AS HAS BEEN HIS CUSTOM for the past 3 seasons, this week World Athletics President Seb Coe spent a couple days before the commencement of year-end holiday festivities engaged in video chats with representatives of the global track & field media.
Before taking questions from the group T&FN was invited to join, Coe, now with 7 presidential years under his belt, led with a few observations:
“An Extraordinary Year For Athletics”
“I don’t think I’m probably going to be saying anything that is particularly noteworthy when I say that it was an extraordinary year for athletics. And I’m a fan, like all of you.
“I can’t remember a season where I’ve seen such unbelievable performances. And those performances were not, you know, just limited to the championships arena. They occurred across our Continental Tours, our Diamond Leagues and many other manifestations.
“But actually, I don’t think you can talk about those performances without setting them alongside the absolute challenge of the previous two years in the lead up to that. Because I think it’s worth reflecting that those performances came off the back of a set of challenges I can’t think any athlete in any generation — certainly not my generation — had to confront. And [these challenges] were the 2 years of Covid: the first year of uncertainty, a disruption that was without precedent, an Olympic Games postponed, training programs turned upside down.
“And resilience and fortitude and forebearance that is staggering given the challenge that they were facing.
“And again, this is probably a moment just to pay the kind of tribute that I need to at this moment to the athletes that did what they did last year. Because for me, that’s not just a one-off year that we all got lucky and happily everybody struck a rich vein. I think you have to look at the history of where they came from in order to do that. And I think that makes the performances even more spectacular.”
The Sport At Year’s End — Coe’s View
To date, Seb Coe has guided World Athletics through a tumultuous 7-year period since his election to its Presidency in 2015. There was the pay-to-play corruption legacy of previous president Lamine Diack to banish, the entrenched culture of systemic drug cheating in Russia and elsewhere to root out.
There was also the undertaking of a reform and rewrite of the World Athletics constitution with emphases on greater transparency, integrity and inclusivity. And there was the Covid-19 pandemic with effective loss of the 2020 season to navigate past.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Coe told journalists on Thursday looking ahead to 2023 with a World Championships again on tap (Budapest in August) along with a World Cross Country (Bathurst, Australia in February) and an expanded World Road Racing Champs (Riga, Latvia, end of September with mile and 5K events added).
“We’re in good shape. [laughs] Probably better shape than I thought we’d be in when a few weeks into the role. We went through the hard yards, actually the hard years, where we rewrote — well, we just redesigned the sport.”
With most of the “hard yards” in the rearview mirrow — albeit with thorny aspects such as Russia reinstatement still in process — Coe says WA is “now in that phase where we’re talking about new formats and events, and then documentary dramas and all sorts of things that help grow the sport.”
That includes, he said, “revitalizing ourselves with next generation sponsors, making sure that the athletes continue to be at the heart of all our considerations and have input into our issues.”
World Athletics — formerly the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) and founded in long-ago 1912 — operated as very much a 20th century sports body well into the second decade of this millennium. Which is not to say that evolutionary, and even revolutionary steps, were never taken by any of Coe’s predecessors. They were, though important aspects of the operation relevant to modern sports-entertainment marketing were carried on in an atmosphere arguably redolent with hidebound and stodgy strategy.
In the post-hard yards, post-Covid era, Coe aims to grow the sport with data-driven focus. The next few seasons should speak to his effectiveness in doing so. The proof will be in the pudding.
“We’re placing a great deal more store on being able to define the impact that our events have on your countries, your communities, your neighborhoods,” Coe said. “And that’s important because we’re increasingly living in a world where people want to know, how does your event sit alongside the strategic imperatives of a region, a city, a country?”
To compete in the marketplace, Coe emphasized the importance of being able to quantify, for example, “the impact of our four combined World Championships,” in the competition year just concluded (team walks, indoor, outdoor and U20 [Juniors]).
In dollar terms, Coe reported, “Last year, it was about $316 million. You won’t be surprised when I tell you a good chunk of that, some $237 million, came from Eugene.
“But this is important because of our ability to go and sell our events into agencies, countries, institutions that are going to be making judgments about, ‘What does the bottom line look like? What is the impact?’
“This is research done by Nielsen and the measurements across our signature events are in 5 key areas. That’s economic, social, media, environmental, and of course attendance. And that allows us to be very much more prescriptive about what it is that we’re actually achieving in legacy value from an event.”
At this juncture, Coe talked numbers, which we’ll distill in short form:
• 4 World Championship events in 2022 “that embraced 4000 athletes and 180 countries competing with 261 national records set.
