Sebastian Coe is right man to steer IAAF out of scandalous mud
He’s a man of remarkable accomplishments and endless contradictions. However, Lord Sebastian Coe is showing once again that in order to succeed at the highest levels, shameless ambition and convenient memory loss are imperative.
As the recently elected president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Coe has been entrusted to right the group after a seemingly devastating scandal rocked the organisation.
Allegations that the IAAF under Coe’s predecessor, Lamine Diack, was not just woefully neglectful, but criminally complicit in abetting and profiting from a systematic Russian doping ring have put the IAAF squarely on the defensive. A report produced by the World Anti-Doping Association (Wada) found odious layers of kickbacks beyond the Russian doping scandal.
This being corruption and international sports, Qatar makes an obligatory cameo as well with accusations now rife that they attempted to pay off select IAAF members and associates to get the 2017 World Track and Field Championships, which subsequently went to London.
According to former Wada president and author of the report Dick Pound, corruption was deeply embedded at the IAAF with blame to be spread all around. “The IAAF council could not have been unaware of the extent of doping in athletics and the non-enforcement of applicable anti-doping rules,” Pound said last week when he released the second part at a press conference in Munich.
Speaking directly to the current IAAF executives he added, “Acknowledge this. If you can’t acknowledge this, you are never going to get past it.”
Sitting a few rows away and furiously scribbling notes was Coe, whose ears perked up when Pound was asked if Coe’s position with the IAAF remained tenable. “There is an enormous amount of reputational recovery that has to occur here,” he said. “But I can’t think of anyone better than Lord Coe to lead that.” Superficially at least, it would seem that Pound let Coe off the hook. After all Coe, had been the vice-president for the previous 13 years of that very same IAAF council that “could not have been unaware” of the rampant corruption. But Pound is nothing if not pragmatic.
His comments were hardly intended to absolve Coe of any blame or complicity. Pound is, however, acutely aware that it takes a man of enormous self-esteem and unbridled hubris to try to sell transparency and reform in a group that he was such an integral part of. Frankly, you need to be shameless and you’ve got to have balls, or at the very least a royal peerage. Luckily for Coe, he has both.
Despite a plethora of outrage over Coe being allowed to continue in his role, it makes perfect sense. Ignorance is always the first defence and while Coe is acknowledged as a shrewd operator, his claims of ignorance have resonated in some slightly less cynical quarters. There has been no tangible proof to connect him to Diack’s alleged ring of corruption other than the fact that Coe claimed his predecessor was his hero and mentor. However, more importantly, Coe will likely be allowed to attempt to clean up this mess because at the end of the day we are talking about athletics here.
From a pure revenue and popularity standpoint, this is not a group that is even remotely on the same scale as a Fifa or even professional tennis. Disgraced beyond recognition, Fifa regulates the world’s most popular sport and its most popular event. Professional tennis is also in the global spotlight as it is reeling from claims of match fixing. Comparatively speaking, athletics is a largely anonymous pursuit that only comes under global scrutiny for two weeks every four years during the Summer Olympics. There is certainly money involved, but not nearly on the scale of soccer or tennis.
Coe and the IAAF should also benefit greatly from the state of corruption fatigue among the public. Over the past 15 years or so, we have had endless disgrace and corruption from groups like the International Olympic Committee, Fifa and now it seems professional tennis. All of them have promised reform to varying degrees of success. And now here comes the IAAF and Lord Coe preaching a newfound love for reform and transparency.
Luckily, for them the public is so jaded they merely shrug and say, shut up and get on with it. And make no mistake Lord Coe will. A former Olympic gold medallist, Coe is also the golden boy behind the hugely successful 2012 London Olympics. His media supporters in the UK have described him as “pathological” in his zeal to reform the IAAF and they are correct in that. By dint or design, Lord Coe is most certainly pathological.