World Athletics President Seb Coe Speaks to LetsRun About XC in the Olympics, Oregon22’s Legacy, & World Athletics’ DSD Policy

By Jonathan Gault
December 21, 2021

Jakob Ingebrigtsen has spent the early years of his incredible career as a conqueror. The lazy choice would be to compare the 21-year-old Norwegian wunderkind to a Viking, but Ingebrigtsen does not travel around Europe raiding for riches. No, our man is Alexander the Great, a prodigy continually testing the bounds of his ability not for treasure, but to see how far he can go. After conquering the track this year — an Olympic 1500 title in Tokyo, and a world-leading 12:48 5k in Florence — Ingebrigtsen closed out his 2021 campaign by extending his range to 10,000 meters and taking down his continent’s best at the European Cross Country Championships in Dublin on December 12.

World Athletics president Seb Coe, a two-time Olympic 1500 champion, was paying attention.

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“I was delighted that Ingebrigtsen won the Europeans,” Coe said on a call with American and British media on Friday. “Because it did rather drive a coach and a horse through some modern coaching thinking that you can’t possibly be a great athlete on the track and win cross country at the same time. I’m surprised if anybody’s ever come up with that nostrum, and certainly not ever discussed it with Haile Gebrselassie or Paul Tergat.”

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The idea isn’t quite that you can’t succeed in both disciplines simultaneously. In recent years, some of the sport’s biggest stars such as Kenenisa BekeleJoshua CheptegeiVivian Cheruiyot, and Hellen Obiri have claimed global titles in cross country and on the track during the same year. Rather, it’s that a number of top distance athletes have declined to run cross country for two main reasons: it’s not a priority (there’s not much prize money in XC and you can’t get an Olympic/World qualifying standard*) or they (or their coach) is worried they’ll get injured racing on anything other than perfectly-manicured grass.

Perhaps Ingebrigtsen, who has been running (and winning) at Euro XC since 2016, will change some minds. In this sport, races are big because of who is in them. If the Olympic 1500 champ keeps showing up at cross country courses, maybe others will as well.

“I do actually genuinely feel, for all sorts of reasons, and some of them athletic as well, that cross country is really important,” Coe said.

So important, Coe believes, that he wants to see cross country in the Olympic Games.

Coe still wants cross country in the Olympics: “I’m not coming off this agenda”

Joshua Cheptegei winning World XC in 2019

Last year, World Athletics presented a proposal for cross country in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. The format would have been a mixed relay: four athletes per country (two men, two women) each running two laps of a 2.5-kilometer course.

“We got quite close to it for Paris,” Coe said, but ultimately the proposal was rejected.

Cross country hasn’t been staged at the Olympics for almost a century — it was part of the program at the Games in 1912, 1920, and 1924 before being scrapped — but despite the setback, the idea of cross country at the Olympics is very much alive at World Athletics HQ.

“The door is open,” Coe said. “…It does look highly likely that if the door remains open and we do land this, it would be a 2028 Summer Games that would be our first opportunity.”

Cross country in the Summer Olympics is not Coe’s first choice. But if it comes down to Summer Olympics or nothing, Coe would like to see it in the Summer Olympics.

“I tend to think it sits more comfortably in the winter than in the summer months,” Coe said, arguing for cross country’s inclusion in the Winter Olympics. “I have been told by the IOC in the past that you can only have a winter sport that’s done on snow and ice. But I’ve not been that aware of recent Olympic Games where there’s been an abundance of snow and ice anywhere.”

Regardless, Coe will continue to push for cross country’s inclusion in the Olympics — “I’m not coming off this agenda,” he said.

Cross country was just one of the topics Coe touched on in a wide-ranging discussion on the state of the sport, including updates on the DSD regulations and the 2022 Worlds below. More below.

(LRC Editorial: Seb Coe Is Right: Cross Country Needs to Be in the Olympics — the Winter Olympics)

Track & field is most-viewed sport of Tokyo Olympics

Coe likes to refer to track & field as the #1 Olympic sport and after the 2020 Olympics, he has the numbers to prove it. Sharing data from a study commissioned by the IOC and conducted by Publicis Sport & Entertainment, Coe reported that track & field at Tokyo 2020 had a total of 2.2 million broadcast viewing hours, a weighted metric based on audience size and program duration. That number, Coe said, was “the highest by some distance of any Olympic sport.”

Not only that, but track & field was the subject of the most media articles (roughly 10,000), and those articles were shared more times on social media (over 700 million) than those of any other sport.

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“We came out of the Olympic Games as the #1 Olympic sport,” Coe said. “You’ve heard me say this on many occasions, and I particularly like to say it when I’m in International Olympic Committee circles and especially when I’m surrounded by other federation presidents in other Olympic sports.”

