POSTED: December 16th 2015

NEIL WILSON: Olympic sport should recognize its debt to the fourth estate

Hajo Seppelt  /
Hajo Seppelt /

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) It is a nice irony that the corruption exposed at the heart of the IAAF originated in the suspicions of a journalist about FIFA.

It may appear odd but the connection was revealed this week in Abu Dhabi by Hajo Seppelt where he was to receive the first of an array of awards he can expect for his documentary work in the past year for the German TV network ARD.

Seppelt told how with commendable journalistic scepticism he was upset about his own network's coverage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. "Superficial," he told his bosses.

By that he meant that it confined itself to what happened on the field of play, as do most host networks at sporting events. "Dig deeper," Seppelt urged executives at his network and a year later they took up the challenge.

A Doping Research Unit was created within ARD with an annual travel budget of 100,000 euros, a remarkable commitment in these straightened times for media organisations. There have been regular dividends on the investment since but ARD hit pay dirt with its revelations of Russia's doping conspiracy.

Lord Coe, now president of the IAAF, foolishly hit back at ARD, its partners at London's Sunday Times and the brave Russian whistleblowers. Yuliya and Vitali Stepanov. "A declaration of war," he called it before belatedly realising that he had most definitely mis-spoke.

In truth what is done by Seppelt and others among the Fourth Estate's shock troops - such as the Britons Andrew Jennings and David Walsh - is no more than should be done by sports themselves.  Leaving the media to act as their watch-dogs, their policing authority, is a dereliction of duty by federations who govern the sports we play.

Coe should have seen it as closer to a declaration of friendship than one of war but for too long sport has viewed evils such as doping as blemishes to be covered up for fear of damaging their brand. Better, they judged, to slap pancake over the face of sport than ever admit to its warts.

Coe would have done better to take Seppelt on board, ask his advice and, perhaps, spend 100,000 euros of the IAAF's money on copying his Doping Research Unit.  Instead according to Seppelt his Lordship continues to refuse even to debate the problem with him on radio. Short-sighted, to say the least.

Seppelt was in Abu Dhabi to accept the prize for a television documentary at the inaugural Sports Media Pearl Award ceremony, the first time that there has been an annual global acknowledgement of the important role the media plays in sport.

As was said by Donna de Varona, a swimming Olympic champion and world record breaker who became an Emmy award-winning news and sports journalist, the awards ensure that "those who seek truth and excellence will be recognised for their contribution to sport."

Sport, in its turn, must accept that the seekers after truth are on its side when they sweep its dirt from under its carpets. Cleanliness is next to godliness, as my mother used to say. Certainly it is not the Devil's work.

** NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

Keywords · Olympics · Neil Wilson · Hajo Seppelt

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