Seb Coe Talks to About Suspending Olympic Qualification, Whether to Eliminate the “Off Year,” & More

4 Takeaways From A Chat With The Head of World Athletics

By Jonathan Gault
April 24, 2020

After weeks of postponements and cancellations, track & field fans finally received some positive news on Thursday. The Bislett Alliance, the group tasked with staging the annual Oslo Diamond League meet, announced what they’re calling the “Impossible Games” — an attempt to fill the gaping void of track meets created by the COVID-19 pandemic while following Norwegian coronavirus regulations.

Though the Impossible Games will take place on the same date (June 11) and the same venue as the traditional Bislett Games, the meet itself will be noticeably different. There will be no spectators. Fields will be small, sometimes as few as one or two athletes, and largely local — only Norwegian and Swedish athletes have been announced so far.

The Impossible Games is an unmistakable source of optimism. Between two-time world champion Karsten Warholm (who is attempting to break the world record in the 300-meter hurdles), pole vault world record holder Mondo Duplantis, and the Ingebrigtsen brothers (events TBD), the meet boasts some serious star power. Right now, the mere idea of seeing those athletes in a competition — any competition — is appealing.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, who doubles as Chair of the Diamond League Board, has made no secret of his desire for track & field to hold a professional season in 2020, and believes the Impossible Games is a step in the right direction toward that goal.

“I hope it inspires other cities to do something as equally creative and it will give us the opportunity to try to get athletes back into competition, even if those competitions are taking place not uniquely in that stadium, as Oslo is planning,” Coe said.

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As for when fans can expect to see regular Diamond League competition resume, Coe elected not to speculate. On the same day Oslo announced its new format, the two remaining Diamond League meets in June (the Pre Classic on June 6-7 and Paris on June 13) were postponed. Coe believes it’s important to have the ambition to return to genuine track & field competition this year — World Athletics announced that the weekend of August 8-9 will be protected for national championships, should national federations choose to host them — but it’s still unclear whether that will become a reality.

“The reality of it is, we don’t know,” Coe said. “We really, genuinely do not know.”

The Impossible Games was just one topic on which Coe touched during a teleconference Friday afternoon with a small group of American journalists, before he took off for a two-hour-and-six-minute treadmill run from his London home as part of The 2.6 Challenge charity initiative. Below, four takeaways from the interview.

1) World Athletics is sticking with its decision to suspend the Olympic qualification window until December 1

Clockwise from top left: World Athletics communications manager Yannis Nikolaou, journalist Jeff Benjamin, LRC’s Jonathan Gault, and Seb Coe

Earlier this month, World Athletics announced that, even if track & field competitions do return in 2020, no athlete will be able to achieve an Olympic standard until December 1. The decision was made with fairness in mind — with every country in different stages of handling the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes who live in countries where training and travel is restricted would not have the same opportunities to hit standards or accrue world ranking points as athletes in countries where such restrictions are not in place.

But the decision received pushback from several notable athletes, including American Olympic steeplechase medalists Emma Coburn and Evan Jager. An Athletics Association survey of 685 athletes found 60% of athletes would like marks from this summer/fall to count if they achieved the Olympic standard (though 56% of respondents in that survey admitted that, if they were unable to compete due to lockdown measures, it would be unfair for athletes from other countries to achieve Olympic standards).

In addition, the Euromeetings group, which represents major European meets including the Brussels, Lausanne, and London Diamond League meets, called on Coe to reconsider World Athletics’ decision, as removing the opportunity to earn Olympic qualification lowers the incentive for athletes to compete in a year with no global championship.

Coe said after the uproar that he revisited the decision with World Athletics’ Athletes’ Commission, and the majority of them “strongly recommended” keeping a suspension until December 1. He cited the difficulty of ensuring a level playing field as the primary reason for keeping the suspension in place — not only because of athletes who cannot train or compete under lockdown, but also because of the disruption to the global anti-doping system wrought by COVID-19.

“Look, there are no perfect solutions in a very imperfect world at the moment,” Coe said.

2) Could we see the elimination of the “off year”? Maybe — but don’t count on it

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One of Coe’s main aims as World Athletics president is to overhaul the sport’s calendar. Compared to a league like the NFL, where games are played during the same time slots every week, the Diamond League schedule is very inconsistent.

“The overwhelming aim of this is to try and create more understanding in the season,” Coe said. “…Making sure that, for instance, you don’t have three Diamond League events all in a six- or seven-day span. We’re trying to get them to be roughly between Thursday and Sunday and spaced a week apart.”

And yet, one of the most confounding things about the track & field calendar (at least around these parts) is why, unlike other professional sports, there isn’t a global outdoor championship every year. The Super Bowl isn’t held three out of every four years – it’s held every year. Track & field has a World Championships, an Olympics, a World Championships, and then…a year of nothing.

Because of COVID-related rescheduling, there will be a global outdoor championship every year from 2021 through 2025. If that stretch is successful, would Coe consider installing a World Championship in non-Olympic even years and eliminating the “off year” permanently?

“I don’t think so at the moment,” Coe said. “But look, let’s be really liberal about this and think about all these things now. This is the opportunity to do it. I think that’s probably one step, at this moment, too far. Organizing championships, with all due respect, it’s not as easy as it is in some sports where you have one arena and a ball and a couple of bats. It is actually an inordinate piece of complexity. We would need to look at that in a different way. But hey, let’s look at it.”

3) Coe called on US meet directors to step up their game

Between the 2022 World Championships in Eugene and the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, two of this decade’s biggest track meets will be held on US soil. But Coe knows that those two events, on their own, are not enough to grow the fanbase of the sport in a country where track & field is largely an afterthought.

“We’ve got to use this as a stepping stone, but it can only happen if we get a greater critical mass of one-day meets going [in the US],” Coe said. “We don’t want this just to be a singular flow of US athletes in May into Europe, important as that is. It has to be the other way around. We do have to have European athletes, our top European athletes, also competing in the US.”

4) Coe urged athletes under quarantine to use this as an opportunity to become students of the sport

Coe suggested an activity for those athletes who now find themselves with a little extra free time.

“They could do a lot worse than read about, whether online or the old-fashioned concept of a book, just actually understand the personal odysseys of athletes past who have overcome extraordinary dollops of adversity,” Coe said. “And our sport is absolutely suffused with that.”

Studying legends past is something Coe himself did before he became the first man to win two Olympic 1500m titles. In fact, when in need of motivation, he drew upon the man who has just been crowned America’s greatest male distance runner by LetsRun readers.

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“By the time I was in my early 20s, I had read pretty much every biography of all the great milers, including The Jim Ryun Story by Corder Nelson,” Coe said. “And thank God I did.”

Coe entered the 1980 Olympics as the world record holder and gold-medal favorite in the 800 meters, but had to settle for silver behind countryman Steve Ovett. After the race, he thought back to Ryun, who had fallen in the prelims at the 1972 Olympics — “I think he would probably have won,” Coe added — and who never again competed at the Olympics. Ryun’s story made Coe realize how lucky he was to have a shot at redemption, one he seized by earning gold in the 1500 six days later.

“I had the opportunity to bounce back, get off my arse, and do something about it in the same games…I think that the athletes would be well-served in just understanding a little bit about who came before them and how they also mastered massive adversity.”

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