Thursday 28 July 2016

Quest for Intergrity Continued: Lessons in Impunity

Unfortunately, the scandals-- big and small-- that were the subject of my last post played out more or less as expected. The simple chutzpah that seems to propel unethically self-interested behaviour these days does indeed seem to be the best defense against criticism of the behaviour itself. To amend the old sports cliche, the best defense for bad behaviour these days might just be no defense at all! To get-- and keep-- what you want may be as simple as acting boldly, disdaining your pesky critics (the envious "haters"), and allowing any would-be scandal to simply disappear into the welter of daily events and their endless online epiphenomena. At worst, if you hold any power or authority, you may have to announce, or even actually make, a few cosmetic changes. Nothing so embarrassing as an admission of culpability or a pledge of genuine accountability. Why ever admit guilt or take responsibility when its entirely possible that most people will have forgotten what you did in the first place before you've had a chance to clear your throat!?

While the international stories I referred to (the Russian doping scandal and the ongoing probe of the Nike sponsored "Oregon Project") offered some hopeful news along with the bad or simply buried news (the IAAF did ultimately suspend Russia's track athletes from the Olympic Games, and the US anti-doping outfit USADA did eventually subpoena a dodgy NOP Dr. suspected of diagnosing non-existent illnesses in order to write prescriptions for potentially performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals for elite athletes), the lessons of the past few months have been in the nature of modern impunity and how to achieve it in the face of the bold-faced facts, rather than in the irrepressibility of truth and fairness once wrongdoing has been revealed. These days, any quest for integrity, either high or low,is easily waylaid in the fog of online mediation, or simply stymied by the brazen determination of the culpable to wait out the worst of it until attentions are diverted (with the latter-- utter shamelessness in the face of the most damning and incontrovertible evidence- shaping up to be a kind of new spirit of the age).

Since analysis of the big and ongoing international corruption stories in athletics is not in short supply, I focus here on Ontario's grubby scandal-ette -- the 2015 Quest for Gold nomination process, which came to a muddled kind of non-conclusion, replete with promises of change but no specific admission of what its precipitants actually were, let alone any acknowledgement of deliberate wrong-doing, early this spring (note: this post is delayed by the promise that the whole affair might be covered in an accredited publication, which it ultimately was not).

I start with the nitty-gritty. The following are facts of the matter, which, low these many months, have never been disputed, or even seriously answered for, in spite of now long forgotten promises of complete transparency on the part of those principally concerned (the original Quest for Gold nomination committee and Athletics Ontario):

1. For at least two years (2014 and 2015), members of one Ontario club, the Guelph-based Speed River club, managed to receive performance-based financial support from the Province of Ontario Ministry of Sport and Tourism without satisfying the clearly published criteria for winning such funding (as expressed in the form of "points" earned for times run and placings accomplished at provincial and national championships). It is now clear that this MUST mean that either the Speed River athletes in question prepared and submitted (at the very least signed) fraudulent applications for funding, or that they filed truthful but incomplete applications that were nevertheless accepted by the nomination committee. No other conclusion is possible, and no alternative explanation has ever been proffered.

2. Speed River had a senior administrator, Chris Moulton, on the Quest for Gold nomination committee in both of these years (Moulton has since resigned from both his position at Speed River and on the Quest for Gold Committee, but not as a result of anything to do with these matters). Moulton declined repeated and explicit requests for comment (by Canadian Running Magazine, for a piece that was ultimately not published) on the affair, offering no explanation or defense of the committee's decisions or the obvious appearance of conflict of interest that these decisions created.

3. In a comment to Canadian Running, committee member Sue Wise (also since resigned from the committee and all duties with Athletics Ontario) admitted that the Speed River athletes in question "didn't exactly follow [all of] the criteria" for Q for G nomination-- but, she claims, for reasons that "could not be held against them" (of which more below).

4. The Speed River athletes in question were, at some point after critical questions were raised, removed from the original nomination list, but with no acknowledgment that their applications had ever been, in fact, fraudulent. After a significant delay, special appeals to the Ministry of Sport and Tourism were filed on behalf of Speed River athletes Hendrikx and Allison. These appeals were ultimately successful, and these athletes were awarded "special ministry cards" of the same value as the cards allotted to fully qualified nominees.

5. It would appear from comments made to Canadian Running by both Allison and Sue Wise (Hendrikx, like Moulton, declined to comment) that the grounds for these successful appeals (the terms of which could not by law be formally disclosed by anyone but the appellants themselves) was that the appellants were adversely affected by a change in the date of the joint Ontario/Canadian 10,000m Championships held in London, a one hour drive from Speed River headquarters in Guelph, in early May of the year. Sue Wise is, in fact, on record as having claimed that the Speed River athletes were unaware of the date of these championships until late April, mere weeks before the event, and well after their competitive seasons had been planned (their air tickets booked, etc.). It will be recalled that successful participation in this event would have been crucial to any athlete's prospects of securing Q for G funding in the 10,000m, which both Hendrikx and Allison somehow managed to do in the first round of nominations, in spite of having given these championships a miss. This is the nub of what Wise meant when she claimed that Allison and Hendrikx "could not have met the Q for G criteria".

