Alan Hubbard

More years ago then I care to remember I was working as a young sub-editor on a British broadsheet newspaper when an agency reported that a spectator had been shot and wounded, thankfully not fatally, during a competition at Bisley, the famous UK shooting venue. 

The news editor handed me the story and said: "Get hold of our man at Bisley and tell him to file his report as soon as possible."

I duly did so, our man at Bisley being the shooting correspondent, a gruff retired army brigadier. When his copy eventually arrived, I read through it and, while it was a very detailed report of the event, there was not a word about the shooting incident.

So I called him back. "You haven’t mentioned the spectator being shot," I said. "That’s right," he replied. "I deliberately left it out."

"Why?" I demanded incredulously. "Bad for the image of the sport, old boy," he snorted and put the phone down.

I was reminded of this exchange when observing the reaction of two former star British athletes, Steve Cram and Paula Radcliffe, while covering the World Athletics Championships in Qatar last week for the BBC, as it was revealed that the Nike-employed, American coach Alberto Salazar, formerly mentor to Sir Mo Farah and revered as a guru by UK Athletics, had been banned for four years for doping violations.

Uncomfortable questions about Alberto Salazar, centre, are still to be answered ©Getty Images
Uncomfortable questions about Alberto Salazar, centre, are still to be answered ©Getty Images

The bombshell exploded in mid-Championships, much to the obvious embarrassment of the commentating and punditry duo, who seemed to wish it had not happened on their watch and clearly wanted the whole thing to be played down.

After all, as one other British athlete was heard to remark following the 24-hour postponement of the 1972 Munich Olympics because of the horrendous massacre of members of the Israeli team by Palestinian terrorists, this "spoiled a bloody good day's athletics".

Talking of Munich, the late David Coleman, commentator par excellence, would be turning in his proverbial grave at the paucity of coverage of Salazargate by the BBC sports team in Qatar. Coleman, of course, was a trained journalist and so many Beeb pundits, including Cram and Radcliffe, are not.

Excellent as they may well be at describing what we see on screen, they sometimes appear not to recognise a story when it hits them between the eyes. They may have a nose for stats, but obviously not for news.

Coleman and his equally admirable commentary buddy Ron Pickering would have jumped on the story, the gravity of which was apparent to virtually everyone in the media, except this pair.

It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and not just the testosterone-fuelled substances, or whatever it was, good old Alberto was pushing down the throats of some of his athletes.

Steve Cram wasn't too keen on discussing Alberto Salazar ©Getty Images
Steve Cram wasn't too keen on discussing Alberto Salazar ©Getty Images

Cram and Radcliffe were terrific athletes in their day, and are not bad broadcasters either, but taking such a non-controversial, ostrich-like stance when anything contentious about the sport raises its ugly head is unbecoming of them, especially when they are well paid to air their views. Such a major issue requires sensible debating.

Of course, what Salazar has been said to be doing was "bad to the image of the sport", but then so much of athletics is these days - like the scarcity of fans watching in Qatar, a tiny country with virtually no interest in track and field, but pockets deep to boost its image worldwide by hosting such events as this and football's forthcoming World Cup.

Cram and Radcliffe were by no means alone in having a bad air day.

Lord Sebastian Coe, the IAAF president, who I know to be media savvy as I was among those who helped school him in that direction, took a self-interested view over criticism of the choice of Qatar as a venue.

Presenter Gabby Logan incurred his lordship's ire by suggesting the lack of crowds was something of a problem. "It's very easy to sit there and make all sorts of Gabby Logan-type judgements and then clear off back to Match of the Day," he sniffed, claiming these Championships were important for the development of athletics. Yet Logan was bang on the button by calling it as it was - and as we saw it.


Coe's comment was crass and unworthy of someone re-elected to lead the IAAF and a potential candidate for the International Olympic Committee.

She, at least, has the gumption to ask awkward questions and raise uncomfortable issues. Which, for an ex-athlete of any sort (she was an international gymnast), is unusual and very welcome.

Radcliffe's thinking on the Salazar issue is fascinating, too. Once the scourge of all druggies ('EPO Cheats Out' was the banner she held at another World Championships in Edmonton in 2001), if you just dissect and digest what she has to say now, it would seem that Salazar is guilty of no more than "overstepping the mark".

A minor distraction at a time when the sport is up to its neck in a quagmire of toxicity. Is she compromised as Coe once was, by being a Nike ambassador whose husband now coaches Farah? The sport is full of smoke and mirrors.

Athletics began its existence as the purest of sports - but is now among the most corrupt, whether wagon-circling Crammie, Radcliffe and even Lord Coe wish to acknowledge it or not.