Thursday 10 August saw one of the largest gathering of BASC members - other than in an athletics stadium - when around 180 members attended a Question and Answer session with Lord Sebastian Coe (IAAF President) and Richard Bowker (the new Chair of British Athletics.)
Getting Seb Coe (as we are part of the athletics family we have been allowed to drop the ‘Lord’) was an idea almost a year in the planning yet it was only in July that we could confirm it as a reality and invite members. Seb Coe’s diary showed 20 minutes to be with us provided we arrange something in the hotel where he was staying. His staff said he would be able to stay for a maximum of 30 minutes and in the end, we luckily got 40 minutes of his time.
Because of the limited time available with Seb Coe, we asked members to submit questions in advance. This was simply to enable questions to be asked quickly but we had many questions on similar topics and this allowed questions to be consolidated. Just the questions we had from members relating to drugs in athletics and the work that the IAAF is doing to make the sport as clean as possible, would have taken more time than we had available, but we started with that topic.
Our thanks go to Tim Hutchings (winner of 5000 m bronze in the 1986 European Championship and a bronze in the 5000m at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and now a commentator for British Eurosport) for chairing the Q&A session and for asking the questions.
London was awarded the 2017 World Championships in 2011 on the day before the BASC Dinner. Seb Coe wrote the following message to BASC members which was displayed as he entered the room:-
“To the members of the British Athletics Supporters Club enjoying your annual dinner (2011)
It is an absolute pleasure to be writing this note for you on the morning following the successful bid to stage the 2017 World Championships. I hope you enjoyed watching the build up and result this week, and will be toasting the win this evening. One of our main campaign themes centred on the very fact that we know a World Championships in London will feature sell out crowds for both morning and evening sessions full of our knowledgeable and enthusiastic supporters such as yourselves.
As I said in yesterday's presentation to the IAAF council members: a London 2017 World Championships stadium will be packed with fans who look like they want to be there and know why they are there!
To that end you have also played a key role in helping our campaign this week, whether it be the well timed letter campaign to Athletics Weekly to coincide with their 2017 bid special which we brought out here to Monaco, the 'London' clicks on the Inside the Games poll, or simply your ever present and very vocal attendance at IAAF events around the world - fresh in the minds of voting members. For that we thank you.
I also said in my presentation that this sport has given me so much, and I know many of those sitting in the room tonight will have watched me competing and winning as an athlete, and I'm delighted that the bid team were able to deliver for you, the British Athletics Supporters Club, the win for London 2017.
Enjoy your evening, as we did yesterday - and I look forward to seeing you all in the stadium in 2017.
Lord Coe – November 2011”
For the benefit of members who could not attend the Q&A in person, the following summarises the questions and answers. This is not a verbatim report and is just intended to give an idea of the questions asked and the answers provided by Seb Coe.
Tim - On the Andrew Marr TV programme you answered that you could not “guarantee [that the] World Athletics Championships will be drug free.” We appreciate that you cannot guarantee this but can you tell us how you are progressing in giving BASC members the assurance that what they are watching is fair and involves no cheating of any kind.
Seb answered that he had been surprised at Andrew Marr’s reaction to his answer. Seb stressed that whilst nothing can be guaranteed, systems are now 20 times safer and more secure and federations are prepared to do tough things more than previously. Can systems be improved – yes.
Seb noted that the Athletes Integrity Unit, which is really the centre piece of the IAAF reforms, had been set up to avoid some of the problems encountered in the past. Seb explained that, in simple terms, this removes member federations from any potential conflict particularly in results management. Testing is independent but the challenge is in how results are managed from the first evidence to the end of the process where the athlete gets a ban. Far too many of the IAAF’s fragilities occur because federations have had the ability to slow up the process during the intermediate steps and or to challenge the sanction. IAAF then has to go to the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS), journalists then say why does it take so long to reach a sanction and everybody gets hit reputationally. So, the two key purposes behind creating the AIU and IAAF’s approach to anti-doping are to ensure that federations do not take a national interest in a sanction and also to speed up the process. But it is a challenge said Seb, adding that he believed the face of endurance events had been changed with the introduction of the athlete biological passport.
[The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) is the independent body that manages all doping and non doping integrity- related matters for the sport of athletics. The remit of the AIU includes antidoping, the pursuit of individuals engaged in age or competition results manipulation, investigating fraudulent behaviour with regards to transfers of allegiance, and detecting other misconduct including bribery and breaches of betting rules. It is the AIU’s role to drive cheats out of our sport, and to do everything within its power to support honest athletes around the world who dedicate their lives to reaching their sporting goals through dedication and hard work.]
Seb added that in some areas we need a cultural shift in coaching as the coach has a great effect on the landscape in which a young athlete is developing and Seb sees coaches as being a key part of ensuring that athletes train in the correct environment. As young athletes, he and Tim had shared coaches who shared the same cultural philosophy as them. The thought that a coach, or Seb, would be in an environment where there was any ambiguity or any uncertainty about what they were doing, protected him in a way that, sadly, some athletes don’t have that underpinning from their coaches today, and Seb sees coaches as a key element as how the sport gets on top of this.
