PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Track and field fans were offered a small glimpse of the future at the world indoor championships this week, with athletics supremo Sebastian Coe promising nothing is off the table as he tries to rebuild the savaged sport.
With his sport battered by doping scandals, and deserted by fans and sponsors, there has been no honeymoon period for Coe, who took over the job of president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in August from Lamine Diack, who is under investigation in France for fraud and money laundering.
Overseeing his first major IAAF event, Coe freed Portland organizers to experiment with the format, the meet taking on a rock show vibe as athletes emerged from a tunnel for introductions to flashing lights and billows of smoke while thumping music provided the background sound track for the entire meet.
All the cosmetic changes in the world, however, will not save a sport teetering on a rotten foundation.
But Coe is also promising major renovations from the ground up to rebuild trust among athletes, fans and sponsors by introducing new doping guidelines, a coordinated calendar, an emphasis on social media and plenty of razzmatazz to pull in the younger fans every sport covets.
”It has been character forming,“ Coe, 59, told Reuters while offering a wry smile. ”Actually the one thing I am really comforted by is that there is a real appetite for change.
”The overwhelming challenge is no different than it has been for the last decade and that is how do we excite more young people to want to be part of our sport?
”So I welcome things that create a greater entertainment value.
”Our product is athletics, our business is entertainment and we must not ever forget that.
“I want people to feel they can make decisions without the heavy hand of the federation coming down and saying, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that’.”
Taking the shackles off organizers and athletics officials and freeing them to try innovative things, Coe assured every idea will be heard.
Nothing would be too far-fetched, with Coe even floating the whimsical prospect of an athletics league where city franchises would draft athletes.
But many of the issues dragging down the sport are familiar longstanding ones; doping, a mish-mashed calendar and the reluctance of star athletes to go head-to-head on a regular basis.
The indoor worlds were devalued by doping scandals that prevented Russian athletes from competing, while six-times Olympic champion Usain Bolt and other top names like Britain’s Mo Farah and Kenyan David Rudisha also declined to test themselves in Portland.
In fact, at the same time as the worlds championships, Bolt, the biggest name in the sport, staged his own event with his shoe sponsor in Jamaica.
Coe has set up working groups targeting three key areas that he thinks are crucial to the sport’s future -- the calendar, Diamond League series and social media.
The Diamond League, in which the IAAF has a 35 percent ownership stake, is poised for an overhaul with contracts set to expire after 2018.
”We need to get them (stars) out there more, we need more head-to-heads and we need to have a longer season,“ explained Coe. ”We just don’t have enough for you guys to be writing about.
”If we are being hard nosed about it, and this isn’t the time to be screwing around sitting on the fence, we do not have enough athletics.
”We’ve got to create a season that has got rhythm and pace and a narrative that people understand.
“It is complicated enough for me. God alone knows what it must look like if you’re sitting out there trying to figure (it) out.”
Restoring trust among athletes and fans will be job one for Coe and by far the most demanding, with no quick fix.
The 1980 and 1984 Olympic 1,500 meters champion warned there is likely more pain ahead as the sport pays for the sins and failures of past administrations.
”If you do not go fishing you do not catch fish,“ said Coe, promising to beef up anti-doping efforts. ”I think in a large part we have gotten what we deserved.
”It’s made us focus as a sport. We’re not in denial but I will as a federation president defend what I think is defensible.
“But I am certainly not sitting here in denial about the stuff that has been really painful for us.”
Despite recent doping controversies, Coe says he is more confident now of anti-doping efforts then when he was competing.
”We must not view this through rose colored spectacles,“ said Coe. ”We must not rewrite history. I started my international career in the 70s, it spanned the whole of (the) 80s, we are in much better shape in this space now.
”Do I sit here worrying about the human rights of cheats? No, not really.
“What keeps me awake at night is making sure that we are doing everything so that every clean athlete out there knows that they have a federation president that is in their corner.”
Editing by Andrew Both