On Isaac Makwala: why let facts spoil righteous outrage?

LONDON — So this is what it has come to: a television personality and three former athletes in high dudgeon interrogating a learned medical doctor on the BBC in a segment of car crash-style TV that encapsulates so much of what passes in 2017 for dialogue in the public arena. On the one hand, rational, even scientific, thought begging to be heard. On the other, know-it-all counterpoint rooted in grievance and conflict.

The flashpoint at these 2017 IAAF world championships: an apparent outbreak of norovirus. Public Health England issued a statement late Thursday saying it had “been made aware of approximately 40 people reporting illness,” three confirmed by lab testing as norovirus.

The spotlight trained on Botswana’s 30-year-old Isaac Makwala, a medal favorite in the 200 and 400. Long story short: he didn’t get to run in the 400, withdrew from the 200 heats, then got to run alone in a time trial which he punctuated with some push-ups, finished second in his semifinal, then ran in Thursday’s final to roaring applause and finished … sixth.

Ramil Guliyev of Turkey wins the 200, Jereem Richards two-hundredths behind in third, Isaac Makwala in sky-blue behind in sixth // Getty Images for IAAF

Makwala after the 200 // Getty Images

Wayde van Niekerk, the South African 400-meter champion, aiming for the 200/400 double, couldn’t pull it off. He took second, behind Ramil Guliyev, winner of Turkey’s first-ever gold medal at an IAAF world championships.

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, who has dominated the race since 2008, did not take part in the 200 at the 2017 worlds. His schedule here: the 100 and the 4×100 relay, only.

With literally zero evidence, meanwhile, much of the media pack decided over the past couple days that the IAAF somehow had rigged — or wanted to rig — matters in van Niekerk’s favor.

Again: zero evidence.

But why let facts get in the way of outrage?

Makwala at times seemed only too happy to stir the flames, telling the BBC that if it had been Bolt or the British distance champion Mo Farah — again, offering no evidence — the IAAF would surely have let them run. Or even, he said, Wayne Rooney, who is a soccer standout, on the theory that “he’s a big guy in British.”

Which just goes to underscore the absurdity of this theater.

If the IAAF really had things rigged, would Bolt — the face of the sport — have lost his final competitive 100 last Saturday, to the Americans Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman?

Does that make even the most remote bit of sense?

Of course not.

But why stop there?

“There’s something fishy they don’t want to tell us,” Makwala said, again citing nothing.

“They broke my heart,” he said, and that — that — is the gut of the problem.

What we have here, according to the BBC, is a failure to communicate. Indeed.

What we have here shows how getting wrapped up in a bubble, when you’re part of a big sports event and it can seem like that’s all that matters and you’re part of a pack that’s chasing a story that pits one guy against the big, bad machine, a story as old as time, can be so infectious, as it were.

One seriously wonders whether William Golding did less damage to Piggy in “Lord of the Flies,” and, yes, poor Piggy.

If anything, the story of Isaac Makwala ought to serve as a reminder that, as important as the 200- and 400-meter races are, what the public health authorities do is way more vital.

Facts matter. Science matters. No one and nothing is infallible or perfect, certainly not the IAAF. But in 2017, doctors pretty much know what they are doing when it comes to sensible precaution in the case of something like the norovirus, and at any rate far more than howling journalists. So when the IAAF follows the advice of doctors — what, exactly, is the issue?

To start, norovirus is serious. Deadly serious.

If you only read the Public Health England statement, you might think, what? It says, “Norovirus can be very unpleasant but is rarely serious.”

This is where a lesson learned in freshman-year journalism is helpful. We were taught this truism: if your mother says she loves you — check it out. Just because that’s what Public Health England says, is that the only source?

Here’s what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says:

Globally, there are 685 million norovirus cases each year, 200 million of which are in children under 5; this leads to an estimated 50,000 child deaths every year, nearly all of which occur in developing countries. Each year, the virus costs the world approximately $60 billion, due to either money spent to treat complications from norovirus or people not being able to work because they are sick.

From NBC News: in the United States, 21 million people get sick each year, 70,000 on average enough to have to go to the hospital.

In crowds — or a convention, which essentially is what a world championships is — norovirus can travel like wildfire.

