This summer’s world track and field championships in London is due to see coaches get medals along with athletes.
The intention here — it comes from the local organizers — is to do right by those doing well.
But this idea is going to come back, and sooner than later, to bite even well-meaning people in the backside.
Unfortunately, the world of sports is awash in stories of doping as well as improper sexual or other abusive relationships. All it’s going to take is one such story — or more, and there are inevitably going to be such stories — and this well-intentioned idea is going to explode.
It’s just not clear that all the angles have been thought out.
Or, for that matter, the wide array of cultural differences explored.
Starting place: what we seemingly have here is a cultural dissonance, a British sensibility of how things are and maybe even ought to be.
Reality: that’s not the way they are everywhere in our big world.
Here is a sample paragraph from a USA Track & Field news release from last weekend’s IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas:
“In a race of attrition, the United States emerged as the fastest and most successful of a harrowing men’s 4x100. In the final race of the night, Leshon Collins (Houston, Texas) got out well in lane 5 and Mike Rodgers (Round Rock, Texas) opened a bit of a lead. Ronnie Baker (Ft. Worth, Texas) cruised around the curve and gave Justin Gatlin (Clermont, Florida) the baton in the lead.”
Here is the way UK Athletics did it — same meet, different race:
“The women’s 4x400m selections continued with the team wide philosophy of trying out new combinations ahead of the London 2017 World Championships, with Emily Diamond (Jared Deacon) moving from third leg in the heats to starter in the final and Laviai Nielsen (Frank Adams) making her senior relay team debut on leg two. Eilidh Doyle (Malcolm Arnold) moved from leg one to leg three and Olympic gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu came in to anchor the team home.”
In the American explication, the parentheses get the athlete's hometowns. The British style tells you who the athlete’s coach is. The big-picture point: the British tend to think of athletic success as a group project. UK Athletics makes up the local organizing committee for the 2017 worlds in London. There's the logic circle, such as it is.
Mr. Arnold, for those who don’t follow track and field religiously, is -- among other things -- widely regarded as one of the finest hurdles coaches, ever. He has been in the game for so many years that he coached Uganda's John Akii-Bua to gold in the 400-meter hurdles in 1972 in the Munich Olympics.
This underscores the kind of thing the London 2017 organizers are trying to do.
The problem is this: not everyone is perhaps as highly regarded as Mr. Arnold. And not everything is so sunny as gold medals.
When you're in the event business and you're thinking gestures, it's common-sense obvious that you have to ask, just like you have to in almost every walk of life -- what could go wrong?
This is where the entourage problem comes in. Coaches are often if not typically at the heart of the entourage. Even the International Olympic Committee recognizes there’s an entourage problem. The IOC athletes’ entourage commission is headed by none other than Sergey Bubka, who is also a vice president of track’s international governing body, the IAAF.
The Olympic world is awash, nearly daily, with stories of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.
Where do you think those athletes learn about, or even get, or get directed to particular substances? Friends? Teammates? The internet? Doctors? Coaches?
Just to grab from the headlines: why do you think the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency or other interested authorities are perhaps so intrigued?
Beyond drugs, there is the issue of abuse.
Physical, mental, emotional and sexual.
When it works, the coach-athlete relationship can be extraordinary. When the relationship is sour or toxic, and let’s not pretend or be naive, venerating coaches would be the last thing a reasonable person would want to do.
To be clear, this is a London 2017 organizing committee initiative.
But if — when — things went bad, fingers would be pointed at the IAAF as well. Because that’s the way things inevitably go.
To its credit, it is encouraging that officials at the IAAF would not themselves introduce such a proposal without far-reaching debate and discussion. There, such a notion would go, for instance, to its coaches commission — and the prediction here is that those coaches would hate this proposal. What if, for instance, an athlete gets tagged for doping and a coach genuinely knew nothing about it?
The IAAF has already had a rough couple years grappling with allegations of corruption tied to its former president, Lamine Diack, connected to accusations of widespread doping in Russia.
Further to its credit, the IAAF has taken significant reform steps.
The IAAF is to be praised for launching a portal — six languages — for the reporting of doping.
It is to be praised for launching an integrity unit. That unit is charged with dealing with, among other issues, anti-doping, bribery and corruption, age manipulation, betting, competition results and transfers of allegiance.
It is to be praised for a newly launched “integrity code of conduct.” That code directs that “applicable persons” … “safeguard the dignity of individuals” and not “engage” in “any form of harassment, whether physical, verbal, mental, sexual or otherwise.”
It is otherwise silent on matters of safe sport, which have been a considerable focus in recent years in the United States. The IAAF, like a great many international federations, has been slow to recognize the many issues around safe sport, much less take action. Perhaps this world championships medals proposal can help serve as a jump-start to proactive consideration before a crisis dumps the IAAF into reactive mode.
In the meantime, and to reiterate: the owners of the idea to recognize coaches at the London 2017 world championships are London 2017 organizers.
Maybe before it sees the light of day this August those London 2017 organizers ought to do just a little bit more background work. There’s a big world out there beyond London, and a lot of issues to consider.