Sebastian Coe on UK Athletics Snubs, the Bye at Worlds, and How He’d Race Jakob Ingebrigtsen

We are 19 days away from the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest — the fourth Worlds staged during Sebastian Coe‘s tenure as World Athletics president. Coe, 66, has worn many hats during his career in sports and politics, but he remains an ardent fan of the sport he now oversees, and from that perspective, he believes all signs point to a terrific championships in the Hungarian capital.

Coe, speaking to British and American media in a pre-championships call on Monday, rattled off a number of reasons for optimism: the brand new 35,000-seat National Athletics Centre, nestled on the eastern bank of the Danube River, which will host the meet; the track itself, a freshly-laid Mondo surface that promises fast times; and Budapest’s location (easily accessible for most of Europe by car/train/plane).

“This is a city that is prepared for a big event and having spent quite a lot of time in Budapest in the last year or so, there’s a level of excitement that I think will bode well,” Coe said.

But among those reasons for excitement, one stands out above all: the athletes. Already in 2023, athletes have broken world records in 11 official World Athletics disciplines, including the men’s steeplechase, shot put, and pole vault, and women’s 1500, mile, and 5,000. At Worlds, there is a nice mix of singular talents pushing the limits of their event(s) — Jakob IngebrigtsenFaith KipyegonSydney McLaughlin-Levrone — and high-profile head-to-head matchups like Karsten Warholm vs. Rai Benjamin in the 400 hurdles or Athing Mu vs. Keely Hodgkinson in the 800. The last two months of Diamond League action has been electric, which Coe takes as a very good sign.

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“I can’t actually remember a season that’s got off to such promise than the one we’ve actually been witnessing,” Coe said. “…I was privileged to be in the stadium watch Faith Kipyegon become the first woman under 3:50 for the 1500 meters [in Florence]. I wasn’t as lucky as my CEO Jon Ridgeon, who was in Paris the following weekend. He saw three world records. And it’s sort of continued from there.

“…The assets are in place. It’s not an exact science, it never is. But I think we could well be witnessing a championship for the ages, given the quality of the performance of the athletes this year.”

No argument here. Track & field has its share of problems, but the World Championships delivers, year after year. The issue is and always has been keeping fans’ attention for the other 11.5 months of the year. Keep reading to hear Coe’s take on that as well as his thoughts on UK Athletics’ decision to send a smaller team to Worlds and how a prime Coe would have fared against Jakob Ingebrigtsen in a 1500.

Could the bye for defending world champions be eliminated? Coe hints that changes could be coming over the next few years

Coe at the 2022 Worlds in Eugene (Kevin Morris photo)

When it comes to the Olympics and World Outdoor Championships, the sport of track & field is in a Catch-22 situation. Those meets represent the sport at its finest — the world’s best athletes competing for the highest possible stakes. But because the stakes are so high, everything else is secondary. We know that athletes like Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone or Sha’Carri Richardson are doing everything to be at their physical peak in Budapest; the tradeoff is they might pull out of a Diamond League at the last minute if there’s a chance that racing could jeopardize those preparations. Yet if those Diamond Leagues are to have genuine stakes, that necessarily means that Olympics/Worlds are no longer the be-all, end-all — which is the source of their allure in the first place.

This does not have to be a zero sum game, though. Athletes like Femke Bol (who set an indoor world record at 400 meters this year) and Joshua Cheptegei and Hellen Obiri (who won world cross country titles in March 2019 and followed with world titles on the track six months later) have shown it is possible to chase other goals and peak for the major outdoor championships.

Since taking the helm at World Athletics in 2015, Coe has tried to strike a balance between keeping the Olympics/Worlds #1 while generating interest in the rest of the running calendar. He has not been afraid to shake things up in pursuit of that aim — witness World Athletics’ overhaul of World/Olympic qualification, which has placed a greater and greater emphasis on world ranking. It’s debatable how well that change has worked. Some parts of the new system are confusing and while the new system has track’s middle class competing more to chase valuable ranking points, it has not affected the best of the best — as long as there is an auto standard, the sport’s biggest stars will be able to hit it.

But at least Coe is trying to get the best athletes to compete more. Another potential fix? Eliminating the bye into Worlds for defending champions. At the 2022 USATF Outdoor Championships, six reigning world champions elected not to compete in the semis/final of their event because they had the bye. That’s six events at one of the biggest meets of the year that suddenly carried much less significance.

LetsRun asked Coe whether World Athletics would consider scrapping the bye for defending world champions moving forward, and while he did not answer specifically, he said there will be plenty of discussions in the coming years about the structure of the sport.

“Once we’ve got out of Budapest, there will be a laser-like focus on a lot of these questions, and particularly about the quality of product and having the athletes out there competing more often and being seen on television,” Coe said. “And yes, television does matter. We get rather transfixed with social media. Of course that’s important, but getting people seen on television is hugely important. And getting the athletes out there more often. I still sense we’re not out there enough. Track & field is a fabulous sport but if we’re being blunt about it, it’s a May through to September. 

