In Dubai, Michael Johnson says Coe ‘has his work cut out for him’ in ‘critical moment’ for athletics

Osman Samiuddin reports from a roundtable discussion in Dubai with former US athletics superstar Michael Johnson, who touches on Sebastian Coe's task at the IAAF and the challenges in cleaning up the sport.

Michael Johnson shown visiting the Olympic Park in London in October 2011.
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DUBAI // Michael Johnson believes athletics is at a “critical moment” in its history, even as fallout continues to grow on an almost daily basis from the doping scandal within which it is currently engulfed.

After the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) report that uncovered state-sponsored doping programmes in Russia, other countries have also fallen under the radar. The world athletics body, the IAAF, suspended three senior officials from distance-running powerhouse Kenya this week over corruption allegations and “the potential subversion of the antidoping control process” in Kenya.

On Wednesday, the Italian Olympic Committee asked for 26 of its athletes to be banned for two years for doping violations, a list that includes an Olympic medallist.

Johnson is one of the greatest sprinters the sport has seen, having won four Olympic gold medals and eight world championship medals across 200m, 400m and relays.

At his peak, in the mid-to late-90s, it would not be hyperbolic to suggest that he was as much a freak athlete as Usain Bolt is today. In fact, before Bolt made the record his own, Johnson’s best 200m time of 19.32 seconds, set at the 1996 Atlanta Games, was thought to be as freakishly low as Bolt’s 19.19 seconds is now.

He is also a considered and thoughtful voice on the sport, whose views will add further impetus in the fight to rescue athletics.

“This is a critical moment for the sport of athletics” he said on Thursday, while in Dubai to attend the Rugby Sevens.

“Athletics, I believe, has done a very good job of having a zero-tolerance policy for doping. The issue is, though, when you move from the conversation being less about who may or may not be doping to whether the organisation entrusted with keeping the sport clean and policing the sport, whether or not they are complicit in covering up tests and protecting athletes and there’s corruption and bribery allegations, that’s a whole different ballgame.”

Much of the pressure, and attendant spotlight, has fallen on Sebastian Coe, who took over as IAAF president recently. On Wednesday, Coe underwent an intense grilling by a parliamentary committee in Britain where he was accused of a “lack of curiosity” and “wilful blindness” as a vice president for eight years under the tenure of his predecessor Lamine Diack.

Diack was arrested last month and is under investigation for corruption and bribery allegations. Coe said he was shocked and angry after discovering of the charges against Diack, a man he has once described as his “spiritual leader”.

Coe denied that the IAAF was institutionally corrupt, claiming instead that allegations were made against a “handful” of employees.

“Seb Coe certainly has his work cut out for him, not just with doping issues but with credibility and restoring credibility to the sport. It is a critical moment for the sport and Seb will have to lead by example, also in implementing policies that will restore credibility back in the sport,” Johnson said.

Athletics has traditionally been one of the Olympics’ showpiece events, but with the Rio Games to be held in just over six months and with the full depth of the problem still not clear, it has barely any time to put its house in order.

Restoring its credibility in that time frame, Johnson said, should not be a concern.

“I don’t know if there is any time frame that really matters. Credibility has to be restored, whether it can or not we will have to see. But that is important: it has to be priority, not only with media, but also with fans and athletes, credibility has to be restored – that has to be the first priority,” he said.

“I don’t know” how it affects Rio, “I don’t know if anyone knows that. If I were in the position of running the sport, whether or not 2016 is going to be affected is not the priority right now.

“That’s another 8-9 months away. Right now the sport is in a critical moment, transparency is important and credibility has to be as quickly as possible restored into the sport, through the actions of those who are in charge.”

Some prominent voices, the triple jump legend Jonathan Edwards among them, have called for criminalising doping offences, with the threat of jail sentences as a deterrent.

Johnson does not think that is feasible.

“You are dealing with multiple countries and different laws in each country,” he said. “It’s a great thing to say but you have to look at whether that is feasible. At the end of the day, in terms of fighting doping, you have to look at what is feasible and find a real solution, you have to increase the budgets with which you fight doping in sport so that it doesn’t happen to begin with.

“But the conversation has to be about what is feasible as opposed to what sounds good and what sounds like, that’d be fantastic. ‘We’re going to jail them!’ That sounds great but is it feasible?”​

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