Seb Coe’s Pandemic-Year Analysis

The World Athletics President held forth on the 2020 season—challenges, issues and achievements—and plans for 2021. (SCREENSHOT)

ON THE MONDAY following WA’s annual year-end Awards Program—a virtual affair for broadcast this time due to the pandemic—President Sebastian Coe graciously invited a few journalists who specialize in covering our sport to ask him questions, also by remote, about the challenging year now winding up and the Olympic year ahead. Questions, and answers less so, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Coe began with a brief statement:

I guess in March I was really keen to establish four key priorities. One, a very obvious one, was to get the athletes back into training as soon as possible and as safely as possible. Once you got them back into training, you obviously needed to get them back into competition.

We then had to expedite a review of our Olympic qualification system, which we did, and release any changes to the athletes as soon as we possibly could so that they knew where they stood. And you remember there was a slight alteration to that [for road athletes] towards the end of the year.

The third was continuing to—well really through force majeure—to reorganize the global calendar.

It’s quite a complex matrix. You don’t just lift the Olympic Games out of the landscape and everything else is normal. You know, there’s a knock-on effect for up to 2 years—now arguably for 5 years and we’ll still see major disruptions over the long haul.

The fourth, I guess, was that through the hand-to-mouth existence of managing an organization through a pandemic, I didn’t also want to take our focus away from the strategic direction the sport needed to go in, which is still the growth period. We had the four years of reform [after Coe’s election to the WA Presidency] and steadying the ship.

The second phase that we were just starting at the beginning of the pandemic was really what I’ve always described as the fun bit, but it was really growing the sport.

And I think that if you look at how we sort of delivered across those four key areas, I’d thus like to touch on four core elements before I sort of throw it open to you. And that was that we did keep the show on the road and we did it in an heroic way from the athletes. You will be very familiar with the content that they were posting under the most extreme of circumstances, but [the athletes] really did focus on what they needed to do to keep their heads and their bodies together for that prolonged period while they were effectively away, often from public facilities, training facilities, and certainly competitions.

And we did an awful lot of the things around our virtual events, the Ultimate Garden Clashes, but also our comms teams here created an awful lot of online content: Fitter With Friends, Be Active.

We had all our member federation information sessions. We’ve had probably 20 of those. We’ve had all our federations on at any one stage being brought up to speed. So our consultation, our processes around that, have been phenomenally good. And that’s something we really do want to hold on to.

We’re focused. Look, you know, often people talk about creativity—and creativity in solving challenges—or solving problems. Halfway through this process, I realized, actually you need to talk to that statement. It’s not just about the ability to solve problems. It’s about the ability to find the right problems to solve.

I think our sport really did do that, and the right problems to solve for us were, first of all, making sure our finances were in good shape and the HQ was in good shape because if we weren’t in good shape, then that would have a knock-on effect to the 214 federations whose destiny sort of sits in large part with us and our ability from the center to continue to help them deliver and develop the sport.

We also needed to keep a steady eye on the organization, and we still do, because it’s pretty obvious that we’ve now gone into the second phase of this pandemic. OK, there’s a vaccine on the horizon, but we take nothing for granted at all next year. So we need to remain as prudent as we possibly can be about the organization.

I think the third area here is that our resilience within the organization and beyond the organization with our relationships has really stood us in good stead.

I know for many the reform process—necessary and critical as it was given what I inherited in 2015 and which the sport had to struggle with—it’s now pretty obvious that those reforms, painful and difficult as they were, have allowed us to be even stronger at this point.

What do I mean by that? The way we hire people, the decisions we make, the way we make those decisions, the processes, and the structures that sit behind that has actually given us a much securer footing to manage our way through the last few months. And particularly in the fact that all those stakeholders—whether they’re the commercial partners or broadcasters or internally our member federations, our area associations, our executive boards, all our structures—we are working so much closer and more collaboratively than we’ve ever done.

And there’s a great deal of trust in that space that when we do make a decision, it’s a decision that is properly consulted on, and it’s a decision that then is delivered and we’re able to practically deliver it over the short haul.

And then the final area I’d like to talk about is, I guess, leadership and communication and how we’ve managed the sport through the pandemic. You know, it is my mantra that you don’t communicate less in a crisis, you communicate more, you communicate more often, you communicate more liberally and you have to communicate more openly about what you’re doing. And I think that communication has been met by a level of creativity that’s been widely accepted and actually applauded outside of the sport over the course of the year

And it’s just worth remembering that throughout the course of this year, dealing with all the other things that we’ve had to, we’ve still launched a strategic plan that gives internal directions to the sport for the next 4 years. We have a world plan that is now in its creation, which will give the global blueprint. We released our first set of financial accounts and published the 10-year sustainability strategy.

