16 Dec Jobs for the boys: Sebastian Coe is part of the problem and not the solution
Article by James Fairbourn
Track and Field faces a crucial eighteen months or so up to the next Olympics in Rio. Mired in scandal, facing diminished crowds, greater competition for youngsters and an over reliance on a vanishing pool of credible star names – athletics is fighting for its life. The two major scandals of the past fortnight shouldn’t be used to cover over the chronic failures within athletics – you can’t blame this all on the drug cheats and those who want to make a few bob out of a bid to host the World Championships.
Actual statistics on athletics participation are notoriously (and conveniently) difficult to examine. What makes an ‘athletics participant’ exactly? Governing Bodies will have you believe that as soon as someone goes for a jog down the street, they immediately count as a new athlete committed to a future of competition. One need only look at the track closures afflicting this country to see that athletics simply isn’t winning the hearts and minds of the young. It is losing the battle with computer games and other sports to such an extent that British stars are now having to be procured from other nations and the British Athletics League has become a bigger joke than the G4S fiasco at the Olympics.
It isn’t just limited to these shores either. The ‘Bolt Factor’ has been disastrous for athletics. People show up to watch him. The television cameras are only interested in him. The pathetic ‘BoltDown’ on the BBC and the dramatically reduced Diamond League attendances across Europe this summer (Bolt has been injured and barely raced in 2014) are evidence of this. The close coverage of his every move in Glasgow this summer (by noted athletics writers too) was embarrassing to the point of hilarity. Where will he sleep? What will he eat? Why doesn’t he like Glasgow? He featured for less than 20 seconds – in 2 relay races. What an earth do we talk about when Mr. Bolt deprives us of his presence?
Pretty grim picture isn’t it? You have the Russians (allegedly) doped up to their eyeballs, just about everyone else clogging up doctors’ surgeries with mysterious illnesses that require immediate prescription medication. Then there is the son of the current President allegedly courting bribes in exchange for help to win a World Championships bid (which was incidentally a story covered by Inside the Rings back in 2011). But fear not, my little lambs, for there is a Messiah in our midst and it isn’t Russell Brand. Turns out he has been under our noses all this time: Lord Sebastian Coe.
The first question for the Vice President of an organisation he now feels needs a total overhaul is: what an earth have you been doing since 2007? Surely he has to be in some small part responsible for the mess that this sport has managed to get itself embroiled in? Doping isn’t exactly a new problem and yet only now is Coe ready to press ahead with his agenda to sort it out – and only if he becomes the next President.
The issue of bungs for votes is not unique to athletics. FIFA’s World Cup bids have been an ethical laughing stock for many a year. The difference between FIFA and the IAAF is that FIFA’s ‘product’ has never been stronger. Blatter can endure day after day on the front pages of newspapers because, if anything, it adds to the soap opera that football has become. Whether that is a good thing or not is debatable (I don’t think that it is) but the sport will not be brought to its knees by a few dodgy World Cup bids or some refs making a bit on the side.
Athletics, on the other hand, is a sport that only really enters the public consciousness once every four years and has only its credibility to fall back on in times of hardship. We are not in a situation such as the 1980s when you could sell-out Crystal Palace on a Tuesday night to watch three of the best milers in the world (all British) go head to head. Nor are 100 British men breaking 2:20 at the London marathon anymore (you’d be lucky to get 10). The sport has drifted away from the mainstream and faces a battle to maintain the little support it still maintains. The IAAF has to nurture every ounce of trust it has in order to survive.
Whether Lord Coe can sort out the alleged corruption (with a promised ‘ethics department’) is a question as warranted as what he has been doing for the past 7 years whilst the sport’s credibility has nosedived. Coe was once the head of ethics at the aforementioned FIFA (how’d that work out?) and left to involve himself in England’s doomed bid to host the 2018 World Cup. And then there is the question of his business interests and the conflicts they bring with them. The company to which he ultimately sold his marketing agency – CLG – to in 2012 did remarkably well out of the Games, with a whole tranche of hefty contracts being shoved their way. Great news for Coe as the initial payment of around £2m stands to rise by a further £10m by 2017 depending on profitability.
Chime Communications (the company that bought CLG) also owns CSM Strategic, from whom Lord Coe draws a salary of £2m per year as its ‘executive chairman’. CSM ran the public consultation into what to do about the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace – arguably the spiritual home of athletics in the UK. Lord Coe has backed calls for the stadium to remain as an athletics facility. It is just a shame that this public backing was unable to prevent CSM presenting options for the ‘re-development’ of Crystal Palace (by Chinese industrial group ZhongRong) into what would at best be a small local track without stands or indoor facilities. Two of the four options put forward suggest bulldozing athletics out of the Palace altogether.
CSM argue that with the Olympic Stadium in London (albeit on the other side and occupied by a Premier League football club), the future of Crystal Palace needs to be ‘redefined’. By pure coincidence, Lord Coe happens to have strong links with a number of Conservative pals who also just happen to be lobbying on behalf of ZhongRong. The future of the NSC has still yet to be decided, but far from protecting the legacy of athletics in the South East of London, Coe is willfully putting it at risk.
None of this is illegal and none of it means that Lord Coe wouldn’t make an excellent President of the IAAF. However, surely someone who wants to bring about radical change needs to be distanced from even a whiff of scandal. Surely someone who spent seven years talking incessantly about inspiring a generation of athletes should be fighting tooth and nail to save a vital piece of British sport’s history and infrastructure. It is difficult to take a change champion seriously when they are part of the problem in the first place.
Many of the same limitations can be leveled at Coe’s main rival for the role – Sergei Bubka – also a former great athlete, also a current IAAF Vice-President. This ‘jobs for the boys’ mindset has beset sports organisations for far too long and never really solves anything. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Athletics is in a perilous state – very much in critical care. If it is to survive, it is time to try some new medicine rather than falling back on the formula that landed it here in the first place.
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