Sebastian Coe: ‘Change was turbo-charged because we needed it to be’
World Athletics president focuses on future after term dogged by doping scandals
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe: ‘I think the next four years will be even more focused on the sport, on formats, on competition. How do we make the World Championships an even more exciting prospect?’ File photograph: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
There is a scene in 16 Days of Glory, Bud Greenspan’s film about the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, which deftly captures Sebastian Coe crossing the line to win the 1,500 metres and then turning, still mid-stride as it were, towards a section of the British press in the seats somewhere directly above.
“My exact words were ‘perhaps you’ll believe me now’”, Coe says, re-enacting the moment of part victory, part two-finger salute with some obvious restrain. Hardly his exact words, were they?
Coe had his doubters and detractors in the run up to that race, and not without some reason: he’d missed most of 1983 and the event it seemed had moved on. Only not quite fast enough, Coe combining his race tact and ferocious will to become the first (and still only) man in Olympic history to win two successive 1,500m gold medals, running just under two seconds shy of the then world record.
Fast forward a few post-running careers – five years as a Conservative MP, chairman of the London 2012 organising committee, etc – and entering his second successive term as president of World Athletics, the governing body freshly rebranded from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Coe still has some doubters and detractors. Not without some reason.
The 2019 World Championships, the headline event of the year, felt out of time and place in Doha and will be best remembered for the largely empty stadium – not the fact they provided the best performances across the board in championship history. Blowing up in the middle of it all was the Nike Oregon Project, closed after its founder and Coe’s old friend Alberto Salazar received a four-year-ban for doping, and the announcement shortly afterwards that the 2020 Diamond League was being trimmed and reformed was met with a mixture of fear and loathing.
We had 140 positive tests in four years
The new categorisation of athletes with differences in sex development (DSD) had already left a long trail of divided opinion, and at the usually frolic awards weekend in Monaco at the end of November, there was minor revolution in the air: two-time Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor was in town to present Coe with his alternative voice of reason, The Athletics Association, while the Global Throwing group accused Coe of “seriously destroying the historical and cultural heritage of the sport”.
Coe doesn’t once shy away from it. In the press conference room, after the World Athletics Council meeting, he addresses many of these issues with the same tact and will as he’d often shown on the track, with some probable restrain too. There’s lots of dialogue and handshakes too and later an agreement for a further one-on-one conversation with The Irish Times, to reflect on his four years as president, and his four more to come.
“Look, having been in so many different roles and responsibilities, in politics, in business, and obviously in sport for the most part of my life, I’m old enough to know that change is not a universally popular thing to push for,” Coe says, as if gently eyeing up his doubters already. Perhaps.
With some gentle irony, the first big decision of that council meeting in Monaco was to suspend the Russian reinstatement process, in light of fresh evidence of non-compliance, and no one can now doubt or detract from Coe’s unwavering stance, going back to November 2015, that no way would Russia be allowed back into the sport until they got their anti-doping house in proper order.
Given the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) has also now banned the country from all major sporting events, does Coe feel in some way vindicated as the only sport to hold that stand on Russia? Perhaps they’ll believe him now?
“No, genuinely not,” Coe says, with no evidence of restraint. “The council made a decision at the time, a right decision, based not on what was going to benchmark us against other sports, or make us look good. But because we had to.
“We had 140 positive tests in four years. We had the well-known and highlighted problems within our own federation. So I can only admit now that change was turbo-charged because we needed it to be.
“Within six months of me arriving as president, we had two sponsors run for the hills [headline sponsor Adidas, after 11 years, and Nestlé, who partnered the Kids’ Athletics programme], and the other sponsorships hanging by a thread. I had to be very clear, just sitting down with those sponsors, we were going to change. And we were going to deal with it ourselves, not farm it out to other organisations or independent bodies. We had to have the confidence to do it ourselves.”
At 63, Coe has certainly lost none of the confidence or belief in his own voice, which typically shifts more towards understatement than exaggeration. World Athletics are still clearing athletes who can prove themselves clear of any Russian doping regime to compete under the Authorised Neutral Athlete (ANA) flag, which Wada are also recommending as part of the outright Russian ban up to 2024.
“I don’t wish to be either sanguine or cavalier about it, but it’s got to be in the long-term interest of everybody to get this resolved. We set up our process four years ago, with reinstatement criteria, but there comes a point, given the serious charges, you have to suspend that. Nothing about the last couple of weeks has altered the situation. In a way, Wada and the International Olympic Committee are back where they were four years ago, in November of 2015.
“The issue for us is simple. We suspended the process, because once the charges were laid, and they are serious charges, the falsification of whereabouts papers about as serious as it gets, and this is the new federation, not the old federation. I’ve asked the task force, and the doping review panel, to come together to advise us on the next steps. It doesn’t leave us any further ahead, or behind. And I use the word process a lot, because we started off in a process, and that’s actually served us well.”
I remind him that when first elected president in August 2015, defeating Sergey Bubka 115 votes to 92, and replacing Lamine Diack (still on order to stand trial on charges of corruption and money laundering) his exact words were: “There is no job I ever wanted to do more”. How does he feel four years later?
