By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Sebastian Coe’s stubborn insistence on the retention of a permanent running track at the London Olympic stadium gets its ultimate validation over the next two weeks when the venue hosts the World Athletics Championships.
In the long-running battle over what would become of the stadium after the 2012 Games – it’s now the home of Premier League soccer club West Ham United – the removal of the track was a non-negotiable for Coe when he was head of the local organizing committee and now as president of the IAAF he is delighted he held his ground.
“I do reflect on it all every now and then,” he told Reuters on Wednesday. “We won the right to stage the Games by four votes. If it had gone the other way we wouldn’t have just lost the Games, we wouldn’t have had the Olympic Park or the stadium and wouldn’t have been in a position to bid to stage a World Championships.
“So for me this has been a 12-year journey. We had the ignominy of having to hand the event back because we didn’t have a stadium (when Britain had to give up the 2005 worlds after funding was cut for a proposed Pickets Lock stadium in 2001) and now we are two days away from hosting the third biggest sporting event in the world having sold more tickets than any previous world championship.”
While there is no doubting the popularity of the sport in Britain – with Usain Bolt saying on Tuesday he had been blown away by the unprecedented full houses for morning sessions during the 2012 Olympics – Coe also recognizes that it faces a global challenge to remain “relevant” to the next generation in the face of so much competition.
He was speaking on Wednesday at a party event in central London organized by the IAAF’s new major sponsor Asics as the Japanese sportswear manufacturer showcased its campaign to encourage more activity among the world’s youth.
“I’ve just spent the day talking with what we call Athletics Connect, with people from 214 federations, talking about the big issues for our sport,” Coe said.
“Yes, some of it was around integrity but, the vast majority was about how do we remain relevant. We realize we have to utilize the skill sets and expertise of great businesses and partners like ASICS to help us reach out to young people; they can help us really understand their world.”
Coe said a balance was needed between the cry for innovation and the maintenance of a tradition based on “centuries of history”.
He said he was hugely excited by technical innovations such as materials and clothing that can detect physical change such as when an athlete is dehydrated, while his colleagues are working alongside the newly-formed Youth Council to investigate how best to develop the use of supplementary screens to enhance the TV experience.
He also recognizes that the governing body will have to work extra hard on the pressing issue of how to overcome the impending departure of Bolt, but says he is confident they can do so.
“We are going to see some fantastic performances over the next week or so,” he said of the Aug. 4-13 championships. “I’m a fully paid-up member of the (U.S. 200m/400m specialist) Allyson Felix fan club – nine world championship gold medals – and Wayde van Niekerk, he’s the quiet man of our sport at the moment and we need to make people understand what an extraordinary talent this guy is.
“Anyone who re-writes a Michael Johnson record, that’s a pretty good starting point,” he added of the South African who broke Johnson’s world records over 400m and the rarely-run 300m and is attempting the 400m/200m double in London.
“Usain is staying with our sport, he’s committed to helping us maintain his extraordinary reach, but the pressure is on us to get across that we have some of the God-given talents of any sport. We have to showcase them and show that athletics is not just about Usain.”
(Editing by: Toby Davis)