Here is a challenge for anyone with 53 seconds to spare – Google “6.05m slow motion pole vault”. Then try to stop your jaw hitting the floor as the Swedish teenage athlete Mondo Duplantis soars skyward, jackknifes his body, dances his hands up the pole, and flips – just! – over a height greater than a double decker bus. The new super slow-motion footage of his feat at the 2018 European championships in Berlin has been seen 4.5 million times on Twitter in the three weeks alone. The twist in the tail for athletics is that many viewers haven’t the foggiest who Duplantis is.
Therein lies the essential threat to track and field with the world championships about to start on Friday in Doha. No one doubts the stars are out there. The heptathlete Nafissatou Thiam is the most exceptional female athlete in any sport. Noah Lyles is the most charismatic sprinter since Usain Bolt. Dina Asher-Smith is a British talent for the ages. But young people increasingly prefer to gaze at other constellations.
One senior figure has warned me that athletics risks entering “a death spiral” where it becomes irrelevant except during Olympics, much like rowing and track cycling. I do not think that is quite right, given that the 2017 world championships in London and 2018 European championships in Berlin played to massive crowds. However the International Association of Athletics Federations president, Sebastian Coe, who will be re-elected unchallenged this week, knows the next four years could make or break his sport.
He will argue, with some justification, that athletics is in a better place now than when he took over in 2015, when revelations of state-sponsored Russian doping and IAAF corruption left it at rock bottom. Coe has not faced any accusations of wrongdoing, and those responsible have been banned. But during those first few months in charge, when he claimed journalists had “declared war on my sport”, refused to give up on a lucrative Nike contract, despite an obvious conflict of interest, and praised Lamine Diack as his “spiritual leader” just two months before his former boss was indicted on corruption charges, he did not always appear on the side of the angels.
But in 2016 Coe made one of the gutsiest decisions by a sports administrator in living memory by banning Russia’s athletes from the Rio Olympics. He knew it would cost him influence and friendships in the International Olympic Committee, and that he would be left isolated, but he did it regardless because it was the right thing to do. He has since refused to allow Russia back in, despite considerable pressure, a decision that seems vindicated given reports that data from a Moscow drugs-testing lab was manipulated before being delivered to the World Anti-Doping Agency earlier this year.
That Coe acted so boldly came as a surprise because he appeared slow to appreciate the extent of Russian doping. Indeed in an infamous Channel 4 interview in November 2015, Jon Snow asked whether he was “asleep on the job or corrupt” as the Pound report had confirmed stories of Russian doping which had been around when Coe was IAAF vice-president. As one well-placed source puts it: “It is ironic that since then he has ended up as the hardest-arsed federation head out there”.
The Athletics Integrity Unit, set up by Coe to investigate and prosecute doping cases, has also bared its teeth more than expected, especially in Kenya. It is not perfect – the suspicion is too many cheats still prosper – but it is a notable statement of intent because exposing dopers is rarely good for business for a sport.
Coe has also introduced several notable governance reforms, including introducing term limits and ensuring that by 2023 half of IAAF council members will be women. In the gangrenous world of international sport this is positively revolutionary.
Sure, the IAAF still has problems. Cash remains an issue, both for it and most athletes. However Coe’s supporters point to the fact it could have been worse as several sponsors were close to quitting after some IAAF officials were banned for extorting money from the Russian runner Liliya Shobukhova to cover up anomalies in her blood passport.
Hiring Jon Ridgeon as chief executive should attract more blue-chip brands too. In a sport where, to quote the Clint Eastwood famous character Dirty Harry, “opinions are like arseholes – everyone has one”, it is rare to find someone so widely liked and rated.
But the question remains: can Coe, who will be 63 next Sunday and has been part of track and field’s establishment for decades, discover the magical elixir to attract more youngsters to his sport? Last year parkrun crossed the five million barrier, while the London marathon ballot is always massively oversubscribed. The great paradox is that many of these runners do not consider themselves athletes or watch the sport.
Casuals need to become converts. And not everyone is convinced that Coe’s major announcement so far, to reduce every Diamond League event from two hours to 90 minutes, is the answer. That said, tentative plans to hold a Diamond League event on each Friday night in the summer – so fans know when to tune in – are widely supported.
Whatever happens, the IAAF and TV must find ways to freshen up a broadcast format barely changed since the 1970s. With the help of one slow-motion camera, Duplantis’s spectacular clearance went viral. What else could be done with a little more imagination – or high-tech innovation?