“I haven’t changed my view on that. I still think I’m incredibly privileged to be doing this job. I joined an athletics club at age 11, was lucky enough to compete at an Olympic Games for my country, to deliver an Olympic Games, and to be in my 60s now, with the opportunity to try to shape the future of my sport, is a massive privilege, the best job in the world.
“There were days, obviously, when it didn’t feel like that. The first four years of my presidency were very tough, some weeks in the trenches, but introducing the reforms actually got everybody to march behind one common cause, the goal of which was to make athletics the winner. We’ve made the changes, we’ve made ourselves safer, and I will say we’ve been looked at as a template of good practice throughout our Athletics Integrity Unit, around the way we are now targeting our anti-doping processes, and the way we have restructured ourselves. Around that we now have also some incredibly talented athletes coming through.”
Still some reforms weren’t universally viewed as positive or fair: in February 2017, Coe announced an immediate freeze on all transfers of allegiance, cracking down on the apparent spate of transfers between African nations and Gulf States in particular, before introducing reinforced transfer rules in 2018.
“Look, there were too many cans being kicked down the road. When I first sat down as president, looked at the inbox tray, there was stuff in there which should have been sorted long before. And I didn’t take the job just to sit as a spectator, or sit the dance out.
“The transfer of allegiance issue was important, because it didn’t matter if I was at the World Cross Country or the European Cross Country, or the Olympic Games, I saw the impact that was having, unfettered, on our sport. I know we live in global world, a global society, and my background is in large part Indian as well, so I know there are exceptional circumstances.
“But I sat in Rio, as president, and in one day, we had 23 applications for transfers of allegiance. I was handing out medals to teams where no a single member was from that country. It probably would have been a lot easier to have done nothing about it. And the DSD issue is another example. Again, it wasn’t about individuals or countries, but was something impacting on the level playing field, which has to be the basis of competition.”
Yet Caster Semenya’s appeal against that categorisation made it feel distinctly individual: did Coe ever feel it that way too?
“Not really, because I knew why we had to do this, the council knew why, our health and science teams knew why we had to do it, and I took comfort from the fact that it was not geographically or individually focused. Again, it was one of those cans that had been kicked down the road. And at every gathering of athletes, or coaches, or federations, people were talking to me about it.”
The Diamond League programme for 2020, trimmed by half an hour and four disciplines per gender (the steeplechase, 200m, triple jump, and discus), the 5,000m also dropping to 3,000m, was arguably met with more resistance from those within the sport than any other reform. Again Coe didn’t shy away: he met Taylor in Monaco and welcomed his voice, having already welcomed French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie and New Zealand shot putter Valerie Adams as Athletes’ Commission representatives with full voting power on the 26-person council (which has to be fully gender balanced by 2027).
I think the next four years will be even more focused on the sport, on formats, on competition
“If you took at the Diamond League, what was it we were confronting? It wasn’t a broken model. But it was 10 years old. And across that landscape, there was also a falling television share, less free-to-air, more highlight packages, sometimes not even turning up until two or three weeks after. And even in some of our big, iconic stadiums a growing difficulty in filling them.
“So I’m watching something that I know is not operating optimally. Could we have stumbled along for a bit longer? Probably. But I’ve never viewed my responsibility as buying time. That’s not what I do.
“I’ve heard it described as a revolution. Well, I was a history student, I don’t think it’s a revolution. Revolution is George Washington, and Copernicus, or Marxism on the move. We’ve tweaked at the margins, but you bet there will be more change, and that’s what the next few years are going to have to be about. Nothing is inviolate from change.
“What we’ve actually said, it’s a 90-minute window, the 15 meeting directors have unanimously agreed what goes in that window, not World Athletics. We’re 23 per cent shareholders, and I’ve to protect our shareholders. And after going seven years without a title sponsor, we have now Wanda on board [the Chinese conglomerate, described as the biggest sponsorship in athletics history]. I also have to think five, 10 years down the track, and we have to be sustainable.
“I think the next four years will be even more focused on the sport, on formats, on competition. How do we make the World Championships an even more exciting prospect? In a play, those first four years were tough, but everybody moved in the same direction. And as I keep saying, we’ve got to live to it, make it salient and interesting and exciting to new spectators, and to harness the great potential of our sport to tap into various technologies. More people run, more consistently and more regularly, than any other sport.”
Indeed one of the first big decisions of 2020 will be to rule on the controversial shoe running technology designed by Nike: “My natural instinct is to be very careful about strangling innovation. Innovation in running shoes is a part of the sport. This is about balance, we recognise that. I can think even in my athletics lifetime, when I was pavement-pounding in flats, and by the 1980s the engineering in shoes lessened the injury.
“So I think we have to be careful not to place things too tightly into boxes. It has to be carefully calibrated, and it is the responsibility of the governing body to assess those codifications, and make those judgments.”
Which either way will bring some doubters and detractors. Coe is used to them by now. Perhaps.