IAAF pres­i­dent on the state of the sport as we start a fresh year


JUST over three years ago, world ath­let­ics was in to­tal dis­ar­ray. Lamine Di­ack left his po­si­tion as IAAF pres­i­dent amid ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion. Due to wide­spread dop­ing, Rus­sia was banned from in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. Un­der such dark clouds, the IAAF gala in De­cem­ber 2015 was can­celled.

Flash for­ward to the end of 2018 and the IAAF gala cel­e­bra­tions were back in full swing as the sport looked back on a great year. Eliud Kip­choge and Ca­ter­ine Ibargüen were crowned ath­letes of the year by the global gov­ern­ing body. In­no­va­tive and ex­cit­ing world cham­pi­onships in Aarhus and Doha are just around the cor­ner. Mean­while the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to up­hold the Rus­sian ban looks in­creas­ingly jus­ti­fied.

World ath­let­ics has en­joyed a res­ur­rec­tion in for­tunes and at the helm is the man who re­placed Di­ack in 2015 as IAAF pres­i­dent. Seb Coe has good rea­son to be sat­is­fied but what is the most pleas­ing achieve­ment in the past three years?

“I think the sport has come to­gether,” he says. “I know that’s a slightly neb­u­lous ob­ser­va­tion but I guess it’s one I can make be­cause I spend lots of time trav­el­ling. Since our coun­cil meet­ings in Buenos Aries in July, my of­fice reck­ons I’ve prob­a­bly flown some­thing like 60,000 miles and that has been area cham­pi­onships, area asso­ciations, coun­cil meet­ings, in­di­vid­ual area fed­er­a­tions … and I sense there is a much stronger bond in the sport now.”

He con­tin­ues: “We’re work­ing as a head­quar­ters much more col­lab­o­ra­tively with the mem­ber fed­er­a­tions and asso­ciations. In­stinc­tively, I think there is a sense that we’re mov­ing ahead to­gether and that we’ve made brave de­ci­sions which won’t ob­vi­ously show signs straight away but are re­ally part of the foun­da­tion and I’m not just re­fer­ring to the year and a half of re­forms, which cre­ated sta­bil­ity and gave us a very im­por­tant plat­form for en­gag­ing with more com­mer­cial part­ners.

“It’s the world I’ve lived in for a long time, but I just know that un­less a sport can re­ally gen­uinely show that it can gov­ern it­self prop­erly and ef­fec­tively then the big brands are not go­ing to risk rep­u­ta­tional dam­age of ex­pos­ing them­selves to a sport that can’t do that. The chal­lenges we had were well doc­u­mented and they were glob­ally doc­u­mented. We had spon­sors that went and oth­ers that were very shaky, so I had a very clear road map of what I wanted to do con­sti­tu­tion­ally and gov­er­nance wise be­fore I got into the job. The ur­gency, given what we had to con­front very early on, meant I had the ad­van­tage that I was able to dive in very quickly and frankly very hard and also gave us the ad­van­tage of show­ing those spon­sors that we were very se­ri­ous in what we were do­ing.”

When it comes to spon­sor­ship, Coe gives more de­tail, say­ing: “I’m pleased to re­port that we’ve ei­ther con­cluded or are a long way down the road of suc­cess­ful rene­go­ti­a­tions with all those part­ners for long-term con­tracts. Also we’ve brought a new part­ner across the line, which is Qatar Na­tional Bank – a multi-mil­lion-pound con­tract. So if you look at the first three years, there has been sta­bil­is­ing through the re­forms, mak­ing our sport a lot safer with the creation of the Ath­let­ics In­tegrity Unit and we’ve com­mer­cially sta­bilised and brought new part­ners on. I’m pretty con­fi­dent that not too far into 2019 I’ll be able to an­nounce some new part­ners too, which will be good.”

Un­der Coe’s lead­er­ship, the sport has also got to grips with the ‘na­tion hop­ping’ that was rife un­der Di­ack’s pe­riod in charge. “In the last three years I’ve an in­tray which had a lot of things that the sport re­ally did not want to ad­dress, if I’m be­ing hon­est. This in­cluded the trans­fers of al­le­giance. You know how frus­trat­ing it’s been for ath­letes and fed­er­a­tions. So that was one of the things I wanted to get out of that in­tray and I’m still work­ing my way through it.”

On trans­fers of al­le­giance, he adds: “We live in a global world and there will al­ways be cases where ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances are ac­cepted due to mar­riage, ed­u­ca­tion, po­lit­i­cal fragility, ath­letes who sud­denly find them­selves in a war zone. From a sys­tem where mem­ber fed­er­a­tions could shake hands and an email would ar­rive and 36 hours later an ath­lete could be com­pet­ing for an­other coun­try, that’s now gone.”

