The most extraordinary 48 hours in Isaac Makwala’s career continued on Wednesday night with the Botswanian being dramatically reinstated into the men’s 200m at these world championships – before running a solo time trial in 20.20sec to make the semi-finals, and then, just two hours later, also qualifying for the final.
As Makwala crossed the line after his time trial to enormous cheers, he started doing press ups. The implication was clear: athletics’ governing body, the IAAF, had been wrong to bar him from Monday’s 200m heats and Tuesday’s 400m final, where he was the most significant threat to Wayde van Niekerk, after he was suspected to have the norovirus
That decision to quarantine Makwala for 48 hours led to an extraordinary criticism of the stance of the IAAF and Public Health England by the BBC on Tuesday night, with the former 400m world record holder Michael Johnson hinting at an IAAF conspiracy to keep Makwala from beating Van Niekerk, and Paula Radcliffe and Denise Lewis appearing to question the competency of the head of medical services at London 2017, Pamela Venning.
The Guardian can reveal that the IAAF are furious at the BBC’s behaviour and have not only let the corporation know in the strongest possible terms but are considering whether to take the matter further. The IAAF are particularly incensed that the BBC’s coverage was heavily tilted towards Makwala’s viewpoint while the integrity of their processes – which were designed to ensure that the norovirus, which has rapidly spread since the weekend, was contained – were repeatedly questioned.
When speaking to the BBC after Van Niekerk’s 400m victory, Venning insisted that letting Makwala race would “risk many, many, many more athletes not competing” because of the “very infectious and very virulent” nature of the virus. As she told the BBC’s panel: “He had taken a history, examined him, pulse, respiratory and the history from this gentleman is very clear that he had symptoms similar to all the other athletes classified as having this gastrointestinal disease.”
However Lewis questioned whether the IAAF “could have checked him again to see if it was conclusive that he was unwell to run” before adding “in his heart he believes he is ready”. Meanwhile, Radcliffe asked whether blood tests could have been done, even though Venning explained that blood samples were not relevant.
In the wake of public criticism of the pundits’ questioning, which some likened to bullying, the BBC released a statement saying: “We understand that some viewers were unhappy about the way in which Dr Pam Venning was questioned by our presentation team – but the tone of the questioning was respectful with Dr Venning able to present the IAAF’s position clearly and effectively.”
Makwala had admitted vomiting after getting off a coach at the stadium on Monday before the 200m heats but claimed it was not proof he was contaminated. At the time he said that his my mind “was broken” and suggested that the IAAF had denied him two medals.
Yet at 12.30pm on Wednesday the Botswana Athletics Association president wrote a letter to the IAAF asking for Makwala to be allowed to compete because his quarantine period would be over at 2pm. Shortly afterwards he was cleared by a medical and a special time trial, scheduled for 25 minutes before the evening session, was set up. Makwala, who had to run 20.53sec or quicker to qualify for the semi-finals, did so with aplomb.