Sebastian Coe | ‘There’s only one thing worse than poor leadership – no leadership at all’

Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics

• IAAF chief says he has acted against self-interest in reducing his powers
• Integrity Unit will try to speed up doping decisions to minimise negative publicity
• IAAF will help Athletics Australia to make Nitro Athletics a global event

Where do you start with Sebastian Coe? Do you, like most sections of the press, and even the members of a UK parliamentary select committee, try to determine exactly how much he knew about the large-scale corruption allegedly overseen by his predecessor at the IAAF? Or, do you ask him about state-sponsored doping and the continued ban on Russia competing in any of the organisation’s events? Or, if you wanted to present him with a more mundane question, would you ask him about dwindling levels of interest in athletics and the sport’s struggle to connect with new audiences?

When looked at through any lens, the double-Olympic champion and one-time London organising committee chief bit off a lot more than any sports administrator might reasonably be expected to chew when he was elected president of the governing body for athletics in 2015. Given how much of a challenge it has been for him to draw attention to the reforms he has implemented in the organisation while the background radiation of Lamine Diack’s stewardship of the IAAF continues to contaminate, perhaps the most logical question is whether he thinks he has succeeded in putting the worst of the scandals behind the organisation.

“I would be a very brave person to say we are never going to be confronted again with challenges, and we’ve still got stuff and we’re still the subject of a police investigation across a number of jurisdictions, so all I will say is we are more resilient than we were not that long ago,” he tells the audience at the Leaders Sport Industry Summit in New York.

Lest it be forgotten, the athletics chief has taken some bold decisions for the sport during those times when it looked like he might not even survive as its leader. These include the brave ban on Russian track and field athletes at the Rio Olympics, the creation of an anti-doping unit at the IAAF and a reduction in the powers of the president. On the latter decision, he thinks he has ignored self-interest and made it less likely that an autocratic leader will ever be able to take unilateral decisions on behalf of the sport in the future.

“There were things that made me smile in this process. I had people really genuinely coming up to me and saying, ‘why on earth would you want to reduce your powers in the reforms?’ And I’m saying, ‘I’m just balancing where it should be. I shouldn’t be there unilaterally signing contracts without an executive board’,” he says.

When asked if trust in athletics has been broken by multiple doping scandals, Coe thinks the sport is much tougher on the issue than it was in the days when he competed.

“I have to be open about it. It’s been a disfiguring period in the sport and this is where it becomes slightly counter-narrative in a way. The systems are securer than they have ever been,” he says. “I would genuinely say, with some conviction, that people watching athletics should have more confidence in what they are watching than they probably would have been had they known the scale of the problems up to 30 years ago.

“The most important [partners] here are the clean athletes. They have to know that in a president like me, they have a president in their corner who is non-negotiable on this and we need to make sure that if they are prepared to devote half their young lives before they have even got to international status, they have got to know that our responsibility is to create safe and secure environments for them.”

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The central part in the IAAF’s strategy to take on the problem of doping in athletics is a new integrity unit that aims to speed up the resolution of doping cases and the imposition of sanctions. It is designed to simplify the legal processes concerning anti-doping rule violations and to help the IAAF to monitor and guide the efforts of non-compliant national federations. Although the unit will be funded by the IAAF, it will have its own board and staff and be housed and operate separately from the overall organisation. Coe disagrees that the funding model compromises the unit and might leave it open to a conflict of interest.

“There’s some intellectually flabby stuff going around about independent testing. Actually, most testing is independent,” he says. “The independence issue sits around results management, so with the integrity unit, the key plank of that will be to remove national interest from that journey so the sanction will be independently given within the integrity unit.”

He thinks the importance of speedy decisions cannot be overstated in protecting the reputation of the IAAF.

“Often, we’ve ended up with something that has been a sanctionable offence and then national interest and wise men and women turn up [with] the dog-ate-my-homework excuses and then a four-year ban isn’t – surprise, surprise – a two-year ban; it’s barely a three-month ban,” he says. “And then we have to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and normally win and all the time everyone is sitting there and we’re haemorrhaging reputation and trust again. So we can speed that process up.”

It is widely acknowledged that in deciding to ban Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics, Coe’s organisation was a lot more swift and decisive than the IOC in dealing with the politically-charged fallout from evidence of state-sanctioned doping in the country, so some might detect a subtext when the talk turns to leadership.

“There’s only one thing worse than poor leadership and that’s no leadership at all. Rio was a really good example of that. You know the failure of leadership in Rio didn’t affect performance – it actually affected behaviour,” he says.

“If you have got an environment where people went to Rio thinking they were going to get Zika, that the stadiums were going to fall in on their heads and they were going to get shot in the street, then you create an environment where Ryan Lochte can say what he did with some belief. If you have a leadership that does not act on drug abuse and is in any way ambiguous about that, then you have athletes condemning other athletes when they’re on the podium. When you have the Court of Arbitration that suspended the decision around hyperandrogenism two years ago, then you have athletes that are going to openly question other athletes. That’s lack of leadership.”