“Now we’ve got other manifestations – we’ve got cross country, we’ve got indoors, we’ve got road, we’ve got the marathon majors. But the bulk of people are watching in that window and the longer term ambition has to be extend the season at both ends…We also need to really focus on the number of times athletes are competing. We’re not doing it enough when you compare it to other sports and there need to be some changes.”

A few details about World Athletics’ new meet to be held in 2026

When LetsRun last spoke to Coe in December, he said World Athletics has been working on a new meet to be staged in the “off years” without a Worlds or Olympics, beginning in 2026. Coe wasn’t ready to share full details yet, but the idea being pitched sounds pretty similar to how the Diamond League final currently works.

“We haven’t entirely agreed the format and we’re still working on potential hosts here, so more to follow,” Coe said. “But I envisage this as two or three nights of high-quality athletics which focuses on the best of the best. These won’t be huge fields, there won’t be heats and cross heats. This will be an action-packed two or three days and it will be, unashamedly, designed for television.”

Coe on UK Athletics’ decision to send a reduced team to Budapest: “My instinct is to focus less about the number of athletes that go to a World Championships and focus on the quality of those athletes”

Coe at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston in February (Kevin Morris photo)

One of the big stories in the running world last week surrounded UK Athletics, which will prevent at least 19 British athletes from competing at Worlds by declining to accept invitations based on world rankings. Some affected athletes told The Guardian they felt as if they were being robbed, while UK Athletics Technical Director Stephen Maguire defended the policy, telling Athletics Weekly that their aim as a federation is to only send athletes who are making finals or contending for a medal.

“This isn’t about cost,” Maguire said. “This isn’t about it being too expensive. If we had 80 people making the team at this level that we’ve set, then hallelujah, that’s great. But [it’s about] let’s have a nice crossbar, let’s have a very clear philosophy within the sport that people understand, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Coe was asked where he stood on the issue and said that in his role as World Athletics president, it’s not his call to make.

“World Athletics is a confederation of member federations,” Coe said. “We represent member federations. My instinct is always to give primacy to member federations in however they choose to select and how they choose to select their athletes.”

That said, Coe said that when it comes to Worlds teams, he cares more about quality than quantity.

“My instinct is to focus less about the number of athletes that go to a World Championships and focus on the quality of those athletes,” Coe said, drawing a distinction between Worlds and the Olympics, where merely “taking part” is part of the Olympic creed. “…I want the best of the best. We’re different from the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games has that ability to do that and there are many, many more sports. It’s a different environment. We are World Athletics, this is our World Championships, and when people watch, they need to know they’re watching the best. And I don’t want to sacrifice that. And I think that will be an element going forward in our thinking.”

Coe says racing against Jakob Ingebrigtsen “would be a handful”

Two weeks ago, a LetsRun messagboard poster started a thread with an intriguing premise: Who would win in an all-star 1500m final between the last 12 Olympic champions in their primes? The thread got much of LetsRun excited about a hypothetical race, so we put the question to the two-time Olympic champion Coe: if you took the 1980 or 1984 version of yourself into the 2023 World Championships, how would you try to beat Jakob Ingebrigtsen in the 1500 meters?

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Coe admitted that Ingebrigtsen, the 2021 Olympic champion who owns the world’s three fastest times in 2023 and whose season’s best of 3:27.14 ranks #4 all-time, “would have been a handful.”

“I’m not sure that I would have gone in with any particular strategy,” Coe said. “I was always comfortable. If somebody wanted to take it hard from the front, and occasionally that was me, I was comfortable. But I also had good leg speed. He has exactly the same. So it would have probably been to my advantage for it to have been over the last 200 or 300 meters because that’s where I was pretty effective.”

Coe added that Ingebrigtsen is an outstanding athlete and he sees no reason why, at just 22 years old, he should not continue to improve.

Coe believes women’s 400/800 records will eventually fall to “naturally talented” athletes

Last week, Jarmila Kratochvilova‘s women’s 800m world record of 1:53.28 turned 40 years old — the longest standing outdoor world record currently on the books — and there has been some talk about whether that record will ever be broken considering DSD athlete Caster Semenya is the only woman to have even broken 1:55 in the last 15 years.

But American Olympic champion Athing Mu (1:55.04) has spoken openly about her goal of breaking Kratochvilova’s record, and her coach Bobby Kersee has similarly mentioned Marita Koch‘s women’s 400m world record of 47.60, set in 1985, as a target for Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone. Coe was asked whether he believed anyone in the current generation could break Kratochvilova and Koch’s records, both of which are widely assumed to have been aided by doping. Coe acknowledged that — he said it without saying it — but believes clean athletes can run faster.

“They’re both tough records,” Coe said. “It’s probably better that I don’t go into a strict analysis of those records, but they are breakable…These are outstanding times but I do actually think we’ve got athletes that, naturally talented, will hone in on those times.”

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