And we quickly created health and safety criteria around keeping our athletes, meets and officials safe. And we delivered a World Championships [the Half-Marathons] against probably one of the most complicated landscapes that we’ve ever had to deliver a championships.

I’m proud, I think the sport has led from the front. I think it’s led from the top, and we’re not afraid to make decisions—or sometimes challenge previous decisions in the light of current experience. I suppose on occasion we change decisions if we don’t achieve what we set out to achieve, so that in a way is where I’ve got to.

For me the high point, one of the high points of the year, was the World Championships in Gdynia and getting that complexity across the line.

But I do have to say that if you’d said to me, certainly in April and certainly in May, that we would have had an awards program—OK, virtual, not face to face—celebrating anything at the end of this year, I think most people would have taken pretty good odds.

But we’ve had jaw-dropping performances from our athletes, we’ve had 8 Diamond Leagues and a whole cluster of Gold, Silver, and Bronze Continental Tours. We’ve had some major road races, including a World Championships and the awards program broadcast on Saturday night was really in its way, quintessentially, testament to the way the athletes and our coaches and our member federations and the sport have weathered that storm.

And I think we weathered it better than any Olympic sport. Probably I think only football is up there with us in the way that we have kept our sport front and center. So that’s sort of how I would park the bus at this moment with a few weeks to go before the end of the year. In a year of massive uncertainty and disruption, there may still be adaptation and change that is forced upon us, but I think we’re in good shape for next year. The organization is stronger than it’s ever been. And I think the sport internally and externally is more emotionally connected than it’s ever been. So that’s where I’d leave it.

T&FN: Apologies for leading with a question that may sound like it has some negative spin. My intent is positive. Last week World Athletics announced the Diamond League format for 2021, including a return to a full 32-event slate. The hearts of many athletes and fans are gladdened. What would you say, though, to those who suggest the decision to cut events just a year ago was a failure of aforethought, and that the decision to reverse it after just a partial [8-meet] DL schedule in 2020 supports that criticism? Something must have been amiss for the cut to have been reversed so quickly. What assurances can you offer for more careful consideration in the future? Athletes’ dreams and livelihoods were at stake here.

Coe: I actually don’t agree with a lot of the basis of that question, and I don’t agree with it because I’ve never been somebody that hasn’t been prepared to consult and discuss in the light of changing circumstance. I think that’s what makes us a good organization. I think that’s what makes us good leaders.

You know, the 120 minutes [DL meet timeframe] is a really good example. We looked at this in the early phases. Some of the broadcasters were very keen that we had a more intense, higher-paced event. Much of the work that we set out to do was to address some quite deep-seated issues. Those deep-seated issues haven’t just disappeared.

But what has happened is that we have had the opportunity because of the type of disruption, the type of truncated year [we’ve had in 2020]. It’s not just been the athletes that have been off the roller coaster of competitions, It’s many of our internal teams, it’s many of the meeting directors in Diamond League, it’s many of the broadcasters.

So, given that we did actually ultimately have a little bit more time on our hands, I wanted this year to be the opportunity to sit and review all sorts of things—and why not do that across Diamond League? And we’ve approached that in a very conciliatory, very open way, and I’m absolutely delighted that we’ve reached a really good consensus.

But it still does not in any way obviate the need to go on driving change. And we’re not as brave as we should be here, and we need to be that. All the changes that I’ve talked about that we’ve done internally in the sport—the reforms, the safety and structures, the virtual events—we still, when it comes to changes around the field of play, have very, very strong conservative elements in our sport.

And I don’t need lectures from anybody about the primacy of the athletes in that process. I, you know, in large part made my career and reputation as much on 1-day meetings and World Records as I did in winning major championships so I’m acutely conscious that the livelihood of our athletes is based in large part on the 1-day season. That is why I’m absolutely messianic about making sure those 1-day meetings are as good as they possibly can. No gray areas here. They have to be the best that is on at that moment in athletics. And up [until] some of the changes that we talked about and the process that I helped lead Diamond League through to get to where we are, that seriously wasn’t the case.

