By Phil Butler
Russia's greatest track and field athlete, two-time Russian Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva is being sacrificed on the altar of sport. The most irreproachable of Russia's marquee international competitors, Isinbayeva is now singled out by WADA, the IAAF, and the political and business establishment of worldwide athletics to die on the cross of sportsmanship. Here is why her sacrifice may not be in vain.
Yelena Isinbayeva is a symbol of everything excellent about not just Russia, but the striving and excellence that was once sport. Exemplary, this is the only term to describe a career that includes two Olympic golds, three world championships, and every women's pole vault record worth surmounting. Today, after having appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to compete in Rio, she's acquiesced to the fate IAAF President Lord Sebastian Coe condemned her. Coe, to whom she had pleaded for reasons for her barring, was himself a two time Olympic champion. This RT article discusses Isinbayeva's case. The gist is, Coe and the other British athletic hierarchy need a sacrificial offering. Since Thomas Bach and the IOC foiled the plant to ban all Russian athletes, the pride of Russia must be crucified to abet alleged sins. This is the reality, but Isinbayeva's crucifixion means more, a lot more.
For many years now I have been suspicious of all sport, not just track and field or the Olympics. And I am not alone. This bloodletting over alleged "state sponsored" doping, it's really the acute flare up of a much more deeply seeded disease that has stricken worldwide athletics. Take Sebastian Coe, for an individual instance, of how sporting elites in the west rise to prominence. Back in the 1980s Coe won gold in 80 and in 84, he was not unlike Isinbayeva, in that the world reveled in his excellence. Then in the run-up to 1988, Coe suffered a lung infection, and could not qualify. But it was Coe's last win ever in 1989 that is of interest for my story. It was the Crystal Palace race that competitor Ikem Billy says he was paid $10,000 to lose. Back in 2012, when Coe and the London Games were all the rage, not many paid close attention to such an allegation. Now, with Coe also implicated in sponsor controversy, and in the overall issues of widespread doping, such "evidence" is well worth reconsidering. Coe may well be the Barabbas of this crucifixion.
The 1980s were heralded the "golden decade" of British athletics, but 30 pieces of silver come to mind when I think retrospectively. You see back then a man named Andy Norman was the iconic prefect of Britain sports. Appointed Britain's first ever professional promotions officer, Norman also ran a stable of the most iconic UK athletes including; Steve Ovett, Fatima Whitbread, Linford Christie and Jonathan Edwards, just to name a few. It was in this era that Britain became famous for a variety of "fixes" including widespread doping like that in US professional sports. Ikem Billy implicated Norman and Brit sport in his revelation to reporters:
"I was paid to finish second. I admit that it was fixed. Andy paid me to finish second. He told me: 'Make sure you don't win'. Everyone was scared of Andy. He dominated the sport. He could do what he wanted."
This story in the Herald Scotland tells more of the story, but the hierarchy we see ruling track and field now, owes much to such events and controversies. As damning as the allegations were though, the buzz and momentum of London 2012 swept over the deeper implications. When Andy Norman died unexpectedly in 2007, The Guardian posted a most unusual obituary, that compared him to the notorious International Amateur Athletic Federation President Primo Nebiolo. Now remember, this is the same IAAF that is intent on pinning the Russian hero Yelena Isinbayeva to the Olympic cross. What I am driving at here is, the system of sponsorships, payments, and athletic promotions Norman set up, has led to the empowerment of a ring of Pharisees making all the rules of religious sport.
The Guardian epitaph for Norman brought into the limelight allegations Norman had helped athletes get past drug testing during the "golden decade" of Britain sport. That is another story, but today Norman disciples play key roles in the rulemaking and promotional aisle of British and world sports. Others in his stable of athletes were found cheating on an epic scale during this gold age of British athleticism. Linford Christie, for one, was eventually banned from any Olympic competition for his continual use of performance enhancing substances. It is Christie, you'll recall, who is Britain's most decorated make athlete with 10 gold medals to his credit. Another Norman athlete, Brendan Foster would later become Vice-President Marketing (Worldwide) and Vice-President of Nike Europe. Team Britain record holder Steve Cram, whom Norman handled, joined British Athletics as an adviser and mentor to these 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio back in 2014. Finally, triple jump champion and Norman athlete, Jonathan Edwards, who has been a key BBC sports announcer decades now, was in the thick of the IAAF alleged cover-up of the initial doping blood samples revelations. Edwards publicly questioned then IAAF, but I believe this was just in an effort to distance his BBC and now Eurosport TV career from Coe, Norman, doping, and any semblance of association with the bad side of sport.
