Seb Coe Foresees Changes Now And In The Future

WA President Seb Coe says a banner 2023 has primed the pump for further innovation in seasons ahead. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

CONTINUING A TRADITION that is now 4 seasons old, in mid-December World Athletics President Seb Coe held video chats with representatives of the global track & field media before the commencement of year-end holiday festivities.

Before taking questions from the group T&FN was invited to join, Coe, now in the early months of his third and final 4-year presidential term, aired an assessment of track & field year 2023 before taking questions. His remarks and answers to questions have been edited for length and clarity.

I think it’s an obvious thing for me to say, but I’m really happy to repeat it, that I can’t remember coming out of a season with more optimism and more excitement about the nature and quality of our sport. Obviously 2023 had an outstanding World Championships. I can say it now, the best World Championships we’ve ever had.

Budapest on every indices was outstanding and I don’t want future host cities or the sport to think that was an outlier or a one-off. It wasn’t. That is absolutely what we expect now from a World Championships, whether it’s medal plazas, whether it’s the innovation of Q rooms [lounges for athletes on the qualifying bubble for the next round to wait with television cameras on to learn their fate], all sorts of things. That’s what we expect. And crucially, full stadia. Our sport can never afford to look marginal anywhere in a major championship.

The Diamond League was as good as it’s ever been. Good broadcast numbers, 170-odd countries taking our broadcast and seven World Records. Two of them in the last hour-and-20 minutes of Eugene. So in good shape there, the one day circuits continue to grow.

If I flick forward just briefly to ’24, it’s a big year, not just because we’ve got the Olympics, but we’ve also got five world championships.

The Olympic Games is hugely important. It’s an important springboard, not because it’s the Olympic Games so much as it’s another platform for us to get a billion people watching our sport, and that’s pretty crucial. We can’t ever go a year without that kind of numbers.

This is the growth path that we’re on. And if I then sort of scroll forward a little further, but sort of medium term, it’s my last four years. So those four years are going to be absolutely focused on what the product looks like, how we can use it to grow the sport, how we can bring more people, more volunteers, more technical officials, more coaches, but critically how we can future-proof the sport. Both its commercial viability and the promotional elements of our competitors raising their profile. The Netflix documentary next year [tracking top sprinters] I think will help do that.

New Major Fixture On Tap For 2026

For some time now Coe has hinted World Athletics will put on a new highlight meet that isn’t quite a World Championships in ’26, which will be the first year without an outdoor Worlds or Olympics since the 2020 pandemic season. Now his vision is coming into sharper focus.

The Best of the Best is the working title. I’m not quite sure what we’ve ultimately settled upon yet, but that’s going to be a showcase developed around television, which is crucial. Straight finals for the field events, semi and final for track.

The Arc Of A Presidency

Coe spoke in broad terms about the major initiatives undertaken in the past 8 years, then turned to goals for the remaining time in which he’ll steer the ship.

We’ve got the foundations in place. We’ve got the red carpet laid out in front of us to do what will probably be in many elements the toughest part of that journey. You know, everybody’s in favor of progress as long as it doesn’t mean change.

What Will Change Look Like?

We need to make sure that change is done. We need to make sure that the changes we make are data-based and they’ve got empirical backing. The work we did in Budapest around fans in the stadium, fans at home on television, gives us a really interesting indicator of what they think is working and what they’re finding less interesting.

And don’t run away with the idea that that just gives us carte blanche to go and get rid of events. It really allows us to understand where the challenges in some of those disciplines sit and what we can do to improving them.

The horizontal jumps are a good example. You know, 31% of long jumps all end in failure, they’re no-jumps. If you look at an hour’s coverage of those events, you’ve got an awful lot of sandpit raking and cones on runways. If you look at an hour of field event coverage, far too much of it is downtime and watching people change and get ready to do something. So there are lots of things that we’ve learned from the external research work we did around Budapest that tells us that there are things that we can do to improve the quality of the event — everything from depending upon where you sit in the stadium through to your experience on television.

Also we want to work with our broadcasters. Broadly, choosing my words, broadcasters are quite a conservative group. There’s not a lot they’re doing differently that would have looked out of place 20 or 30 years ago or even when I was competing. So we have an innovation team at World Athletics, our recent recruitments and the re-engineering of our internal teams is really to augment and support that innovation program.

