GIVEN everything that is happening in the wider world of athletics, you might imagine there could not be a worse time to be launching the latest edition of a global running phenomenon.

The sport’s governing body, the IAAF, has been roundly accused of systemic corruption in relation to the doping scandal that has engulfed athletics. Evidence of state-sponsored drug taking means Russian athletes could be banned from competing in this summer’s Rio Olympics, the supposed pinnacle of the sport. The World Anti-Doping Agency has given Kenya until the start of April to comply with its codes or face a blanket ban from international events.

At the elite level, athletics is in a monumental mess. Few people trust the sport any more, even fewer believe the IAAF is capable of clearing up a scandal that, at least in part, is of its own making.

So as he leaned back in his seat at the launch of this year’s Great North Run yesterday, Brendan Foster could have been forgiven for wanting the event he first launched in 1981 to keep a low profile.

Is this a good time to be championing the merits of a race that has become an established part of the world athletics calendar?

Foster pulls no punches when it comes to discussing the parlous state of the sport he clearly loves. But when it comes to the Great North Run, the 68-year-old is adamant the race’s reputation should not be tarnished by the ongoing scandals engulfing athletics.

“It’s the worst time I’ve ever known,” said Foster, who claimed an Olympic bronze medal in the 10,000m at the 1976 Games in Montreal. “The sport of athletics, or at least elite athletics, is in a terrible state. The IAAF is a corrupt organisation, there’s no getting away from that. But we are sitting here with an event that is about ordinary people running, and that’s its great strength.

“In my view, there is very little connection between ordinary human beings doing what they love doing, and doing it for their own self-satisfaction or to raise money for charity, and the headlines from the elite end of the sport that are doing so much damage.

“This is what we’re doing – what you’re doing in the IAAF is a completely different thing and it’s up to you, but you’ve got to get better. At the moment, they’re simply not good enough. They’re not representing all of the people who will be taking part in the Great North Run.”

Yesterday’s launch revealed a bold ambition to feature a runner from all 193 member states of the United Nations in this year’s race, with organisers already having signed up participants from 125 different countries.

The Northern Echo:

Runners Nihad Ćehić, left, and Ellie Jenkins, right, with Great Run chief executive, Mark Hollinshead and Brendan Foster at the Centre for life in Newcastle. (Picture: TOM BANKS)

The plan reinforces the global credentials of the Great North Run, with the event’s ability to cater for all levels of athletes one of its greatest strengths.

While the elite end of the sport might have been tainted by a succession of controversies, the desire for everyday runners to better themselves and achieve their ambitions will not disappear. Events like the World Championships and Olympics might be losing some of their lustre, but Foster feels the Great North Run’s grassroots ethos makes the event something of a template for the future of a sport that could undergo some radical changes in the next few years.

“I think when you watch the Great North Run, you could be watching the modern future of athletics,” he said. “It’s open to everyone, and that’s something that should be cherished.

“Yes, we’ve got the best runners in the world out there at the front, but then we’ve also got the club runners behind them, trying to get a personal best, people out there wondering if they can complete the course and trying to tackle that challenge, runners raising money for charity, and then people out the back walking.

“That is the beauty of the Great North Run, and that’s something everyone in athletics can get behind and be proud of. The sport of athletics as a whole should be proud of what we do. We’re doing our bit – it’s up to others to do their bit too now.”

Come September, the sight of 57,000 runners pounding the streets of Tyneside will provide a powerful rebuttal to those who claim athletics is dying.

The identity of the elite athletes running alongside them will not be confirmed until much closer to the start of the race, but Foster remains hopeful that two-time Great North Run winner Mo Farah will once again be the star attraction.

Farah will become the first male athlete to claim a hat-trick of Great North Run triumphs if he makes a successful return to the North-East this autumn, although his participation could well hinge on how his fitness holds up in the wake of the Olympics, where he will attempt to defend the 5,000m and 10,000m titles he won at London 2012.

“Mo has other things on his plate at the moment, but we’ll be discussing his possible involvement at some stage in the future,” said Foster. “There’ll obviously be elite athletes involved in the race, but we’ll finalise all of that closer to the date and I’m sure the Olympics will go a long way towards determining what happens (with Farah). He knows he’s won two in a row, and I think he knows what the history (of completing the hat-trick) would mean.”