Edwards is an interesting player in all this actually. This 2015 interview with him by BreatheSport, is meant to add credibility for "whistleblowers" like Yuliya Stepanova. Edwards, a devout Christian, seems to me to be the exception standing at arm's length away from those sports colleagues worshipping idols. At the other end of the spectrum, former Norman associate, hurdles champion Alan Poscue became vice-chairman of the London bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. His sports management and promotion skills are best outlined in an article in 1999 about his having resurrected Britain athletics funding wise. Poscue's Fast Track Llc. Money, sponsors, BBC and government involvement, the incorporation of sport was all the news back then. Today Fast Track is into a lot more than pumping up a London or Rio Olympics. The website has news from the NFL draft, a Prince Harry supported Invictus Games, Hisense and the UEFA EURO 2016, and even collaboration with Lord Coe, Executive Chairman of CSM Sport & Entertainment via this story. This completes an ever widening circle of sport/business with linkages into every corner of athletics. CSM is powered by clients from Adidas to Unilever, and by the same kinds of marquee sports celebrity Andy Norman became famous for leveraging. Only now Sebastian Coe is the "dictatorial" head of an even wider cabal of sports opportunists. This is the newest church of England, an athletics tabernacle where the religion of money and power stand as God. In the holy of holies of this church, geo-politics is simply another event to be managed.
Yelena Isinbayeva does not know who stands behind Lord Sebastian Coe. Yelena Isinbayeva only knows her most powerful admirer, Russian President Vladimir Putin is their bitter enemy. Olympic champions do not ordinarily take up roles in huge marketing concerns, though we hear of some becoming successful in such a way. There is no way Isinbayeva has ever met the CEO of Just Marketing International (JMI), the world's largest motorsport marketing agency, for instance. But former NASCAR driver Zak Brown is a partner with Sebastian Coe. It's almost impossible to imagine Yelena Isinbayeva ever having met with Sophie Goldschmidt, CSM's Group Managing Director, and a director at the European PGA Tour. Goldschmidt is a key figure when the expansion of Britain influence into all sport is concerned. She's ties to the NBA, Rugby, and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), plus many more sectors of sport marketing. These and dozens of other key associations clue us into the veritable "rabbit hole" of conflicted interests in sport today. The lines in between ethics and profit are now so blurred, even Putin himself could never make heads or tails of the graft and corruption facing any foe of these people.
Speaking of tennis, I am reminded of a Buzz Feed - BBC investigation into something dubbed "The Italian Job", which uncovered massive match rigging among top pro-tennis players in 2008. Once again the world of big time sports was introduced to the dark underside of athletics, and the same sort of "golden age" of cheating the Brits were accused of in the 80s. In that report, the chief prosecutor of gamblers fixing matches, Robert Di Martino had this to say:
"Fixing is a "worldwide problem" that happens "very frequently" at "all tournaments."
Di Martino also uncovered a massive horde of evidence of a global crime syndicate that made millions of dollars betting on rigged Italian football matches and other games across the world. But this is just tennis, and Vladimir Putin is not a tennis fan really. There have been allegations of massive doping by world athletes before, Lord Coe himself was accused a time or two. The anti-Russia witch hunt going on now, actually pales in comparison to what went on back in the late 70s and early 1980s. In 1976 British pentathlete named Mary Peters wrote in her book:
"A medical research team in the United States attempted to set up extensive research into the effects of steroids on weightlifters and throwers, only to discover that there were so few who weren't taking them that they couldn't establish any worthwhile comparisons."
I know that when Yelena Isinbayeva begs Sebastian Coe for the real reasons behind him destroying her legacy, that she really does not know the true depth of his involvement in the business of sport. If she or her biggest fan Vladimir Putin could take the time from training or world affairs to recollect, the 80s were the era where Coe, Cram, and Norman's favored Ovett basically came out of nowhere to rewrite the record books. Then when Ben Johnson tested positive in front of the world, Coe and the rest disappeared as quickly as they sprinted to the forefront. It is true that USA, New Zealand, Australian, or British born milers have never run so fast since there have been drug tests. Maybe the tears of Isinbayeva as she bade farewell to her Russian teammates headed to Rio would seem well shed, with a plea from her to the god of sport. I can almost hear her sweet voice in broken staccato:
"Forgive them father, for they know not what they do."
In my sports chest of wonderful memories there's a chest full of images of proud, yet humble champions. Alongside this treasure chest though, there's memories of the worst sports and most awful tragedies ever too. In every snapshot of greatness though, there's a common pixel of truth. It goes something like this; "A cheater never wins, and a winner never cheats."
Whatever Sebastian Coe did in the 1980s will reside in the halls of winners forever, but this last cheat will end up negating all glory. That is my sports bet on these Olympics.