AS THE ’21 SEASON that began amid profound challenges from the ongoing pandemic yet staged a brilliant Tokyo Olympics and thrilling Diamond League series gives way to a promising ’22 campaign, WA president Seb Coe is bullish on the sport he runs and millions of us love.
He also identifies a momentous challenge and opportunity for track & field viz these United States.
“Do I like relaxation! We’re sort of getting into that stage of the season where we need relaxation,” says Coe, taking a quick breath in the end-of-year holiday period. A small respite and time for reflection on the year just past before taking on the unique challenges and opportunity of a season that will feature the first-ever U.S.-hosted outdoor World Championships (Eugene, July 15–24).
As he assesses the positive developments of ’22 — apart from the stirring on-track-and-field heroics — Coe says he doesn’t want to be “a desiccated adding machine for the purposes of this conversation.” Yet as chief steward of the sport, he has upbeat metrics to report.
We’re No. 1, he asserts, and the Eugene WC is a fast-approaching opportunity that must not be squandered.
’21 was a year, he explains, of “trying to figure out how to get the athletes back into training and our competitions up and running, and then fighting the good fight around the Tokyo Games.
“We were also able to revamp our competition calendar. We have created many more opportunities for the athletes to compete in our Continental Tour events. And look, we came out of the Olympic Games as the No. 1 Olympic sport. You’ve heard me say this on many occasions, and I particularly like to say it when I’m in international Olympic committee circles, and especially when I’m surrounded by other federation presidents in other Olympic sports.
“We are the No. 1 Olympic sport, but the good thing that has happened in the last week or two is that the data [generated through analysis by the IOC] actually allows me to say it not just with persuasion and passion, but actually with some supportive data.”
Coe finds stats that augur well (see sidebar). However, he continues, “In talking about growing our sport, we must never underestimate the value of television. I know it’s a popular nostrum at the moment to speak techie in everything and digitally in everything. But television is a really important vehicle for us.
“Most people watching athletics are still consuming on television.”
To the benefit of both WA’s bottom line and those of us in the eager track & field viewing public, Coe is pleased to report “renegotiated and extended contracts with both NBC and the European broadcast union, EBU, and also crucially Africa.”
These contracts, Coe points out, were “upgraded or renegotiated with a nice, healthy uplift which kept our executive board happy. And also extensions to 2029 are really important for us.
“I don’t really feel I need to underline the importance of Oregon next year to us, and to have NBC on board in that capacity and EBU talking about some quite creative stuff” — specifically a behind-the-scenes documentary along the lines of the Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, “that would allow the opportunity to access new audiences that might not naturally gravitate to our sport.”
Kicking off with next July’s big meet in the track capital of the Willamette Valley, Coe asserts that the back-to-back-to-back-to-back sequence of global-championship summers ahead “really does allow us certainly for the next four years — and I’ll give you for the next seven years — to have athletics absolutely center stage in the most broadcastable part of our year.
“And that is not something we should allow to trickle through our fingers here. We have to make the very most of that.”
Earlier in the week before Christmas Coe rolled up his sleeves at a Diamond League summit that included “directors from 12–13 different meetings, all trying to figure out how we schedule our events, given the fact that next year — it’s great to have them, but it poses some operational challenges around the World Championships, a Commonwealth Games and a European Championships all concentrated into a window, of little more than 5 weeks.”
He says, “Oregon, I’m unashamedly going to tell you is a really important moment for our sport. We’re into the U.S., every sport wants to be there, it is the largest sports market for us and other sports.
“We need to leave there with what I’ve described as the indelible footprint, and that’s not just about our ability as an organization to have great coms [communications and promotion].
“Oregon, to me, feels very much like a holistic project. It’s project management. It’s every facet of what we need to do, and we need to come together with the LOC with [USATF], our own teams internally, just to make sure that we, we leave with all the fruit.”
In Coe’s vision “it’s not just about broadening that footprint in the U.S., important as that is. It’s also the opportunity to create more competition events that allow there to be more of a 2-way street for European and African athletes to be competing in the U.S.”
Coe, Lord Sebastian Coe though he may be — “you can call me Seb” — says he wants to move past “the old sort of Victorian view that everybody comes to Europe to summer on the grand tour.
“I want our sport to be more global in terms of the events that we’re able to offer and create. And the Continental Tour has been a good example of how that is growing and building traction in the U.S.”
He adds, also, that “the next couple of years is about the Americas,” with the World U20 (Junior) Champs in Cali, Colombia, come August and the recently announced Lima, Peru, Junior hosting in ’24.
Coe admits, though, that the nut of mass popularity among U.S. sports fans will be a one to crack
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you this is going to be easy,” he says. “It isn’t. We’re coming from a fair way behind if we’re being honest.
“It is that conundrum, isn’t it? The U.S. is the still the powerhouse of track & field — consistently being so. There are arguments about, it was the women’s team that really did perform with extraordinary aplomb in Tokyo, the men’s team, maybe not as strong as it has been in the past.
“Having said that, you know, it is still the powerhouse of global track & field, but it still poses that challenge that we’ve got athletes that are recognized within the sporting athletic world, and more than ever, that are beginning to cross over into greater perception outside of track & field. But that tends to be outside of the U.S.
“Household names that we consider in the sport can still walk with relative anonymity in their own home cities. I actually flew from Tokyo to Los Angeles and was on the flight with a great number of LA-based Olympic medalists. I expected to get off the plane with them in LA, to be sort of sidestepping the media who would want to be chasing them and catching their reunion on domestic shores, and they walked through the airport unescorted.”
On the domestic front, the last 6 years — 5 years until the pandemic set back all clocks — was supposed to be a period of fervid buzz building for the sport.
On the heels of the successful ’16 World Indoor Championships hosting in Portland, Vin Lananna — then Eugene’s TrackTown USA chief, now USATF’s president, stated emphatically, “If we just have a track meet in [what has become ’22], we will have missed the whole opportunity. It’s a buildup for the next 5 years to put track meets in that space for the U.S. athletes so that when people come to the World Championships season, they not only know the United States team but they know that there’s a big meet that’s going to happen and they’re ready for it. It should be an opportunity for the athletes to build their brand.”
It’s probably fair to say the years recently past never played out that way. Headlines about the USATF Board and executive management’s sidelining of Lananna as president for some two years outnumbered and outshouted big PR splashes that might have built a wave of general public eager anticipation for the coming Worlds.
Coe’s ’21 sendoff remarks include the observation that “millions and millions of people in the course of a week identify themselves as participant runners.” There is, as he sees it, a natural avenue for drawing them in as track & field fans. While that’s a hopeful strategy, one wonders — with more than a hunch what the answer looks like — how many of the dozens of runners one might pass on a fitness jog in New York City, San Francisco or Peoria know who Sifan Hassan is, who Courtney Frerichs is, or Katie Nageotte or Ryan Crouser?
A marathon lies ahead to raise public track & field consciousness. Coe admits as much even as he attempts to marshal a quick start.
“It’s a runway, as well, into 2028 [and LA’s third Olympics hosting], he says. “So look, I’m not saying that we’re going to swallow up all that ground in the next 6 months, but I see this not just as a way of promoting Oregon. I see it as a way of promoting the sport more generally in the U.S. so that we have a growing trajectory for it.”
Says Coe, “I don’t see this as being just about [WA’s communications team’s ability] to be able to dial up the interest any more than it is simply USATF or the LOC.
“I think this has to be a really joint effort, but all I would say is that we do need to do this.”
ON YOUR MARKS!… SET!… Let’s hope somebody has the course map.