So it’s really important that we go on doing that because it’s ultimately the athletes and their ability to build their profile around great one-day meetings—and not just half the 1-day meetings that are great. That’s why, of course, Continental Tour was so important. Continental Tour, again, was the opportunity to put the bellows under 1-day meetings [that were] beginning to wither on the vine. And we now have a whole clutch of 1-day meetings that we didn’t have a year and a half ago. So look, if the accusation is that I’ve spent the last year consulting and being able to get to change in light of some of the difficult experiences and circumstances we’ve had, I stand guilty.

Coe was asked if recent advances in shoe technology have made it impossible to compare distance marks on the road to those of the past. “Or is that more the inevitable march of time?” The questioner further asked if Coe is worried that “some athletes may still have an advantage based on their shoes, or that one or two brands might be superior to the others, or that some athletes might respond to this new technology better than other athletes?”

The first T&FN cover appearance for athlete Coe out of four in his brilliant career was on the September ’79 issue.

Coe: Look, the challenge you’ve got here is an age-old challenge, and there’s nothing revolutionary or particularly revelatory about what I’m about to say. The challenge has always historically in our sport been the balance, the tradeoff, between technical innovation and development and codifications. And you know, I actually think if I jump to one element of your question, I think we’ve got that balance about right.

It’s been a tough year. It’s been a tough year for everybody, but often we have to remember it’s been a tough year for the shoe manufacturers, as well. You know, there’s been a lack of competition out there for a lot of the testing [of new shoes]. And I would say to your specific question about whether, you know, whether we’re sort of comparing apples and oranges, I actually think one of the issues this year that for me has been very clear—and I know this from my own experience as an athlete—is that a lot of the very high-quality performances that we were celebrating, particularly in the Award Show on Saturday night—had in large part been inspired by athletes who were just so goddamn pleased to get back into competition.

You know, I lost a year, over a year in the lead-up, effectively, to the ’84 Games. I know what I felt like when I got back onto the track at the beginning of ’84. Yeah, undercooked and without enough petrol. I was just so pleased. My instinct is in large part what has happened is the athletes have had a year [after] they’ve actually had their bodies screaming at them mentally and physically for the last four or five years where they’ve actually come off that roller coaster, they have mastered lockdown and this really difficult period wonderfully well, and they come back and they’d just been so excited about being back into combat.

I was in the stadium in Monaco for the first Diamond League. You know, it wasn’t just Cheptegei’s performance that night that was top drawer. You just saw it right across the board, across different disciplines, track and field.

So my instinct here is, Yeah, look, you know, shoe technology is with us and it always will be. We have to maintain rules and codifications. And again, going back to the question that Sieg asked about having some space and some time to put some process into some of these issues, these issues have been there for a long time. In a way the horse bolted the stable many, many years ago. What we’ve managed to do this year, if anything, is sort of still chase it around the paddock, but we have at least been able to put a structure around this that has allowed us to start a process and start checking, for instance, some of the shoes that are out there. We’ve never been in a position to do that. We’d never checked the spec on a prototype; now we do. So I think there is more system in there.

Have we arrived finally at where we’re going to? The answer to that has to be no because [of an] advance in technology, particularly in the investment that the shoe companies want to put in. But if you look across the last few events, we’ve had a pretty reasonable cross section of shoe brands with athletes on that podium.

Coe was asked what the prospects are for Russian authorized neutral athletes (ANA) being allowed to compete in 2021.

Coe: You know, we have a very clear roadmap for reinstatement. We have a President that has just been elected to RuSAF. The journey to reinstatement is monitored and in large part driven by the [WA] Task Force, which has done an outstandingly good job, and I see no reason to deviate from that. And it’s very clear. We will await, at some stage in March, the full reinstatement proposal, and when we’ve received it, we will then review the ANA status, but not until that is done. We are going to stick with this process right the way through. I do actually believe that we can continue to move in the right direction.

The last few months, openly, from the point where we got to towards the end of last year and around our last Council meeting in July have been frustrating, but I am optimistic that a new leadership does really understand the need for change.

And without that change, we will not budge from the position that we’re currently in. And we owe it to the clean athletes to make sure that they can deliver the review in a timely way and that the review has got content.

Coe was asked about his fall visit to Tokyo to check in on Olympic Games preparations. What was his impression of the facilities and national stadiums? Was there anything that he was struck by, or impressed with, in terms of the facilities and preparation?

