By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The establishment of the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) is a "momentous" move for athletics and could form a template for other sports to follow, inaugural chairman David Howman said on Thursday.
The AIU will oversee the battle against doping, bribery and corruption in a sport that has been battered by scandal over the last two years and is struggling to reverse a downturn in popularity.
New Zealander Howman, a former World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) chief, was named the AIU's chairman by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on Wednesday and said the remit of the body was groundbreaking.
"It's the first international federation to do it and the first to lead the charge for integrity, which I find to be momentous," the Wellington-based lawyer told Reuters on Thursday.
"It's a pretty big challenge."
The AIU is a plank in the sweeping reforms introduced by IAAF president Sebastian Coe after a series of scandals, including a corruption probe by French authorities into high-ranking officials such as his predecessor Lamine Diack.
A doping scandal involving Russian athletes, which saw the country's track and field team banned from last year's Rio Olympics, has also cast a long and enduring shadow over the sport.
Howman, who spent 13 years at WADA, said the AIU was in a "learning to walk before it could run" phase but he hoped it would eventually help rebuild the integrity of the sport, especially in the eyes of athletes.
"My life has been about protecting the values of sport and protecting athletes in relation to those values," he added.
"Part of the role we have is that we have to ensure that (corruption and doping) is not taking place and that athletes can rely on us for good values and the integrity of the sport."
Howman knows the new body still needs to lay its own groundwork but thought other sports might ultimately follow suit if the AIU proved successful.
"We are not doing it to provide a model," he said. "We are doing it to answer the mandate we have got specifically in this sport.
"I would hope that whatever we strike is top of the class and ... that if it's done in the manner we anticipate, then it will become a model for other sports."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)