Track & Field

Coe enters final lap in Presidential race, but will he reign supreme?

And so, after several thousand miles, hundreds of flights, countless persuasive handshakes and any number of hopeful promises to the electorate, it comes down to this – Sebastian Coe and Sergey Bubka squaring off against each other in Beijing next week.

At stake: the most sought-after position in the sport – that of the IAAF president.

In one corner, polished and articulate, stands the man whose record of success off the track is every bit as intimidating as his athletic achievements on it. At 58, Coe may have long-since retired from competitive athletics, but the two-time Olympic 1500m champion has never allowed the sport to leave him.

Head to head: Seb Coe and Sergey Bubka at the 2011 World Athletics Gala in Monaco. Image: PhotoRun

Head to head: Seb Coe and Sergey Bubka at the 2011 World Athletics Gala in Monaco. Image: PhotoRun

The Briton has proven himself capable in political circles and often exceptional in administration – both essential qualities for the sport’s new leader. Coe was previously a member of the Conservative Party, is currently vice chairman of the IAAF and lest we forget, he was the man tasked with delivering the Olympic Games in London three years ago.

Standing in his way, though, is a man equally accomplished in a sporting sense, one whose support in member federations around the world has been underestimated by many of those who, at this late stage, assume this is now Coe’s race to lose.

Bubka, 51, has served as vice-president of the IAAF for the past four years and is a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament, where he worked in sports promotion.  However, all signs point to Coe holding the upper hand before Wednesday’s congress.

Among the English-speaking media, Bubka’s  bid has certainly received far less coverage than that of Coe, who has been omnipresent since he announced his bid last November.

The Doping Dilemma

Whoever inherits the position, of course, will be burdened with the hefty weight of reviving the sport’s credibility after a doping scandal which has threatened to sink its image in the court of public opinion.

Last week, Coe grew alarmingly defensive when questions arose about the leaked blood data, published in the Sunday Times, which suggested doping was a widespread problem in the sport over the last decade. “These so-called experts – give me a break,” said Coe, 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.”

Coe went on to say that the report constituted an attempt to destroy the reputation of the athletes and the sport, arguing that those behind it – German network ARD and The Sunday Times – had displayed “either breath-taking ignorance or a level of malevolence around a set of readings you simply cannot extrapolate beyond.”

The only problem with his reaction – as impressively impassioned as it was – was that he was demeaning two highly-respected outlets for investigative journalism which have a pristine record of exposing and thereby challenging doping in sport. He was dismissive of Michael Ashenden and Robin Parisotto, the “so-called experts” who are actually world-renowned when it comes to analysing athletes’ blood values.

Coe has been making promising sounds, though, about his desire to create an independent anti-doping agency if he is elected. “We need a system that removes any perception out there that there is either conflict of complicity,” he said. “There is no argument about how samples are taken, no argument about the interpretation of those samples.”

Bubka, meanwhile, issued a statement saying a more proactive approach to anti-doping was urgently needed: “We need more people working at the IAAF to tackle the biggest challenge our sport faces – identifying doping cheats and protecting clean athletes. This is a battle we can’t afford to lose for the sake of athletics.”

Making it Cool for Kids

Looking past the doping cloud – as tough as it is these days with such a filthy plume of smoke loitering around – both candidates have launched impressive manifestos, hoping to convince the 214 member federations that they are the right man for the job.

With no differentiation between nations, every national federation’s vote on Wednesday is as important as the next.

Coe’s manifesto is titled “Growing Athletics in a New Age” and is heavily focused on engaging the younger generation, changing the structure of the track and field calendar – with more street athletics events like those in Manchester and Newcastle – and generating increased revenue for the sport through commercial streams.

Thumbs up: Lamine Diack will step down from his role after 16 years as President. Image: PhotoRun

Sun’s out, thumbs out: Lamine Diack will step down from his role after 16 years as IAAF President. Image: PhotoRun

Bubka’s, meanwhile, is titled “Taking Athletics to New Heights” and is similarly focused on attracting more young people to the sport. “The roadmap to the future must be drawn with youth as its main focus,” said Bubka, when he launched his candidacy, rather appropriately on a live YouTube and Google Hangouts broadcast back in April.

Indeed, playing the youth card is a time-honoured tradition for politicians seeking election and it is this that Coe and Bubka have focused on. Who, though, will be the man to now take the helm until 2019 as outgoing president Lamine Diack prepares to step aside after 16 years?

The smart money is on Coe, who is delivering a turbo-charged finish to his campaign, just like he did during his racing days. Yesterday, 13 countries gave him their public backing, bringing to 36 the number of national federation votes he has now secured. Bubka, meanwhile, has just five.

Coe’s popularity was undoubtedly boosted in recent weeks by his promise to give at least $100,000 over four years to every member federation if he was elected, money that would come directly from the International Olympic Committee.

For better or worse – and even when it comes to a sport with such noble and amateur beginnings – few things speak as strongly in politics as the almighty dollar and Coe’s promises of increased prosperity for all have been winning him many friends, and indeed votes, in recent weeks.

It’s no surprise then, as the candidates enter the final lap in this most taxing of races, that Coe is in command.

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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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