LONDON (Reuters) - Sebastian Coe chairs a meeting of world athletics on Friday to discuss suspending Russia over allegations of state sponsored doping of its athletes, a crisis that has put his leadership under the spotlight barely three months into the job.
An independent commission set up by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) said on Monday Russia’s athletics federation (ARAF) should be suspended after uncovering evidence of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Coe, having expressed his shock at the report’s findings, will preside over a meeting in Monaco of the ruling council of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) at which possible sanctions, including suspension, will be decided.
Coe told Reuters on Sunday that his instinct was against banning Russia, but a day later he said the scale of the doping regime exposed by the report meant that the IAAF Council should consider the recommendation for such a temporary ban.
“We will investigate and if we find failures in our governance we will act,” Coe, who took over as president in August following the retirement of IAAF president Lamine Diack, said after publication of the WADA report on Monday.
His comments represent a major shift in tone. Just a fortnight before being voted in as IAAF president Coe had described allegations of a widespread cover-up of doping in athletics, as a “declaration of war” on his sport.
Explaining that comment, he told reporters this week: “I’ve clarified this previously and I’ll say again that the comment was made in frustration about the selective use of data to besmirch clean athletes, and I made that clear at the time.
“It was not a criticism of any journalism or any media. It was simply a reaction to the selective use of data to call into question the reputation of clean athletes.”
Coe’s close connection with Diack is now also under the spotlight, with the Senegalese official being investigated by French police over allegations he received bribes to cover up positive doping tests when he was in charge.
“He will always be our spiritual president and he will certainly be my spiritual president,” Coe said on succeeding Diack, adding that he had served the perfect apprenticeship as Diack’s right-hand man as vice-president for seven years.
Diack has not publicly commented on the French investigation.
Coe was asked during an interview with the BBC on Sunday if he now regretted his Diack comments.
“I’m well aware I’m going to come in for criticism for those remarks,” Coe said. “It does presume I had a list of allegations in front of me at that moment, and I didn’t.”
Coe is also facing questions about a potential conflict of interest over his role as a brand ambassador for Nike. The sportswear giant has substantial influence within the sport and is a sponsor of the American former Olympic sprint champion Justin Gatlin, who has twice failed drugs tests.
Coe does not consider there to be a conflict, telling the Times in September that his relationship with the U.S. sportswear manufacturer was public knowledge, he had followed the rules, and had not done anything untoward.
British MP Damian Collins has already said he will raise the matter if Coe appears before a parliamentary select committee before Christmas to answer questions about the Russian crisis.
On Monday, Canadian Dick Pound, who chaired the independent commission that recommended Russia’s suspension, was asked if Coe was the right man to lead athletics out of its crisis.
“I think he is. I think Seb Coe is somebody who can grasp this and can be transformational enough to effect some change in athletics. I hope so because his sport is at risk if he doesn’t,” he said.
Coe says he is the right man for the job and many of the ideas he campaigned on, such as an independent anti-doping operation and wholesale reviews of the IAAFs structures and practices, have been welcomed.
“I won’t fail, but I also accept that this is a huge journey,” he told an audience at a promotional event in London on Tuesday. “This isn’t six weeks to fit thighs; this is a long journey and we have to start somewhere, and I know what I have to do.”
Editing by Jon Boyle