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Bolt's brilliance is why no-one should lose faith in athletics

Simon BarnesDecember 15, 2014
Usain Bolt has been a force for good for athletics and made a massive impact since his Beijing golds © PA Photos

One of the great sadnesses of life is that when you get away with a bad deed you think you've got away with it forever. You build your world on the assumption that all is well and, lo and behold, the bad thing in your life crops up again, three times as ugly as before.

It must be like being in possession of a corpse. It puts you in a difficult and embarrassing situation but you have the presence of mind to hide it under the bed. You think you've got away with it - but then the corpse starts to make its presence felt. No, it's all right, it's only a faint odour, no one will notice, or if they do, they won't dare to say anything. Just carry on as normal.

But in the end the stink is so enormous that no one can ignore it anymore and anyone with any connection to the corpse is in serious trouble. Which makes it doubly painful, because you thought you'd got away with it.

The people who run track and field have a job on their hands if they want us to carry on believing in their sport

That's how it is in athletics right now. They'd been having a clear run for a few years. The gigantic impact of Usain Bolt changed the landscape and made athletics once again a thing of joy. Bolt gave delight to the world at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 - as good a day of sport as I've ever witnessed - a year later at the World Championships in Berlin, and once again at the London Games two years ago.

Sure, there were bad things in the sport, positive tests and so forth, but nothing that appeared to be on a large scale. Not really. And besides, athletics was able to hide behind cycling, which had earned a serious trust problem.

But this week the stench broke forth once again in athletics. There are complex allegations against Russia, accused of running an institutionalised doping programme. There are further allegations of officials extorting money from an athlete to cover up a positive test. Dr Gabriel Dolle, director of medical and anti-doping programme at the governing body of track and field, the IAAF, has reportedly left his post after an interview with the IAAF ethics commission, although it is unclear if or to what extent Dolle will be implicated in the ethics commission's investigation.

This is all so destructive of good sport that the allegations of serious financial corruption that also broke this week have taken second place. These involve Papa Massata Diack. He is the son of the outgoing president, Lamine Diack, and he has now agreed to stop working for the IAAF until the independent IAAF ethics commission's ongoing investigation has concluded.

Cycling scandal's such as Lance Armstrong's have overshadowed doping issues in other sports © Getty Images

There are further problems bubbling away just under the surface, connected with lax dope-testing in the athletics powerhouses of Jamaica and Kenya. Jamaica, it was alleged, carried out only one or two out-of-competition dope tests in the five months before the London Olympics. That resulted in Diack pere fulminating, not against Jamaica and Kenya but against the World Anti-Doping Authority for trying to make them accountable.

So it all starts again - and ultimately it's about the issue of belief. Those that care little about track and field outside the Olympic Games will be inclined to give up on the sport - football may have plenty of issues, but at least you can believe in the action. And that's fine if you're a mono-culturalist, but it's a problem for those of us who take a wider view of sport. After all, track and field is more capable of serving up peak moments than any other sporting event.

Fanny Blankers-Koen, Roger Bannister, Bob Beamon, Abebe Bikila, Sebastian Coe, Michael Johnson, Jessica Ennis-Hill of course, Bolt: track and field delivers athletes who have produced potent moments no other sport can match. The scandals that erupt may make you doubt great performances, but that is a shame; those of us who care for sport must enjoy the great and the good and find a way to deal with the problems of track and field, too.

A blanket cynicism is understandable but it's lazy and self-defeating. Of course, if you believe the worst of everything you're seldom surprised and never disappointed but it's a pretty awful way to live. If you can't believe that people are capable of good things - if only intermittently - your world hasn't got much going for it.

If you believe the worst of everything you're seldom surprised and never disappointed but it's a pretty awful way to live

True, an uncritical belief in everything you're presented with is a shortcut to being a fool, but I've always preferred credulity to cynicism. If I'd curled my lip and sneered at the 100m final in Beijing I'd have missed one of the great sporting moments of my life, Bolt winning in 9.69.

So I believed, I accepted, I was part of the wonder of it all, and I'm glad. Sport is about raising human spirits, and if you aren't bold enough to take the occasional leap of trust, you're cutting yourself off from the heartland of sport. But you have to accept that if you take those leaps, you're going to take some falls.

The people who run track and field have a job on their hands if they want us to carry on believing in their sport. And once we stop believing there is no sport. The IAAF have a choice: do they open the window and get in the Air Wick and lower the counterpane on the bed, in the hope that no one will notice the corpse beneath? Or do they clean the house from top to bottom, punish and expel those at fault and make a serious and sincere attempt to give us a fine, clean, fresh-smelling corpse-free establishment?

Diack pere is due to stand down as president next and his successor is likely be either Coe or the great Russian pole-vaulter, Sergey Bubka. Lord Coe has been playing it cagey, at least in public; he's a wily old politician who wants to win an election.

I've known Coe most of my professional life and he's a hard and impressive man, as well as a rather likeable one when he thinks no one's looking. He took on the London Olympics bid and won, and then he ran the Games and had a monstrous success.

Easy-peasy. A walk in the park. Compared with the job he will have before him if he takes on the presidency of the IAAF.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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