Athletics: Flak flies as the last emperor clings to power

Under a cloud and under fire, the overlord of track and field always comes first. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online
DR PRIMO NEBIOLO is unwell. The most autocratic figure in global sport rests one foot on a coffee table, sighs heavily and speaks slowly. "I believe athletics is now a more dynamic sport than any other. It is getting bigger all the time. If I have helped to make it so big, I am 'appy. And at the end of the day if I have made only 50 per cent of mistakes, then I am also 'appy."

Nebiolo is 76. The wealthy industrialist from Turin is said to be suffering from prostate cancer. "He is really very poorly," explains an aide. "Sometimes he has good days, but others can be very bad." No doubt he will be hoping the days will be good in Seville, where Nebiolo plans to be very much in evidence. The organisers have already felt the lash of his tongue over their apparent tardiness in final preparations for the event. Nebiolo takes no prisoners, so you can be sure things will be all right on the night. You mess up, or mess with the Godfather of the track at you peril.

Three days before the championships start Nebiolo will be awarded his sixth successive term as president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation by "acclamation". There will be no vote, because there is no opposition. There never is.

As on previous occasions the only other candidate, an Indian politician, has been prevailed upon to withdraw. Like earlier would-be rivals from Kuwait and Puerto Rico, Nebiolo's latest challenger was persuaded that it would be in the sport's best interests, as well as his own, not to stand against Il Presidente.

Since he similarly "persuaded" the Dutchman Adriaan Paulen that he could become the first president to be voted out of office, and then took his place unopposed in 1981, Nebiolo has run the IAAF as a dictatorship. For 18 years he has been one of the three most powerful leaders in sport. When the Brazilian Joao Havelange led Fifa, and with Spain's Juan Antonio Samaranch in charge of the International Olympic Committee, sport was controlled by a Latin junta and Nebiolo still carries more clout than any other sporting potentate. If he suggested running the 100 metres backwards there are those who would say: "What a great idea, Mr President." He is also the only one who has never had to face a vote but, as he is not slow to point out, under his stewardship athletics has risen from tin-pot track meetings, apart form the Olympics, to a multi-billion-dollar industry. The IAAF is now the largest organisation in world sport with more than 200 member countries - bigger than Fifa, the IOC and even the United Nations. It is also stinking rich thanks to Nebiolo's TV deals for the World Championships which, as he says, he "invented".

But these are troubled times for the old emperor. Apart from ill health he is under fire from a number of disenchanted nations who have grown more irritated the more he sticks his nose into their affairs, notably over the vexed issue of doping. Among them is Britain, his long time bete noire. Nebiolo claims that the British media ridicule him because he is short, bald, foreign and accuse him of strutting around like Mussolini.

He is an unforgiving man. It was Nebiolo who removed Britain's last real bastion of sporting power by switching the headquarters of the IAAF from Knightsbridge to the tax-advantaged luxury of Monte Carlo.

Now his joy at once again being "acclaimed" is about to be blighted by an attack from Dave Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics, who is furious about comments made by Nebiolo over the Linford Christie drugs case. Even before the UK had a chance to investigate Nebiolo stated: "I regret that an athlete of his age with his honours could resort to such tricks. If he made a mistake, he has to pay... we will be inflexible."

This is the broadest of hints that if Christie is cleared by the UK enquiry, Nebiolo's IAAF may overturn the verdict. Nebiolo will not be further drawn but he is adamant that the IAAF will not give up in sport's escalating chemical warfare. "It is now the most serious issue facing all sports, not just athletics," he said recently. "But when we speak about doping we must clarify one thing. Doping exists within all sports. We would like to think that the controls and sanctions in other sports are as effective as ours, but they are not. I am weary of all this. I love athletics but I am spending my life following pee-pee. It is not nice."

Controversies are not new to Nebiolo. He has done his own fair share of manipulating, once rearranging the voting so that Britain's Sally Gunnell was removed as the IAAF Athlete of the Year, because she was unable to attend the ceremony in Monte Carlo; and while he may have been likened to Mussolini, he is much more Nero-esque.

There was certainly fiddling while Rome burned with speculation at the 1987 World Championships when the long jump was rigged to give Italian Giovanni Evangelisti the bronze medal. Nebiolo refused to overturn the verdict until TV evidence finally proved irresistible. A number of Italian officials were suspended or resigned. Nebiolo, naturally survived.

But whether he can survive a further four-year span is now open to question. He will remain unfazed by the new crop of controversies. He has more front than the Italian Riviera, and has no natural successor. "When the old man goes who the hell knows what will happen," observed one IAAF member last week. A return to democracy, perhaps?

Senegal lawyer Lamine Diak, the Al Gore of the IAAF, would take over in any emergency but some are pressing for a former star athlete to be groomed. Sebastian Coe's name has been mentioned - it always is when a plum sporting job crops up - but he seems too busy helping with William Hague's action man makeover. Another Olympic champion, David Hemery, the UK Athletics president, would also appeal.

Meantime the great Nebiolo soldiers on as the Teflon man. There have been accusations of fraud, vote-rigging and suppression of the results of positive drugs tests, but nothing sticks. He is vain and vulgar. But he is still Numero Uno: "While I am able and the people tell me they want me I will continue," he says.

Nebiolo has no off-spring of his own. Athletics, he says, is his family. At some time during the World Championships he will, as is his custom, rise from his seat, wave towards the athletes milling beneath him in the arena and inform those around him: "These are my children. I love them all. And they love me." And they had better believe him.