Sebastian Coe ready to surge past Sergey Bubka in the race of his life | Owen Gibson

The IAAF presidential election could not come at a more important moment for the sport amid relentless doping allegations and an organisational malaise that has brought it to its lowest point since Ben Johnson crossed the line in Seoul

Sergey Bubka, the Ukrainian pole vaulter who remorselessly edged up his world record a centimetre at a time, and Sebastian Coe, the double Olympic champion who helped define an era, are two of the best known and most ferociously competitive athletes of their age.

Yet for all the very visible problems facing athletics the battle they are now waging has largely taken place out of the public gaze. This is a fight to the finish to lead a sport in a state of freewheeling, snowballing crisis. Whatever else is thrown at him, Coe cannot be accused of taking the easy option.

It could not be a more important moment for the future of a sport that stands at a crossroads in light of relentless doping allegations and an organisational malaise that has brought it to perhaps its lowest point since Ben Johnson crossed the line in Seoul.

In Beijing, where the world championships will be held in a likely half-full Bird’s Nest as part of a relentless and not always successful push into new markets under the controversial 16-year tenure of Lamine Diack, the sport’s biennial showpiece looms under a cloud thicker than the smog that shrouds the city.

On Wednesday, presidential candidates Coe and Bubka will go head to head for the 214 votes on offer. Coe says he has travelled 700,000km in search of the votes to win the IAAF role he targeted as his next challenge well before the London Olympics he helped secure and realise to such acclaim.

As at Fifa, every voter is equally important in electoral terms. As of Friday, Coe had racked up 38 public declarations of support that he hopes will translate into the momentum he requires for victory. His supporters were particularly keen to highlight the backing of Ghana, amid speculation that Bubka may have the African vote sewn up. The Ukrainian will continue to work the committee rooms and hotel lobbies until the last possible moment. Diack, meanwhile, is keeping his counsel.

After the huge success of London 2012 Coe could have walked on water. But that goodwill was never going to last forever. At home, his combative stance over the latest wave of doping allegations has raised eyebrows. Abroad, he is battling an opponent who knows his way around the sycophantic, cynical and scandal-ridden world of international sports politics as well as he does and is ruthlessly focused on victory.

Bubka may have been wounded by an ill-judged run at the International Olympic Committee presidency, when he finished fifth of five in the final round of voting, but he has been positioning himself for a tilt at the top job in athletics for at least as long as Coe.

All the indications are that Coe is leading as he rounds the final bend but that the race remains close. That is the context in which Coe’s insistence that the latest wave of doping allegations – that according to leaked IAAF data a third of medals, including 55 golds, in endurance events at Olympics and world championships between 2001 and 2012 were won by athletes with suspicious blood values – amounted to a “war” on his sport.

There were perhaps subtle points to be made about the IAAF’s commitment to blood testing and retrospective action, about the sport’s commitment to biological passports and the fact there are some good people within it fighting as best they can with limited resources.

But with his clumsy reference to “so-called experts” to describe the eminent scientists employed by the Sunday Times to analyse the leaked data and a tub-thumping condemnation of the leak, he risked sounding like those who led cycling up a blind alley and rendering his other points redundant.

“There is nothing in the history of our sport in the last 15 or 20 years other than us being on the cutting edge of either trying to develop the science of weeding out the cheats or taking the actions appropriate to finding them,” he has since added.

For an organisation simultaneously awaiting the verdict of an ethics commission headed by Michael Beloff QC into strong allegations of institutionalised doping in Russia, not to mention carrying all that baggage from Johnson to Balco, it was a bold claim. Coe himself has admitted as much by repeatedly highlighting his promise to introduce an independent, better resourced anti-doping unit. He would also acknowledge there are wider questions across sport about the way in which the war on doping is funded and organised. But his audience was not the western media or the public. It was a reassuring rallying cry aimed squarely at the 214 member federations of the IAAF (five more even than Fifa) who hold his fate in their hands. For Coe, an IAAF vice-president for eight years (one of a dizzying portfolio of roles that also takes in the chairmanship of the BOA and a advisory role at Nike), the high-wire act is a difficult one. He must continually reassure portions of the electorate he is one of them while also promising the reform he must know is required.

The arms race with those who seek to prosper illegally by ever more sophisticated means might be the biggest challenge facing athletics but it is by no means the only one.

Leafing through the often dry manifestos produced by the two rival candidates, both identify a need to promote the sport better and streamline the season, to improve commercial income and appeal to younger audiences. Identifying the issues is easier than addressing them, although Coe puts forward the more credible answers. His promise to deliver an extra $100,000 to each federation over each four-year Olympic cycle may also prove persuasive.

Among his round of combative interviews, designed to underscore his solidarity with those who hold his fate in their hands, Coe was keen to reiterate one point.

“This is not a crisis. This is not a crisis. This is a very strong sport,” he told CNN. Repeat it often enough and we might even start to believe it.

If the twice banned American sprinter Justin Gatlin, who has become the bogeyman who represents the cabal of convicted dopers in the sport’s blue-riband event, triumphs over Usain Bolt in the 100m and 200m, things will look bleaker still. In playing to the electorate before the vote, Coe may risk storing up trouble after it. If he has traded some of his capital at home in the hope of winning votes abroad, it is a calculated gamble he is prepared to take. Winning the battle over Bubka may be one thing, prevailing in the war to restore the public’s belief in what should be the purest iteration of sporting competition is quite another.


Owen Gibson

The GuardianTramp

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