The most graphic depiction in Greek mythology of the last moments of Icarus are captured on canvas by Flemish artist Jacob Peter Gouwy. The Flight of Icarus hangs in Madrid’s Prado gallery. Icarus’s attempt to escape from Crete with wings of feather and wax came to grief when, failing to heed his father’s warning, he flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and he drowned at sea.
A few days after the close of London’s World Athletics Championships last month I managed to grab a few days with friends in Wales. I watched Icarus the film with them. Bryan Fogel, a more than useful amateur cyclist and modest playwright, was the driving force behind the film, and its director. I say it’s a film but it’s really a docu-drama, in which Fogel shows that the application of a cocktail of banned substances would have a profound impact on his performance in the saddle.
This alone would not have been particularly spectacular material. Doping in cycling was common as far back as the 1920s. Long-distance running in Victorian times was beset by the same abuse, and some of the marathon runners in the 1908 Olympic Games in London were known to have played around with small doses of strychnine. A relatively modern phenomenon? Not really. There is evidence from the ancient Games that competitors were consuming bulls’ testes to up their testosterone levels.
Icarus became more interesting with unexpected events. Among Fogel’s team of co-conspirators was Grigory Rodchenkov, who, when not advising on dosages and how to evade the testers, was discharging his duties as head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory. Halfway through all this, the World Anti-Doping Agency published its report into wide-scale and systemic drug abuse in Russian sport. This not only hit the International Association of Athletics Federations hard, leading to the Russian federation being suspended from international competition, it also shone an uncomfortable and uncompromising light on Russian performances in their home winter Olympics in Sochi and the industrial scale of cheating.
The film ends with Rodchenkov in a witness-protection programme, probably somewhere in the United States, and the sports world reeling. The Rio Games took place without Russian track and field athletes. Only the International Weightlifting Federation followed suit. And an IAAF independent task force chaired by Norwegian Rune Andersen is overseeing the reinstatement criteria that needs to be met before the new Russian Athletics Federation is eligible to take its place in international competitions. If Gouwy’s Icarus drowned at sea because he flew too close to the sun, Fogel’s depiction of Russian sport shows it perishing in the flames of hell.
At our congress in London a few days before the World Championships opening ceremony, the new president of the re-engineered Russian Athletics Federation addressed the other 212 nations. It was a sober and, it has to be said, a candid summation of where Russian athletics had found itself and the challenge that still lay ahead for them and us.
I welcomed it at the time and remain optimistic that both sides can settle on lasting change. I also remain of the view that the changes we seek and those we have already made would not have been possible had the IAAF not made tough decisions two years ago. There are two stories being played out here. The first is the very public one that I’ve just described. But for us to get where we need to be there has to be another story, and that is a recognition by athletes, federations, sponsors, agents and managers that they too have a role to play.
Over the past two years I have sat down with hundreds of athletes of all ages and all disciplines in every continent. They will be our game-changers. Yes, we can advance our technology, which we are doing. Yes, we can make our testing systems more independent now that we have the Athletics Integrity Unit in place. Yes, we have a portal available to athletes where they can, and do, communicate their fears and concerns and provide invaluable intelligence that allows us to feel the collar of the malign influencers. But above all, the clean athletes have to recognise they need to shine a light on the darkest areas of the sport. Intelligent testing rather than the “never mind the quality feel the width” approach of some sports is proving more effective in catching those who cheat — evidenced in getting World Championship medals back to their rightful owners at the recent championships this summer.
But intelligent testing starts with intelligence from people on the ground and within the sport. Clean athletes need to need to speak out and trust that when they do, they will be heard. Federations, too, need to be mindful of relaying mixed messages to athletes. They cannot turn a blind eye to suspicious coaching. And their leadership cannot chastise athletes from other countries’ federations who have served bans, only to be ushering their own suspended athletes back into team duties as quickly as possible to meet funding targets.
The fight against doping remains a war of attrition. Prevailing technology is closing the gap but utopia is a far- away land. In an interview I gave before the championships to the BBC’S Andrew Marr, I was asked whether I could guarantee that every athlete competing in London would be clean. He hammed up synthetic shock when I, of course, said I couldn’t and explained that a few in any walk of life will always make a judgment to step beyond moral boundaries.
That is probably part of the human condition but our ambition beyond the confines of that dismal interview is to rally our troops and unerringly head for the sunlit uplands accompanied by every clean athlete on the planet, which of course the majority are.
Lord Coe is president of the International Association of Athletics Federations