The world of athletics is at loggerheads with two leading media organizations over just how widespread doping is within the sport.
Reacting to reports by Britain’s Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD that analyzed a leaked database of official drug tests, International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) vice-president Sebastian Coe said the allegations amounted to a “declaration of war.”
In response, investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt – who worked on ARD’s documentary – told CNN that Coe’s comments were “ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, the IAAF has denied athletics is suffering a similar crisis to cycling’s history of doping when the sport was bedeviled by extensive drug-taking and accusations of top-level coverups.
“If transparency is an issue, we would welcome any investigation from the only authorized body to investigate – the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA),” the IAAF’s anti-doping manager, Thomas Capdevielle, told CNN.
“If they refer the matter to an independent commission, we are happy to welcome them to (our headquarters in) Monaco, open our files one by one and show that for every suspicious blood sample, there was an appropriate followup done.
“I can confirm there was no coverup from the IAAF.”
The Sunday Times and ARD had access to over 12,000 blood tests from more than 5,000 athletes, with leading blood experts concluding that these revealed an “extraordinary level of cheating” in the sport.
The reports were released as the IAAF prepares to host its world championships in Beijing from August 22-30.
Coe – who is standing for the IAAF presidency on August 19, along with fellow former athlete Sergey Bubka – has called the reports “sensationalizing” and an attempt to “destroy the reputation of the athletes and our sport.”
“It is a declaration of war,” Coe, a former runner who won Olympic gold medals in the 1980s, told the Associated Press.
“This, for me, is a fairly seminal moment. There is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug testing that warrants this kind of attack.
“Nobody should underestimate the anger at the way our sport has been portrayed. The fightback has to start here.
“We cannot be portrayed as a sport that is in any way dragging our heels.”
The leaked tests were scrutinized by Australian doping experts Michael Ashenden and Robin Parisotto, who concluded that 800 athletes, in a range of disciplines, mostly covering endurance events from the 800 meters to the marathon, had produced “suspicious” results.
At the major competitions, this equated to nearly 150 medalists, including 55 champions.
The IAAF has published a lengthy statement denying any wrongdoing, one that was accompanied by a detailed nine-page rebuttal of the allegations.
“What the IAAF cannot accept under any circumstances … is an accusation that it has breached its primary duty to act in the best interests of the sport of athletics,” the statement read.
However Seppelt, a journalist who has spent much of his working life scrutinizing the world of doping, remained unrepentant.
“I am used to this kind of reaction because I have been working on doping stories for almost 20 years. Always, when I present facts about failures, this is the normal reaction,” the German told CNN.
“The declaration of war statement is ridiculous. We are not interested in blaming sport. They should react to facts.”
As the tit-for-tat battle rages, the Sunday Times also published its own statement in which Ashenden and Parisotto rebutted the “so-called ‘serious reservations’” outlined by the IAAF.
Just 10 of the 70 people who are employed by the IAAF work in its Medical and Anti-Doping Department, but Capdevielle insisted the organization had taken a proactive approach in dealing with drug cheats.
“If you propose to double our budget and staff, I’d say ‘Yes, no problem,’ ” Capdevielle told CNN.
“I have spent 10 years of my life, on a daily basis, investing in the fight against doping. Considering the work we’ve done and the pioneering role we’ve had, we can’t accept claims that we’ve collected data and done nothing about it.
“The best way to cover up doping is to ignore it and be in denial about it. We’ve done the contrary.
“We’ve collected blood data when no-one else was doing so. We’ve collected more blood data than anyone else – and now we’re exposed because of this data.
“The IAAF is at the forefront of the fight against doping and it’s considerably unfair to say we’ve been either negligent or covering up cases. We can’t accept this.”
Capdevielle outlined the scale of the task when explaining that the recent allegations only concern blood samples, while the IAAF – responsible for athletes from 217 countries, competing in 47 different disciplines – is also chasing steroid and human growth hormone abuse.
Conflict of interest?
While Coe went on the offensive, legendary Ukrainian pole vaulter Bubka, who won Olympic gold and broke the world record 35 times, admitted athletics could be doing more.
“It is clear that we need more people working at the IAAF to tackle the biggest challenge our sport faces – identifying doping cheats and protecting clean athletes,” said Bubka in a statement.
The 51-year-old also wants the introduction of an independent process to tackle the scourge of doping.
“That means working even more closely with WADA, the International Olympic Committee, national federations, national doping agencies and government bodies to ensure the process by which cheats are identified and prosecuted is truly independent,” he said.
Bubka’s call for an independent body was echoed by Seppelt.
“The most convincing change would be to put the whole doping control management in independent hands, far away from the sports federations, because they have a conflict of interest,” he said.
“They want to promote exceptional performances and results, but they want no doping. How does that work together?”
In 2009, the IAAF introduced a new anti-doping policy called the Athlete Biological Passport whereby a series of blood or urine tests taken by athletes over an extended period of time can help determine whether an individual has doped or not.
The IAAF pointed to a report it published in a leading international journal of clinical laboratory science, Clinical Chemistry, in 2011.
“Far from hiding from these statistics, to our knowledge the IAAF is the only sport in the world to have openly reported, reviewed and analyzed the statistics available in its long-term blood profiling database,” its statement read.
Yet even this raises questions in the minds of those who believe the IAAF should be doing more to combat doping.
“The report they published in 2011 was a very academic and scientific work,” said Seppelt. “Why was there no press conference? Why did they not inform the relevant media?
“They didn’t mention that medal winners were involved (among those whose blood samples proved suspicious). Just said it was 14% of athletes – that’s it.
“They didn’t (highlight the 2011 report) because, I believe, it damages the IAAF. To talk about doping is bad for the brand.”
The IAAF, whose anti-doping budget is just over $2 million per year, says it spends more on the fight against drugs than all other international federations, save for the global cycling body (UCI).