Then there is Rus­sia. “We’ve had a tough set of de­ci­sions we’ve had to make around Rus­sia. The process with the task force has served us well and maybe it’s one that other sports wish they’d also en­tered into when we did it.”

Yet Coe knows his job is far from fin­ished. “We’ve still got a few things sit­ting in the in­tray which we’re work­ing on. They in­clude bet­ter reg­u­la­tions around our ath­lete rep­re­sen­ta­tives and it’s the good and qual­ity agents them­selves that are help­ing us drive this.”

He adds: “Hope­fully by the time we get to Doha the fed­er­a­tions will be able to put the na­tional logo on their vest. It’s im­por­tant be­cause it’s a fresh in­come stream and, for me, 2020 will be a fo­cus on do­ing what we can to put more money into the pock­ets of the ath­letes – and I’m unashamed about that.

“I don’t feel any­thing other than real pur­pose in that.

We’ve got to give the ath­letes the feel­ing that when they are look­ing at sports to choose at a young age then ath­let­ics can re­ally guar­an­tee their fu­ture.”

De­spite the Di­a­mond League bounc­ing along in en­ter­tain­ing fash­ion in 2018, too, Coe re­mains slightly dis­sat­is­fied with its for­mat. “We’ve got to stop look­ing at it from the per­spec­tive of the meet it­self,” he ex­plains. “We have to do every­thing we can within a new model to give them more skin in the game and to feel like it’s all worth­while.

“There’s no ques­tion there were el­e­ments of the Di­a­mond League that were a dis­tinct im­prove­ment in 2018. In Oslo they man­aged to fill the sta­dium for the first time in a long time. We also tough­ened up the cri­te­ria. For me, the ob­jec­tive with Di­a­mond League, or what­ever we want to call it post2020, is that you want to be able to put your hand on your heart and say you gen­uinely have show­cased events that are ab­so­lutely at the top of their game. And that there is no ques­tion that when the pub­lic watch it on tele­vi­sion they un­der­stand the nar­ra­tive, they un­der­stand the qual­ity of the event and know the ath­letes there and they see some rhythm and pace to the year.”

When Coe is on his trav­els he al­ways makes a point of mak­ing time to meet cur­rent ath­letes as well at var­i­ous meet­ings he at­tends. They are al­ways at the fore­front of his mind and on the Di­a­mond League, he says: “We need to think about the wel­fare of the ath­letes. My in­stinct af­ter hav­ing talked to them is that we are ask­ing quite a lot



of them when it comes to the geog­ra­phy. We start off in Doha and then go into Asia and come back to Europe and then over to Eu­gene. It isn’t a pro­gramme that is op­ti­mal when it comes to ath­lete wel­fare.”

Help­ing him now achieve all these goals is Jon Rid­geon, who was ap­pointed chief ex­ec­u­tive at the IAAF late last year. The Olympic sprint hur­dler is well known in the UK af­ter or­gan­is­ing British tele­vised events in the past, se­cur­ing spon­sor­ship for the sport and his work as a tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter. For Coe, the IAAF pres­i­dent is de­lighted the IAAF has at­tracted a CEO of such ex­pe­ri­ence and abil­ity.

“We had a global search (for the job),” says Coe. “I wanted to make sure we ab­so­lutely got the right per­son and we had some very high-qual­ity peo­ple want­ing to do the job. Peo­ple see this as a sport that’s mov­ing again with fo­cus and di­rec­tion. So we had some good peo­ple. If you look at Jon’s skillset as a high per­form­ing ath­lete who un­der­stands what’s

“For me, the ob­jec­tive with Di­a­mond League, or what­ever we want to call it post-2020, is that you want to be able to put your hand on your heart and say you gen­uinely have show­cased events that are ab­so­lutely at the top of their game”

needed to be a Di­a­mond

League di­rec­tor, the ecosys­tem around the com­mer­cial pro­grammes, he’s been an event man­ager, he ticks some pretty meaty boxes out there. So we’re re­ally ex­cited that Jon chose to come here.

“We’ve got some­one who un­der­stands the sport and who the ath­letes in­stinc­tively feel is one of their own. If we look at the global sport now, we have two peo­ple who ath­letes will feel are ‘one of their own’. He and I will only ever see the sport through the eyes of the ath­letes – and that’s a good dis­ci­pline to start from.”

The IAAF’s gain is British Ath­let­ics’ loss. But how does Coe think ath­letes from his home coun­try are far­ing as we head into this World Cham­pi­onships year?

“I think pretty well,” he says.

