Lord Sebastian Coe

Week 98 (15 - 21 August 2015)

Sebastian Coe was elected the new President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) this week in Beijing by a vote count of 115 to 92. It’s impossible to know what gave him that slender margin of victory – but my informed guess is that it was Coe’s supreme skill as a communicator in those final weeks which edged him ahead of the suave and classy Ukrainian Sergey Bubka, his rival presidential candidate.  

The 12-vote swing in favour of Coe is likely to have been due to a calculated risk Coe took following accusations by The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR that 146 medals, including 55 golds, were won at major events between 2001 and 2012 by athletes who recorded suspicious tests.

Coe’s response was a fiery rebuttal to the accusers, stating that the reports were “a declaration of war on my sport."

And he didn’t stop there, adding the following context in case anyone was in any doubt over who his words were aimed at: "Nobody is remotely suggesting that news organisations don't have the right to question and challenge and kick the tyres. But this selective use of this so-called information is just wrong.” He also described the anti-doping scientists quoted by The Sunday Times as “so-called experts” before adding that “the IAAF has a commission of three independent experts who have tested and checked thousands of blood samples. I know who I would believe.”

The known effect of Coe’s words is that the western media, so often in Coe’s corner, turned on the former Chairman of London 2012 with some publications accusing him of using the issue to score political points in his presidential campaign.

I do not believe Coe spoke out solely for political reasons. He spoke out because athletics is his first love and, as an IAAF Vice-President since 2007, it is his duty to defend the organisation’s reputation. But his choice of words – aggressive, passionate, and partisan – were charged with political meaning. Those words echoed around the world, as Coe knew they would.

And those words would have been very well received by the IAAF family. Imagine, for example, the president of an IAAF member federation in Oceania, whose press office was being petitioned by national news outlets for their response to the accusations. Hearing Coe’s fighting talk would be massively reassuring – and useful. In Coe’s words lie a ready-made rebuttal to the accusations: ‘there, that’s my response to the matter, I’m with Seb’.

Furthermore, in Coe speaking out he gave himself a mandate to come to Beijing for the vote and be able to look every president of the 214 member federations in the eye and say ‘I’ve got your back’ – and for those words to carry real meaning.

Bubka, who also spoke publicly about the accusations but on more measured terms, would not have been able to match Coe in this regard. And that may have made the difference for those 12 crucial voters.

I believe that Coe’s political pragmatism and brilliant communication skills were the deciding factors in his ascension to athletics’ highest position. But now – as he tweeted after his election – “the hard work begins.”

For Coe that means hard work in executing his campaign pledges and restoring public confidence and credibility in athletics. And a smart first step in that process would be to launch a charm offensive with those media outlets who criticised him for his strong defence of his sport. It could be a difficult rapprochement – but he will need them back in his corner as soon as possible.

by JTA Chairman Jon Tibbs

Photo: Sportsjournalists.com