And that’s not jettisoning a hundred and thirty, forty, fifty years of history and heritage, but it is saying that too much we do through rote and because we’ve always done it and that ain’t enough.

We do have to do things differently. And we have to make sure that the things that we want to preserve and cherish are done in a way that can be preserved and cherished in front of new audiences and generations — not dusted down [eliminated] for their irrelevance in championships. That’s what I want to see. I want to see more young people watching our sport. I want to see greater spectator activation. I want to improve where possible the product on television, because I don’t think it’s that good in many places. I think broadcast still does the same thing over and over again. I’m not sure the quality of discussion about our sport is as high in studios as it is in football or cricket or rugby.

But the thing that I have direct responsibility for is the innovation itself inside the sport. As I’ve said, if you’ve got a long jump competition where 31% of all the jumps are no-jumps, then don’t get rid of long jump. Do something about that. Maybe it’s a takeoff zone. These are all the things that our innovation teams are looking at. Everything’s on the table, and it won’t make everybody happy.

If I’d wanted to win a popularity contest, I’d have never done what I did in 2015 [running for the WA presidency]. I know that I’m an acquired taste in some quarters.

Calendar Alterations On The Table

Our athletes don’t race against each other enough. They don’t actually race enough on balance. And I want our fans to witness great athletes for a longer period of the year.

We are already in discussions about whether we can under normal circumstances [not in an Olympic season] finish the year with the World Championships. I think that for many people now makes a lot of sense.

It gives a clear crescendo to the year rather than fans saying, “Well, OK, somebody won a World Championships or an Olympic Games, but then what is the Diamond League Final?” I think there’s more we can do to maybe streamline it at that end. And that was one of the discussions we had at the Diamond League Board the other day.

The Future Of World Champs Marathons

Many of the marathon’s top drawer stars choose not to contest the event at the World Championships even if selected by their countries. Big money autumn races entice athletes and in recent years the possibility of dangerously hot, often humid, conditions in northern hemisphere host cities is increasingly a concern for athletes. Coe was asked if WA is developing a response to these realities.

The question I’ve been asking myself for some time, and I’ve spoken publicly about it, is really whether or not we are going to have to disconnect some of our endurance, particularly on the road — race walk and marathon — from that time of the year.

I had an interesting conversation with all the World Marathon Majors directors. I discussed it with them, whether or not we shouldn’t look at the opportunity of rescheduling our world championship marathons to come into their events at times of the year where you are giving the athlete a better chance of performance.

In the light of global warming and the inability of governments to use anything other than BS in this space, it is going to be down to sport to try and figure out how [we] navigate [our] way through this. Seventy-six percent of our athletes, when we did some research recently, already said that global warming has had a profound impact on their competition and their training programs. So I think it is inevitable that globally sport is going to have to look at rejiggering the calendar because there isn’t going to be any immediate respite from this problem.

And there’s a second issue, and that is that a lot of athletes are looking at the World Championships and saying, “Well, Chicago or New York is just around the corner and I don’t really want to be running in a world championship when I can be earning good prize money on the road a few weeks later.”

When we are looking at this maybe we reduce the marathon to a half-marathon in the world championships, which would at least maybe take some of the athlete welfare issues away and also increase the chance that they would be able to do a half-marathon in the lead up to one of the Marathon Majors. We have to be realistic about this, and our world championship fields, if we are being open about it, haven’t been the highest quality in depth for some years now.

And World Cross…

The World Athletics Council recently set the date of the 2026 World Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee. Traditionally a March fixture, the harrier title meet in Florida will be much earlier in the year, on January 10. Coe provided some background.

We moved it forward for a number of reasons. Local conditions, local temperatures, I won’t run through them all. The council signed that off the other day. It isn’t ideal, but it’s the best at this moment that we could do.

(On the longer-term horizon) we have actually looked at maybe rescheduling the World Cross Country Championships to before Christmas — we’ve discussed this with the European Athletics Association — and having a critical mass of cross country in the lead-up to Christmas, clearing the indoor season, giving that a bigger space to breathe. Often our World Cross Country has come quite hot on the heels of [a World Indoor Championships]. And there are plenty of people that want to do endurance events indoors that may also want to run cross country. We wouldn’t want to prevent that. That’s the current thinking. □