In the shadow of the Bird’s Nest stadium, about to be pressed back into one of its rare bursts of meaningful sporting action in the seven years since the 2008 Olympics, a slow burning battle that could decide the future of athletics is about to explode.
The winner will face the challenge of attempting to overhaul perceptions of a sport mired in doping allegations that threaten to consume it. Neither Sergey Bubka nor Sebastian Coe knew things would be quite this bad, and the stock of their sport quite so low, when they declared their candidacy.
And while the families strolling past the dramatically lit stadium in the humid evening air were more intent on enjoying the attempts to jazz up the Olympic Park for its return to action for the world athletics championships, a couple of hundred yards away the last-ditch lobbying for votes was taking place.
In the hotel attached to the conference centre where the vote will take place in the early hours of Wednesday morning BST, Lord Coe was working the room.
As IAAF members descended on the Chinese capital for the world championships the familiar hum of plotting floated across the hotels that ring Beijing’s Olympic Park. Coe, who is taking on Bubka, the Ukrainian former pole vaulter and his fellow IAAF vice-president, in the battle to succeed Lamine Diack as president, was on Monday night conducting a final round of lobbying.
He was accused last week of a “cheap election manoeuvre” in declaring that allegations the IAAF failed to follow up on hundreds of suspicious blood tests amounted to a “war on the sport”. The suspicion was that by going on the attack he hoped to distance himself from the impression he was allied with the western European media.
It appears to have worked, at least in the short term, in creating the impression among many member federations he was the man to defend the sport’s reputation while also introducing a new independent, better resourced doping unit.
Where it leaves his standing in relation to the public, whom he will have to convince that the sport is serious about weeding out the cheats at all costs, is a question he has shelved until after the election.
Coe is, of course, no stranger to plush hotel lobbies. From the push to secure the London 2012 Olympics to his involvement in the ill fated bid to bring the 2018 World Cup to England, he is well used to the peculiar mix of polite chit chat and political cunning required to swim in these waters.
But while those were team efforts, targeting the IAAF presidency became a personal crusade for Coe, having in the wake of the London Games resisted overtures from the Tory party for whom he was once an MP to consider jobs including those of London Mayor and BBC chairman.
But while he has been campaigning overseas, the last few months have not been plain sailing at home and he has faced tough questions over a range of issues from his stance on the latest round of doping allegations to the faltering Olympic legacy.
Yet he remains a popular choice among athletes. Mo Farah, who is targeting two gold medals in Beijing amid the swirl of allegations surrounding the methods of his coach, Alberto Salazar, has become the latest leading name to throw his weight behind Coe as a potential saviour.
“You don’t want to see anything bad in the sport, but if we all do our best that’s all you can do. Hopefully, with Seb stepping into the job, I hope he gets that job because I believe he can change athletics,” Farah said. “What he did for London 2012 was incredible, so I believe he can do a great job. I don’t want to see anything bad in athletics because that’s the sport that I do every day and the sport that I love. I don’t want people getting the wrong end of the stick.”
That seems a coy way of describing a crisis in confidence in the sport that has festered for two decades but is now at one of its lowest ever points. Even the 82-year-old Diack, who has weathered his own share of controversy down the years, admitted the sport would be dead if the public lost faith in what they were watching.
The Senegalese outgoing president has been in post for 16 years in which the sport has produced one undoubted breakout superstar in Usain Bolt but has laboured under the weight of doping allegations and criticism from those who feel it has not done enough to package, promote, nurture and commercialise athletics.
“The IAAF completely understand the importance of the credibility in competition. I have said on many occasions that when the day comes where we no longer can believe what we see then sport is dead,” Diack said. “But I am convinced that the majority of athletes compete clean. We have an obligation to them to root out the cheats and make sure that it is possible to win clean.”
Such talk has become cheap and the IAAF’s figures, let alone those featured in recent coverage, suggest the minority remains a very sizeable one. After the IAAF last week said it had discovered an additional 28 cheats after re-testing samples from earlier championships, the London 2012 Olympic gold medallist Asli Cakir Alptekin of Turkey on Monday agreed to give up her 1500m title and serve an eight-year ban for blood doping.
Great Britain’s Lisa Dobriskey, who finished seventh in the event at the Games, said on the night that she felt it was ‚Äúnot a level playing field‚Äù.
Diack on Monday trotted out the sort of platitudes that roll so easily off the tongue when international sporting administrators gather.
“I am all the more confident of what we have in store,” he said. “I have laid the foundations for the future of the IAAF with our two great champions ... whoever the IAAF athletics family elects he will be a bona fide son of our sport.”
Coe has traversed the globe four times since announcing his candidacy late last year, lobbying members and recognising he needed to make up for the time he was consumed by chairing the London 2012 organising committee while also juggling his IAAF and other commitments.
Bubka, on the other hand, was a consistent presence in the IAAF committee rooms and opted for a more low key, opaque approach.
Coe has extended his lead among the minority of those prepared to declare their hand, with his total of votes standing at 38 to Bubka’s five, and there is a quiet confidence among his camp. But the Ukrainian’s backers say that those figures do not reflect the bigger picture among the 213 members who will vote on Wednesday.
“For me it’s more important when it is a real vote. This is guessing, this is games. Normally I prefer a fair game, like in sport,” Bubka said.
“I feel very well. I am very confident. I feel very strong. I have big support from members of our federation and I’m confident for 19 August.”
For Coe and for the sport in which he has immersed his life, the stakes could not be higher.
Key points from the manifestos
Reform the world athletic’s calendar and introduce more city centre “street athletics” competitions
Maximise commercial growth, including new commercial unit to work with longstanding rights holders Dentsu, and focus more on youth engagement.
Increase resources for anti-doping, including the introduction of a new independent unit, and bring in a new IAAF ethics department to safeguard the values of the sport.
Reform structure to give athletes a greater voice within the IAAF.
Make carefully audited payments of $100,000 to each member federation over each four-year Olympic cycle to aid grassroots development.
A comprehensive review of the entire sport under his Vision 2025 process if elected.
Enhance the IAAF’s partnership with the IOC and “transform athletics for the modern sporting era”.
protect the integrity of athletics, grow commercial revenue and strengthen the focus on education.
On doping, has called for faster and more transparent testing and promised “zero tolerance”.
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