Seb Coe Talks Track After COVID-19 — Part 1

Coe, now in his second term at the World Athletics helm, sees better days ahead. Eventually. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

OUR SPORT WILL RISE AGAIN. As every one of us, track fan or not, knows all too painfully, the COVID-19 crisis has cast a dark cloud over human health and welfare along with what was supposed to be a glorious Olympic season. At least the last 16 days have seen rays of clarity about the future penetrate the chaos. The Tokyo Olympics are postponed a year to the summer of ’21, the ’21 World Championships to be held in Eugene will move to 2022, and the July 15–24 Worlds dates that year will kick off a stretch like we’ve never seen: a World Championships, a Commonwealth Games (July 27–August 07 with track dates not yet announced) and a European Championships (August 15–21) all within 44 days.

Today World Athletics President Seb Coe sat down to answer journalists’ questions about these developments—via web conferencing, of course. T&FN has published selected portions of the chat in two parts. For clarity, we have made some minor edits to his answers. Part 1 follows below. Read Part 2 here.

T&FN: You have in recent years promoted the idea that the World Championships should constitute a grand finale for the season in the years there is a World Championships. Understanding that you had many puzzle pieces to consider, why will the World Championships go first in the 3-championships sequence now on the table for 2022?

Coe: Well, it couldn’t go last for a number of really good logistical reasons. As you are aware, the World Athletics Championships in Eugene is a campus-based competition and students start coming back onto that campus from pretty much early August onwards. So that was always slated to be a July competition [’21 dates were 08/06–15].

Then of course, when we then started to look at the way the jigsaw would come together, preeminence of course in world athletics has to go to the World Athletics Championships. And I was really pleased with the cooperation and the flexibility that we soon were working with, with our partners in Oregon about making sure that those Championships went at a time that worked for a whole range of stakeholders and the [Eugene] organizing committee and USA Track And Field and also crucially NBC.

So look, nothing is perfect this year and we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that there are perfect solutions to anything. It’s something none of us ever thought we would be managing our way through. And frankly only those that are sitting there trying to manage their way through this in fairness probably understand the innate complexity of that matrix. I did then, absolutely openly, have some other considerations because while the World Athletics Championships had to be center stage, centerpiece, it was clearly self evident that it was better not to go head to head when the Olympic Games are pretty much the same time in the same year. So sliding into the next year was a sensible thing to do.

But with that responsibility, the status that we have as the big beast, we also have a responsibility to make sure where possible that the rest of our sport flowers and the European Championships and Commonwealth Games both had their events in the calendar for a number of years beforehand. That was an important consideration.

So it was very important that we were able to, where possible, allow the athletes good recovery time to get to the Championships and that the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, are a massive opportunity for us to grow the sport, but to do it in a way that didn’t damage other very important manifestations of our sport—both in Europe and the Commonwealth Games that has 70 of our member federations and some of the most talented athletes in the world. So they will be on duty in Eugene first and then by some movement around timetabling it will give them the best opportunity if they want to go from one championship to another. Now, athletes may choose not to do that, and that ultimately will be their decision.

T&FN: Given that the athletes will face unique challenges in achieving Olympic qualifying marks this time, where do you stand on perhaps awarding Wild Card entries to recent world champions, Olympic champions, perhaps even World Record holders, to ensure that the best are in Tokyo? Or you could at least designate them as automatic qualifiers. Are you thinking about amending the qualifying system in any way?

Coe: I think that there is an important principle to recognize here. That is that any athlete that currently has an Olympic qualification standard retains that status, but that isn’t actually the same as a guaranteed selection. That is ultimately, of course, for the member federation. And because it’s an Olympic Games, the final ratification on that is through a national Olympic committee. So it’s not actually for us to be saying to member federations that an Olympic qualification standard automatically guarantees a selection. So there are all sorts of things that our competition teams looked at and they really did do an in-depth piece of work on this. There are other issues as well.

But look, if optimistically the world did come back in this space quicker than we thought, there is still the opportunity for the World Athletics Council to review this if we felt that there was the opportunity to get our athletes back into that type of environment quicker rather than later and therefore maybe even look at qualification. But at the moment if we’re taking a balanced view of this and on the probability of where we think this may go, this is probably the most proportionate response at the moment.