The virus itself is sticky and hard to kill. It spreads incredibly easily, and particularly by people who don’t feel sick.

The IAAF president, Seb Coe, writing in the Evening Standard, said, “As a former athlete, I have enormous sympathy for Isaac Makwala and the other athletes to get to this point in a championship and to contract an illness like this,” noting that he had been sent home from competing at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Scotland along with other athletes because of a bronchial infection.

“It’s the last thing you ever want to happen and it’s very hard on him but our overriding guiding principle is that we have 2,000 athletes in London under our care and we have a responsibility to protect them in the best way we possibly can.”

Makwala was diagnosed on Monday. Per Public Health England regulations, he was asked to stay in his room for 48 hours — that is, until 2 p.m. Wednesday.

This is why he missed Tuesday’s 400 final — which van Niekerk won, in 43.98.

Enter outrage.

Such outrage was hardly limited to the British press. “Well done by Isaac Makwala. This is how you stick it to the IAAF #purehate” rang out over Twitter from an American source after the 200 time trial. An Australian newspaper said the IAAF had “taken the bizarre step to ban Makwala for 48 hours …”

The BBC, though — as the tone-setter for what is what here, its coverage was, truly, special, both online and on-air.

Here is a segment from a story posted Wednesday to the BBC website:

“Botswana medical team member Simon O’Brien said Makwala showed no symptoms of the bug and blamed ‘poor communication’ from the IAAF for the athlete missing the race.

‘He’s fit, he’s very well, he’s prepared to run, and he’s just being kept away by the IAAF,’ said O’Brien, who insisted there was no sign of the illness during the time he spent with Makwala.”

At issue here are standards and practices, which any BBC editor ought to appreciate, particularly as these matters relate to accuracy in communication both of substance and inference.

Mr. O’Brien is described as a “Botswana medical team member.”

Mr. O’Brien would appear to be a massage therapist. Here is a link to his Facebook page.

Switching to television:

For one, the BBC all but put the IAAF on trial knowing the IAAF could not talk in close detail about the medical data of an individual athlete or go head-to-head on air in a fight with (one of) its member federations. That’s journalistically unfair.

Two, the irony: two of the participants in this dog-pile, Paula Radcliffe and Michael Johnson, would seemingly know well what it would be like to be the focus of inquiries into their medical records. And yet.

On Tuesday evening, the BBC spent 15 minutes on-air with a guest. On the BBC side, presenter Gabby Logan, along with former track and field greats Radcliffe, Johnson and Denise Lewis. Their guest: Dr. Pam Venning, the IAAF’s head of medical services.

Venning said that allowing Makwala to race would “risk many more athletes not competing” due to the “very infections and virulent” nature of norovirus. She stressed at the beginning of the session, “We have an outbreak of noro — we have an outbreak of gastroenteritis at the hotel. It’s highly infectious.”

Pause for emphasis: that is the big picture.

Germany’s lead doctor, Andrew Lichtenthal, quarantined 13 of his team, and said Wednesday, according to the Telegraph, “We are in a crisis — a medical crisis. I agree with IAAF’s decision.

“What Pam was saying yesterday — it was a fight. I must say — but she was great. I am on her side.

“We are very sorry for the athletes. We don’t do this job because we want to take athletes out.

“… We have to isolate them for 48 hours — not from when the symptoms begin, but 48 hours from the last diarrhea and vomiting.”

Which is what Venning went on to say on TV, referring to the doctor who examined Makwala: “He had taken a history, examined him, pulse, respiratory, and taken a history, and the history is very clear from this gentleman that he had similar symptoms to all the other athletes that have also classified as having this gastrointestinal disease.”

She added: “He had been vomiting from 10 p.m. the evening before. And he had vomited at 2 o’clock that afternoon. So that is the history he gave to our doctor. That is what he wrote down in our records. So as far as we were concerned, he was staying in the same hotel, had the same symptoms as the other athletes that had also been quarantined from mixing with other people.”

In an earlier BBC interview, Makwala was asked the obvious question — it was his word against theirs. He responded, “How can they look at you like this and say you are sick, without any tests, without anything, because I did only one symptom, one vomit, and you say somebody is sick?”

