A place fit to print uncomfortable truths

BOOK OF THE WEEK; Running Scared - How Athletics Lost Its Innocence. by Steven Downes and Duncan Mackay (Mainstream, pounds 14.99)
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The Independent Online
This is a work of important details. An alternative title might have been "Athletics: All The Bad News Fit To Print". But if there is a relentlessness about an exercise that presents a lurid impression of rank corruption undermining all within, there is also an impressive depth of detailed research.

The fundamental premise, that athletics has undergone more changes in the last 20 years than in the first century of its history as an organised sport, is undeniably true.

As in many of the world's most popular sports, old amateur ideals have been superseded by a commercial ethic that has encouraged, in the words of the publisher's blurb, "official incompetence and complicity... greed and venality."

The weakness of the book is that too many things are yoked together to sustain this line of argument. Need we really be outraged that leading performers sought and obtained payment to wear certain brands of shoes in major championships before it was officially allowed? Is it fair to link drug taking in the sport with the recent conviction of Britain's former pole vault record holder Keith Stock for supplying ecstasy and cocaine, or the drug-related killing of Claude Moseley, a former British international sprinter? For all that, this is a brave, uncomfortable and fundamentally honest attempt to pin down some of the effective mechanics of the sport.

There are fascinating chapters on the strange financial workings of the Kenyan AAA, the institutionalised drug culture of the East German athletics programme, the fitful behaviour of Linford Christie and the power-hungry manoeuvrings of the International Amateur Athletic Federation's president, Primo Nebiolo.

The central theme of the book, however, is the effect upon athletics of the former promotions officer for British athletics, Andy Norman, to whom five chapters are devoted. While recording his gifts as man who could get things done, and his deep knowledge of the sport, it brings together the devastating details of his connection with the suicide of the Sunday Times athletics correspondent Cliff Temple two years ago.

The coroner's verdict that Norman's unfounded allegations of sexual harassment by Temple had "tipped the balance" caused the most influential man in British athletics to lose his job.

Norman's threats were a response to investigations into financial dealings by his fiancee, Fatima Whitbread, in her position as manager of the Chafford Hundred Athletic Club, a marketing organisation for some of Britain's top athletes.

The details that Temple unearthed are recorded here in a context that he never lived to see. For that, despite its occasionally straining tone, the book deserves gratitude and respect. As John Lennon sang - "All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth."

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