• a cumulative global TV audience of over a billion reached.
• 13,000 athletes from 159 countries competed across Diamond League and Continental Tour events with 173 national records set.
Describing internet engagement, Coe stated, “We had 34 million hits on our website. If you look at our reach globally across all these platforms, we were reaching about 10 billion people over the course of the year throughout those championship, and our own social media hit 10 million followers.”
Finished with his rundown of the numbers, the erstwhile middle distance star who in that life outran opponents with spectacular flare, Coe concluded, “If you sort of throw all that into the melting pot, what am I really trying to say? We’re a global sport. We’re a global sport that’s performing at its best. And look, there are only two real global sports. There’s us and [soccer] football, what’s going on in Qatar at the moment.”
Coe added, “I think that we’re in in really good shape. Aside from the championship arena, we had a full Diamond League program and we also had 162 Continental Tour events. And that’s important because our philosophy, both mine and [WA CEO] John Ridgeon’s philosophy is to do everything we possibly can to really bolster the one-day opportunities.
“Continental Tour is important for us because that actually increases the competition opportunities. It will over time, I hope, increase the financial security of athletes, but it also allows athletes to be competing closer to their own neighborhoods, and that’s important.”
Additionally, Coe assessed the promise of 2023 for the sport.
Back-To-Back World Champs
“We have another World Championships. We weren’t expecting two in a row, but there you go. It’s a high-class problem. But we do have to be cognizant of the fact that the athletes are being tested a lot of late.
“The postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games, I think lot of people didn’t quite understand how complex that landscape was.
“It wasn’t just pulling an Olympic Games out of one year. The impact on the compacted calendar has been quite profound. So we need to be conscious that, yeah, we’ve got more of the athletes and we have more opportunities. But I’m sure the athletes, the coaches, the national structures that they work within will be conscious that they’re an asset that you don’t want to be taken to the mill too regularly. Welfare is important, but we do have a World Championships next year.
“It’s important that that is seen, as a hugely important one. You’ll hear me use the word ‘momentum’ a lot and I’m unashamedly talking about it because the athletes have created a momentum for us that it would be entirely remiss of us not to really build on.
“And we’ll be building a lot on a lot of elements in terms of that momentum. In 2023 we’ll have a real focus, for instance, on gathering, analyzing, and the use of data much more widely.
“We don’t want this just to be, about TV graphics. We want this technology and data to be actually used to really make our sport more understandable, more accessible, and certainly more open to interpretation amongst young people who are driven in large part by technology and the development around it.”
Plans For The Years Ahead
The end of 2023 will mark the conclusion of Coe’s second full term in the World Athletics Presidency.
In Budapest this coming August at the WA Congress ahead of the World Championships, he could certainly throw his hat in the ring for election to a third term. For the moment, he is not quite saying he will, though it’s obvious what the smart bet is.
“I’m keen to continue with the work I’m doing,” Coe says. “But ultimately that is a matter for my colleagues and also a matter for, ultimately, the Congress. The Congress is the Supreme Council for those considerations. So at the moment, I just plow on.”
Asked for further comment, Coe said, “I enjoy my job, you know. Why wouldn’t I join an athletics club at the age of 11? I’m now in a position to help shape it many years after my entrance to Hallamshire Harriers. So, yeah, it’s a sport I love and it’s a sport that has been very kind to me.”
In his remarks, Coe also highlighted 2026, the season that logically will at last return the sport to the pre-pandemic flow after 5 years straight with either an Olympic Games or outdoor World Championships. Such seasons are often referred to as “off years” on this side of the pond; they feature no major global or area championships for U.S. athletes. Coe would like to plug the quadrennial hole in the schedule.
“We want to continue work on 2026,“ he said. “I think I’ve spoken to you either individually or collectively about ‘26.”
It’s not a season, he added, “that I’ve just sort of plucked out of the ether. “26 is one of those years in that four year quad, that four year cycle where you don’t actually have an Olympic Games or a World Championships. Some have described it as a fallow year. There are no fallow years in athletics cuz we have Commonwealth Games, European Championship, our area championships.
“But I didn’t want the athletes to slide off the radar screen for one year in every four. I wanted them to have the opportunity to really showcase. We’re still working on the format, much to be discussed, much to be agreed upon. But it is, again, indicative of the direction we want to take the sport, which is building profile for the athletes, riding more competition opportunities and unashamedly putting more money in their pockets.
“So there’ll be a focus on the new format, particularly around prize money.” Rumblings in the background suggest Coe may have a new major meet in mind for that season just over 3 years in the future.