Tim - How does the IAAF reconcile the conflicting messages of using London 2017 to present medals to athletes upgraded because improved drug testing has resulted in medal winners being disqualified, with not taking a stand in life bans, so avoiding conflicts as we have with Gatlin and others still competing after drug taking is proved? Tim added that in his opinion, if you read the detail of Gatlin’s ban, Gatlin is not the devil incarnate and the media has been complicit in not providing the complete picture on matters involving him.
Seb explained that the IAAF had tried in the CAS and civil courts to go for life bans but had failed. He said that he would have a life ban as the world has dramatically changed. He explained that if you go back to during his career, he had some sympathy for some athletes who came through systems where they had little or no choice over what they did. He does not believe that there is any ambiguity about this now. He said that he was going to be controversial; yes, he does not like to see athletes booed but the IAAF are not the thought police and he considered it important that the public were able to display their concern about the matter. He added that he would have been more worried if people in the stadium had thought that it was business as usual which would have been more disconcerting than having some people who chose to allow their emotions for a moment to go slightly beyond where Seb would have wanted it.
Tim noted that the BBC had led people along a certain path in terms of their perceptions.
Seb added that there was very little editorial control on this in most news organisations. He had watched open mouthed in amazement in the way that they dealt with the issue of Noro Virus which had affected some athletes. Seb criticised the media response to Isaac Makwala being quarantined with the virus, when the aim was to protect the other 2,000 athletes and the most important point here was to listen to medical advice, yet the BBC had questioned the medical qualifications of someone who was a specialist in that area.
When Tim suggested that they move on, Seb said that he was enjoying this, ‘I am getting all these things off my chest!’
Tim - You are reported as saying that the biggest challenge to Athletics is not doping, but making itself relevant to a future generation. Why do you say that?
Seb responded by saying that he thought it is the reality – nobody is going to say we do not take drug cheating seriously but over the long haul, engaging people in our sport, making sure our sport is relevant, making sure our sport looks like the world we live in and getting more women in to coaching and administration, is the only way that the sport will survive.
Seb explained that if we are wanting to get young people involved in our sport it is important to communicate to them in language that they understand. Seb noted that he had just come from a meeting of young reporters who tell him that they are writing for people who do not just want to see results but want to know about athletes’ stories and want to know about the countries that successful athletes come from. Seb explained that we have been focussing a lot on the sport but we are not telling stories that are interesting enough for young people.
Tim noted that when he and Seb were running, the national papers all had specialist athletics writers but now there are a lot of people who have a peripheral knowledge of the sport writing for dailies - Do you get the same level of grief from any other countries press or politicians as you get from those in the UK? The British press seem to be more interested in scandal than reporting athletics.
Seb said that he had gone beyond worrying about that. He noted that it is an economic reality that newspapers cannot afford specialist writers. When matters occur in your sport, which are not normally related to athletics achievements, general writers, who become instant experts, are sent to cover the story and only as matters die down do specialist writers come back and pick up the pieces.
Seb stressed that we need our sport to be exciting and interesting which will mean that editors will give more space to our sport and the more space they give the more opportunity there will be for bringing in specialist writers. This is just not a UK thing. Seb explained just know hard it is to get news of our sport in to the press worldwide outside of the Olympics and World Championships. Seb thinks that there are some things that we can do to help that – work we are doing in the coordination of the event calendar - work we are doing to smarten up what a one day meeting should be and what the next generation of Diamond League looks like.
Tim - The Diamond league has been described as outdated and some fans find the format boring, are there any specific changes afoot you can give us an insight in to?
Diamond League is not really a league and it is uncertain in the eyes of the public how athletes emerge at the end of it as winners, athletes do not compete in all meetings – we have to figure this through and there is lots of thinking on this – my guiding principle is that less is going to be more – we need to go to places that capture the imagination which is tough as it will not be the venues we currently have.
Tim – Are City Teams at Nitro events something to help here?
I don’t think that Nitro is the answer. Yes on a Saturday night it had high TV ratings – In Australia kids came back and fans came back – there were formats that were interesting – there were teams – unusual events – there were things that were clues for the future but did he think Nitro will replace Diamond League – No. However, he does want our sport to think differently about events and new formats are going to be important in the future. A lot of young people are saying that 10 days for a championship is a long time to retain interest – these are the things we need to think about. We have been lucky in London as the Organising Committee has done a fabulous job, you guys embrace the event but we have to be mindful that we can’t just keep bringing the World Championships back to London and it has to move around the world.
Tim - IAAF has to respond to the Court for Arbitration on Sport on the difficult question of androgynous identity. Why have the IAAF not made more progress and what are they doing about it?
Yes, this is a very awkward issue. It is the responsibility of the federation to make sure, and I do not like the expression, that there is ‘a level playing field’. This is a complicated sporting issue but there are some societal issues surrounding this too that need to be taken into consideration. What we know at the moment is that CAS suspended their judgement two years ago and I wish they had dealt with the issue then. IAAF was asked to come back with more work. It was not something we chose to do as we thought the initial submission was substantive. We have to go back with fresh information soon. The work that we have done has focussed on a comparator across female elements in the sport, I think that there is more work to be done to set this against the male side of the sport. This has no effect on athletes at the current World Championships. We have some smart people who have put together the submission, some of which you may have read as it was published in one of the Sunday papers. I also have a responsibility to ensure that athletes do not become demonised. This is a very complicated science and what we do not want is a public courtroom.
