Mara Yamauchi’s scary tale of why athletes won’t shop drug cheats

THE LAST WORD: Sebastian Coe should pay heed to the retired Olympian, who could just help him reconnect with his sport

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The Independent Online

The danse macabre continues. Sebastian Coe throws shapes, strikes poses, spins in ever- decreasing circles. Those around him writhe endlessly, denying and deflecting. Their mantra, that ignorance is a primary virtue, appeals only to the gullible and the guilty.

Instead of clinging to the myth of presidential infallibility, and weighing weasel words as if they are golden ingots, Coe should listen to a plaintive voice which might reconnect him with the purity of purpose which propelled him into his sport, aged 11.

Mara Yamauchi is a retired Olympian and accepts “it is easier for me to speak my mind without fear”. She articulates the existential anguish of an endangered species, clean athletes whose trust in those who have a duty of care to them is shattered. 

The mediocrities in charge of track and field appear more concerned with the threat represented by the sport’s aging audience and commercial toxicity than acknowledging inconvenient truths aired by Yamauchi, in an attempt to explain why athletes are not more assertive in fighting for their rights. 

I first met her a decade ago, when asked to advise elite athletes about the complexities and opportunities of the modern media. She had just abandoned a secure job in the British Embassy in Tokyo to turn professional at the age of 31.

She was softly spoken, acutely intelligent, relentlessly curious. Yet even then, wistfulness, bordering on bleakness, clouded her ambitions. It was as if she knew her achievements as a marathon runner – finishing sixth in the Beijing Olympics, and being faster than any British woman apart from Paula Radcliffe – would be tainted by the duplicity of others.  

In a searing blog post this week, she spoke of innocent dreams, of meaning given to previously indistinct lives. She reminded us that athletes don’t go into their sport “to hassle corrupt, greedy, dishonest people who aren’t doing their jobs properly”.

The intimacy of the challenge, the clarity of the ambition to excel, is compromised by the dispiriting reality that the system is skewed in favour of cheats. Yamauchi insisted “on at least two occasions, I have been warned against speaking out on doping by people who are heavily involved  in athletics”.

Her rationale is simple to understand: “You don’t want to give people a reason to reject you. Selection criteria for major championships might include ‘discretion’. Are sponsors going to want you if you speak out and cause controversy? It’s simpler to keep your head down and work hard.

“You don’t want to jeopardise your chances. All that effort goes into a few seconds, minutes or hours of competition on a few days per year, depending on your event. If you screw up, that’s it. You’ve blown it. Game over. 

“So you have to reduce or eliminate from your life everything that might prevent you from being your absolute best. Getting drawn into a controversial media storm by speaking out, and/or acquiring a reputation as a boat-rocking trouble-maker are unlikely to help you.”

Summon the courage to protest, and “people don’t listen”. Indifference mutates into ridicule and eventually the clean athlete “will fall silent”. As Yamauchi explained: “ You know you’ll be up against dopers, but what else can you do? There is no parallel universe of guaranteed-clean Olympics and World Championship that you can shoot for.”

She retains her involvement in athletics as a coach, a calling which challenges the conscience since she understands the responsibilities of dealing with “young people who haven’t had the years of life experience to see all the wrongdoing that goes on in the world”. Their trust has been betrayed, and the process of discovery is painful.

“You don’t go into a sport thinking it’s going to be corrupt and full of cheats” she reflects. “In my first race against blatant dopers [2006 European 10,000m], I finished thinking, ‘What? Wait a minute, how did that happen, are you kidding me?’ When I asked other athletes about this, I was met with derision: ‘Wake up, Mara, what planet are you on? Of course it’s bulls**t.’ That made me wise up and think more sceptically.”

She is humbled by the courage of whistleblowers like the Stepanovs, who are forced into hiding. She despairs when campaigners, such as German journalist Hajo Sappelt,  are threatened with legal action by  the IAAF.

She has huge credibility, but is  isolated by her idealism. Little  wonder, as Coe faces being called back to Westminster to explain his latest bout of verbal gymnastics to MPs, the hole into which athletics has plunged is beginning to resemble a pauper’s grave.

The grace of Pellegrini

Since Louis Van Gaal has the ego of Kevin Pietersen and the sensitivity to scorn of Kanye West, it was entirely unsurprising he should overplay the relatively insubstantial achievement of reaching the FA Cup fifth round.

He bridled at implications his  Manchester United players are  denied freedom of expression and appeared a little too satisfied by a  facile win over Derby County, Championship opposition who lacked form and confidence.    

The body language between him and his supposed successor, Ryan Giggs, remains frigid. Even his goal celebrations, which resemble a commuter hailing a cab before recoiling in embarrassment due to the realisation it is occupied, are forced.

Yet the most instructive comparison is across Manchester, where Manuel Pellegrini is dealing with admittedly absurd levels of scrutiny with dignity and a world-weary maturity.

City’s manager has not allowed the open secret of his impending replacement by Pep Guardiola to become an open sewer of acrimony, suspicion and sour self-justification. 

His press conferences may be coma-inducing, but he has got on with his job in such a measured manner that his profile has been immeasurably enhanced. City are thought to be eager to retain him in their global empire.

Lame Duck Louis may waddle on, hissing at critics with misplaced defiance which serves merely to emphasise his weakness, but he will never match his rival’s grace under pressure. Respect must be earned rather than demanded.