Time our athletes were allowed to be Heroes

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be Heroes, just for one day

It’s funny that David Bowie’s knew more about rampant corruption in athletics than apparently did Seb Coe. Somehow, the man who was Ziggy divined the whole filthy business, or so it appears, when you think of the Opening Ceremony at London 2012. The explosion of confetti, the welling cheer, the arrival in the stadium of Team GB, marching, waving, smiling, selfie-ing, and – swirling above it all – the epic sound of Bowie’s Heroes and its subversive, yearning lyrics.

Though nothing will drive them away” perfectly captured the moment.  “Them”, the drug cheats, and their assorted agents and abettors, now exposed in all their machinations by the freshly-unveiled World Anti-Doping Agency’s inquiry report. We now know that at the very top of the world governing body of athletics, the IAAF, squatted a President and his cohorts enmeshed in fraud, corruption, cover-up, blackmail and extortion, enabling dopers to escape unpunished.

More than one medal ceremony in London, to the full or partial knowledge of the governors of the sport, featured the covering in glory of a cheat. The women’s 1500 metres final, for instance, perpetrated a fraud on the innocent athletes on the track and the crowd in the stadium alike.

Perhaps Bowie, given the momentous scale of his early-years drug use was the perfect figure to glean the similarly gruesome scale of drug use in Olympic sport. In this, as with everything, he was years ahead of his time.

The point is a lot of people could have been heroes. In Britain, elsewhere, there have been so many deeply committed, striving, honest athletes whose careers have been wickedly derailed because a performance that should have won a medal was overpowered by some pumped-up fake supported by the system.

It is a small world, athletics. Answerable to itself. Cronyism is rampant and only thanks to whistleblowers and journalists (conspicuously unthanked) has this latest corruption – and the grand scale of Russian doping which the inquiry calls the “tip of the iceberg” – come to light.

So Where Are We Now, as Bowie would say. We’re hoping that institutionalised doping that left a generation of East German women fed testosterone as teenagers, morphing their minds and bodies to the point of suicide and sex changes, is a shame of the past. We’re hoping that this isn’t just because the drugs have become more sophisticated.

We’re hoping that Jo Pavey, Lisa Dobriskey, Jenny Meadows – just a few of the clean British athletes whose careers were sideswiped by cheats – get a fair crack at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio.

And we’re hoping that the peculiar dissonance of Lord Coe’s position as the new-broom President of the IAAF is resolved. Because he is old broom, too. He has been on the Council of the IAAF for more than a decade. The WADA report made fundamentally clear that no member of the Council “could have been unaware of the extent of doping in athletics”. Indeed, how could he not have been aware, the best connected man in athletics? That is why he replaced Barbara Cassani as head of the London Olympic bid. He knew everyone.

Yet the WADA report’s co-author, Dick Pound, and the world marathon record holder, Paula Radcliffe, are just a couple of those close to the sport who are now adamant that Coe is the man to head the task of reform.

This is either peculiar or politics. What are we to assume? That he may have been a mole within the IAAF all along, condoning wrong-doing by not seeing it until achieving a position of power. Perhaps now he can throw off the cover of darkness and come out as white knight to the rescue.

That doesn’t quite explain his reluctant separation from financial ties with Nike, the powerful American apparel company who sponsor twice-convicted drug cheat Justin Gatlin, and it is not much consolation to the athletes who have missed out on medals in the meantime. They’re just looking at empty mantlepieces.

But by his actions shall we know him. If the Russians remain suspended from the Rio Olympics (49 of their athletes are currently on the banned list), if the whistleblowing Stepanovs who originally exposed the scale of Russian cheating are duly supported, if testing becomes worldwide and transparent, if bans become meaningful, if culpable coaches are as vilified as cheating athletes, if criminals are brought to justice … so.many ifs.

Bowie wrote Heroes in Berlin, ironically. It was a hymn to defiance against totalitarianism. In the wake of his death he was thanked by the German Foreign Office for help in bringing down the Berlin Wall. No one can be as sure that the wall of silence and cover-up in athletics is so thoroughly destroyed.


Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles


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