Coe: I was struck by everything, and really bowled over by everything from the facilities. I obviously had a conducted tour around the Olympic Stadium. Looks terrific. I was really impressed with the way that it’s been constructed and some of the issues around sustainability and the building that matters to us now much more than it probably has in the past as a sport.

My visit to Tokyo wasn’t the first visit of our teams from World Athletics. [Director] Stéphane Bermon and the Health & Science teams and our course-building teams were in Sapporo in August to look at venues and also advise on the management of intense heat that we still may confront—and also to talk about delivering events with an eye on outbreak prevention. All that was really important, but my visit was, as you can realize, very tight. It was truncated, but the visit to the stadium was really impressive. I know that some of our teams went up to Sapporo as well, so they were very clear about what they needed up there and working in partnership with the local authorities.

And I was also very, very pleased to have good time with President Mori and Governor Koike and the Olympic Minister and the Sports Minister and [’04 Olympic hammer gold medalist Koji Murofushi], of course, who’s moved from Director of Sport to the Sports Commission.

I guess what I was struck by was just the cast-iron determination to deliver these Games. Yes, they may be altered, yes, they may be adapted, but the determination to deliver an Olympic Games next year. And I came back and was able to report with, with confidence to our Council just a few days ago that that was exactly what I found. So yes, I was very impressed.

A followup question noted that a recent survey found some 60% of Japanese feel reluctant about the Olympics hosting. What does Coe make of that?

Coe: Well, look, I was a politician before I started doing all this type of stuff. You know, it’s really important for the public to have confidence in the leadership of an organization that is delivering something that is so high profile in a country. And I felt that it was important for the No.1 Olympic sport to be the first sport.

In fact, we were the first organized sporting organization of any description to go to Tokyo to spend time with the Organizing Committee, and the central purpose of that was not just to be comforted by what we were seeing and being told, but also to offer our support in doing anything that we could do to help make those Games, certainly in athletics terms. And if the Games are successful athletically, they’re going to be a successful Games. So we felt we had a responsibility to show solidarity with the people of Japan and the governments of Japan and all the organizations that are delivering the sport. We recognize that under really very, very difficult circumstances they’re doing a very good job.

T&FN: As you look back over the ordeal of the lengthy unfolding of the Russian doping scandal and the years that preceded it, what assurances can you offer that World Athletics will be more proactive in recognizing warning signs of possible malfeasance wherever it may arise among member federations or athletes?

Coe: Well, see, the big difference, of course, is we now have the Athletics Integrity Unit [AIU] that was a centerpiece in my reforms. The Athletics Integrity Unit are a really important bridgehead to exactly that concept that you’re talking about. And I don’t need to focus entirely on Russia here. It is really important across a whole range of issues that have the ability from time to time to derail our sport and cause reputational damage that we have the right systems and the right processes in place.

And also the right partnerships because the Athletics Integrity Unit is not just a sort of well-funded global policeman in our sport. It does also create educational programs. It sits alongside many federations who are desperately keen to be helped out of whatever situation that they’re confronting. And I know that they work.

You could speak to any number of federations that are very grateful that behind the scenes the AIU and World Athletics has just sat quietly without headlines behind them, helping them restructure their own organizations to meet those challenges.

So in simple answer to that question, you’ve got somebody now in charge of a sport that really does understand the need to have the right government structures in place because those governance structures allow us to do a whole host of things that are transparent and clear and open. But it also allows us to sit alongside federations as partners in helping them understand the complexity of that journey. And particularly when they’re crying out for help occasionally.

Coe was asked what metrics the Diamond League used to determine its just announced “Final 3” format for 2021? “Because most of the feedback, at least on Twitter, was pretty negative, especially from the athletes. Also, will this format be used in the Olympics or 2022 World Championships?”

Coe: No, they’re not to be used in the Olympics or the World Championships, and they’re not actually even going to be used in the Diamond League Final. So I’m not much moved by what was on Twitter. I’m actually much more comforted by the discussions that the Diamond League board have had with our Athletes Commission and the athletes association around the need to support our field events and particularly the jumps.

For a number of years both as a competitor and latterly as an administrator, I’ve got very good friends in field events who have always complained about the scheduling of field events, particularly the jumps, making sure that they’ve always got into the broadcast window, making sure that they’re done in a way that grabs that share that they are deserving of within that broadcast window.

