Does Sebastian Coe care or is he merely in love with own loftiness?
IAAF chief might have got job he wanted but he’s lost all prestige and popularity
IAAF president Sebastian Coe. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
England, 1980: yes, Margaret Thatcher’s “the lady’s not for turning” speech; yes, the beginnings of the CND gatherings on Greenham Common; yes, the global shock at the killing of John Lennon and always the gorgeous, uneasy synthesiser of David Bowie’s timeless Ashes to Ashes, played on loop around the planet this week; and yes, too, the indelible image of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, the thin white gods of British athletics, locked into that riveting struggle at the Moscow Olympics.
The world turns in strange ways and if Moscow 36 years ago was the scene of Coe’s finest hour, then the nefarious deals and bribes and doping practices within that city and country have left the IAAF vying with Fifa as the world’s most pathetic sports institution.
There should have been no real surprise that Lord Coe managed to preserve his role as president of the IAAF even after Thursday’s chastening and condemnatory report delivered by Dick Pound, head of the investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada).
Coe was a wonderfully light athlete to watch on the running track and has managed to float through the subsequent decades with the same apparent effortlessness, always retaining that school-prefect look and the air of untouchable establishment man. There he was on Thursday as Pound admonished the IAAF from the lectern, looking suitably subdued but not especially under pressure and, in the end, receiving Pound’s contradictory imprimatur as the figure most capable of restoring the name of athletics. It was an endorsement that drew instant scepticism and prompted a rare show of humility from Lord Coe: “I’m sorry if my language has in any way demonstrated a lack of understanding as to the depth of this.”
Playing the game
But even now, as he faces into the biggest competitive challenge of his life, it is impossible to know what he believes or feels about all of this. It’s impossible to know if he cares or if he is still just playing the game and saying the right thing.
Coe is 59 now. Just three years ago, he was toast of British sport. The extent of the pessimism prior to the London Olympics has almost been forgotten but anticipated terrorist threats, transport misery and the general upheaval meant that Londoners braced themselves for the worst. Or else, they rented their homes and went on holiday for a fortnight.
Those who stayed were swept along by the completely unanticipated wave of warmth and patriotism and friendliness that swept through the imperious city.
The London Games was a peerless triumph. Suddenly Coe – the jarring iciness behind the faint smile, the imperturbability, the hair cut that never changed, the energy and the limitless self-belief – made sense and his traits seemed to hold the key to how and why the London Olympics, against all odds, had been such a pulsating triumph.
Even if people weren’t fully sure that they could ‘believe’ in all the athletic feats they were watching over that fortnight, the London Olympics created an atmosphere that made the majority at least want to believe in what Honest Abe memorably called “ the better angels of our nature”.
The Games provided a bridge between the uninspiring Coe who served as Tory MP in the 1990s to the figure who, in an extraordinary vein of form, broke three world records in just 41 days in 1979 before engaging in that dual for the ages with Ovett.
Like all big scandals, while the consequences of the IAAF scandal are huge, the fine details of Thursday’s report from Wada are dismally small and borderline seedy.
It contains the unsurprising finding that the IAAF ran its business with entirely inappropriate informality.
The dual role Of Valentin Balakhnichev, a grandee of Russian athletics dating back to the Iron Curtain years, as treasurer of the IAAF and president of the Russian athletics federation, was highlighted as the most obvious example of why the governing body were willing to afford such ‘informal treatment’ to Russia despite alarming evidence of corruption and doping within that member country.
The findings were plain and damning: that senior IAAF staff knew that certain Russian athletes should have been banned but did nothing: that senior staff were “surprised” that athletes participated in the London Olympics “despite the assurances that they would not”.
Behind the sober, measured language is the sense of a private club dominated by Lamine Diack, Coe’s predecessor as president, his son Papa Massata Diack (currently the subject of an international arrest warrant), legal council Habib Cissé and Gabriel Dollé, former head of the IAAF anti-doping unit in which bribery, larcenous sponsorship deals and extortion were common business practice.
If not all senior IAAF staff were corrupt, then they were either too weak or incurious to do anything about the brazen interference by the Russian federation into doping procedure and results. The IAAF was a basketcase.
Pound’s endorsement of Coe leaves him still alive as president of a disgraced federation but also the subject of international scepticism. The report makes it plain that IAAF council, on which Coe sat since 2003, “could not have been unaware of doping in athletics”. This is true, but then there was a hardly a person alive who was unaware of doping in athletics.
The question is how much the council members knew.
Certainly, Coe’s tribute to Lamine Diack upon his retirement as ‘ the spiritual leader’ of international athletics are of high embarrassment to him now.
Equally, his stubborn refusal to relinquish his Nike $100,000-per-year ambassadorial role until November of last year has not reflected well on him. The handsome endorsement issued by Sepp Blatter is a tribute Coe would happily erase from the record now also.
All of the credits he garnered after London have been burned away this week. The London Independent demanded he step down with a withering verdict on his record as being that of “an insider content to look the other way rather than risk his accession to a plum job”.
It is impossible to reach any other conclusion: it requires a huge stretch of the imagination to believe that Coe was sufficiently trusting or naive to have no inkling that something – everything – about the governing approach of the IAAF under Diack stunk to high heaven.
In between Olympic cycles, Coe might have acquired the job he wanted but he has lost all of the prestige and popularity he experienced after London.
If he is going to emerge from this one as a winner, Seb Coe is going to have to run the race of his life.