But viewing numbers at the Olympics have never been a problem for the sport. It’s the other three years and 11 months of an Olympic cycle that needs to improve. Recently, World Athletics extended its broadcast rights deal with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) through 2029, with whom Coe says he has discussed some exciting creative possibilities.

“Maybe in the documentary series, around athletics, a similar type of Netflix Drive to Survive-type documentary that would allow behind-the-scenes,” Coe said. “[It would provide us with] the opportunity to access new audiences that might not naturally gravitate to our sport in the way that Formula 1 has been dramatically impacted by that and European interest in basketball, particularly in the UK, that was sparked by The Last Dance. These are important vehicles and we need to be utilizing those.”

The 2022 Worlds in Eugene is a big opportunity, but capitalizing on it will be difficult

When World Athletics awarded the 2022 Worlds to Eugene six years ago (initially scheduled for 2021, postponed a year due to COVID), it made no secret as to why. Then known as the IAAF, World Athletics felt it was so important to have its premier event in the USA — home to the world’s best track & field team (and its biggest economy) — that it scrapped the usual bid process and just gave the meet to Eugene.

Courtesy University of Oregon

In the years since, Coe has consistently spoken about how important it is to grow the sport in the US and to turn American stars into household names. Recently, he wrote a letter to World Athletics’ member federations making clear that the more popular track & field is in the world’s biggest market, the better it is for everyone involved in the sport.

Oregon, I’m unashamedly going to tell you, is a really important moment for our sport,” Coe said. “…We need to leave there with what I’ve described as the indelible footprint.”

What remains fuzzy is how, exactly, that is going to happen. Coe was asked how for specifics about World Athletics’ strategy for promoting the sport and Oregon22 in the leadup to next summer. Beyond stressing the importance of communication and collaboration between World Athletics, USATF, and the local organizing committee, his answer was short on specifics — though he did note that NBC would be able to promote the Worlds during its coverage of the Open Championship golf tournament (which will be held during the first weekend of Worlds).

“It’s about social media, it will be about broadening the footprint on traditional media, getting broadcasts, getting promotional work done in advance of these championships,” Coe said.

One area in which the US made progress in 2021 was staging meets. When Coe spoke with LetsRun two years ago, he said it was “almost impossible” to find an American meet to add to the Continental Tour (the circuit of meetings a step below the Diamond League). In 2021, there were 16 Continental Tour meets in the US, 10 of which were staged for the first time, including the USATF Grand Prix at Hayward Field and the USATF Golden Games at Mt. SAC. A second Diamond League meet in the US — another goal of Coe’s — remains unlikely, but there are more opportunities now for American stars to compete on home soil.

No update to World Athletics’ DSD policies — for now

One of the most important moments of Coe’s tenure as World Athletics president was the creation of World Athletics’ Female Eligibility Regulations. Also known as the DSD (Difference of Sex Development) regulations, those are the rules that prevent intersex athletes — those with XY chromosomes, testes rather than ovaries, and testosterone levels in the male range — from competing in women’s events from the 400 meters through the mile without first lowering their testosterone.

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When World Athletics created the policy in 2018, it reserved the right to expand the restricted events should further evidence or new scientific knowledge arise to support that position. And in 2021, we got some further evidence. Christine Mboma, the 18-year-old Namibian who ran a world U20 record of 48.54 in the 400m in June, was revealed to be DSD and moved to the 200m, where she ran a world U20 record of 21.78 and won Olympic silver and the Diamond League title. Another DSD athlete, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the 800m, moved to the longer distances and finished 5th in the Olympic 10,000m, broke the 2000m world record (5:21.56), and won the Diamond League 5000m title.

In the wake of Mboma and Niyonsaba’s success, Coe was asked whether World Athletics would attempt to expand the restricted events.

“We don’t have teams sitting here looking at this moment about extensions to those disciplines that fall within our regulations, but everything is [subject to] review,” Coe said. “But don’t jump beyond my words into thinking that there is something that is immediate that’s likely to happen…Future councils of World Athletics might decide, alongside our health and science teams, that there are other disciplines that need to be considered. But at the moment, we are where we are.”

Related: LRC Editorial: Seb Coe Is Right: Cross Country Needs to Be in the Olympics — the Winter Olympics If the IOC is serious about its claim the Olympics is about “diversity and unity”, then adding traditional cross country to the Winter Olympics is a no-brainer as it will give an entire continent a reason to tune in as for the first time ever an African would win a Winter Olympic medal. Adding it to the summer Olympics as 4 x 2.5k relay would be a mistake.

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