Coe commentary: Lord of the rings outlines his vision for athletics’ global future

Lord Sebastian Coe – or Seb Coe, as his campaign branding has it – unveiled the detail of his candidacy for the presidency of the IAAF in London on Wednesday, unveiling his ten-year masterplan for how to rejuvenate athletics.

Coe commentary: Lord of the rings outlines his vision for athletics’ global future

Lord Sebastian Coe – or Seb Coe, as his campaign branding has it – unveiled the detail of his candidacy for the presidency of the IAAF in London on Wednesday, unveiling his ten-year masterplan for how to rejuvenate athletics.

Few sports administrators draw a crowd like Lord Sebastian Coe. Perhaps only Sepp Blatter - for rather different reasons - could have attracted the UK media gathering Coe did on Wednesday, when he unveiled his manifesto for the presidency of the IAAF, world athletics’ governing body. As well as the usual cluster of sports news specialists, all the major TV stations, including BeIN Sport and CNN, along with several national newspaper chief sports writers were in attendance at the London offices of the British Olympic Association (BOA) to hear Coe speak.

In the UK, Coe is far more recognisable than International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, thanks, of course, to his prominent role as chairman of Locog, London 2012’s organising committee. He also used to be a fairly handy athlete. By next August, he is aiming to be only the sixth president in the history of the IAAF, which, as the global guardian of athletics, is one of the largest and most influential international sports federations in the world.

On Wednesday, Coe, who has been an IAAF powerbroker for years and is currently a vice-president, delivered his vision for the sport’s future. He is the first candidate to declare ahead of the presidential election next year. Ukrainian pole vault legend Sergey Bubka, who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the IOC last year, is widely expected to join the race shortly. Earlier this week he used his Twitter account to hint at that possibility. He will be playing catch-up from the off.

Coe’s manifesto is based on four main pillars:

  • Embracing change to secure a better future, which includes potential reforms to the annual track and field calendar and the way the sport is presented;
  • Decentralisation and empowerment, with proposals to help fund and develop the 213 national federations which make up the IAAF’s membership, a structural review of the organisation and the forging of partnerships with universities;
  • Maximising commercial growth, where Coe proposes the formation of a new IAAF department focused on engaging young people and developing what he calls a ‘cutting-edge, experienced’ commercial department;
  • Ensuring integrity and trust in everything the world of athletics does, a section focused on increasing resources for anti-doping and integrity issues and ensuring national federations are run independently and without political interference.

‘My overriding objective is to grow athletics, to make our sport even more global and even more commercially successful,’ reads his pledge to the IAAF’s members.

There is, in truth, nothing particularly revolutionary in any of this. Included are the types of common-sense measures to better package and commercialise IAAF events and engage youngsters that many other international federations have adopted in recent times.

The document serves to highlight how far athletics has slipped behind the curve. That is no surprise given that the incumbent IAAF president, Senegal’s Lamine Diack, is 81 and has been president of the organisation since 1999.

Indeed, there are those who suspect the IAAF might have been subjected to more questions about the sport’s future direction had Usain Bolt not joked, danced and sprinted into view, gifting athletics a stream of positive headlines and global exposure since 2008.

As the Diack era ends and with Bolt said to be planning a farewell in London at the 2017 world championships, new thinking is required and coming. As Coe’s manifesto puts it: ‘Other sports have gained ground on us in refreshing their events and our objective is simple and stark – we must remain relevant throughout the rest of this century’.

There is also a hint that new ideas alone are not enough. Even when the IAAF has attempted to innovate in recent years, as it did with the launch of its World Relays event in the Bahamas earlier this year, Coe writes ‘it should not have taken over a decade to bring to life’. He adds: ‘We have to be much more responsive and effective in bringing about change.’

Should Bubka make his candidacy official – there appear to be no other serious contenders in the frame – it would be no surprise to see him announce a similar set of proposals when he outlines his own future vision.

There is little doubt that Coe, who is backed by campaign veterans Vero Communications and its founder Mike Lee, will win the English-language media and communications battle over the next eight months. Bubka, however, has segued effortlessly from athlete to administrator and could prove a formidable rival; both men are extremely well connected with the electorate, the IAAF’s many disparate and international members. According to the yellow and black campaign branding, Lord Sebastian Coe will simply be Seb Coe as he makes his pitch.

Vero has been here before, helping Diack to another term in the last IAAF presidential election in 2011. In 2013, it helped Briton Brian Cookson through an ugly, bitter battle for the presidency of the UCI, world cycling’s governing body, against incumbent Pat McQuaid. This election, assuming it boils down to a one-on-one contest between Coe and Bubka, is unlikely to prove as divisive. On Wednesday Coe insisted he would be “very surprised” if his “warm, friendly and professional” relationship with Bubka was to be “polluted” by the sports politics to come. In all likelihood, they will be aligned on many of the big issues and the undoubted need for modernisation.

As he addressed the media on Wednesday, outlining what he termed his ten-year vision for athletics, Coe talked of the months ahead as an “opportunity to discuss and debate this agenda of renewal” and to “open up discussion, to allow voices to be heard”. It echoed Bach, who has spent much of the last year spearheading his Agenda 2020 strategic roadmap, a process that has opened up constructive discourse on the future of the entire Olympic movement.

As he begins his “sell” to the IAAF members who will vote in August, Coe is not short of work. As well as his IAAF roles – he recently led the coordination commission which visited and reported on the contenders for the 2019 world championships, a contest won by Doha – he is chair of the BOA, executive chairman of the Chime-owned sports marketing agency CSM Sport & Entertainment, a global advisor to Nike and a consultant for Chelsea FC.

How, if at all, his CSM position might conflict with the presidency is likely to be scrutinised closely in the coming months; Coe, predictably, dead-batted the question on Wednesday, but did point out his ability to juggle multiple roles during his stewardship of Locog in the build-up to 2012.

He begins as the favourite, a position he is not unaccustomed to, but there was no hint of complacency on Wednesday, even if by announcing his candidature first he has sounded the starting gun on a long few months of campaigning. “This is an election,” he said. “There is no pre-ordained outcome. Nobody here is measuring the drapes in the West Wing”.