Athletics isn’t staying relevant, it’s chasing relevance
Perhaps a doping amnesty and a fresh start is required to allow the sport regain its soul
Sebastian Coe: prioritising presentation looks like fiddling for the sake of it. Keeping athletics relevant is about credibility, not novelty. Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty
The IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, was in London rather than Rome when he addressed a Sports Leadership Summit last week but his ideas for making the sport “stay relevant” look more like fiddling than any attempt to address the burning question of credibility.
Coe presented himself as a thrusting radical when it comes to athletics selling itself as a spectator sport, proposing that nothing should be off the table when it comes to track and field pitching itself to the next generation.
This “radical” thinking outside the box specifically extended to asking why athletics has to have a 400 metre track? Why not ‘pop-up’ tracks of various distances and in various locations? Coe pointed to Indian Premier League cricket as a possible model.
“There are lots of thing that we can do. What about teams, cities, franchises? What about having the excitement of the draft, the pick, the IPL auction?” he enthused. “Those are the things that I really want to have on the table. And I don’t want to take them off the table.”
Later in the week he transferred this energetic theme to Morocco, predicting the next World Athletics Championship in 2019 could look very different to London during the summer.
“Let our imagination run wild,” he proclaimed, warning that purists mightn’t relish athletics being part of the entertainment business but that’s the reality. Expanding further on his revolutionary riff he argued how the future might include street athletics, taking it back to the people and all that.
He didn’t say ‘Man’ but the incongruity of this Tory lord supposedly tearing down walls and shaking his fist at convention is still striking. Coe couldn’t be more establishment. For years he has steered a path through various political elites with a sureness of touch that testifies to a true insider.
Of course there’s always an inverse danger in dismissing motivation on the basis of privilege – the whole looking down on from below bit – and Coe is only doing his job in trying to point a course towards the commercial viability of athletics.
But prioritising presentation looks like fiddling for the sake of it. Keeping athletics relevant is about credibility, not novelty. One is optional, the other vital. And ultimately no amount of fiddling will paper over failure to properly tackle doping head-on.
Athletics is hardly alone in fighting drugs. In fact it can argue it’s a lot further down the road of effectively trying to combat cheats than a lot of other sports although it does have five decades of an unwanted head-start on some of its competition.
But this is a sport with a reputation so tarnished that World Olympians Association chief executive Mike Miller argued last week for athletes to get micro-chipped like dogs as a necessary step in restoring public confidence.
Miller countered privacy rights arguments on the basis that competition is a club and just like any club people don’t have to join if they don’t want to follow the rules.
It was an unrealistic statement in many ways and Miller later back-tracked. But it at least acknowledged deep-rooted scepticism which has burrowed into public consciousness like a cynical tick and which threatens the sport’s long -term future in a way no amount of supposed showmanship will fix.
Track and field isn’t alone in fighting such cynicism but it is at the forefront of its impact. Anyone able to watch top-flight international athletics entirely at face value has clearly had their credulity gland removed.
So much has happened over so long that it is impossible to fully believe it any more. That is unfair to a lot of clean athletes but it is disingenuous to suggest the disconnect isn’t the greatest threat to the sport’s wellbeing.
Sure it can still work as spectacle. But sport is supposed to be about more than that just bells and whistles. By focusing on the ‘where’ and ‘when’ symptoms of such cynicism, Coe appears to excuse himself from facing up to the all-important ‘why’. And maybe that’s no surprise.
He is in the business of administration after all and governance is primarily about stability. The instinct to keep a lid on things, making sure we wake up to the same thing tomorrow, is ingrained in all administrations.
What Coe proposed last week was the kind of jargon that makes sense at a leadership summit. Among those paid to contain, fiddling with the fripperies doesn’t distract from steering a resolutely steady course. The idea of a flipped over ship is particularly appalling if you’re at the wheel.
But athletics needs such a flip. It also needs to acknowledge that for much of the public it has been reduced to little more than a game of guess the pharmaceutical cheat. Real radicalism is required to change that, a fresh slate that allows it begin again.
And in a desperate environment where chipping people like dogs can be made to seem viable, the idea of a drugs amnesty increasingly makes practical sense.
It’s five years since the then head of the World Anti-Doping Agency said such an amnesty should be considered across all sports on the basis of everybody coming clean and starting afresh. That would allow anyone caught doping afterwards to automatically incur a life ban, a necessary step on both a practical and presentational level.
The idea appears to have fizzled out at official level. But painful as it might prove in the short term it could provide a long-term impact that athletics in particular urgently requires. Instead of convoluted sticking plasters, just one sharp rip away to expose and aerate, allowing public confidence to be rejuvenated.
Coe wants athletics to stay relevant. In fact it is chasing relevance. Continuing to pretend otherwise does it no favours.