Peter Coe, coach & father to Sebastian, always urged his son to run through the finish line. It is a maxim the double Olympic champion is bearing in mind in the final hours of campaigning in his latest race, to become President of world athletics’ governing body, the IAAF.
As the electorate of 213 national federations gather in Beijing for Wednesday’s vote, Coe is defending a narrow but significant lead over his rival, the equally decorated Sergey Bubka, Ukrainian serial pole vault world champion, whose career in sports administration has mirrored Coe’s.
Victory matters deeply to Coe. He turned down offers from David Cameron to chair the BBC Trust or take a crack at the London mayoral election to lead the sport that made him.
Arguably, the outcome matters even more to athletics. If Coe wins he will inherit a sport in a crisis.
Athletics is the most instinctive, accessible and intuitive of sports, one of the very few that can make hundreds of millions people at once, albeit for just the 10 seconds it takes to determine the world’s fastest man.
Yet beyond the quadrennial Olympic spotlight, athletics is ailing. Financially challenged, struggling to retain its audience and relevance, and indelibly tainted by drugs, the challenges are huge.
1. Athletics is a relative pauper
It may boast the single biggest name in world sport in Usain Bolt but athletics is not rich. It turned over $60m in 2014, not much more than the price of a Premier League striker, and has reserves of $74m.
It’s more than many Olympic sports, but a pittance when you consider that Nike and Adidas, who have built corporations on the back of the running boom, turnover more than $20bn a year between them.
What the IAAF does earn has to be spread very thin, as Coe’s key campaign promise demonstrates.
He has pledged to share more money with the member associations, an electoral strategy Sepp Blatter has used successfully for years at FIFA.
But the comparisons end there. Athletics has a fraction of FIFA’s resources. Coe is offering $100,000 per-nation over four years, one-fifth of the $500,000 Blatter offered to his members at the last FIFA Congress. It may be crucial income for many nations, but $25,000 a year is not much on which to build a sport.
2. The sport is losing relevance
Running, jumping and throwing are gloriously simple pursuits but they are no longer part of every child’s sporting education, and the sport is struggling for attention in a more competitive environment than the one Coe and fellow members of the sport’s golden generation dominated in the 1980s.
Launching his campaign in December he acknowledged the challenge: “My experiences with the sport for the last 40 years, tell me it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, we are all facing the challenge of how to engage with young people.”
3. Drugs have destroyed its credibility
Most of the sport’s ills stem from the corrosion of trust caused by decades of cheating. Ben Johnson brought doping into the mainstream in 1988, and 27 years on it’s still there.
The favourite for the 100m in Beijing, Justin Gatlin, is a twice-banned drugs cheat.
Just this week Asli Cakir Alpetkin, winner of the women’s 1,500m final at London 2012, was banned for eight years. She is the third athletics gold medallist from London to lose their title, and no-one will be surprised if she is not the last.
Alpetkin’s ban comes after weeks of stories from German broadcaster ARD and the Sunday Times about how the IAAF has handled the doping epidemic. Handed a database of 10 years blood tests, they allege the governing body failed to act on hundreds of suspicious tests.
The IAAF denies the allegation, and the slanging match that has followed has done little to illuminate the public. Yet while protesting innocence, the IAAF has appeared defensive. A stream of press releases taking issue with everyone from the media to Chris Froome (who said athletics could learn from cycling) certainly suggest a bunker mentality.
Coe had no hesitation in siding squarely with the sport, describing the allegations as “a declaration of war”. To a sporting audience attuned to the language of sports in denial, it may have sounded oddly belligerent.
These were the words of a man in an election, who knew his opponents would try and use the unwelcome inquiries of the British media against him.
The latest word from Beijing is that while some have tried, his defence of the sport has helped secure a winning margin.
Should he hold off Bubka in the final straight, one assumes his next statements on the doping challenge will be more measured. They will carry a President’s authority.