Seb Coe is picking his fights with the wrong people – they're on his side

But it is, Coe knows, music to the ears of the delegates who will choose him or Bubka

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The Independent Online

You don’t need to be a Tory to know that a war is a good way of winning an election, but it certainly helps.

For Lord Salisbury it was the Boer War, Thatcher the Falklands, and now Seb Coe has The Sunday Times.

He does, however, have a problem on his hands. Wars don’t really work if you and the enemy are on the same side. They just look a bit weird.

It doesn’t take a particularly generous or insightful reading of The Sunday Times investigation into doping in athletics to conclude it might be of some use to anyone trying to clean up athletics, as Coe, or anyone looking to run the sport, really ought to be.

But no. The investigation was, Coe told us, “a declaration of war” not on cheats, but on the sport itself, a position he will maintain as he spends the next two weeks campaigning for the presidency of the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Almost nothing shifts newspapers like sport, and given it is the cornerstone of the Olympic Games, it would take a particularly contrary historian to find a motive for a paper to declare war on track and field. Does he also think the paper had it in for thalidomide babies back in the 1970s?

But it is, Coe knows, music to the ears of the delegates who will meet in Beijing to choose between him and Sergey Bubka, the legendary pole-vaulter whose own nation, Ukraine, does not fare very well in the leaked findings.

That Coe knows how to win cannot be doubted, so don’t be surprised if he does indeed manage to successfully wage simultaneous war both against doping in athletics, and anyone else who is trying to do something about it. But it does make for curious reading to see his first response to the crisis provoked by the investigation – “My manifesto for doping in sport” published in The Sun, and on the following day the assertion that the problem is not with the sport but a pernicious attack by a newspaper.

So many are the worlds bestrode by the overlord of London 2012, Olympic gold medallist, former Tory MP that it is easy to forget he is director of Chime, one of the country’s largest PR agencies. His response is a masterclass. Act the statesman. Don’t engage with the evidence, just question the methods through which it has been obtained. Rubbish your opponents. “These so-called experts – give me a break,” he said of the two men who analysed the leaked information, both of whom are still actively employed at the very top of drug enforcement in sport.

So bound up in the public conscience is he with the most fun, successful and glorious fortnight possible in the country’s entire history that Coe has almost moved to a position beyond reproach. It feels almost embarrassing to point out that it was his idea to bid for the Games – and win – on the basis that it would cause the nation to rise as one off their arses and embrace exercise, and that it would leave behind a glorious permanent home for athletics unsullied by football. Three years on and we are all still glued to the same sofas from where we watched Mo Farah and the rest and the kids are even more obese than they were before.

It has also cost £700m to convert a stadium never built for football into a permanent, taxpayer-funded home for West Ham United, whose fans can’t quite believe their luck but who will find out in just over a year from now how entirely unsuited it is to football. (If you want to do something fun, point out to a West Ham fan that having a few thousand retractable seats doesn’t bring the other 40,000 any closer to the pitch. It is remarkable how few people realise this). Try to imagine a stadium the size of Wembley, but with only 54,000 seats in, and with all the stripped-out capacity having been removed from the bottom, not the top. It does not bode well.

Still, none of this matters, he knows, any more than the so-called information from the so-called experts about the so-called industrialised cheating in the so-called sport he wants to run. In two years’ time, the athletics world will be back in Stratford for the World Championships, with Lord Coe no doubt, in charge. In the meantime, if he wants to convince the world of his intention to clean up athletics, he might wish to start playing fair himself. 

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