By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Sebastian Coe will be re-elected unopposed as IAAF President on Wednesday and has talked to Reuters in an extensive interview about the challenges and achievements of his tenure and what is in his “in-tray” for the next four years.
Achievements since taking office in 2015
Coe was elected on a manifesto promising radical change to the sport he graced as a double Olympic champion but spent much of his time initially trying to repair the reputational damage of the regime that preceded him and dealing with the Russian doping crisis.
Coe: “The first four years were about ‘securing the house’ -ensuring we had the foundations in place – we could not have moved on to anything until we tighten our governance structures and become more transparent.
“In some ways it was a bit overwhelming but that comes with the territory. I threw my hat in the ring and I believe that I was the right person to help shape the future of the sport.
“We had the integrity unit up and running within two years and it was one of the centrepieces of the reforms. But I’m not naive enough to think that just having those structures in place is enough. You need people to buy in culturally to those challenges and it’s always ongoing.
“In four years’ time I would like to be talking about the progress we hope to make about sponsorships, formats, a consolidated calendar and getting more money into the pockets of athletes.”
The Russian Athletics Federation has been banned by the IAAF since 2015 after revelations of massive, widespread doping.
The question of its possible readmittance will be discussed again by the IAAF Council on Monday but, with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) still ploughing through the monumental pile of athlete sample data finally provided by the Russians and routinely producing historic positive tests, a return still seems some way in the distance.
More than 70 Russian athletes were cleared to qualify for the world championships in Doha, but those there will compete as neutrals unless the IAAF Council goes against the odds and votes to reinstate the federation next week.
Coe: “Let’s start with the glass half-full – they are moving in the right direction. Yes, you have the issue with banned coaches still operating and it’s quite hard sometimes to control that in a landmass that big, but we do have to be tough about it as part of the criteria (for a return).
“The biggest piece of the jigsaw still to go through the system though is the analysis of the data. The volume is enormous – I’m told that it is a mountainous exercise. A lot of the information isn’t clear-cut but that Russia provided it is a big tick and we have recouped the legal fees. But the question of reinstatement will be on the advice from the task force.
“I want the criteria to be met and I want them back in as a reinstated federation, but only on the basis that there is no imperilling of clean athletes.”
Caster Semenya and athletes with Differences in Sexual Development (DSD)
Semenya and other DSD athletes with XY chromosomes have been banned from running races from 400m to a mile unless they take testosterone suppressant medication and so she will not be defending her 800 metres title in Doha.
The issue has had enormous publicity and sparked a wider debate about sport and gender in which the IAAF’s stance has frequently come under attack.
Coe: “I know the argument is far from binary but my responsibility is to do everything I can to make sure that there is a level playing field and that includes trying to find a navigable route to keep athletes with that condition in our sport and not splintering into different classifications or actually not being given the opportunity to compete at all.
“Some people are choosing to not properly understand what the science and the challenge behind the issue is. If some of the arguments I’m hearing were carried through, our sport would be ripped asunder so I’m not going to bow a knee to any of these groups. That’s not to say I’ve got a tin ear to societal change – I have my own daughters and I’m probably more socially aware than most of those groups that are occasionally giving us lectures.
“We have also had considerable support but showing this support publicly comes at a cost. Those who stick their heads above the parapet are vilified and trolled online so I understand that many are wary of showing it in public forums, but we hear directly from them regularly. It is a minefield to even talk about this.”
Christian Coleman case
The American sprinter, the fastest man in the world this year, missed three doping tests within 12 months.
He escaped what should have been an automatic ban via a “whereabouts rule” technicality that ruled one of the missed tests had to be backdated to outside the window and he will now race in Doha. Coe accepted that it was “not a good look” for the sport.
Coe: “We have to be very protective of the reputation of the athletes and I’m pleased that it’s shown that the rules needed revising. But I’m not going to turn my guns on WADA or the United States Anti-Doping Agency (which was forced to drop its case). I think both those organisations are doing a really good job.”
The Diamond League
Coe has long recognised that for many fans the Diamond League is a confusing, disjointed series of events with “no clear narrative” that is hard to follow on TV.
The IAAF recently announced a series of changes for next season, including the introduction of one “grand final” — instead of the current two in different cities a week apart — and is expected soon to announce a new title sponsor.
Coe: “We’ve been hearing the same thing from potential sponsors and fans and that’s that they don’t really understand the format – some weeks we have two or three meets then go a week without one. It’s not straightforward to change that as each meet is its own event. So we’re not going to have every Diamond League on a Friday night for example, but ideally we’ll get them from Thursday through to Sunday.
“We also need to address the whole look of it. I absolutely understand when people are bemused when they see 12 of the 19 athletes running the 1500m at Zurich wearing identical vests. That kit issue is still firmly in my in-tray and we have started discussion with the kit manufacturers.
“We need to try to find the solution but that has to recognise the commercial imperative of the apparel and shoe manufacturers who are key pillars of supporting the sport’s ecosystem.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)