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Athletics World Championships

Doping cloud casts shadow over World Athletics Championships in Beijing

Asafa Powell of Jamaica (R) sprints off the blocks beside Kei Takase of Japan in their men's 100 metres heat at the 15th IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China August 22, 2015
Asafa Powell of Jamaica (R) sprints off the blocks beside Kei Takase of Japan in their men's 100 metres heat at the 15th IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China August 22, 2015 Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

Two years ago in Moscow, the key message from the opening ceremony was Russia’s offerings to world culture. There were heavyweights from music, science and literature who had all made a contribution. The history lesson, though instructive, appeared to be a less lavishly funded reboot of the spectacular show that launched the Beijing Olympics in 2008. That highlighted China’s myriad gifts throughout the millennia.

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Back then the film director Zhang Zimou had millions of yuan and thousands of people to animate the narrative.

In 2015, the desire for such proselytising splendour has somewhat diminished. Another mentality appears to have taken hold.

“The world championships are the third largest event after the Olympic Games and the football world cup," said Gao Zhidan, president of the local organising committee. “Developing such events helps co-operation and understanding of the cultural changes taking place. It helps the opening up of China.”

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Nearly 200 men and women from more than 200 countries will take part in the nine-day event, the 15th organised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

As in Moscow, the Beijng extravaganza has been overshadowed by controversy. In Russia, there was a fear that the winter Olympics in Sochi might be boycotted by athletes due to a recently passed Russian law about the promotion of homosexual literature.

In 2013, Lord Coe, the head of the 2012 London Olympics organising committee, spoke out against boycotts. In Moscow, he was one of the vice-presidents of the IAAF.

The 58-year-old who won gold in the 1500 metres at the boycotted Olympic games of 1980 and 1984 is still firefighting.

Now it’s doping scandals, but he’s defending the sport as IAAF president.

He was elected ahead of Sergey Bubka just before the start of the championships. The Briton takes over from 82-year-old Lamine Diack who is stepping down after 16 years in the post.

Coe has vowed to ensure a tough stance on drugs cheats. “I will do everything within my human capabilities to make sure that our sport maintains the values, maintains the strong legacies and the firm foundations that President Diack has left me with,” Coe said.

The former Conservative MP will have his work cut out. The IAAF has faced criticism since the start of the year when allegations emerged of systemic doping and a cover-up involving the Russian federation and the Russian anti-doping agency. The story emerged in a documentary on German media and was denied by the Russian anti-doping agency and the athletics federation.

Diack, who will retire at the end of the championships, has stressed that 99 per cent of athletes are clean. Two former world champions Dwight Philiips and Allen Johnson echoed the outgoing president on Friday.

Johnson, who won the last of his four world championships in the 110 metres hurdles in Paris in 2003, said: “There’s something of a blanket indictment going on. If you have dope testing, you’re going to have positive results. Athletics has shown that it doesn’t care who you are. If you don’t follow the rules, they take you down.”

Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin are among the high-profile performers who have all served bans for taking illegal drugs.

Phillips claimed four world championship golds in the long jump. He said he was frustrated by the attention being placed on doping.

“Gatlin wasn’t allowed to be included in the athlete of the year competition but yet he’s one of the big draws for this meeting in Beijing. I think that’s very unfortunate. If we don’t want him to be involved in athletics at all, we have to change the rules. We shouldn’t be criticising people who have decided to play within the confines of the rules.”

The Americans Gatlin, Gay and Usain Bolt are all expected to face each other in the final of the men’s 100 metres on Sunday night.

Gatlin, Gay and Powell have registered faster times than Bolt this season. The showdown is seen as dope cheats v clean guy.

Bolt says he is running for himself and definitely not as the people’s hero.

A wise precaution to dampen expectation; if he does lose, it’s just that. A defeat and not a catastrophe.

Bolt may have styled himself a living legend after becoming the first man to win consecutive Olympic sprint doubles. And he’s quick to distance himself from the tag of people’s champion.

After all, the public are notoriously fickle and a showman needs their undying love.

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