WA Communications Director Jackie Brock-Doyle: I just want to quickly interrupt. In terms of the qualification standards going forward, yes, there will be a kind of look at it. But what’s important to remember is that athletes will [have been] able to qualify for 18 months by the time they get to the end of the qualification period. The new dates for the Olympic Games as set up are the end of May and end of June, depending on road or track. So all athletes will have had 4 months longer than they normally have to qualify, and over 50% of our athletes [per the entry standard quota] have qualified through the entry standard already. So there is a greater chance. Even with the suspension of the qualification, they still have four months longer than they would normally have to qualify for the Olympic Games.

Roughly across the board—track & field and road—around 50% have met the entry standard for all disciplines. There may be some technical disciplines that may not yet have done. But with our qualification, as you remember, we’ve got [50% that have to meet the performance standard] and then the other 50% are taken from the world rankings. People forget that qualification for our sport for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games began at the beginning of 2019. So a huge chunk of athletes qualified during that year anyway, and now they still have from December 1 [2020] through to the new dates, which are May 29 [road] and June 29 [track & field] to get their world ranking points and qualification.

T&FN: Looking back to ancient history and the lead-up to the 1980 Olympics, I don’t remember how much uncertainty there was about whether Great Britain would compete. Obviously you did end up competing. You yourself won a gold and a silver in races many will never forget.

But you had many peers on our side of the pond in the United States who missed their chance and suffered much pain through a politically motivated boycott. From your experience can you speak to the uncertainty that current athletes have had to endure and what it might mean for them to at least now know there will be a Games and World Championships following?

Coe: Let me start with your last observation. The most important thing we wanted to achieve for the athletes was certainty, which is why we wrote to the International Olympic Committee. I wanted certainty that we weren’t prolonging the agony of putting them into environments that were either unsafe or just simply frustrating. They could see that opportunity evaporating, and worse than that, we were possibly putting them into a dangerous environment.

The second issue we wanted was to then get certainty around the dates and the timings of those events, bearing in mind two of those events—Commonwealth Games and the European Championships—actually have had their dates in place for 4 years. We were the ones that were in a way trying to figure out how we could intrude on an existing season.

And then, of course, wanting to give them certainty around qualification so that they weren’t sitting there fretting that a handful of athletes somewhere in the world were able to compete and have events still going or maybe have events going earlier than others would. You know, grabbing the Olympic qualification places while others were still not even able to leave the country because of airline restrictions. So all those things were really aimed at giving clarity and certainty to the athletes as quickly as we possibly could.

When I look back to 1980, yes, It was uncertain. And the boycott—I’m probably choosing my words really carefully— was in large part created on your side of the ocean. It was something that I felt was misguided, historically illiterate and something that frankly didn’t really move the argument on at all. Because when I competed in Los Angeles in 1984 the Russians were still sitting in Afghanistan and not much had altered.

The only thing that had been altered is a lot of great American athletes and some other athletes from around the world had the opportunity of going to an Olympic Games ripped from them. And if you were Skeets Nehemiah you even chose to leave the sport and take up another sport. So the damage was profound.

I do remember running the streets of Sheffield and the great Kenny Moore came across and did a piece in Sports Illustrated over that Christmas period, where we openly discussed the risk that I might not even be going [to Moscow].

There is a fundamental difference, though. I don’t begin to equate the uncertainty I had with the uncertainty that athletes had in the lead up to the Tokyo decision. Yes, I ran around the streets of Sheffield and the beautiful countryside around my city with the niggling uncertainty that this may or may not be coming to fruition in a few months time, but at no stage did I take a step out of my front door thinking I was likely to infect myself, and worse than that, come back and risk infecting my family and my loved ones.

So I can absolutely share the concern about uncertainty, but I don’t remotely put the position that athletes were in in 1980 or the lead-up to the 1980 Games with anything that the athletes were going through here.

And I do make one point and I think I’m allowed to say this: We are talking about athletes competing in the summer of 2022 and some of the challenges around competition and back-to-back racing. I did run 7 races in 9 days in Los Angeles.

T&FN: As I recall, you in effect used the 800 rounds to sharpen for the 1500, in which you repeated as Olympic champion.

Coe: That’s right. But these are judgments that you do have to make a lot of the times. It’s not not quite as complicated as this sometimes. ◻︎

Read Part 2 Here