PtG Comment 20.08.2015

Who is the ‘real’ Sebastian Coe?

Comment: Will the newly elected president of the International Athletics Federation, Sebastian Coe, be able to bring the sport back on its feet? Andreas Selliaas analyses Coe’s background and comments on his mounting challenges.

Lord Sebastian Coe was Wednesday elected as new president of the International Athletics Federation (IAAF) ahead of Sergey Bubka. Winning 115-92 was a comfortable, but not overwhelming victory. But for the former middle distance ace and successful leader of the 2012 London Olympics this was a great day. In his victory speech he valued being elected president of the IAAF as the “second biggest and momentous decision” in his life. I guess his kids are happy that he placed them at the top of the family podium. I’ll bet his automatic promotion to IOC’s Executive Committee as president of IAAF comes in as a good third.

IAAF is in a deep crisis. Being elected president of a federation accused of corruption and doping cover-ups and being head of a sport with increasing decline in interest and with a weak economy is a double challenge: by being elected you have played by the rules of those bringing the organisation to its knees. In fact, Sebastian Coe has been Vice President of the IAAF since 2007 and must take some of the responsibility for the mess that the IAAF finds itself in. At the same time Coe has promised the outside world that he will clean up this mess. How much of the past will he bring with him to the future? Can we trust Sebastian Coe to get athletics back on its feet?

Most of us were annoyed and some even surprised when Sebastian Coe attacked the German documentary ‘Geheimsache Doping - Im Schattenreich der Leichtathletik’ and the subsequent revelations in the Sunday Times about thousands of athletes whose high blood values have been kept secret during the past 15 years and the suspected cover-up stories. Coe said the revelations and accusations were a “declaration of war” and begged the athletics family to stand together and fight the smear campaign. He also casted doubt over the integrity of the experts analysing the material handed over from whistle-blowers inside the IAAF to German and British journalists, experts widely used inside sports today to help fight doping. His attack should not come as a surprise. He was only talking to the 207 voting nations giving him the second biggest moment in his life. Sebastian Coe is one of the best and most experienced politicians in the world of sports when it comes to Realpolitik.

Playing by the rules of Realpolitik and business

By attacking the messenger and not the message he played by the rules of international sports politics and he has done so since his first 1500 meter gold medal at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. He and the British team participated in the Moscow Games boycotted by 60+ nations due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Britain did not want to mix sports and politics. That is how you play by the rules of sports politics.

One example of playing by the rule book of sports politics is being appointed by FIFA president Sepp Blatter as the first head of FIFA’s ethics committee in 2006 and not bringing one single case to the table despite all the accusations and traces of corruption inside FIFA already at that time. Another is calling the late IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch a great friend (only making minor mistakes in the Salt Lake City scandal) or not lifting an eyebrow at the outgoing IAAF president Lamine Diack’s decision to hand Eugene, USA, the World Championship in 2021 without any form of bidding process.

But Coe’s contribution to the writing of the book of sports politics goes far deeper than that. Many give him credit for securing London the Olympics in 2012 and also for the London Games being a success. These achievements were probably the main springboard for his successful campaign to become IAAF president, but also an opportunity to gain personal economic profit.

Alongside being elected chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA) in 2012, he has also became Executive Chairman of CSM Sports & Entertainment, a company bought by Chime Communications from Sebastian Coe for £12 million. One of CSM’s customers has been Baku and officials from the totalitarian regime in Azerbaijan. CSM worked out the bid book for Baku in their wish for the Summer Olympics and have helped Baku secure the heavily criticised European Games, arranged for the first time this summer.

According to world leading anti-corruption journalist, German Jens Weinreich, Sebastian Coe voted for Baku to become the host of the European Games while at the same time profiting economically by awarding the Games to Ilham Aliyev and his despotic family in Azerbaijan. Furthermore, CSM helped convince UEFA and Michel Platini into giving Baku four of the matches during the European Championship in football in 2020. Sebastian Coe has denied any conflict of interest.

After winning gold in Moscow, Coe wore Nike as a competitive athlete and has remained an ambassador for the company ever since. In 2012 he was appointed International Advisor for Nike. In recent years, a number of Nike sponsored athletes like Lance Armstrong, Justin Gatlin and Alberto Salazar have been involved in some of the biggest doping scandals. Coe said he was not happy when Justin Gatlin was nominated IAAF athlete of the year in 2014, but he has refused to comment on Nike’s role in these doping cases, including the company’s co-operation with Gatlin, nor has he been clear on whether he will withdraw as an ambassador for Nike after having secured the IAAF presidency. After being elected president of the IAAF he refuses to comment on how much money he receives from Nike as an International Advisor. Thrustworthy in his effort to increase IAAF credibility in the fight against doping?

Coe’s proposed reforms and challenges

In his election manifesto Sebastian Coe outlined several areas of reform. He wants to reform the world athletics’ calendar and introduce ‘street athletics’ competitions. He wants to maximise commercial growth, focus more on youth engagement, increase resources for anti-doping, including the introduction of a new independent unit, establish a new IAAF ethics department to safeguard the values of the sport and give the national federations more power.

In the final run up to the election, in great Sepp Blatter-style, he also promised to make carefully audited payments of $100,000 to each member federation over each four-year Olympic cycle to aid grassroots development: Fine words and a nice gesture.

During his election campaign, Sebastian Coe has spent quite a lot of his fortune (estimated at £25 million) on campaign money and has travelled 700,000 km to reach out to the electorate. But if he means business, the journey to save an IAAF in crisis has just begun and more money should be spent, especially in the fight against doping. To claim honor for rescuing the IAAF, he needs to increase the earnings of the organisation and channel more money down to healthy sports projects at grassroot level all over the world. Today the audit books of the IAAF show no sign of athletics being the biggest sport in the Olympic Summer Games.

And to find a new Mo Farah and Usain Bolt you need a strategy for keeping the youth active.

And probably most imminent and most important of all: Sebastian Coe has to deal with the doping problem right away. Declaring war against those revealing weaknesses in the IAAF regime of anti-doping is not the way to deal with it. Sitting silently while watching Justin Gatlin renew his sponsorship deal with Nike and be the main attraction at the World Championships in Beijing is also wrong. Coe needs to declare a war on those cheating, not those who try to get rid of them.

But first of all he has to make a clear distinction between what is personal gain and what is best for athletics. The election campaign is over. Many would like to see the real Sebastian Coe, if he exists.