Seb Coe Talks Track After COVID-19 — Part 2

Coe feels athletes’ “challenges have been a bit of a metaphor for life recently in the way that they’ve shown resilience and fortitude.” (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

WORLD ATHLETICS PRESIDENT SEB COE took a respite from managing a colossal reassembly of the championships calendar over the next three seasons to answer journalists’ questions about our sport and the coronavirus crisis.

You’ll find Part 1 of our coverage of his comments here. Part 2 follows:

T&FN: Can you offer any hints as to what you expect the one-day meeting circuits, the Diamond League and the Continental Tour to look like this year and through 2022, the season with that jam-packed championships schedule of World Championships/Commonwealth Games/European Championships one after the other? Perhaps there are opportunities with this massive interruption to get creative in new ways in trying to make that puzzle work?

Coe: Yeah, it’s a really good question. At this very moment, my chief executive and our competition teams sit pretty regularly with the Diamond League board and the directors. I chair the Diamond League board. So at the moment, if you’ll forgive me, we are trying to figure out what the Diamond League, if we can resurrect any of it, looks like towards the end of the year.

We do have a full Diamond League calendar next year, but of course that calendar was put in place and signed off at the recent general assembly. But of course, before we knew we were going to have to put an Olympic Games in there. So look, everybody will be flexible.

So the answer to your first question is I can’t really tell you what the ’22 one-day season will look like. And there was a second part to your question.

T&FN: Yes, I suggested you’d essentially need to need to get creative, but I guess I should frame that specifically as an American who’s asking. With that 2022 schedule our athletes will have the World Championships and then they will have a period—what, 7 weeks or so?—where there’s very little opportunity to be out on the world stage. Do you anticipate that the Diamond League circuit may go farther into September than is usual?

Coe: They may have to extend the season. And look, it’s not impossible to do that. You can’t go much beyond middle to late September because if you look at where the Diamond League is at that stage of the year, it’s in Zürich, it’s in Brussels. So, you know, you can get a really nice European summer that sometimes goes on into early October, but sometimes you don’t. So you can’t ask athletes to, to go.

But I do remember the other point you made about the innovation and creativity. Yes, I think there is the opportunity to do that. I made it very clear the other day in a communication to all our stakeholders that this does allow us the time to rethink a few things. We don’t need to do the same old, same old again.

You know, we’re looking at creating a calendar for ’22, but we’ve got a big stream of work going on in World Athletics at the moment about what the global calendar should look like. We’re looking at one-day meets, we’re looking at 10-day World Championships, we’re looking at restaging World Half-Marathons and World Race Walks and all sorts of things. But actually, why not have a weekend festival of running? Why not have a World Half-Marathon Championships and Race Walk and a 10K? You know, you could really do this very differently now.

I think that this should give us the opportunity to think differently. The world is going to be different when we come out of this. You know, there’s some elements that will return quite quickly, but we shouldn’t lose the opportunity to just think differently now. We’re all going to work differently. I’ve already said to the Council, “You can forget having eight people flying eight time zones to make a presentation for an hour.” The very nature of what we’re doing now [conferencing online] proves that we should in essence be thinking about working differently.

We have a 10-year sustainability strategy within World Athletics and we should be working and living to those standards that we’re setting ourselves. This sport for one will be making those changes. I don’t want my diary to look anywhere the same as it would have done had we not been confronted with these challenges. And I know what that will mean for me, and we are going to work differently and we can work differently.

Seb Coe’s Mix Tape

With no meets to watch for the time being, if multi-time World Record setter and twice 1500m Olympic champion Coe could set up a fantasy season from the past for fans, which competitions would he include?

Coe: I’ve been very lucky because I’ve seen some wonderful athletics in my life, which is not surprising. I’ve been around a long time. If you said to me, “What is your box set of high-grade races? What would you watch?” then I’m almost spoilt for choice but I’m a middle distance/endurance man so I’ll settle for some of those. I think Herb Elliott’s 1960 [Olympic 1500] win in Rome where he broke the World Record, ran from gun to tape beating one of the world’s great milers Michel Jazy with the largest distance gap [an Olympic 1500] has been won in. And I’m slightly biased. Herb is a good friend of mine.

I was also very, very privileged to be in the stadium in Sydney in 2000 watching probably the most exciting 10,000 meter race I’ve ever seen, which was Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat where the lead places changed four times in the finishing straight and Gebrselassie beat Tergat in a tighter margin than Maurice Greene won the 100 meters in two nights before.

I think if I start with Sydney, talk about hometown pressure. Cathy Freeman winning the 400 meters. I was in the commentary box for Channel 7 and the great [Australian broadcaster] Bruce McAvaney did one of his very classic commentaries. I was sitting next to the great Raelene Boyle and at the end of the race Bruce McAvaney was going, “What a performer, what an athlete, what an Australian,” and Raelene Boyle grabbed the microphone and went, “What a relief!” I think most people in Australia felt that.

I loved Hicham El Guerrouj’s double in Athens in the 15 and the 5000 when he was really so much at the top of his game.

And I feel very privileged to have seen Usain Bolt at his very best. So you, know, I’m just talking about five great fantasies. You know, if I had my night in front of a television, that’s probably what I would drift to.

