Athletics chief Sebastian Coe gives up role with Nike in bid to fend off conflict-of-interest claims
President says he doesn’t need ‘distraction’ as he tries to save embattled sport
Although new to his job, Sebastian Coe has already learned that some battles are simply not worth fighting when you're trying to lead a major sport out of crisis.
The head of track and field's governing body announced Thursday that he has given up his role as a special adviser to Nike Inc. That relationship was longstanding, dating back to his years as a star middle-distance runner, and it was lucrative, reportedly worth £100,000 (HK$1.1 million) to him each year.
But that link has become a millstone around Coe's neck since he was elected president of the International Association of Athletics Federations in August, because it left the former Olympic champion open to critics' accusations that he might put the interests of the sportswear giant before those of his sport.
Coe said Thursday that he still believes it is possible to be both a Nike ambassador and lead the IAAF without it being a conflict of interest. But he said he was giving up the Nike position because discussion about that role is distracting from his No. 1 mission: saving track and field from a crisis of confidence sparked by revelations of widespread doping in Russia, and alleged corruption at the very top of the IAAF under Coe's predecessor, Lamine Diack.
“It is clear that perception and reality have become horribly mangled,” he said. “The current noise level about this ambassadorial role is not good for the IAAF and it is not good for Nike.”
“Frankly,” he added, “it is a distraction to the 18-hour days that I and our teams are working to steady the ship.”
Coe's decision, which he said was taken in recent weeks, shows both a willingness to compromise and that he recognises that the IAAF has bigger fish to fry at the moment than have to face questions about its president's outside business dealings and whether they could cloud his judgement.
Coe has multiple crises to deal with.
Russia, a track and field power, is currently suspended from international competition, possibly including next year's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, for allowing systematic, widespread doping.
French prosecutors are investigating allegations that Diack, his sons and others at the IAAF were involved in corruption and money-laundering and an alleged blackmail scheme that squeezed bribes from athletes in return for promises to hide their positive doping tests.
Ultimately, Coe's presidency will be judged on how effectively he puts out those and other fires. By recognising that questions about Nike were distracting from his work, Coe signalled that he understands the need to put the interests of his sport first. He is also acknowledging that, in the long run, solving track's problems will be better for him than digging in his heels now for personal gain.
“I have stepped down from my ambassadorial role with Nike, which dates back 38 years,” he announced at a news conference in Monaco, having first informed the IAAF's ruling council of his decision. “I felt that I needed to be able to focus unflinchingly on the challenges ahead.”
Coe is still chairman of sports' marketing agency CSM that works in 19 countries. But he said the company, again to ward off any potential conflict of interest questions, has agreed not to work for the IAAF as long as he leads it.
His decision to take a financial hit immediately posed the follow-up question of whether the IAAF should start paying its presidents, so they don't have to get money from elsewhere.
Frankie Fredericks, an IAAF council member, said the athletes commission he heads would want the president to be paid, because athletes want professional leadership and “the best services they can get.”
Football's governing body, Fifa, pays its president, but refuses to say how much. The head of the International Olympic Committee is a paid position, too.
In other business, the IAAF council discussed the doping crisis in Russia and gave a green light to setting up a new integrity unit. It will take the lead in combatting not just doping in track and field but also other forms of cheating, including fixing results and athletes lying about their age.
Earlier Thursday, Coe got a boost when Russia vowed to work “very actively” with the IAAF to eradicate the doping culture that led to its blanket ban from international competition. The decision by Russia's athletics federation not to contest the IAAF ban and its additional promise to work “very hard” to tackle doping represented a modest victory for Coe and suggests that his push to sanction Russia is producing early results.
To be reinstated, Russia will now have to clear numerous hurdles, not only sanctioning athletes and others who doped or were complicit in cheating and cover-ups but also carrying out a series of reforms. It will have to satisfy an IAAF inspection commission that it has ticked all the boxes required to be allowed back into the fold. The council meeting discussed those steps in general terms but more work is needed, in consultation with the World Anti-Doping Agency, to finalise exactly what they will be.
By accepting the IAAF suspension and waiving its right to a hearing, Russia signaled that it wants the process that could lead to its reinstatement to move forward quickly.
In a letter to the IAAF, the general secretary of the Russian athletics federation, Mikhail Butov, said: “We are working very hard now in Russia to change a lot.”
“We will cooperate with [the] nominated commission very actively,” Butov said. “I hope for a positive result after [a] certain time and [a] full come-back to the IAAF family.”