“If you look at the Eu­ro­pean per­for­mances, they were jaw­drop­ping. I was at Tam­pere at the ju­nior cham­pi­onships and some of the kids com­ing through bodes well. The most chal­leng­ing time for any coach of any ath­lete is that jour­ney from ju­nior to se­nior ranks due to the very high fall out rate. Sta­tis­ti­cally the chances of an ath­lete who has won a medal at the world cham­pi­onships at ju­nior level to even be in the na­tional team a few years later are not great. It’s a tough jour­ney.

“I’ve seen some good things hap­pen­ing out there,” he con­tin­ues. “You can’t just ex­trap­o­late out of the Eu­ro­pean Cham­pi­onships into a World Cham­pi­onships but I think we have some great medal chances in Doha.”

The IAAF World Cham­pi­onships in Doha has at­tracted some crit­i­cism due to its sti­fling tem­per­a­tures and a per­ceived lack of ath­let­ics tra­di­tion among the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. But or­gan­is­ers are tack­ling the heat prob­lem by in­stalling mul­ti­ple air cool­ers in the sta­dium, while in­no­va­tions such as mid­night marathon races are set to make the event po­ten­tially spec­tac­u­lar.

“Peo­ple are go­ing to be sur­prised by the qual­ity of those cham­pi­onships,” says Coe. “If, in the last 40 years, I’ve been to global con­fer­ences on sport and the eas­i­est and cheapest clap you can get is that you need to glob­alise sport and en­cour­age most kids into sport and take it around the globe but when you ac­tu­ally put those words into ac­tion and look on

TripAd­vi­sor and find out it’s a bit warm at that time of the year and that you’re not sure about the pol­i­tics. But if you’re se­ri­ous then you look at Doha and re­alise it’s an im­por­tant place for us to be.

“Sport-wise, Qatar has in­vested mil­lions in track and field. It’s pro­vided us with one of our lat­est part­ners. We’re de­lighted we’re back in Europe for the World Cham­pi­onships in 2023 in Bu­dapest but we are a global sport and can’t keep go­ing back to the same nine places.”

Be­fore Doha, though, comes the Eu­ro­pean In­door Cham­pi­onships in Glas­gow. Coe used the event as a spring­board for his own ca­reer when he took 800m gold in San Se­bas­tian in 1977 – and he re­mains a big sup­porter of in­door ath­let­ics.

“I love in­door ath­let­ics,” he en­thuses. “I didn’t race a lot but was rea­son­ably suc­cess­ful. I en­joyed the in­ti­macy of in­doors and the emo­tional con­nec­tion the crowd has with the ath­letes. You’re right up against the crowd and it’s up front and per­sonal and there are things you can do from a pre­sen­ta­tion point of view that you can’t do out­doors.

“I’ve al­ways en­cour­aged our in­door meets to be a bit cut­ting edge. Not every­thing that you see walk­ing down the cat­walk in Paris ends up in the de­part­ment store but there are de­riv­a­tives.

“Get­ting in­doors is not nec­es­sar­ily about win­ning com­pe­ti­tions or break­ing records but just leaves you con­nected to the fact you are a com­peti­tor. I don’t think it’s great for an ath­lete to go from Septem­ber to May think­ing you’re only on the planet to train. You need to have that gee-up oc­ca­sion­ally to re­mind you what it’s like to put your toes against the start line.”

A few weeks af­ter Glas­gow, the World Cross hits Aarhus and Coe is sim­i­larly en­thu­si­as­tic. “It’s go­ing to be fan­tas­tic. What I love about it is that it’s back to a proper cross-coun­try course. This isn’t hay bales on a race course some­where. This is a re­ally good test and it’s the di­rec­tion the sport should go. The way they have ab­sorbed the built struc­ture in the park is great and that’s the way cross coun­try should be.”

A suc­cess­ful event in Aarhus will hardly harm the sport’s chances of re­turn­ing to the Olympic Games and Coe agrees: “We got it into the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires and that was re­ally suc­cess­ful with a good mixed re­lay and we need to keep push­ing it. It’s a good way to en­gage more coun­tries who wouldn’t nat­u­rally think of go­ing to a Win­ter Olympics in luge or giant slalom.

“If you look at the tech­ni­cal­i­ties, it’s meant to be on ice or snow but given the fact the IOC seem to choose places at the mo­ment that has nei­ther then I’m not sure at the mo­ment that it’s a big game changer.”

Seb Coe: the IAAF pres­i­dent is turn­ing around the for­tunes of the sport glob­ally

Busy in­tray: Seb Coe says he is tick­ing off ma­jor jobs on his ‘to do’ list as he strives to im­prove the sport

Vi­sion for the fu­ture: Seb Coe is keen to cre­ate a com­pe­ti­tion cal­en­dar that has a more log­i­cal pat­tern

Jon Rid­geon: joins Seb Coe at the IAAFas the gov­ern­ing body’s chief ex­ec­u­tive

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