One, because that’s what the doctor’s notes say. What reason would the doctor have to make that up? Two, put yourself in the position of the medical authorities. The doctor’s notes indicate symptoms consistent with norovirus as an apparent wave of norovirus is sweeping the championships. What would the reasonable person do in this situation?

Asked if at that point they needed to take blood or other samples from Makwala, Venning said no. Public Health England had said that was not necessary.

What, Logan asked, was the motivation in stopping Makwala from racing the 400?

“My responsibility is to ensure the health care of all the athletes here,” Venning said, “and it’s a very infectious and very virulent disease.”

But, Logan said, Makwala said he felt ready to race.

“I totally understand,” Venning replied. “We feel very sorry for the athletes … the issue is we have a responsibility to all the athletes.”

At this point, Lewis, apparently not understanding that medicine and public health is not akin to sorority rush, asked if Venning and her staff had asked other teams if they “would mind” if Makwala competed.

Logan asked if there was a “restraint of trade” issue. Memo: not a legal matter, all the more so because athletes agree to certain rules as conditions of competition. This was, straight up, a matter of public health.

Johnson said he understood Public Health England had made a “recommendation” but the IAAF had its own “protocols.” Was there ever any “sympathy” or “empathy” for the athlete?

Let’s turn that question around. Let’s do make this a legal issue. Let’s say out of “sympathy” or “empathy” for Makwala the IAAF had allowed not just Makwala but anyone or everyone who was sick to run. Then everyone goes home to wherever and because the virus is so contagious there’s a foreseeable risk that people get sick or, worse, die. Who’s going to get blamed for that? Who’s the deep pocket? Public Health England and — the IAAF.

Where were the seasoned journalistic editors urging caution, restraint and common sense — to consider more than just the moment, to reasonably foresee the consequences of a story that involved far more than Makwala, the 200 and 400?

Again, calmly, Venning said there’s a big-picture responsibility, not just Makwala.

Makwala had turned up Tuesday at the stadium hoping to run. Not a chance. He was still within the 48-hour window.

In a separate piece that aired Tuesday on the network, Radcliffe had observed of Makwala, “He’s planning on staying in his lane. He’s not planning on coming into close contact with anyone else.”

As if the only time and place Makwala was going to be at the stadium was on the track. Like — that was it. Not under the stadium. Not on the warm-up track. Not, maybe, in the men’s room. Not anywhere else. Just, you know, poof, there he is, running in his lane.

Back to Tuesday evening between the BBC crew and the doctor.

“At that point,” Lewis said to Venning, “could you not perhaps have checked him again, to see if it was conclusive that he was unwell to run. Surely, at that point he believes in his heart that he is ready!”

Who might or might not believe in their heart that, like the basketball star Kyrie Irving, the earth is flat?

Cool. What does the science conclusively prove?

Clearly, Thursday night, Makwala was not ready. He finished in 20.44.

“When I got into the race,” he said afterward, “I was feeling good, but the last 50 meters I was feeling tired.”

Guiiyev stopped the clock in 20.09, van Niekerk took second in 20.11; in a photo finish, Jereem Richards of Trinidad and Tobago took third in the same time, 20.11.

“I want to win,” Guliyev said. “All year I thought it was possible, and I make it.”

Wait. Sorry. If the IAAF was so bent on fixing things — wouldn’t van Niekerk had won?

“I’ve had one of the craziest championship journeys ever,” Makwala also said. “I don’t think I will ever face this again. I will always pray to not face this again.”

Amen to that.

But before we go, Makwala onto the 4×400 relay, maybe two nuggets to investigate:

Johnson won the 200/400 double at the 1995 worlds in Sweden. That’s 22 years. That’s a long time! How is it possible that no one has done it since?!

Also, senior officials from the Botswana delegation have hardly been seen in public the last couple days. Has anybody, you know, checked on their well-being?

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3 thoughts on “On Isaac Makwala: why let facts spoil righteous outrage?

  1. Thank you for this. A thorough, objective analysis based on the facts. Regarding the BBC’s commentators, I just have to laugh. Former athletes (and, I might add, injured athletes) must guard against the tendency to descend into opinionated bloviation.

  2. Excellent journalism. Journalists should be required to take some science courses as part of their studies. Anyone can write an article based on anecdotal evidence, but rational thought requires evidence. Lets take the emotions out of the argument and base decisions on scientific evidence.

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