Athletics has problems but reformer Coe pivotal to solving them, experts say
Athletics could have done without the swathes of empty seats in Doha and the four-year ban for high-profile coach Alberto Salazar that exploded in the middle of the World Championships.
Despite those problems, experts are divided on the health of the sport.
International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) president Sebastian Coe dismissed both the low attendance in Doha and insisted Salazar’s disgrace did not “derail” the event, But the sport faces longer-term problems too, such as the ongoing Russian doping scandal, for which Coe has been credited for his firmness in dealing with Moscow.
There is also the trial of Coe’s disgraced predecessor Lamine Diack, who he regrets calling the sport’s spiritual leader when he was first elected in 2015, which threatens to produce a host of negative headlines.
Michael Payne, who as director of marketing at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1989-2004 is widely credited with transforming both the organization’s brand and finances through sponsorship, believes that in 63-year-old Coe and his reforming zeal the sport has real hope for the future.
“The federation is lucky to have Coe as its leader –- it would be in far worse shape with anyone else,” Payne told AFP.
“Long-term the future for the sport is rosy. Doha is a short-term blip, the IAAF will recover and be stronger in years to come.”
However, an expert with extensive knowledge of major events’ bidding and hosting, who spoke on condition of anonymity, warned Coe must not lose his focus when he almost certainly becomes an IOC member next year, adding more responsibility to his already heavy burden.
“I don’t think that it takes a rocket scientist to see that athletics is in very poor shape at the current time,” the expert told AFP.
“I only hope that Lord Coe will accelerate his reform-minded approach to the sport now he has been re-elected.
“There is a fear he may have his head turned by the wider sports political world and may not have the focus required to drive root and branch reform for a sport that is so clearly in crisis.”
– ‘An exceptional sport‘ –
Both, though, believe Coe and the IAAF are right to persist in taking the sport and the hosting of the championships to new territories and not play safe by restricting it to its European base. The next World Championships, however, return to a ‘safer’ choice in two years’ time, in Eugene, Oregon, the home of the sport in the United States.
“Does Doha risk undermining the momentum of the London World Championships -– yes, but they will bounce back with Eugene and, importantly, what events are built over the year,” said Payne, who believes, in a reference to the empty seats on many days in the Qatari capital, future championships hosts should be penalised if they fail to honour promises made in the bid book.
The source believes the IAAF has a responsibility “to take the sport to new global regions” and could take a leaf out of the book of football’s rulers, FIFA.
“They (FIFA) ensure that they are involved in every aspect of the promotion and marketing of the event,” he said.
“FIFA ensures that ticket sales will result in real people turning up to the stadium.”
For Moroccan athletics legend Hicham El Guerrouj, who still holds the 1500 metres world record he set 21 years ago, the sport has lost its connection with the public.
“We must do better at attracting people to the sport,” he told AFP.
“We participate in an exceptional sport, which has more people taking part in it than football.
“What is missing is the tools to get people into the stadia.”
Both Payne and the fellow expert agree that the athletes themselves need to get out and do far more to promote the sport.
The latter think charismatic champions like 400m hurdler Karsten Warholm and 200m star Noah Lyles should be contracted by the IAAF to reach out to the public in schools and town hall-style meetings.
Payne largely concurs.
“Should you encourage personalities, of course, but the sport is not a reality show,” said the 61-year-old.
“Do you need to take the sport to the people, make it more accessible? Definitely (and) connect with the younger generation in their language, yes.
“All athletes should be encouraged to step out from the confines of the track to grow their sport.”