And I guess even though I felt some pride in being a part of the team that choreographed it, I think Super Saturday in London [2012] with Jess [Ennis-Hill] and Greg [Rutherford] and obviously Mo [Farah], wearing a British hat for a moment. But hey, where else? I mean there are so many other places I could go.

Recreational/Fitness Running And C19

Did Coe have concerns about the coronavirus’s impact on people going out and being active, getting the jog around the neighborhood in? Has he been encouraged that many people seem to be turning to exercise as an assist to coping?

Coe: Yes. I’ve really been pleased to see people taking up 5K challenges and doing it to support healthcare workers wherever they’re living. But it is interesting, isn’t it, that when people want to create a challenge around an environment of adversity how often they turn to something that has a sporting connotation to it. And that’s a good place to be.

I also think that there is something else that we will witness and that is people will look to sport in an even greater way for bringing communities back together again. In a funny sort of way communities are probably closer [in this crisis]. Even though we are socially distancing, I sense that we’ve all come closer again because of the very nature of the global challenge, that it doesn’t really matter where you’re living, it doesn’t really matter what your circumstances are.

Everybody almost is as vulnerable [as anybody else]. And that vulnerability, I think, just brings an emotional connectivity again, which is a good thing. And I do think that organizations—governments, local, regional, national—will look to sport and they should look to sport. And maybe for the first time they might actually recognize that we have a profound role to play under all sorts of circumstances. Not just opening the doors when teams win and they all get excited about it for a few moments.

WA’s Entertainment Initiative

World Athletics has gone all in of late in innovations to try to make the sport more entertaining to general sports fans. Coe was asked about the relationship of these efforts to the development of elite athletes.

Coe: Look, I do actually think athletics is entertaining. I think at its best it’s an unassailable sport. If you look at the performances that we witnessed in Doha—which simply based on athlete performance, were off the graph. I mean some of those competitions were sumptuous, whether it was the men’s shot put, the pole vault competitions, you know, everywhere you looked. And the great news about that was that of all the disciplines out there, some 25% of those competitors were under the age of 24. And that is a huge asset to have as you’re going forward.

Are there things that we can do technologically to bring the athletes closer to the fans? Absolutely, to be able to allow them to tell their extraordinary stories and get the fans that are not necessarily our traditional fans to understand how great a sport track and field is. Yes.

Actually some of the things that we’ve been doing within our own communications teams [during this crisis] around athletics at home and the content that we’re now going to be sharing within the sport. And there is the creativity that has been unleashed within the athletes themselves that has shown just how resilient and smart and clever they are. All those things, again, give us the opportunity off the back of this crisis to be even smarter about how we promote our sport.

Yeah, there are lots of things that we can do. But athletics is at its best a very exciting sport.

Social Distance Events

Might World Athletics consider, say, Diamond League meets without spectators later this year if it seems safe to gather athletes but not masses of spectators?

Coe: I don’t honestly know the answer to that question. I hope it doesn’t ever come to that. I think you have to accept the fact that any sporting event without a crowd is a rather anesthetized event. Look, if I had a crystal ball and I was able to predict where we’d be in a few days, let alone a few months, you’d probably be slightly surprised.

I would rather be able to put events back into the schedule where athletes and the crowds can come and enjoy and, and just forget the world that they had to live through for a few minutes and let sport do its unique healing, the healing exercise it can do. So the honest answer is, No, I’d rather not have athletes competing behind closed doors, but you know we are in a strange world at the moment.

Tips For Locked-Down Athletes

As WA President and a former athlete, does Coe have advice on what athletes can do in this time of reduced training opportunities and no meets?

Coe: To clearly keep in shape as well as they possibly can within the confines of, sadly, some really crazy circumstances. The one thing that has kept me inspired and buoyed through some of the tougher hours that we’ve all spent trying to manage our way through this is the stream of contribution made by athletes with the hurdling over tubs of water or doing work on balconies or running down hotel corridors. I’ve blown away by the way that they have adapted and been innovative. Their challenges have been a bit of a metaphor for life recently in the way that they’ve shown resilience and fortitude.

I would also encourage them to look and take the long-term view about these things and remember that the great thing about athletics is nothing happens quickly overnight that is sustainable and lasting that they have probably already devoted over half of their lives to being in a position where they’re even being considered for selection in a major championships.

And they also have the advantage I probably didn’t, had I been in the same situation 35, 40 years ago. They can go online and actually understand a great deal more about the history of their events. They can go back and really be inspired and suffused in the extraordinary talents of what came before them.

I’m often at coaching conferences and seminars—at club level, even at international level—and one of the most popularly asked questions I always get is, What is it that I need to do to become a world class 800-meter runner or 1500-meter runner or marathon runner?

They always expected me to come at them with anaerobic thresholds and 5-tier training and anaerobic this, you know, and CPKs and blood chemistry analysis, the usual things.

They’ve got to do all that anyway.That’s all part and parcel of what they need to do. But I always say, “Become students of your sport, become students of your sport, understand who came before you and the equal adversity.” You know, the athletes today are facing massive adversity, but actually athletes in the past under very different circumstances faced equally tough times. They might actually be inspired that those athletes also came through really difficult political, cultural, social, gender challenges.

There isn’t an equivalence here. I’m not trying to put a pecking order, but I think they can spend some time understanding that athletes in the past have come through and triumphed after periods of intense darkness in their own lives.