA and a lawyer has, as I write, reiterated to BBC Sport his belief that the British Olympic Association bye law banning drug miscreants for life from the Olympics contravenes WADA legislation. “As a matter of law,” Pound said, “I think the BOA would be on shaky ground. The BOA is a signatory to Wada's code - those are the rules that govern doping infractions - and the sanction for a first offence is a two-year suspension.
"Chambers has served his ban and I think, depending on your view of criminal justice, if you serve the penalty that was deemed appropriate - for whatever the offence was - you are entitled to be reintegrated into society.”

The European promoters could be looked upon as an organised cabal promoting restraint of trade with the express purpose of subverting the laws of WADA and in athletics’ case, the IAAF.

Much of this is based on a visceral feeling among many in authority that, despite global and national tests showing a 99% negative return, most elite athletes are, or want to be, on performance enhancing drugs. It is a belief, held but rarely uttered, that goes back a long way.

On a windy summer’s evening in 1990 at the Gateshead International Stadium Dr Martin Lucking, then a prominent figure in UK drug testing, was supervising procedures in an international match with Canada and East Germany. A group of athletes were waiting to be tested. The delay was causing irritation, complaint and friction. Lucking (who was later to chair the panel that erroneously found Diane Modahl guilty) suddenly snapped, whirled round and pointing a finger in turn at each of the athletes present, shouted each time: “I think you’re on drugs and I think you’re on drugs, until you’ve proved otherwise.”

This was an extraordinary incident that indicated the suspicion by sporting administrators of universal guilt. It is clearly still prevalent. They believe it with the religious conviction of a fundamentalist, unwittingly confirming what the gullible Ben Johnson and Dwain Chambers and others were told by their mentors.

And if you are solemnly looked in the eye and told that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing is to act as a deterrent then you know that sport and in particular athletics has completely lost its way on this important issue and that through its own laws as well as the subverting of them and, in particular, through the Chepkemei case, it is slowly bringing itself into disrepute.

Good times at the NIA

On to more congenial affairs. In recent years when I have visited meetings of all grades around the country I’ve usually done it with a personal interest in just one athlete. The rest of the competition normally goes by in some sort of a blur unless there is an athlete of particular standing taking part. When I went to Birmingham’s NIA for the England age group championships ten days or so ago I expected to find myself in a similar position. That I didn’t was down to two reasons.

The first was that the competition was intense and exciting and belied the theory that our relative lack of international success is because of a dearth of talent – talent was present at the NIA in droves. Carefully nurtured, some of those present will grace future British teams with considerable distinction. Secondly, it was great to meet up again with some former top stars who were now back in the sport successfully coaching young talent. After such an invigorating weekend one could easily be led into thinking that the future of our sport and in particular success in 2012 was pretty well assured.

The operative phrase though is “carefully nurtured”, which conveniently leads us to the coaching scheme still trying hard to survive under burdensome coach education, which has for almost a decade slowly choked coaching to death. Coach education has been an unmitigated disaster. Its main aim seems to have been to satisfy the insatiable Sport England demand for more and more coaches with little or no thought as to the quality being produced; witness Sport England’s frankly ludicrous demand for 2000 more Level 1 coaches between 2007 and 2009.

What has been sadly neglected is coach development. Where is pro-active encouragement of coaches to increase their knowledge? Where has UKA published the latest track and field research? After the sad demise of the highly acclaimed AAA/BAAB coaching booklets (sold around the world) where are the replacement booklets and DVDs? Why doesn’t UKA attempt to keep in regular contact with its Level 3 and Level 4 coaches using the internet? Some months ago a semi-autonomous Coaches Guild, that would have incorporated all of the above, was mooted to top management at UKA. Their response, as reported to me, was “we don’t want to fund a trade union.”

But there was hope at the NIA. In the warm-up area were former international athletes Geoff Capes, Clarence Callender, Mike McFarlane, Tony Jarrett, Lloyd Cowan and Lorna Boothe (as well as a number of other very well qualified coaches) all bringing their knowledge and experience to our most promising young stars. It was great to meet up again, however transitorily. Sprinting, as you can see, is well catered for in coaching terms; now the trick for whoever will be driving coaching forward in the coming years, will be to muster such talent in all the other events.