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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Sebastian Coe interview: On a second term as IAAF president and developing interest in the Asian and Middle East markets

The Briton spoke to The National at the Sport Business Summit in Abu Dhabi

President of the IAAF Sebastian Coe talks in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National
President of the IAAF Sebastian Coe talks in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National

Sebastian Coe is proud of what he has achieved in his four years as president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), even if he does joke that “it just feels longer”.

When he was elected in Beijing in 2015, Coe was adamant that he would “continue to put the interests of athletics first” and he has, for the most part, succeeded.

There have been choppy waters to negotiate – and Coe’s hand has been admirably steady on the tiller as the Russian doping allegations continue to rock the sport – but the former Olympic gold medallist has not yet grown weary of the responsibility.

On Thursday, at the Sport Business Summit in Abu Dhabi, Coe announced that he was likely to run again for president. “I have a passion to see this through,” he said.

“There is a lot of change that we need to embrace in the sport. I think we’ve made a pretty reasonable start, some of it in fairly challenging circumstances. It’s a matter for the sport but I’d like to be given the opportunity.”

Speaking to Coe after his presentation, one thing is clear: his mind is still buzzing with ideas about how to improve athletics and broaden its appeal. “No sport is more accessible or has the kind of numbers we have,” he says.

“We have hundreds of millions of people in the course of a week who register as leisure runners. That’s a massive asset for any sport to have.”

And he is particularly keen to tap into the Asian and Middle Eastern markets. “Sixty per cent of the global population lives in Asia,” he says. “There is a commercial market that is very important and we haven’t always realised the potential in that market.”

Coe also points to the “world class” athletes emerging across the Middle East. “There are athletes that have come through and are performing at the highest level in [the] Diamond League and World Championships [and] that has begun to shift the dial,” he says. “I’m a great believer that it’s about events – they are a great motivator for young people.”

One of the ways in which Coe believes athletics can do better is in making the competitors – as well as the complexities of certain events – more accessible to viewers watching at home.

“There is a need for athletes to accept that new technologies are going to be a little more invasive,” he says, suggesting, for example, that cameras could be closer to the start line for sprints. “It is what connects them with spectators and brands.”

Coe put it even more bluntly earlier in the day: “Usain Bolt is not enough any longer to sell our sport.”

Does Coe think he could have done more in this area at the London Olympics in 2012? “You can only use the technology that’s available and that explodes exponentially each year,” he says. “There are things that we are going to be adopting in future that will make our sport more understandable to people.”

At the forefront of this evolution will be the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Coe, a member of the Olympic Games Coordination Commission, refuses to be drawn on what innovations are being developed but says, “technology is going to be important for them”. There is a note of warning, however. “This is a complicated sport, we shouldn’t pretend otherwise,” he says. “That’s one of the unique assets we have.”

Coe knows better than anyone, though, that no amount of technological innovation will save the sport if it continues to be undermined by doping allegations. The pubic must believe that what they are seeing is fair. Key to achieving this is the ongoing World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) investigation into the state-sponsored doping operation in Russia.

On December 31, Russia failed to provide data to Wada from its Moscow laboratory, eventually doing so two weeks after the deadline had passed and could be banned from Tokyo 2020 if evidence arises that the data was tampered with. Russia is currently banned by the IAAF from competing in international competitions.

“I can’t speak on behalf of Wada but I can tell you where we are,” says Coe. “We have the criteria, it’s very clear and it was agreed with the Russian federation.

"The answer to the question you are almost certainly going to ask – when will the time be right [to lift the ban] – is that the time will be right when the criteria is met but not before.

“We’re talking about some deep seated, cultural pathologies here and it’s not just about safe and secure systems, it’s about creating a generation of coaches that believe it’s possible to take an athlete from the playground to the podium with integrity. That doesn’t happen overnight. When Wada was formed back in the Nineties, it was a very different landscape. But we now have technologies available to us that we didn’t have them.

“I know this is slightly counter narrative but I do genuinely believe that international sport is a darn sight safer and more secure than it was even 10 years ago.”

Coe is happy to discuss doping in athletics but it clearly pains him to see the sport he loves, and which he has been involved in since the age of 12, brought so low by this ongoing scandal. Is he hopeful that athletics can eventually move on from this? “There is a growing acceptance among athletes and among our stake holders that sport has to be based on open competition, trust and transparency,” he says.

Coe must ensure that this is the case in athletics. It is not about his own legacy. Much more is at stake. “There is a growing acceptance that in a world of fragility, in a world of disruption, actually often sport is one of the stabilising influences,” he says. “We’re building pathways where other people are building walls.”

Updated: February 6, 2019 09:53 AM

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