This is apparently athletics’ darkest hour. Lord Coe has responded by acknowledging that the sport faces a long road to redemption.
If he’s looking for inspiration to tackle the crisis that has engulfed him within weeks of landing the sport’s top job, he could do worse than take some from Saturday’s Scottish Short Course Cross Country Championships held in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park.
And in particular, he might want to reflect on the performance of one runner, Adam Macfarlane from local club, Bellahouston Harriers, in the Under 17 Men’s race.
It was a dreich day. A day when water wings might have got you round the course quicker than cross country spikes. Driving through to Glasgow on the M8 from Edinburgh it became clear the real winner at the championships would be mud. A lot of mud.
But we’re runners. So while we all loved to talk about how miserable it would be and how we could have been at home having a bacon butty, we were longing to get out there and show the mud who was boss. We’re not called endurance runners for nothing.
As I was warming up (always a challenge when you’re simultaneously getting drenched) I took the opportunity to cheer on my fellow Edinburgh AC athletes. In the Under 17 race, I was especially keen to see how Edinburgh’s Joe Arthur would fare.
I’ve seen Joe develop as an athlete under the watchful eye of junior coaches at Meadowbank. It’s been a privilege and on Saturday he didn’t disappoint, finishing third. Joe is a determined young athlete and he fought hard for his podium position.
But as I was crisscrossing the course to give Joe as much of a cheer as possible, I became aware of the boy at the back of the field. By the end of the first lap, he was already considerably adrift of everyone else.
As the attention of spectators inevitably followed the race at the front, he cut a lonely figure. I was immediately captivated. This was a heroic performance to rival any other I was going to see that day.
I cheered the boy on his way round the second lap and then headed over the park to catch the athletes approach the closing section of the course. Joe thundered by, now locked into his battle for bronze. He was lying in 4th place but he wasn’t going to be denied a medal.
As the rest of the field made their increasingly weary way past, I ran back along the course to a point where it was clear that everyone except the boy at the back had gone by. A small group of spectators stood beside me. I mentioned the courage of the boy who had still to reach us.
As he went by one of them shouted his name — Adam. And we all gave him as much encouragement as we could. It turned out that this was his first cross country race.
And he couldn’t have picked a tougher one because the short course championships are inevitably most suited to the speedsters, folk who glide along whatever the weather making hard running look effortless and graceful. And because it’s short, it’s quick.
Adam finished a full two minutes behind the boy in second to last place and nearly six minutes behind Joe. I saw him head away from the park a wee while later and shouted well done. He smiled back.
I learnt afterwards that he had really enjoyed it and had said he was up for more. Adam’s performance touched something deep in me because when I started running more than 40 years ago I too would often be at or near the back of local cross country league races in my first year at secondary school.
But not to be defeated, I’d found something I loved doing and I persevered. Proof that perseverance paid off comes in the form of one of my favourite bits of memorabilia, a slender paperback called Peter Pippin’s 2nd Book of Puzzles. The dedication in the front, in the familiar pen of my school coach, reads, ‘Chris Eades: Most Improved Runner, Xmas 1973’ (Eades was my original surname).
Within a year I’d gone from being one of the last few stragglers to regularly finishing in the top half of the field. It was a case of a modicum of talent and a lot of effort. So Adam’s run remined me why I loved running back then and why I still do.
What’s any of this got to do with Russian doping scandals? Well as it turns out a hell of a lot but not because Adam’s performance provides any clues to Coe and others about how to deal with the technical minefield they find themselves in about who to ban and for how long, how to test and how often.
But what it does do is provide those charged with saving the credibility of the sport I love with a clue as to why the task is worth it.
Races aren’t just about winners. For someone to steal the glory of gold, many other competitors have to be prepared to take part. And one of them has to come last. That person props up the whole field. Without their efforts, there’s no medal to be won.
The language of winning and losing doesn’t really do their participation justice. If it really is the taking part that matters, at the very least we need to think about first and last.
Ours is a wonderful sport with a grassroots to rival any other. And one of the fantastic things that it has, which the really huge money sports don’t have, is that the Adams of this world get to compete at the same meetings as world-class athletes like Laura Muir. On Saturday Laura treated us to a demonstration of cross country running at the head of a very talented field.
If I could send something to Coe tomorrow it would be a jar of stuff from Saturday’s championships. The rain and the mud for sure. The camaraderie, the respect and the sheer endeavour too.
But most of all it would include the courage it takes to complete your first cross country race trailing the field by a long way and to greet the whole experience with a smile and the desire to do it all again. Take a bow Adam Macfarlane.
First published on 9th November 2015