Crisis at IAAF that threatens to bring athletics to its knees

Dr Gabriel Dollé
Dr Gabriel Dollé has left his position as the IAAF’s medical and anti doping director.
What is going on at the International Association of Athletics Federations?

A perfect storm that threatens to bring athletics to its knees. The claims can broadly be divided into two overlapping categories. In the first are strong suggestions of institutional doping at the Russian athletics federation that may have been covered up by IAAF officials, as revealed by the German broadcaster ARD in a persuasive documentary and backed up by documents seen by the Guardian and L’Equipe. In the second are suggestions that the son of the IAAF president, Lamine Diack – its marketing consultant Papa Massata Diack – requested a $5m (£3.1m) payment from the Qataris when they were bidding to host the 2017 world athletics championships. He denies making such a request on behalf of the IAAF and says no payment was ever received. Other strands, including the Guardian’s revelation that long-standing the anti-doping chief Dr Gabriel Dollé left the IAAF after being interviewed by the ethics commission, only add to the intrigue and sense of a governing body spinning out of control.

Why have these allegations only just come to light?

Good question. The IAAF has known since at least April of claims that Liliya Shobukhova, a Russian marathon runner, was forced to pay €450,000 to Russian officials when they discovered her blood levels between 2009 and 2011 were suspicious. That, and other allegations including a claim that a business associate of Papa Massata Diack helped funnel €300,000 back to Shobukhova after she failed a drug test, have been under investigation by its ethics commission for months, yet it has only now been forced to admit them publicly.

Surely the IAAF made tackling doping a priority in the wake of Balco and other scandals?

The IAAF has gone further than most sports in introducing biological passports and attempting to wrestle with the intractable biological arms race with the dopers. But Lamine Diack’s attitude has sometimes appeared contradictory, railing against Wada and the media when they focus on Kenya or Jamaica. The Russian allegations – which the federation president and IAAF treasurer, Valentin Balakhnichev, has called “a pack of lies” – suggest the spectre of institutional doping that haunted athletics during the Soviet era has never really gone away. The abiding concern must be that those at the top of the sport did not look for fear of what they might find. Or, worse, were actively involved in covering it up.

How significant is the secret list referred to in the German TV documentary?

The list contains the names of more than 150 athletes, including three Britons and scores of Kenyans and Russians, who were deemed by one former IAAF anti-doping official to have suspicious blood values. The reference to the list has prompted a war of words between the IAAF and the makers of the documentary. The governing body said that single blood values could prove nothing and risked sparking a witch hunt against athletes who had done no wrong. The German documentary makers responded that they had been careful not to name anyone on the list and that the information provided was far more comprehensive, and more damning, than the IAAF had admitted. The presence of one leading British athlete on the list has increased media scrutiny, presenting a difficult dilemma over whether to defend themselves publicly. More broadly, the debate should be less about whether the list proves guilt but whether the IAAF did enough to act on the suspicions it raised. The shadow of the recent dark days at cycling’s UCI, which failed to investigate properly its biggest names for fear of damaging its commercial returns, hangs heavily over every major sports federation.

Who is Papa Massata Diack? And what is his involvement?

The 50-year-old son of Lamine Diack, the all-powerful president since 1999, is a familiar sight at IAAF gatherings. A fixer, a licensed marketing consultant with a mandate to bring in business from emerging markets, a consultant to cities bidding for major championships and a man with impressive connections, he has made hay for years. He can often be seen working the room wherever sport’s most powerful figures gather, offering a word here or a discreet introduction there. The obvious potential for a conflict of interest that arises when he is advising bidding cities and persuading them to invest as sponsors has never been adequately resolved. He is sublicensed by Dentsu, the Japanese marketing agency that has the global rights to sell sponsorship on behalf of the IAAF, to work in a wide range of developing markets including Qatar, Russia, South Korea and China – all countries that have been successful in bidding for the world championships in recent years.

Who has stepped down and why? Can we trust the ethics committee process?

Papa Massata Diack and Valentin Balakhnichev have said they did nothing wrong but have stood down from their IAAF positions while the ethics commission, chaired by Michael Beloff QC, concludes its investigation. Habib Cissé, an IAAF legal adviser who is said to have been close to Papa Massata Diack for many years, also faced pressure to sever his ties with the IAAF but has so far refused. Unlike Fifa’s unsatisfactory and often patently absurd ethics committee process, IAAF insiders insist that its independent commission – only introduced this year – can be trusted to come to the right conclusions and take tough action. The most optimistic hope this can be a cathartic moment to clean the stables and clear the air before next year’s presidential election.

How does all this affect Lord Coe’s IAAF presidential hopes?

Coe can point out that some of these issues – such as the separation of the anti-doping arm from the executive and the creation of a properly resourced commercial unit – were addressed in a manifesto launched just before the latest crisis hit. But Coe, an IAAF vice-president since 2007, must also offer a convincing explanation as to why he has not already done more to effect change from the inside on some of these issues. The race for the presidency, with his likely rival Sergey Bubka yet to declare his candidacy, will to some extent be shaped by the crises the sport now finds itself engulfed in.