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
“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”
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