6. The successful appeals of Hendrikx and Allison, if they were in any way based on claims about a "late change in the date" of the 2015 Ontario/Canadian 10,000m championships, were based on yet more demonstrably fraudulent claims. It was a fact well known to the leadership of Speed River that the date of this championship was, indeed, never changed in any way. It is a matter of ample record that the date and location of these championship was never announced otherwise than as Sunday, May 10 in London, Ontario. Speed River athletes and staff would have been aware of this fact as few others would, because Speed River itself lost the right to host this event on appeal by the London Runner club-- an appeal, moreover, that was launched immediately after the event was awarded to Speed River late in 2014. The proposed Speed River date of mid-June was thus never established or announced as the official date of the event and the official date therefore never "changed". Furthermore, the official date of May 10 would have been known by Speed River the very second the successful appeal by London Runner was announced by Athletics Canada in mid-February of 2015, not in late April, as their successful appeals apparently maintained. In other words, these athletes and their coaches simply could not have been unaware of the date of the Ontario/Canadian 10,000m until late April, as they claim, and would indeed have been aware of the official date in plenty of time to build it into their seasonal planning (particularly given that London is a one hour drive from Guelph). It is therefore simply not true that, as Wise claims, these athletes "could not have met" the full criteria for Q for G funding, and thus deserved special consideration upon appeal. It is eminently reasonable to thus conclude that these two athletes deliberately skipped these championships, knowing full well that doing so would make earning sufficient Q for G funding points next to impossible, and that they then lied about their reasons for doing so in order to receive several thousand dollars of government funding each on appeal. It is either this, or they were deliberately mislead by their leadership into filing the applications and appeals that they did. Again, no other conclusion is possible.

With the above facts clearly established the only remaining question is the larger one: How is it that people are allowed to get away with this kind thing in full view of a community of interested-- indeed materially affected-- parties? My first installment above attempted to provide some general answers, but I think we can conclude that:

1. These days, as perhaps never before, fortune favours the bold and audacious, whether they are straightforwardly dishonest or not. In this case, who knew just what was possible until the leadership of Speed River simply went ahead and unapologetically did what it did? In none of the instances where this organization has been found bending or breaking rules to gain petty advantage has it appeared particularly concerned with being found out, nor has it shown any sign of shame about its conduct (it's victims apparently being so far beneath concern). In each instance it has simply maintained a disciplined silence and waited for attentions to turn. The same pattern is apparent in the bigger scandals mentioned above. One imagines that the IAAF, the Russians, and the NOP surprised even themselves with what they were able to get away with by simply not giving a shit about the consequences-- or, perhaps more accurately, by believing in their ability to manage any negative consequences and to come out ahead in the end.

2. In the face of brazen wrongdoing there is often little recourse for those wronged or morally outraged, particularly when the material stakes are too petty for those with the power to bother trying to hold the offending parties to account. Demanding and getting accountability may require more persistence than many of us thought or would have hoped. In this instance, those with the power to act-- Athletics Ontario-- simply stalled, obfuscated, then attempted to move on in the face of scrutiny. In the end, it was as simple as that.

3. Life in the online mediated world has shortened memories and created ample hiding places for evidence of bad behaviour amid its incessant virtual clutter. You can apparently do and say bad things and have them disappear below the surface quickly and without ever creating an easily discernible pattern. This is something the leadership of Speed River appears to have figured out, and factored into its behaviour, some time ago.

4. Doing whatever you like to get ahead and brazening out the consequences if these things aren't always exactly kosher can be part of a recipe for success! The Guelph/Speed River organization has been massively successful on the national level at recruiting, preparing, and supporting top level athletes, with 7 of its members being named to this year's Canadian Olympic team. Whatever its many strengths (and there are undoubtedly many, just as there are within Russian Athletics, or within the NOP), its clear willingness to throw its weight around within institutional circles, and to, in this instance, commit fairly open fraud, however petty, has almost certainly been a factor in its success. Even very small advantages can add up in the world of sport, as in life itself. And, of course, success can provide its own rationale for behaving badly-- not to mention a balm for the occasional bout of guilty conscience.

5. What we have seen may be just a sample of what has been going on for some time. This is speculation, of course, but it's not likely that any organization attempts the kinds of things Speed River has fairly openly been up to in the past few years without first testing its influence and honing its skills a little more covertly. What we know is instructive (and damning) enough, but there could well be more that will never be widely known.

6. There will be more where this came from, albeit perhaps not from Speed River itself. The most important lesson that impunity teaches is that fraud and impropriety might well be worth it in the end, for those without scruples.

