World Athletics CEO proud they are leading the way in doping fight
World Athletics CEO Jon Ridgeon says the sport is on an upward curve, argues Doha world championships were a success despite the criticism
Four days before the start of the World Athletics Championships on Sept 27 in Doha, Qatar, the sport's governing body announced that Russia would be banned from the event as the country was under investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) for the manipulation of anti-doping data.
On Dec 9, Wada announced that Russia would be banned from all major sporting events for four years after the country's anti-doping agency was declared non-compliant for manipulating laboratory data handed over to investigators earlier this year.
Jon Ridgeon, chief executive of World Athletics, told me recently he was pleased at his agency's stance and believes they are leading the way in sport's fight against doping.
"I am incredibly proud of the position athletics has taken. We are the only sports governing body in the world that still suspended Russia, that's how seriously we take this," Ridgeon said.
"Over the last four years, we created the Athletics Integrity Unit, an independent unit funded by World Athletics annually with US$8 million (S$10.8m), and it runs all our drug testing integrity issues.
"Other sports are now coming to us and asking how they can copy us, so we lead the world," he said.
"So I'm really comfortable that we are doing everything we can within our means to keep our sport clean."
Long known as the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, track and field's governing body is now World Athletics, with Sebastian Coe as its president after the English middle-distance legend took over the helm from Senegal's Lamine Diack in 2015.
Ridgeon, who won a silver medal in the 110m hurdles at the 1987 World Championships, became CEO in March this year.
I met him on the sidelines of the Mass Participation World Conference at The Hilton Singapore earlier this month and, in the wake of all the doping and corruption scandals over the years, I was somewhat surprised to hear him talk so bullishly about athletics.
Said Ridgeon: "Four years ago, we were at our lowest point, when the corruption and other scandals came out after the former president's time ended. We were in a real crisis then.
"But I'd say since then, we've had four years of fundamental change led by Coe. The sport is well governed now, it's open and transparent.
"It's a period of really optimistic growth. The curve is up now and our job is to make the curve as steep as possible."
He is optimistic about his sport because of recent events, like World Athletics securing Chinese multi-national conglomerate Wanda Group as the title partner of the lucrative Diamond League - an annual series of track and field competitions - for a decade starting from next year.
The 52-year-old said the Ineos 1:59 Challenge on Oct 12 in Vienna, Austria, proved how the sport can still capture the world's imagination.
The project, which saw Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge become the first athlete to break the two-hour mark for the marathon when he clocked 1:59.40, generated much interest around the globe.
But I also reminded Ridgeon that the recent world championships in Doha came in for much flak, particularly from critics in his own country.
"There were disappointing crowds over the first three days, but the world championships was still seen by a billion people around the world, and the athletics was stunning," he argued.
"There were some issues around the periphery of the event - there is no denying that - but the stars of the show, the athletes, were fantastic, absolutely stunning...
"We are seeing a roster of the next generation of stars emerging which started in Doha and we're hoping it will continue through to Tokyo (Olympics in 2020) and beyond."
He said the anger over staging the event in Doha was a moot point, as that decision had been made by the previous IAAF regime six years ago.
"We are a global sport, the most global of all sports. Athletes are produced all over the world and it's important that we don't just go to traditional safe heartlands but also actually challenge ourselves.
"It was the first time the Middle East hosted a world athletics championship and that's important," he added.
Ridgeon wants to grow interest in track and field and, when I described the US and Asia as the unconquered territories of the sport, he agreed.
He said: "Let's start with the US, we are really excited... that in 2021 we have the world championships in Oregon, and we plan to stage several championship events right through to the LA Olympics in 2028.
"We want to use the period from 2021 to 2028 to try to build the profile of athletes in America. We see it as a really important period because America produces the best athletes in the world, but, outside of the Olympics, American track and field is very low profile."
"In Asia, mass participation athletics is rising phenomenally, but we need to do more to get track and field bigger here as well," he insisted.
"One of the partnerships that we are excited about is the one with Wanda. They want to do a lot in China.
"We will be doing more in Asia over the next few years and, hopefully, athletes can rise in profile. Asia is probably under-represented in terms of medal-winning nations, compared with the size of the population, and hopefully in time that can change."