And I think that the Final 3 format is a good thing. I think it provides a climax to those jumps. And I’m really, really pleased that the athletes in consultation with the Diamond League board and the broadcasters have almost unanimously supported that because I was on those calls as well. And I’m really delighted that the athletes are prepared to see how it goes.

And again, it takes me back to Sieg’s question. It then gives us an opportunity to properly monitor that over the course of the year and get the feedback from the athletes. But it was very clear to me that there does need be reform in our sport. And I think field events, done properly, can actually be presented in a much better way so that we don’t have a 2-tier sport.

Back on the topic of the controversial distance shoes and spikes. Does Coe see a credibility problem with records set in the new footwear? “Is it possible to compare the new Cheptegei records with the former Bekele records?”

Coe: Let me answer that question by trying to put this into some kind of historical perspective here. Look, if we’re going to go back into the history of World Records, we are really looking at World Records and permanently changing circumstances. You know, World Records were set on—I still marvel at somebody like Rudolf Harbig back in 1936, 1937 running 1:46 and bits on a cinder track. I still marvel at the fact that Peter Snell ran around 1:44 and bits in Wanganui on a grass track.

Coe didn’t mention but surely knows Peter Snell also set his first mile WR on a grass track. (ED LACEY)

I still marvel at the fact that we had people like Ron Hill running significantly under 2:10 [in the marathon] in shoes that had little more than cardboard support in them. So, you know, everywhere you look records have developed and they’ve often developed alongside technological change.

And look, I will say there are some records out there that we’re still looking at and they’re records that probably wouldn’t stand a great deal of scrutiny had we had an Athletics Integrity Unit around 35, 40, 50 years ago.

So I think that of course we value our World Records. We’re not a sport where they get sort of thrown around like confetti. It is important that when a World Record gets broken, that it is broken as a result of outstanding jaw-dropping athletic talents.

And I’m still of the belief that in large part that is why we’re seeing those records. I do also think this year has been a very different type of year. Athletes have managed to just get a little bit more fuel in their minds and in their bodies, again, some really good respite, and the ability to sort of regroup.

So look, I’m not sitting here thinking that this is a really dangerous period. I think these World Records are still in the nature of that evolutionary change. And some of it is technology, yes. And some of it is just because the athletes have had some rest and are training really well again.

And the good athletes that came into 2020 with that background during the winter months are the athletes that have gone on at the end of the year, even with the temporary hiatus at the beginning of the season.

T&FN: Returning to the new Diamond League field events Final 3 format, I completely appreciate the effort to innovate, raise the pace and make things easier to follow. But what happens if, say, either Christian Taylor or Will Claye—to pick two who could do it—sets a World Record before those final three rounds and then has three fouls in the final three rounds? Now we’re left with explaining to fans and potential fans, “Yeah, well he broke the World Record—but he didn’t win.” There are issues here. Perhaps the new format is harder to understand for the casual fan?

Coe: I don’t think communication is the biggest challenge. I think the biggest challenge is making sure that we haven’t got field events that are dying. You know, I’ve sat down for too long with too many broadcasters and too many meeting directors that are just basically saying to me that this is moving in the wrong direction.

And I’m the president of the sport of track and field. I’m not the president of just track. I’m not the president for just running. I do have a responsibility to make sure, whether it’s popular or not, that field events when I come to move on and we have a new generation of leadership in place, that they’re not looking at a scorched earth policy around field events. Or worse than that, we just do nothing and they wither on the vine. That is not what I want. So it is absolutely crucial that we do that. So if that means communicating what it is we’re trying to do…

Look, I’m not a field eventer and I will never claim to be. And I do also understand that the beauty of our sport is you come to our sport with different mentalities. You’ve got distance runners and you’ve got sprinters and you’ve got throwers and you’ve got jumpers, but I would remind you from the humble observations of a track guy that you don’t sit at the end of a championship 800 meters and go, “Guys, I know I didn’t really perform that well in the 800, but goodness me, why don’t you take into consideration what I did in round 1 or round 2,” you know? You perform at the moment when it is maximally important to perform.

So within those balances, I think this is worth trying. And if at the end of the year, it’s clearly and palpably not something that we should be continuing with, we’ve lost nothing next year in doing that. It’s not going to be in the Olympic format. It’s not in the World Championships. It’s not even in the Final of the Diamond League. I think we have to start somewhere.

And I’m very pleased that Christian and the jumpers have said they’re prepared to give that a go. And they should have confidence in me to be able to back up what I say now, which is if this isn’t working, we will, of course review it.

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