In surreal turn, condemnation of IAAF leaders exempts President Sebastian Coe

Richard Pound at Thursday's press conference in Munich.  (Ruptly TV stream image)

Richard Pound at Thursday's press conference in Munich.  (Ruptly TV stream image)

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I was able to watch a theater of the absurd drama live from Munich, Germany Thursday morning.

All it lacked were sets by either Dali or Magritte behind the dais occupied by Richard Pound of Canada and his fellow luminaries on the World Anti-Doping Agency independent commission that investigated the sordid behavior that festered inside the international track and field federation.

The production was meant to elucidate a commission report that iterated and reiterated top elected officials of the IAAF – its Council – had to be aware of the rot within the organization.

It will be remembered instead for the surreal plot twist in which commission chair Pound repeatedly and unwaveringly defended the idea of letting 12-year Council member Sebastian Coe of Great Britain lead the federation out of the mess.

“There is an enormous amount of reputational recovery that has to occur here,” Pound said.  “I can’t think of anyone better than Lord Coe to lead that.”

That left much of the audience – those in the room, those watching the live stream, those listening on a teleconference – as perplexed as they would have been when the final curtain fell on a Samuel Beckett play.  Talk about rejection of reality.

That Coe, elected IAAF President last August after seven years as a vice-president, was sitting among the media in the room should have been a clue to the ending.  It was a show of either bravado or foreknowledge.

The most favorable epilogue would be: You already have the keys to the hen house, Lord Coe, so have at it.

But good luck with trying to reestablish trust in the sport’s leadership and its anti-doping efforts.

And talk about outfoxing common sense.  The status quo approach relies solely on the stability argument - that you can’t start from scratch in an organization as big as the IAAF.  Except for credibility’s sake, you need to start from scratch at the top.

The reaction to Pound’s endorsement of Coe among serious observers on social media was overwhelmingly critical.

“He (Pound) ended up basically saying the institution failed (a euphemism – it was corrupt), that the Council CANNOT have been unaware, but one of its members?  He’s the man!” tweeted South African sports scientist Ross Tucker.

Camera capture Seb Coe (foreground, left) in audience at Thursday's press conference.

Camera capture Seb Coe (foreground, left) in audience at Thursday's press conference.

The corruption centered on doping by Russian athletes and the efforts by top IAAF officials to profit from that by extorting money to cover up the doping and allow athletes who should have been banned to keep competing.

While the commission’s report found former IAAF President Lamine Diack of Senegal to be the prime mover behind the blackmail, it emphasized his behavior could not have been going on in a vacuum, saying corruption was embedded in the organization and, “Failure to have addressed such governance issues is an IAAF failure that cannot be blamed on a small group of miscreants.”

Report: “The IAAF Council could not have been unaware of the extent of doping in Athletics (track & field) and the non-enforcement of applicable anti-doping rules.”

Pound:  “My assessment of Lord Coe is that if he knew there was corruption going on, he would have done something about it.”

Report:  “It is not credible that elected officials were unaware of the situation affecting…athletics in Russia.  If, therefore, the circle of knowledge was so extensive, why was nothing done?”

Pound on why that doesn’t contradict his support of Coe to remain IAAF President: “I don’t want to lay the failures of an entire Council and the lack of a proper governance process at the feet of one individual.   You learn from experience.”

That makes it seem as if two-time Olympic champion Coe is some babe in the woods instead of a member of the House of Lords, a former member of Parliament, the chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Organizing Committee, chairman of the British Olympic Association and chairman of CSM Sports and Entertainment, a marketing company.

“I’m very grateful for the personal endorsement of Dick (Pound) but he’s not somebody that pulls his punches,” Coe was quoted in a British Press Association story.   “…I really hoped that he did not think that me or the organization was in denial about this.”

At least Pound did dispute Coe’s contention in a Wednesday CNN interview that, as regards Russian doping, “There is no cover-up here.”

“Of course, there was a cover-up and delays and all sorts of things,” Pound said.  “If you can’t acknowledge it, you’re never going to get past it.”

That sounds more like Pound, the senior member of the International Olympic Committee, a person who always has taken a no-words-barred approach to giving an opinion.

So, Pound was asked, was Coe lying when he repeatedly denied knowing what was going on in Russia before the commission laid it all out in the first part of its report last November?

“I do not believe so,” Pound said.

Only Coe – and any IAAF official or staff member who might have raised the issue with him – can say what, if anything, he knew and when he knew it.

But as I wrote yesterday, in a column saying the IAAF needed to boot all its previous leadership, Coe disingenuously has claimed his high position in the organization did not get him close enough to the sport’s inner circle to be aware of corruption that pervaded the IAAF, whose former anti-doping director was intimately involved.  If that were the case, Coe’s competence as well as his naiveté is questionable.

According to Reuters, Coe was maintaining his hear-no-evil stand Thursday.

“Yes the Council should have been more aware. Were they in a position to know more? No,” Coe was quoted by the wire service.

Coe said this in an IAAF-issued statement:

“The corruption that it (the independent commission) has revealed is totally abhorrent, and a gross betrayal of trust by those involved.  Even though each of the impacted doping cases was eventually resolved with lengthy bans for the athletes involved, I recognize that the IAAF still has an enormous task ahead of it to restore public confidence.  We cannot change the past, but I am determined that we will learn from it and will not repeat its mistakes.”

Don’t count on that.  In cases like this, realpolitik always wins out over the ideals organizations like the IAAF and the IOC so proudly espouse.