Sebastian Coe: ‘Athletics needs to be innovative, braver and more creative’

The IAAF president admits athletics faces huge challenges from doping to Usain Bolt’s retirement and believes the sport must evolve if it is to avoid decline

As part of Tom Jenkins’ series of films the Guardian spoke to Sebastian Coe, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations. Ever since he assumed the position in August 2015 the sport has been mired in crisis – from allegations of deep-rooted corruption during the tenure of his predecessor, Lamine Diack, to state-sponsored doping and a battle to engage a new generation of participants and viewers. Even as the popularity of running has boomed, the status of athletics has declined in inverse proportion and a sport that once commanded peak-time viewing is among those battling for its life in the face of myriad challenges.

Guardian Sport: How do you begin regaining trust in your sport?

SC: “You have to start somewhere. My instincts were that we had to start by rebuilding the foundations. The first year was not a page turner but we moved the dial a long way very quickly. In the course of a year we rewrote the constitution of the sport, we created the integrity unit and that is up and running. It doesn’t answer the next question, which is ‘OK, that’s fine but how does that really manifest itself in terms of a return to trust?’. I tend to think of a triangle – you need trust, you need good leadership and you need relevance. The one crucial asset my sport has is that more people globally do what we do than any other sport. The first advantage we have is more people run than cycle or swim or do triathlon. We have to make sure the people doing that in their millions feel an affinity with what is going on in the sport and feel this is a movement they want to be part of and not a movement that is tainted.”

Your sport has been brought to its knees by a succession of crises. Is it not fatally undermined?

SC: “I don’t want to remotely diminish the importance or the challenge of those various crises. But I do draw comfort from sitting in the crowd at meetings. I do compete in Parkruns, I do compete in 10ks – albeit at the back of the field – and I’ve not found there has been any loss of excitement or ambition about being involved in the sport. People have been able to separate their own enjoyment of being involved in the running movement without it being undermined by the fragilities elsewhere. We don’t like those fragilities, they have hit us hard and they have damaged us. But they are not stopping people wanting to be part of our sport. There was no sign last year of a diminution of the gates at our stadiums.”

‘There is a great deal we can do to restore support and trust in the sport.’
‘There is a great deal we can do to restore support and trust in the sport.’ Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

But won’t it reach a tipping point?

SC: “We’ve got to do everything we can as quickly as we can to make sure we don’t reach that tipping point. Rio as a sporting event, particularly for athletics, was the best event we’ve had. We had more records than ever before, more countries competing than ever before and more countries winning medals than ever before. Poor leadership doesn’t impact on performance, because the athletes repeatedly punch through the fragilities we’ve had.”

But clearly there must be a link between the evaporation of trust and whether parents want their children to take up the sport or watch it?

SC: “When I set off on the path of reform I had two groups absolutely at the top of my list in order to protect and preserve and create confidence. The first was the clean athletes – if we’re in a system where no one cares if athletes are clean or not, then we’re in the knacker’s yard. The other group are parents. They have a huge impact on the sport their kids take up. We can’t have parents and grandparents thinking: ‘Hmm, maybe athletics isn’t the sport for us because there is going to be a risk that at the age of 16 or 17 you’re going to have an unscrupulous coach or a chancer agent saying there is a shortcut to doing what most of us have done cleanly for most of our athletics career.’ They were the two groups those reforms were absolutely aimed at.”

In today’s fragmented world with so many choices open to young people, can athletics ever be among the top three or four sports in the country again?

SC: “I don’t know. If I’m being honest maybe not. But there is a great deal we can do to restore support and trust in the sport. We have to be more innovative, we have to be braver and more creative in formats. The first thing I said when I became president was that we have to think differently. The Australians did. They came forward with Nitro. It’s not going to be the universal panacea. You might not see elimination miles in London this summer or the Olympics in 2020, but there are some clues there. There was better athlete engagement, the event was over in just over two hours, the stadium didn’t look like a car boot sale. You were focusing on one event per moment and young people seemed excited. In a country hemorrhaging athletics support, we had full stadiums. Are we going to get back to the point where the Nine O’Clock News breaks into a world record attempt of mine in 1981? Possibly not. But there is a lot more we can do to be more relevant and more exciting. We’ve got to be brave about it.”

