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Seb Coe Q&A: Track and field’s global conversation and the sport’s hot topics

Seb Coe

DOHA, QATAR - OCTOBER 06: IAAF President Lord Sebastian Coe speaks during a press conference on day ten of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IAAF)

Getty Images for IAAF

World Athletics President Seb Coe recognizes that this is a unique time for track and field.

Not only do the Olympic Games open in three months, but the sport will also have an unprecedented run of global outdoor championships in five consecutive years -- Tokyo Olympics; 2022 World Championships in Eugene, Oregon; 2023 World Championships in Budapest; Paris Olympics and 2025 World Championships at a to-be-determined venue.

A current focus is the Global Conversation, an ongoing public survey by World Athletics to shape the governing body’s decision-making through 2030. Coe also noted an emergence of linking the sport, which has a foundation of a basic human exercise of running, to recovery and resurfacing from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Physical inactivity arguably has also left vulnerable groups of people to the pandemic in all its awfulness,” Coe said. “So I think there’s a recognition that we should, as a sport, be reinforcing the role that we play in our community level and certainly sitting alongside the agendas that local, regional and national governments are setting.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Coe also answered questions on current events in track and field.

Cross-country’s bid for Olympic inclusion
In December, World Athletics’ bid to add a mixed-gender cross-country relay to the Olympics in 2024 was denied. The IOC didn’t add any of the dozens of proposed new events within existing Olympic sports unless existing events were dropped. The IOC said then that “limiting the overall number of events is a key element in curbing the growth of the Olympic program as well as additional costs.”

“I think their [the IOC’s] view was that this wasn’t the right moment to introduce other cost elements into the Games, but they certainly haven’t closed the door on the concept of cross-country,” Coe said. “They more than left it open. So those discussions will continue, and they will continue with the hope that once we get beyond Tokyo and a successful delivery of those Games that there will be a bit more bandwidth. Maybe in Los Angeles in 2028.”

Christian Coleman’s reduced suspension
Coleman, the world’s fastest man in 2017, 2018 and 2019, accepted that he will not be at the Tokyo Olympics after his two-year suspension for missing (but not failing) drug tests was reduced to 18 months on appeal earlier this month. The ban ends in November.

Coleman’s agency published excerpts from the court’s decision (which hasn’t been published in full), notably: “Closer examination of the training material in fact suggests that the training received by the athlete reinforced the practice of a DCO [doping control officer] placing a call before the expiry of the 60-minute slot.”

A call is not required, but Coleman said that he received calls every other time he was not at home for a drug test, except for the one in December 2019 that ended up being his third and final strike after he previously missed two that year.

Coe said he would not speak specifically about Coleman. The Athletics Integrity Unit handles anti-doping cases in track and field independently from World Athletics. But Coe has spoken regularly with athletes about the system.

“What would I say more broadly, the whereabouts issue, the whereabouts protocol is a tried and tested protocol,” Coe said. “The vast majority of athletes actually take comfort from the fact that is in place. The Athletics Integrity Unit have been very clear about the processes that they were involved in. They feel that they were properly done, properly recorded.

“Athletes have very sophisticated networks around them now to make sure that if there is any risk that they are not able to be where they’re supposed to be, that there are ways of remedying that and addressing that very quickly.”

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Athlete demonstrations/Olympic Charter Rule 50
Last week, the IOC announced its executive board approved recommendations from its athlete commission regarding athlete demonstrations at the Olympics based on a global athlete survey. While increased opportunities for athlete expression are coming, one rule that remains in place is one disallowing certain Olympic athlete demonstrations, including hand gestures and kneeling, on medal podiums, in the field of play and at Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

In December, the most famous athletes to express themselves in such ways at the Olympics, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, received the World Athletics President’s Award from Coe to recognize exceptional service in the sport.

The IOC rule on athlete demonstrations is strictly for the Olympic Games. How would World Athletics view it if an athlete made the same podium gesture as Smith and Carlos at its major events, such as this week’s World Relays or next year’s world championships in Oregon?

“My instinct here is that we need to look at this carefully, but we also need to recognize that athletes are part of the world that we live in,” Coe answered. “We have to recognize that there are going to be occasions where they do feel extremely strongly about issues. I’m not one for closing down the natural emotions or the views of athletes, as long as it’s done respectfully and it’s done in a way that doesn’t damage other competitors and their moment as well. This is something that our sport is clearly looking at. I think we will wait for more detail on this [regarding the Olympic policy] and hear what the athletes are more broadly saying.”

World Championships
From their inception in 1976, the world outdoor track and field championships were once every four years until the 1990s. They have been biennial since, leaving one fallow year in every quad without an Olympics or a world championships. That year was supposed to be 2022, but the Olympic postponement to 2021 led to the postponement of the next world championships to 2022.

Some other Olympic sports, most notably artistic gymnastics, hold world championships in every year that is not an Olympic year. Track and field has world indoor championships in even years to fill its gap, but they are not as big as the outdoor worlds. Would Coe like to see the world outdoor championships held in every non-Olympic year, which would mean adding a worlds for 2026 or 2030?

“We are always looking at how we can grab more space, more interest, more air time, greater traction across a crowded and cluttered landscape,” he said, noting the annual Diamond League and the addition of three Continental Tour stops in the U.S. “I think at the moment the balance is about right, but that’s a discussion the sport may have.”

Coe also said that World Athletics was sorry to see the annual Diamond League stop in New York City change format and drop from that circuit after 2015. “We would of course always be encouraging of more USA meetings,” he said. “It’s very important for us.”

Caster Semenya
The two-time Olympic 800m champion is barred from the 400m through the mile unless she takes testosterone-suppressing measures under new World Athletics rules. Semenya chose to move up to the 5000m instead. While she has said the Tokyo Olympics are not her focus, she could get close to qualifying either by time or through world ranking if she continues competing in the distance event this spring.

Would World Athletics consider extending a special invitation to Semenya for an Olympic 5000m place if she is close to qualifying, given her exceptional circumstances?

“It’s not something that’s been discussed,” Coe said. “And I think if I’m being honest it’s a very hypothetical issue. ... We have a system, and that system will work across the board.”

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