Coe swears by the youth

Newly-elected IAAF president from Britain presents a clear vision for his sport to move forward

Coe swears by the youth
Perhaps, it is apt that Sebastian Coe is taking over as the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations at a time when his sport is passing through a most challenging phase. Coe, the two-time Olympic 1500M champion and one of the legends of track and field, has proven his administrative capabilities at various levels and his work as Chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee for the Olympic Games was appreciated worldwide.

During the campaign trail, when he reportedly travelled 700,000 kilometres to meet with and exchange ideas with various member federations, Coe presented a clear vision for his sport to move forward. In this interview with Deccan Herald during the World Championships in Beijing, the 58-year-old threw more light on those plans. Excerpts:

Your win has generated plenty of goodwill and hope around the world that you could tackle the problems facing the sport. How do you plan to sustain it?

First of all it is a great honour, it is a job anybody who loves athletics will be privileged to do. And anybody who knows me and worked with me before knows that I build teams and this is not a journey that I am going to make alone, it is a journey that I will be making with other people. There are many, many in our sport who have great experience in all the continents and many years of serving and delivering for the sport. So how do I intend to sustain it? I intend to sustain it because we have the power and dedication of many, many people.

Secondly, we have to admit that the biggest challenge we face is in engaging young people. We can look at maybe changes to some of the format, we can look at calendar, look at our sports presentation, we can really target the areas that I think our sport is growing and India is clearly one of those. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is engaging and exciting young people who want to be part of our sport. I really want to challenge and excite young people and want people to fall in love with track and field for the same reasons that I fell in love with track and field.

Your manifesto talks about having a narrative to the season. How challenging is it, considering we have different continents and different seasons...

It is a challenge, and within our strength lies the challenge. Our strength is 214 federations, making it a truly global sport, which is on view for all 12 months of the year. We have indoors, outdoors, cross country, road, walk and we have six areas. So it is very important for us to create a narrative. And the narrative is not just around Diamond League and one-day events, it is also about fitting our championships into that. Where do our area championships, where do our national championships fit in? So I think it is a good time to create a more enveloping calendar. People who follow track and field know what the big moments are, they know what it means, not others.

For instance, we know it with Formula One – at any part of the season, you know who is the lead driver, who is the lead constructor. In such a way, we need to be clearer about what our season means. The World Championships are fantastic, maybe the World Championships could be the conclusion of the season, people should be leaving the World Championships feeling that it was the big, big moment of the year.

Lack of head to head clashes has been a problem with track and field, like Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin hardly meeting each other till the World Championships...

You are right. I know what my kids would get up for early in the morning – they get up to watch Nadal and Federer, they get up to watch Hamilton-Rosberg. People want head to head, people need to see the best of their generation, but you can’t do it all the time, you can’t have your best competing every week because we don’t want our best athletes breaking down all the time by forcing them into those.

I do think there is an appetite from our public to see head to head contests and maybe we should look at in terms of central contracts, where the athletes are contracted to take part in certain competitions a year and within that framework, we have the understanding that they will have to help with a narrative that is strong about head to head competitions.

What are your plans to develop the sport in Asia?

Asia has extraordinary potential for our sport but when we talk about Asia, we are talking about a very, very large continent, of 44-45 nations. So we have to be specific about very distinct regions. My instinct is that we should create economic drivers for our sport in distinctive market places. If you are looking at growing the sport in the gulf, there are very different challenges there than when we compare it to South-East Asia. What we need to do is allow the sport to grow in a way that it best suits local customs and local taste.

India has been struggling to fulfil its potential. What are your thoughts on boosting the sport in the country?

I was in Delhi for the Commonwealth Games and went to the stadium every night of the week. It was absolutely sold out, for the first time in a long time, many, many Indians saw top track and field and it was clear there is an appetite for track and field. I have spoken to the Indian federation and I have spoken to (Athletics Federation of India president) Adille (Sumariwalla), who is now my council colleague, that there is a potential to develop that. I intend to visit India probably before the end of the year and start these discussions with federation and potential sponsors.

Also, it is very important to connect with the governments. Governments have budgets and also they set targets in health and education. So the point I always make – and this is going to be an important part of my presidency – is in connecting with governments and make them recognise that track and field is uniquely placed to help them in meeting targets in education and health.

The Athletics Federation of India had talked about launching a league on the lines of the Indian Premier League. You have spoken about city-based contests. Is there a common ground here?

I think the way the IPL has presented itself, the way it is based on cities, the way it turned spectators into passionate fans, we need to create opportunities where spectators do become fans, that they do feel an instinctive, emotional connection. This is a great moment to look at all these innovative and creative ideas. We also should realise that while the theatre of our sport is the stadiums, young people are not always going to make their first trip to the stadiums. We have to take athletics to where they are – whether it is to the streets, whether it is to the city squares or to the shopping malls. We need to build that fan base with young people.

Are you concerned about the doping scenario in India, with the country among the leaders when it comes to the number of athletes serving suspensions?

I have spoken to the Indian federation about this. They are taking it very seriously and they will continue to do so. It is a global challenge and it is not a problem rooted in one country. What we do have to make sure is we have processes that are absolutely scrupulous so that athletes, wherever they are in the world, are treated in the same way. And I want every clean athlete to know that they have a president who is going to be unambiguously in their corner, fighting for their right to compete in a sport that is clean. It is a big responsibility for me and one of my key priorities.

The World Anti-Doping Agency president Craig Reedie has spoken about banning nations for frequent doping offences. Would you support that?

I think change is better done from the inside. I don’t like the idea of a country or a federation being told that they are not part of the family. I think it is for the family to figure out how we can help those nations. (By banning nations) the only people who you are going to penalise are the clean athletes and I don’t think the clean athletes should be penalised by the behaviour of the few bad ones. My role as president is in helping those countries facing those challenges to have processes and systems in place to protect the clean athletes.


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