Sebastian Coe has defiantly defended his links with Nike, refusing to give up his role as a special adviser to the sportswear giant as he takes over as the most powerful man in athletics.
The incoming president of the International Association of Athletics Federations had come under fire for refusing to drop his links with the company over worries that there could be a conflict of interest.
Critics pointed to the decision to award major championships to Portland and Eugene, two cities in Oregon with links to the company, and the furore surrounding Nike’s decision to back the twice-banned Justin Gatlin as examples. But Lord Coe, who has been involved with Nike since 1978 but took up his current role as a global adviser in 2012, said his role with Nike centred on a corporate social responsibility project called Time to Move, tackling childhood obesity, and did not involve contracts and negotiations or the elite performance side of the company.
“There are three things to bear in mind here: a conflict is only a conflict if it is not a registered responsibility. I think I am probably the most transparent and open person who has ever sought office. You can go on to any number of websites, everything I do is in the public domain,” said Coe. “Secondly, it is only a conflict if you can’t stand behind procedures and processes and, thirdly, it’s if you behave badly. I don’t intend to do any one of those three.”
Coe officially takes over as president of the athletics world governing body from the 82-year-old Senegalese Lamine Diack after the closing ceremony of the world championships in Beijing. He said there were “very clear lines of corporate governance” and has previously pointed to the fact that Nike’s rival Adidas was a main sponsor at London 2012, where he was chairman, and at the British Olympic Association, where he remains chairman. Coe also has a role at the sports marketing agency CSM.
The decision to award the 2021 World Championships to Eugene without a vote has also proved controversial with rival European bidders. But Diack has said the decision to go to the US was his and that it was then put to the vote. “You’re very aware of the process because the president took you through the awarding of the athletics championships to Eugene,” said Coe. “It was an almost unanimous vote around the table of which I was one vote.”
After a world championships enlivened by some stunning performances but taking place under a cloud of doping allegations, Coe said he hoped to move the agenda on. “It is sadly slightly the territory we have inherited,” he said. “Part of my responsibility is to move the sport off that territory. We are more than a discussion about test tubes, blood and urine.”
Asked whether he could empathise with the experience of Mo Farah, who has shrugged off allegations about his coach, Alberto Salazar, to win double gold in Beijing, Coe said that he felt sympathy for the British distance runner. “This is part of the challenge we have. I remember breaking the world mile record in 1981 and was dubbed an overnight sensation,” he said. “I had to remind them it had taken me 10 years to get to that position. We have to be careful here when we start making assumptions about quality and unpredictable results.”
But Coe said he would not be drawn on whether Farah’s triple-double at two world championships and an Olympics made him the greatest British athlete of all time. “If you look at the medals that he’s won in major championships and the fact this is the second time he’s doubled up at 5k and 10k [in the worlds], you’d be hard pressed to say he wasn’t the most successful distance runner in terms of medals,” he said. “But there are other things you need to throw into the balance: world records, times, speeds, all those things. He is a wonderful, wonderful athlete. I’ll leave the greatest ever tag to others. And, of course, if I conceded that I’d lose a lifelong friendship with Daley Thompson.”
While Diack, the outgoing president who has been in power for 16 years and has appeared under pressure in recent months as doping allegations have piled up, again defended his record in a rambling diatribe, Coe was looking to the future.
Following a world championships again dominated by Usain Bolt and his three gold medals, Coe said he was not concerned by the prospect of the Jamaican 11-times world champion possibly retiring after the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“We shouldn’t be concerned because we have a sport that is adorned by some of the most outrageous, super-human talented people in any sport,” Coe said. “There are other athletes in our sport.”
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