Marathon not a sprint – Athletics’ long road to redemption must begin in Beijing

Usain Bolt, 100m World Championship title holder

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For China, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing presented an opportunity to affirm Chinese power to the world. A record-breaking five billion people watched the country do just that in their highly accomplished stewardship of the most prestigious sporting competition. However, despite China’s triumph, the enduring image of 2008 was not of Chinese supremacy but instead the emergence of Usain Bolt on the world stage in the 100m and 200m.

Four years later, London 2012 saw traditional pessimism replaced with patriotism as Britain basked in the triumph of a raucous, inspiring and truly incredible Olympic Games. People wistfully remember “Super Saturday” where athletes Ennis, Rutherford, Rudisha and Farah etched their names in history. For chairman Lord Sebastian Coe, London 2012 was the realisation of a dream and an achievement which set the benchmark for Rio 2016. As in Beijing, it was those feats of excellence in the Olympic Stadium which provided the iconic memories of the event.

For China and Coe, the success of each hinged upon many important logistical and political aspects. Yet it was on the track and on the field where the public imagination was captured and global audiences were captivated by the incredible stories and feats of sporting excellence they witnessed.

This weekend, athletics returned to Beijing for the 2015 World Championships with Lord Coe now the newly appointed IAAF President. However, Beijing and Coe now face their biggest challenge yet, a challenge even greater than hosting a successful Olympics.

Athletics has been rocked to its core by the revelation of a widespread doping scandal. Through a whistleblower, The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR gained access to an IAAF database which revealed that 12,000 blood tests from 5,000 athletes exhibited evidence of doping. As the newspaper described in sobering terms, the findings demonstrated “the extraordinary extent of cheating by athletes at the world’s most prestigious events”.

As a result of these findings, the value of the medals won between 2001-2012 has now come under intense scrutiny. It is alleged that within the period specified, a third of medals (146, including 55 golds) won in endurance events at the  and World Championships were won by athletes who have submitted suspicious tests.

Naturally there has been outrage at the extent of the cheating and shock at how deep rooted the problem is. The sport’s reputation has been hugely stained and the rose-tinted memories of recent have faded rapidly in public minds. Somehow these World Championships must put athletics on the long road to redemption and win back the hearts of fans.

A clean World Championships in Beijing is of paramount importance. In such a volatile time for the sport, one more damning allegation of blood doping from a top athlete could deliver a potentially fatal blow to athletics’ reputation, from which it may never be able to recover. Lord Coe has immediately stated his intent by declaring war on doping, promising to form an independent anti-doping panel to address the issue. Coe is certainly the right man to lead this fight, yet he cannot afford to have his progressive approach undermined from the outset by the same problems that have plagued the IAAF for the last fifteen years.

Therefore it is up to the athletes to perform clean and put on a show to restore the reputation of athletics. The media have cast the 100m finals in Beijing to be the battleground of good vs evil, with Usain Bolt representing the side of the angels against convicted and unrepentant drug cheat Justin Gatlin. However, despite his irrepressible charisma and statesmanlike aura within athletics, this responsibility cannot be Bolt’s alone.

Mo Farah must firmly free himself from the toxic association of the highly suspect Alberto Salazar by doing his talking on the track. Heroes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill and David Rudisha need to once again demonstrate their extraordinary ability on the biggest stage and prove why they are Olympic champions. Young stars must make their breakthrough and announce themselves to the world. Records must be smashed and stories must be made. All with the guarantee that every athlete is clean.

The World Championships in Beijing are now arguably the most important athletics competition in recent history. They represent a crossroads where the sport can continue its downward decline if doping is still able to occur at the top level. Or they can be Championships which herald a brave new dawn for change, for more transparency, more rigid testing, and perhaps begin to restore public confidence in athletics.

Either way, whatever happens in Beijing, it will be of huge importance for Rio 2016. As a devoted fan, I sincerely hope that athletics cleans up its act.

Photograph: Neilhooting via Flickr

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