The one constant in Seb Coe’s life has been track and field. At his core he is still the formidable middle-distance runner. He is both champion on the track and champion of the sport itself.
That is the prism through which Coe still sees himself, even now, as chairman of the London 2012 Summer Games organizing committee and vice-president of the IAAF, track’s worldwide governing body. To not understand this is to make a fundamental miscalculation.
Four years ago, just after Coe was elected to one of the four IAAF vice presidential positions, Lamine Diack — the longtime IAAF president — took Coe aside to share a quiet moment. This was in Osaka, Japan, on the eve of the world championships. Diack said to Coe, you have one responsibility, and that is to deliver great track and field championships in London in 2012.
That mission remains to be fulfilled.
Now, Coe is standing again for re-election to that IAAF vice presidential position, the voting next week as the track and field community gathers anew before another world championships, this time in Daegu, South Korea — an election that comes at a pivotal moment for the sport, the Olympic movement and, indeed, for Coe, because already there is so much speculating about what he might do after London 2012.
Assuming the Games are a success — what, then, would he want?
He is, in this regard, a victim of his own success and, of course, the mayhem that is daily life in the British press. Like: Wouldn’t Coe make a great president of the International Olympic Committee when that job opens up in 2013! Never mind that you have to be a member of the IOC first and there are four British members already and five would be stretching matters considerably.
For Coe, it all comes back to track and field. That is his lifelong passion.
In a letter sent around the world to the more than 200 track and field national federations announcing his re-election bid — translated from English to French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese — Coe writes, “I have no other ambition but to serve the sport that I owe such a huge debt of gratitude to.”
Running again for vice-president, Coe said in an interview, is “my way of re-affirming my support for the sport.” He added, “I’m taking nothing for granted. It’s my way of saying, ‘This is what I want to do post-2012. Track and field is going to be my prime focus. I feel sensibly and modestly I’ve got 10 productive years to support and [help] the sport.
“In life you never want to get too far away from your roots and mine are in track and field.”
Ordinarily, it must be noted, an election for the vice-presidential slots of the track and field federation would not be the sort of thing that might merit this sort of examination. But these are uncertain times for the sport and Coe is a most unusual figure — not just in international sports but, frankly, on the world stage.
The sport is still the anchor of the Summer Olympics. And in Usain Bolt it has produced a mega-star. But it is facing enormous challenges. It must move beyond the shadow of doping. It must grow globally and commercially. It must find innovative ways to attract a young audience.
Change does not come easily to track and field’s establishment. The IAAF, for instance, founded in 1912, has in all those years been overseen by only five presidents. Diack has been in office since 1999; he is now 78 years old.
Given Diack’s age, there are within IAAF circles amazingly complex — indeed, fantastic — succession scenarios that have been floating about for years now.
Then again, it must be said that Diack has been confounding his critics for years now, too.
Coe is quite clear — abundantly clear — that this election, to be held Aug. 24, is about the vice-presidential positions. Full-stop.
Six candidates purportedly are in the running for four spots. But it’s an IAAF election. Thus the situation is by definition fluid.
The point here is not that others don’t deserve support — Sergei Bubka and Bob Hersh, for instance, are likely to again be strong candidates, and it says something that Hersh is an American in a senior position in an international federation.
The point of this column is that sensible, rational people simply have to look at where track and field is now, where it’s likely headed and what Coe offers. The man is a walking idea factory with a demonstrated record of getting people to buy into his ideas. That’s called leadership.
The London 2012 bid — he led it.
Keeping the track in Olympic Stadium after the Games? Large credit to Coe — working closely with Diack. That’s no small thing. The 1996 Atlanta stadium was turned into a baseball field; the track was removed from the 2000 Sydney stadium; 2004 in Athens would hardly make for a study in legacy; the 2008 Beijing stadium is largely a tourist draw now while it awaits the 2015 track and field world championships.
Of course Coe would like to bring the world championships to London, and as soon as possible. At the same time, he said, “There’s absolutely no question in my mind we are a global sport and we have to globalize,” meaning not only Diamond League events in Africa and “we really do have to be able to plot a path to being able to stage a world championship in Africa — I think that’s really important.”
He added, “But always at the same time recognizing there are two wheels on the bicycle and we must always do what we can to protect and enhance what I would call our more mature markets.
“The follow-up to that is that we really do have to have a more commercial global reach. We have to build on what we have done so well and figure out over the next 20 years in terms of marketing where the sport needs to be commercially.”
Perhaps the major Coe theme is getting kids off the couch and into a pair of running shoes — particularly through school-based programs.
“We have to sell track and field to kids in a much more imaginative way,” Coe said. For every kid who wants to be Bolt — what about the one who wants to be Roger Federer? Or David Beckham? Doesn’t that kid have to be able to run?
“The physical literacies are all in track and field,” Coe said. “Hand-eye coördination, strength, endurance, power, speed. They’re all the physical literacies of track and field. If you get that right for young people, [convey] that this is all track and field-based, you’ll provide a healthier cohort of young people and, secondly, I think some of them might look at that and think, you know, I was into tennis or football but I like this track and field.”
London 2012′s international legacy program, dubbed “international inspiration” — it now reaches 12 million children and young people around the world, in 17 countries, three-quarters of whom are involved in track and field-based activities.
“The one thing I’m very happy to say is that I am very grateful for the generosity of Lamine, when he took me aside four years ago,” Coe said, and the second part of that conversation in Osaka, after Diack instructed Coe to deliver a great track meet in London in 2012 was, “After 2012, there will be other things … to focus on within the movement.”
To understand Coe is to know the answer to the rhetorical question he asked himself: “What is it I think I’m going to focus on?”
The answer, he said: “More reasons for young people to choose a life in track and field.”