Column: Coe's small step on IAAF road to redemption

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Posted: Jan 15, 2016 10:18 AM
Column: Coe's small step on IAAF road to redemption

MUNICH (AP) — One short plane ride, one small step on track and field's marathon road to redemption.

Sebastian Coe could have locked himself in a dark room, hands covering his ears and yelling "Not listening! Not listening!" rather than board a flight to Germany to hear first-hand how the sport he leads appears to have been worm-riddled with corruption.

Taking a seat among hundreds of journalists with pens as sharp as knives, absorbing with them the appalling findings from World Anti-Doping Agency investigators and French prosecutors of cash-stuffed envelopes, cover-ups and alleged blackmailing of athletes cannot have been comfortable for the British former middle-distance running great.

But facing the music was the right thing to do.

The IAAF president's unexpected presence in Munich (he told surprised colleagues a few days beforehand that he wanted to be there for the release of the damning WADA findings) sent the message that he is not running from the gravity of the corruption crisis that could still sink the International Association of Athletics Federations, and Coe with, it if not handled smartly or should more skeletons emerge from its closet.

Coe got an advance look at the WADA report, so he knew what he was walking into. And he came away from what could otherwise have been a relentlessly grim day in Munich with a helpful endorsement from the head of the WADA probe, International Olympic Committee veteran Dick Pound, which showed that one thing that never changes in sports is the habit of administrators to stick together and watch each other's backs.

Still, slowly but more surely, Coe does seem to be getting it, to have understood that the bitter medicine for the IAAF necessarily includes him, as its new leader, swallowing his ample pride and eating lots of humble pie.

Having argued the exact opposite just a day earlier, Coe conceded, almost willingly, that there were cover-ups under the regime of Lamine Diack, his predecessor whose praises Coe sang when he replaced him in August as IAAF president.

Coe said he was grateful to WADA's investigation for having opened his eyes to the full extent of the sickness that infected track and field's global governing body under Diack. Coe was then one of five vice presidents on its ruling council.

The WADA report charged that council members must have known about the nepotism that saw Diack install two sons and his legal counsel in a "powerful rogue group" that allegedly corrupted the IAAF from within.

Under the noses of Coe and others, the shadow "informal, illegitimate" leadership took over management of Russian doping cases and then conspired to extort doped athletes, allowing them to compete when they should have been banned, the report alleged.

"This is a very complex, deeply painful process for the sport to go through," Coe said after sitting through the investigators' news conference, sounding more contrite than ever. "The road to redemption here is not going to be swift or easy."

Facing up to a problem is the first step toward solving it. But only the first step. Beyond fixing the broken machine at the IAAF and reforming its inner workings so no one can turn it into a personal fiefdom again, Coe's next trust-rebuilding move must be keeping Russian athletes off the Olympic track at the Rio de Janeiro Games in August.

As an athlete who competed at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, defying pressure to join a boycott of the then-Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan, this would come at personal cost for Coe. He would share the pain of athletes, cruel for those who don't dope, who will miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

But it is precisely because this is tough that Coe must do it.

He is no longer an athlete. As his sport's chief administrator, he is where the buck stops at an organization that knew years ago that doping in Russia was so out of control it feared athletes could die from the abuse of banned blood-boosting drugs and transfusions. Yet it was only last November, after the WADA probe pointed to Russian government complicity in cheating, that the Coe-led IAAF grew the spine to bar Russia from competition.

There are compelling practical reasons for not letting Russia back for Rio — not least that it's hard to believe the systematic, habitual doping and deception can be sponged away in months.

"Even if you wipe away all those who were directly involved and hold them accountable, the system's not anywhere near close to being where it must be," said the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart.

But, above all, keeping Russia in the doghouse would show will. It would mark a break in the IAAF's cozy relationship with Moscow. It could reassure athletes, who need reassuring that change is afoot. It could signal to other countries lax on doping that the game is up. In short, it's the next acid test of Coe's leadership.

Lost in the fog were positive findings.

The report gave high marks to the blood-passport testing program the IAAF uses, along with other sports, to monitor athletes' blood readings over time, looking for tell-tale signs of doping. Smart, well-advised cheats still slip under its radar, but the ABP is one of the best anti-doping tools sports have. The IAAF has caught more athletes with it — sanctioning 51, with others in the pipeline — than anyone and now "has one of the most reactive ABP programs," the report said.

So that's a straw to cling to for those who will wonder whether watching athletics is a waste of their time.

But only a straw.

Credibility will have to be earned, one step at a time.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/John-Leicester-Associated-Press-Sports-Columnist-579349882203298/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel