Olympic champion, MP, deliverer of London 2012, member of the House of Lords – the accomplishments of Lord Coe are vast and varied. But he described his newest achievement, becoming president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), with absolute sincerity as the peak of his career.
That he should take charge of athletics at a time when it is in crisis as never before is not an accident. The doping revelations published by The Sunday Times and the German broadcaster ARD were deliberately timed.
Track and field has had crises before. The yellow-eyed Ben Johnson’s dash down the track in Seoul in 1988 was a more significant moment than this one. But it happened at a time when the sport was not simultaneously in the grip of a financial crisis. It was better watched then, better resourced, better loved.
It is hard to claim that saving athletics, which is precisely what Lord Coe must do, will be as hard as any challenge he has ever faced. The man broke three middle-distance world records in the space of a few days in 1979, but this task will be very different to anything he has ever sought to achieve previously.
Cleaning up athletics will not be about co-operation, but hunting down and flushing out those who are determined to do wrong – many of whom may not even believe they are doing wrong – and whose rewards may be far greater than those at Lord Coe’s disposal.
The sporting world will settle for nothing less than a public demonstration of his commitment to sport. It may hope for shamed athletes, tearful press conference confessionals and reallocated medals.
But this is unlikely to happen. Lord Coe must fix the future of his sport, not the past. He has pledged to set up an anti-doping body fully independent of the IAAF, so that the sport does not police itself. He will also have to find a way to police the parts of the sport that do not want to be policed. Life bans for convicted drugs cheats would be an important first step.
Next, if anti-doping authorities in individual countries do not fully co-operate with requests from his independent body, he must consider bans for entire nations.
He will also have to find the money to fund it. The body’s current annual revenue is approximately £40m. Contrast that with the £14bn made by Nike and Adidas. (He must also think seriously about whether his role as a global adviser for Nike represents a conflict of interest.) The sum available to him is not enough, even on its own, to set up the sort of testing regime that could move the sport entirely beyond suspicion.
Lord Coe doesn’t have much time. In two years the World Athletics Championships will be in London, back in the Stratford stadium he built, and he will be in charge. If the sport’s reputation has not been transformed by then, his will be, and in the opposite way.
In the meantime, at the World Championships that are about to begin in Beijing, Usain Bolt needs to beat the twice-convicted Justin Gatlin, and Mo Farah must win, too. That would be a welcome start.Reuse content