7. Attempting to defraud a funding program for developing athletes is not a trivial matter when this funding can make the difference between sticking with the sport and perhaps quitting it together. Speed River athlete Katrina Allison herself underlined the importance of this funding for second tier athletes when she offered the following in an interview about the Q for G affair: “Last summer I had a job that kept me on my feet for 6-8 hours a day, either right before or after training. I didn’t think this would impact my training too much, but it definitely does after a little while. Jobs like this are just not ideal for an athlete trying to optimize training and recovery. But to be able to afford costs associated with training and racing across the continent, I didn’t have a choice.”

All the more reason to ensure that the competition for funding that enables developing athletes to avoid such jobs is scrupulously fair, one would have thought.

A final note: As mentioned, there have been some important changes made to this year's Q for G scoring and vetting process. This process has not been truly overhauled since its inception, so the timing of these changes can be seen as an implicit admission of, at the very least, irregularities in last year's process. Interested parties would do well to familiarize themselves with these changes by visiting the Athletics Ontario website.

PK POY and 2016 POM Catch-Up:

Given how delayed this announcement has become, I will skip the usual adieu and just make it. The 2015 POY belongs to junior Cam Linscott for his pheonix-like silver medal performance at the National XC Championships right here in K-Town. Cam began 2015 gravely injured (a high femoral fracture) and only began serious run training in the late summer. His successful defense of his OFSAA crown at Duntroon attributed by many to his superlative mudding ability, few believed he yet had the tempo and finishing speed to contend on the normally track-like Fort Henry course. Using his trademark pacing ability and supreme cool under fire, he overcame a bad start to pass everyone in the field but one with a perfectly timed charge over the final 3kms. Cam enters this U of T this fall and might be as good a bet as there has ever been for CIS ROY honours.

POY honours for the first half of 2016 are as follows:

January: Brianna Bradley's massive and long-awaited 3k personal best in Ottawa. Injured on and off (mostly on) for the better part of 3 years, Brianna returned home from the NCAA in early January and immediately got the ball rolling! She would go on to run 9:55 in Boston 3 weeks later, along with a very respectable road 5k of 17:47.

February: CIS star Alex Wilkie for his 4:05.88 mile. With the extent of Alex's hip problem now revealed, this performance takes on a new significance. In excellent position to record his first sub-4:00 mile, he was forced to hobble his final 400m simply to complete the race. His time remained a CIS qualifier, though he was never able to take his spot on the starting line in March.

March: Junior Branna MacDougall returned to the front ranks of Canadian age-group distance running by winning the Pan Am XC Championships in Venezuela, in spite of entering the meet as Canada's 3rd runner. When you're as successful as Branna has been, surpassing expectations (the basis of the PK POY system) is hard to do. Winning an international championship, however, surpasses almost anyone's expectations!

April: Journeyman Kevin Coffey (an online athlete and member of the Running Room Athletic Club) for his outstanding run at the storied Vancouver Sun Run. Capping a breakthrough spring of racing and training on the west coast, Kevin mixed it up with some of Canada's best and got himself over the BC Place finish line in 30:13, taking 43 fewer seconds to complete the distance than he had ever done before.

May: NCAA athlete Cleo Boyd completed her journey back from foot surgery in 2015 by making history at her school (U.Va in Charlottesville) in winning a conference double over 5,000 and 10,000m at the ACC meet in Tallahassee, FLA. In doing so, she became the only U.Va athlete, male or female to win these events, let alone in the same meet. Cleo had run well since the fall of 2015, but no one could have foreseen anything like this from her, at least not this soon. Very honourble mention for May goes to Branna MacDougall for crushing Cleo's junior PK club 5,000m record in her first try at the distance on the track. Her 16:10 also qualified her to represent Canada and the World U20 Championships in Poland in July.

June: The youth movement continued in June, when junior (very junior-- 15 year old) Brogan MacDougall soloed the second best time for 3,000m ever run by a Canadian high school girl at the OFSAA Championships, coming a mere hand-span (.15) from becoming the fastest ever. Brogan's accomplishments to date, including a silver medal in the senior division of the OFSAA XC meet and a win at the National Youth XC Championships last fall, have been nearly unprecedented, but this performance was a notch above still!

July: The month is not yet complete as I write this, but there is no risk of prematurity in announcing Branna MacDougall's Canadian Junior 5,000m record (15:48) and 10th place at the World U20 Championships in Poland as the July POM. Again, surpassing expectations is never easy when you've reached Branna's level. But, a 22 second personal best and 4 second improvement on the fastest any teenaged Canadian has ever run for the distance, and under global championship pressure, thousands of miles from home, is a performance of the most rarefied kind. Branna now enters the NCAA in August as the fastest North American high school 5,000m runner of all time*! With an proven ability to roll with the punches and a sporting intelligence that belies her tender age, her future as a collegiate athlete looks like something for the ages.

*The U.S. high school record is listed as Mary Cain's 15:45.46, set just before her graduation in 2013. Cain signed a pro contract with the Nike Oregon Project and did not enter the NCAA.