A large part of the impetus for driving through the IAAF reforms is of course the need for athletics to remain an attractive proposition to sponsors and media partners. Coe points to the creation of a new commercial team under former Publicis Media Group and IMG digital head Olivier Gers, the IAAF’s new chief executive, as evidence that the organisation is not letting the scandals distract it from its commercial objectives. He also thinks the signing of Asics as a multiple-year Official IAAF Partner proves that the sport still resonates with sponsors.

“We are absolutely delighted that Asics are at the table. They have been at the forefront of the running movement and the great thing about running is that it’s the most popularly done participation sport in the world by a distance,” he tells SportBusiness Professional in a private interview away from the main conference. “That’s the great intrinsic value we have – and I guess this is the attraction for a business like Asics.”

The Asics deal was the work of the Japanese agency Dentsu, which retains the rights to the IAAF’s major events, including the flagship World Championships until 2029, and adds to the organisation’s exclusively Japanese roster of partners. So is Coe worried that all of the IAAF’s major sponsors come from the same country?

“I guess that’s the nature of having a partnership with Dentsu that is a Japanese-based business,” he says. “We have to broaden that bandwidth and we are now creating an internal competence as a commercial team and we do, we need to broaden to partners.”

He argues that the sport needs to do more to leverage the fact that millions of people participate in athletics in some shape or form and hopes that the organisation will be better able to collate mass-participation data in the future in the same way that events like Parkrun or local marathons do. He adds that the new commercial division run by Gers will come into its own when the sport begins to create new formats which it can sell against.

Discussion of new formats inevitably leads to the subject of the revolutionary Nitro Series which concluded in the middle of February. Even though the event is the work of Athletics Australia, Coe is at pains to point out a degree of IAAF involvement.

“In Rio they [Athletics Australia] came to see me and said ‘this is what we’d like to do, would you be happy to partner and support?’ And I said absolutely because I really want to encourage bravery and creativity,” he says.

“I have challenged ourselves at the IAAF, member federations, race promoters, everybody that is delivering events to just consider this to be a period where we can innovate and we should and we need to remain relevant.”

The athletics chief says the IAAF will now help to make the Nitro event global although he sees it as a testbed for athletics rather than a panacea for all of the sport’s ills.

“I guess it’s a little bit like the fashion industry, you don’t expect everything you see on the catwalk at London fashion week or Paris fashion week ending up on coat hangers in retail stores, but you do want to look at some derivatives,” he adds.

He says that the IAAF has already experimented with the different ways of introducing athletes at the World Relay Championships and World Indoor Championships in Portland last year. Likening the way the World Championships have traditionally been presented to a ‘car boot sale’, he says fans will also see shorter, tighter session at the event in London later this year.

“World Championships are complicated because you need to get people – the gold, silver and bronze positions over a course of eliminating moments –  but make sure in the evening they are predominantly finals and semi-finals and we’re not slowing up the rhythm of the evening. [If] the roof is raised because somebody breaks a world record in the 400 and then you go straight to round one or round two, the soufflé sort of slightly collapses.”

Similarly, Coe thinks there is little rhyme or reason to the Diamond League, which often fails to feature the best athletes on a regular enough basis and jumps from one country to the next without a sense of an overriding narrative.

On the question of hosting, Coe says he has commissioned a piece of research into how the IAAF might improve the process for bidding for its events in the future. A proposal to scrap the formal bidding process for IAAF events has also been approved by the association’s ruling council. The plan is for events to be awarded by targeted recruitment partnerships between the governing body and cities to match them to the strategic goals of the IAAF in growing the sport around the world.

“We need to make sure that every time our sport is seen at a World Championship, particularly indoors and outdoors, that we are in places that move us along and move us along in a way that is profound,” Coe says. “And sometimes, I have to be open about it, we’ve been at World Championships where we’ve actually returned and left little or no international image and might as well not have been there.”

Coe stresses that the city of London most certainly does not fall into this category. As the sport of athletics prepares for another of its flagship moments in the UK’s capital later this year, its president could hardly be accused of letting the grass grow under his feet while the crises continue to swirl around him. This fevered activity and Coe’s frank acknowledgement of the sport’s problems brings to mind former IOC marketing director Michael Payne’s argument against bloodletting in major sports organisations. Referring to calls from the press for IOC chief Juan Antonio Samaranch to resign during the Salt Lake City scandal, Payne argued that the corporate model of having a CEO step down as a quick public relations fix just wasn’t appropriate for sports organisations with hundreds of members scattered around the world. He said that the last thing the IOC needed during a crisis was more instability, a big internal political campaign and power struggle when it urgently needed to drive through reforms.

Whether Coe will be afforded a similar stay of execution at the IAAF will depend on what else might lurk in the numerous police investigations he references.

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