Tim - What are your plans to bring the World Cross Country Championships back to the hearts of European & North American fans, to the nations and cities where there is great history as well as a genuine knowledge and passion for the sport? Do you have ambitions to bring it back to its heartland?
Seb said he did have ambitions to raise the status of cross country again which he thought would be achieved by several actions. First, he explained, there is a coaching issue. ‘You (Tim) and I had coaches that considered cross country to be an essential part off what we did [as athletes]. ‘I used to come to events in the ‘soft south’ knowing that my training in Yorkshire would make nothing on the track was more difficult than doing cross country around Sheffield.’ Yes, explained Seb, we need to ensure that the cross country heartland remains the heartland but Africa has created some of the best cross country stars in the last 20 years. Seb said that he is surprised when some athletes say that it is a little bit hot running in Africa but nobody cares when the Kenyans are running in -5O in Bydgoszcz. Let’s think aloud he said, I would like to see cross country back in the Olympic programme; we did some innovative stuff in Kampala with mixed relays that went down really well. I am pleased that cross country will be in Aarhus in Denmark in two years’ time as Aarhus did a wonderful job with the world half marathon. The cross country will be over a very traditional course but they have managed to meld the course with the town taking the route around a museum; you will be able to watch from the roof of the museum. They are going to do some smart creative stuff.
Tim - Do you think that the latest proposals only to remove records from before the 1990’s (compared to the original European Athletics suggestion of pre 2008) are a satisfactory compromise?
Seb responded by saying that this is not a new debate – yes, these are European proposals and there is a lot of agreement around some of those proposals. First, Seb suggested, he did not think that anyone is arguing about the need for world records to be set where you have the right officials, where the right time keeping is in place and in the right stadium. Seb added that there are records, particularly European, which were set in small villages in Eastern Europe and it is difficult to say that they were set under pristine circumstances so we need to have records set where we know the metrology is good enough. Second Seb suggested that nobody is arguing about going back 10 years to doping samples as we are showing that technology can right wrongs and getting medals in to the right hands at the right time and at the right venue. Seb believes that this has set the tone and style for the London championships. Seb added that he also did not think that anyone is arguing about testing in the lead up to Championships. The inevitable controversy is always going to be around, how do you handle the records that are of an historic nature that are questionable, so it was inevitable that in trying to find a policy that dealt with that it was going to be difficult and Europe is going to be speaking more to athletes.
Seb said where did he sit personally on this? Seb suggested that there are some questions around certain female events that are a real inhibitor in girls choosing those events; they can set out with a chance of getting to championships but the thought that they are setting out in those distances knowing that in normal circumstances that world record is beyond reach has to be addressed and is a real inhibitor. The controversy and challenge was always going to be how do you take the ones that you know are not secure off the record books and how do you address [the athletes] where you know they have every justification for saying ‘why would I want to be swept in to that category and is there a question that you are suggesting that what I did was done with less than integrity?’
Seb suggested that Svein Arne Hansen was sensible to say that more work needed to be done on this. Seb believes that the matter may come back this year to the IAAF Council, but his instinct is that it may take a little bit longer.
Tim - BASC is working with other supporters’ clubs in Europe – particularly the Dutch and German Supporters Clubs who are here today. We get on well with our national athletics organisations. Athletics like most sports depends on TV money but TV needs a crowd. BASC has a wealth of knowledge and experience and a catalogue of things that would help the serious athletics supporter and a similar list that would help the occasional spectator. Is there any chance of representation on IAAF bodies for supporters’ clubs and the core fan groups?
I saw the question as I was leaving the young reporters. My job is really nice because I can make decisions and I can actually make most of them pretty quickly so I have tasked Chris Turner (IAAF Deputy Director - PR) with putting together a framework for allowing supporters clubs like BASC and other groups to be able to inter-connect with the sport – so he [Chris] is your man! Sparing his blushes, he does know the sport, he does know many of you, he certainly knows the landscape and he will come back with some thoughts on how we can make sure how these connections are more than just high days and holidays.
Tim -Seb, we will call it a day. We have got through only a fraction of the questions I am afraid but thank you very much for your time from all of us. We know you are a busy fellow and good luck for the next few more days [of the world championships].
Seb joked that the biggest challenge that he had immediately was that on that day there was the European Athletics Association lunch, the Oceania Association lunch and the South American Association lunch and he had to figure out how to avoid the high class problem of massive indigestion.
And with that, we ran out of time and with thanks to Seb he left with many questions on the list not asked. These have been passed to Seb’s staff and in due course we will get a written response which will be published on the BASC Website.
Richard Bowker, the recently appointed Chair of British athletics, then joined Tim Hutchings. Details of his Q&A session will be added shortly.