Tuesday 20 August 2019

Coe's dream job must feel like a waking nightmare now that the rules of global sports administration have been changed

The IAAF president must make real progress soon or athletics will remain a sport on life-support

IAAF president Lord Coe continued to deny his association with Nike was a conflict of interest, even after quitting his ambassador's role with the company
IAAF president Lord Coe continued to deny his association with Nike was a conflict of interest, even after quitting his ambassador's role with the company

Owen Gibson

Too little, too late? Or a stitch in time?

As a double Olympic gold medallist Sebastian Coe specialised in peaking when it mattered, but his oddly begrudging acceptance that he ought to relinquish his ambassadorial role with Nike, four months after taking over as president of world athletics and without accepting that it ever constituted a conflict of interest in the first place, struck a bum note.

The calls for him to drop the role began as soon as he won a narrow presidential vote in Beijing and have grown since, peaking last week as the BBC pursued him over an email that showed Coe discussing a bid by Eugene - where Nike was founded - to host the 2021 world athletics championships with company executives.

It ought to have been the moment Coe finally put some distance between himself and the rotten regime of his predecessors, laying to rest any sense that during his seven years as vice-president of the International Association of Athletics Federations he could have been more curious about what was going on in the presidential office.

It ought to have been the moment he leaped free of the corrosive debate over his outside interests and whether they were compatible with a sporting landscape in which the rules of engagement have changed since Swiss police stormed into the Baur au Lac in May to arrest FIFA executives and their French counterparts picked up Lamine Diack and his IAAF colleagues in November.

Yet Coe seemed tetchy at being forced to give up a role with a company with which he has enjoyed links for 37 years. As he emphasised more than once, it was the "noises off" around the issue that had become a distraction and led to his change of heart rather than the issue itself. He claimed perception and reality had become "horribly mangled".

Since August he has clung to a complex technical definition of what constitutes a conflict of interest that he believed cleared him to carry on. To be fair, Coe later said he would review his outside interests in time. But because he has always been open about his Nike links, he believed that his track record should prove he would not be influenced. Given the sorry state of global sporting governance, blind faith is not enough.

Some around him even argued it was a boon to have an IAAF president with close links to Nike. Other corporate governance experts, examining the IAAF's own constitution, begged to differ.

Meanwhile, Coe seemed unaware his protestations looked hollow to a public contemplating the list of controversies in which Nike was embroiled: from backing the twice-banned sprinter Justin Gatlin to the allegations surrounding Alberto Salazar and its Project Oregon team.

The former London 2012 chairman said in August he had landed his dream job, the one that he has waited all his life to take on. Less than four months on, it must feel more like a waking nightmare. The blending of the personal, the political and the corporate that came to characterise the world of global sports administration has been perfected by Coe. It is one that we have seemed happy to celebrate, particularly when it brought the London 2012 Olympics and the 2017 world athletics championships to England. So you can forgive Coe's discombobulation at finding that the rules have changed.

But when your meeting is in the bowels of the very five star Monte Carlo hotel where your disgraced predecessor used to reside in a grace and favour pad then it must surely be apparent that you not only need to be squeaky clean but appear to be so as well.

The other question, given the nature of Coe's decision to relinquish his Nike role, is whether it will really change much. He will still have the same deep and long-standing ties to Nike executives and will still presumably speak to them.

In some ways, it must suit the US sportswear giant to be able to park the corrosive issue. It said on Thursday the news was "disappointing" but must be secretly relieved. Beneath the surface lurk bigger issues about the extent to which Nike controls the sport rather than the other way around. If this had been another sport, or another company, then Coe may have been OK to carry on. But not Nike, and not now.

And yet. While it is undoubtedly in line with his ambition to play a big role in the International Olympic Committee, Coe's motives for taking on the IAAF challenge seem pure. He wants to save the sport that made him and if money was his motivation he could have already earned far more elsewhere. But having agreed to take on the IAAF role, one which should undoubtedly come with a salary attached (a move that must come), he should have known that his outside interests would come under the spotlight. Instead, the furore seems to have come as a surprise and blindsided him at the worst possible time.

It is also still worth bearing in mind that if history had been different the sport would be in crisis with the jarring prospect of Sergey Bubka at the helm. Instead, the Ukrainian former pole vaulter looked on with the rest of the council members as Coe threw out mangled assertions that Russia's return to competition was "going to be a synthesis of the conclusion of the criteria". Sometimes he still appears too much of this world to be able to change it. He would doubtless argue the opposite - that in order to reform it, you have to understand it.

Before he was elected, Coe made much of his "100-day plan": setting up an independent drug-testing unit, conducting a wholesale review of the IAAF's structure and governance and setting out ways to overhaul the calendar and engage young people. Instead, he has looked on aghast as Diack, the former IAAF anti-doping chief Gabriel Dolle and the former IAAF legal adviser Habib Cisse were arrested by French police following leads unearthed by Dick Pound's damning World Anti-Doping Agency report into systemic doping in Russia. Diack's son, Papa Massata, is believed to be in Senegal but has been warned he will be arrested if he sets foot in France.

Coe is determined to look forward and Friday's release of another detailed defence of the IAAF's anti-doping strategy during the period covered by The Sunday Times/ARD leak, together with results that strongly bolster Paula Radcliffe's hand, was part of that. This week he will sit before the culture, media and sport select committee flanked by two IAAF anti-doping experts and hope that he can start turning the tide.

The way Coe deals with the Russian situation, on which the fuse was lit by Hajo Seppelt's incendiary documentary 12 months ago, should be the litmus test of his fledgling presidency and of whether an IAAF insider can really get to grips with the depth of the crisis the sport finds itself in. Yet he has allowed the side show of a £100,000 annual stipend from Nike to promote an anti-obesity initiative become all consuming. In doing so he has eaten up time, energy and valuable goodwill - all of which would have been better spent making the IAAF fit for purpose and finding a top-class chief executive to take some of the pressure off.

Not only that, but the episode has betrayed a lack of perspective. Coe professes not to care what the press thinks as he gets stuck into 18-hour days devoted to setting his sport back on track. Beneath the bluster over Nike, some of the machinery to do that was put in place behind the scenes on Thursday. But there is an awful long way to go. He will need to drop the jargon, create some clear blue water from his predecessors and urgently communicate just how he intends to clean house to the outside world.

It was indicative of the depths to which athletics has sunk that the announcements of the athletes of the year, which used to be the highlight of a vaguely obscene gala dinner, were dispensed with in cursory fashion before the conversation turned to systemic doping, institutional corruption and conflicts of interest.

As Coe pointed out on Thursday, the slow process of nursing his sport back to life is a long-term project that will outlast his tenure. Things may get worse before they get better, given the ongoing French investigation and the looming second act of Pound's WADA report. But if Coe can't make significant progress soon - both in perception and reality - it will remain a sport on life support.


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