Why hasn’t the sport evolved?

SC: “The sport has been too beltway. We’ve spoken to each other. I won the English Schools title 44 years ago and the format hasn’t changed. I’m pretty much watching the same format over the same period of time. I can’t think of any sport that’s remained inviolate to change for that amount of time. Twenty20 has done it well, look at Rugby Sevens. Look at Formula-E. Even watching Chelsea the other day, I noticed the player of the match was selected by the fans. To say Usain Bolt, probably the most recognisable athlete on the planet, doesn’t get into the top 30 on Snapchat or Instagram is pretty insightful.”

Usain Bolt salutes the crowd after running his final race in his home country, Jamaica, last week. Bolt partied with his devoted fans in an emotional farewell.
Usain Bolt salutes the crowd after running his final race in his home country, Jamaica, last week. Bolt partied with his devoted fans in an emotional farewell. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

How can you cope without Usain Bolt?

SC: “We need to work harder to make sure that the Wayde van Niekerks, the David Rudishas and the Valerie Adamses are being given the horsepower to help fill the void. But there is going to be a void, no doubt about it. No one immediately found a replacement for Muhammad Ali but plenty of great boxers came along in his wake. There isn’t going to be another Usain Bolt for some time but there are things we can do to lessen the impact of that loss.”

These are practical things. What about the more philosophical impact of the cynicism that now surrounds your sport and others? Has it gone too far?

SC: “No, it hasn’t. Sport has gone through what global financial organisations have been through, the Church, the royal family. That’s what sport has been through and we have to adjust to it. What sport hasn’t properly understood is that the basis of power has changed. My federation was founded in 1912 and I only had five predecessors. It will come as huge relief to my family that I don’t intend to be there for 31 years. I think what sport hasn’t properly understood is that the average CEO probably only stays for five years. You need oxygen and you need change. You need a churn of people coming in and you need outsiders coming in. Sport doesn’t have the monopoly of wisdom and it does need to reach out. We’re not too far down the road to make sure we put the right things in place to hold on to the upper ground.”

The London Stadium will be sold out this summer for the world athletics championships. But a lot of the great things about London 2012 have been undercut by cynicism. Do people feel differently about cycling and athletics than they did then?

SC: “They probably do. But I don’t think that’s a permanent shift. The point I’d make more broadly is that, yes, people want higher standards in sport. People want higher standards in business, in schools, in politics, probably in their own families most of the time. That’s a natural human instinct. But I also think people are capable of saying that by a distance sport has more to offer than the challenges confronting it. We do something in society that no other area does.”

Does it matter if someone feels differently about Mo Farah or Bradley Wiggins, given the allegations against them?

SC: “I would rather people felt complete comfort that what they are watching is legitimate. The only thing I’d say is that they have, with some justification, should have a greater confidence in what they’re watching than 20 or 30 years ago. Systems are better. We are discussing it and we wouldn’t have been 20 or 30 years ago. We can go back 10 years and take medals off people. If you don’t go fishing, you can’t catch fish. I’d rather have the embarrassment of some high profile positives and uncovering some uncomfortable things than sitting there in gentle decline. I’d rather encounter it front on.”

The London Stadium in the Olympic Park, which will host the World Athletics Championships in August.
The London Stadium in the Olympic Park, which will host the World Athletics Championships in August. Photograph: Alamy

When we’re back in the Olympic Stadium this summer, will you reflect on the difficulties of the Olympic legacy?

SC: “We are making a difference. I went to the Olympic Park the other day to watch one of my daughters play in a schools hockey tournament. The place was heaving. The stadium was being used, the swimming pool was full, there were queues of people trying to get into the velodrome, you couldn’t get a court at the tennis centre and there were schools playing on the hockey pitches. Affordable housing, families, life in an area that didn’t have that. Inspire a generation wasn’t just getting more people to participate, it was about improving elite level sport. We go from London to Rio as the only city that has gone on to secure a bigger medal haul four years later. That has clearly inspired a generation.”


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