Sebastian Coe’s links with Nike are set to come under renewed scrutiny after emails emerged that show he discussed his support for the successful bid by Eugene, Oregon, to stage the 2021 world athletics championships with executives from the company.
The former London 2012 chairman has been under intense pressure to cut his ties with the Oregon-based company since becoming president of the International Association of Athletics Federations in August. The fact that the 2021 world championships were abruptly awarded to Eugene, where the company was formed and known as TrackTown USA, in April without a vote has been cited as one potential conflict by critics.
Now an email has been obtained by the BBC that shows a senior Nike executive, Craig Masback, discussing a conversation with Lord Coe about the bid.
In an email to the Eugene bid leader, Vin Lananna, the former Oregon coach who is current president of TrackTown USA and will coach the US men’s track and field team during the 2016 Rio Olympics, Masback says Coe made his support for Eugene clear but that he believed no decision would be taken until November 2016, after Diack had left his post.
“I spoke with Seb this morning. We covered several topics but I asked specifically about 2021. He made clear his support for 2021 in Eugene but made equally clear that he had reached out to Diack specifically on this topic and got a clear statement from Diack that ‘I am not going to take any action at that April meeting [in Beijing] to choose a 2021 site’,” said the email, sent in January 2015 before Coe, then a vice president, won the race to succeed Diack.
“Seb made it clear that if he is elected president that he is willing to consider as early as next November choosing the 2021 site.”
Lananna has previously insisted Nike played no role in the bid. Those close to Coe point out that what he told the Nike executive was no different to the information he was giving to others about the 2021 race.
At the time, he expected there to be a full bidding process with a vote in November 2016. It was Diack and the then IAAF general secretary, Essar Gabriel, who abruptly decided in April to award the 2021 event to the American venue without a full bidding process. A vote was taken, which Eugene won 23-2, and Coe has been open about his support for Eugene.
“Much has been written about the unusual but not unprecedented way in which Eugene was awarded the 2021 World Championships. Seb believed, along with many other council members, that the usual process would be followed and encouraged Eugene to enter the bidding cycling for 2021 which would be decided in November 2016,” said an IAAF spokesperson.
“He sought clarity from president Diack when asked by Gothenburg about the 2021 bidding process and received assurances that no decision would be made at the April council meeting so he continued to encourage Gothenberg and Eugene to both put themselves forward for the 2021 bidding cycle.”
Asked whether he had discussed the bid with any Nike executive, Coe said on Tuesday night: “Not unless I was asked if Eugene should rebid, to which I would have replied ‘yes’ given how close they came to winning and the strength of their bid. My views are all a matter of public record as the media covered this extensively at the time.” He added: “I did not lobby anyone on behalf of the Eugene 2021 bid. After their narrow defeat for the 2019 world championships I encouraged them to re-enter another bidding cycle as they had a strong bid.”
The decision to hand the 2021 championships to Eugene without a vote, after it narrowly lost out to Doha for the 2019 edition, enraged rival bidders from Gothenburg. At the weekend Björn Eriksson, a retired civil servant who was Interpol President from 1994 to 1996 before being appointed head of the proposed Gothenburg bid, claimed they were repeatedly promised by Diack that they would be given a chance to present their case. He said the decision to award the championships to Eugene was “unethical and immoral” and called on the French police to look into Diack’s role. When shown the email in question by the BBC, Eriksson said: “Doesn’t look good, doesn’t look good at all. I’d very much like to hear the explanation for this.”
In August Diack defended his decision to hand the world championships to Eugene without a vote. “Blame it on an old president on the eve of his departure who wanted to take this opportunity to give this opportunity to the United States,” he said.
Coe also defended his role. “It was an almost unanimous vote around the table of which I was one vote,” he said. He has since promised to recommend a review of the decision “if evidence of dishonesty or inappropriate behaviour comes to light”.
The IAAF is submerged in a doping crisis involving systemic cheating by Russia, while Coe’s predecessor Diack and other former executives have arrested by French police over corruption allegations.
Coe faces renewed questions over his Nike links and the Russian doping scandal from the culture, media and sport select committee next week.
Coe, desperately attempting to get onto the front foot, has provisionally suspended Russia from all competition and appointed former London 2012 chief executive Paul Deighton to oversee reform efforts.
He will chair an IAAF Council meeting in Monaco on Thursday at which he hoped to set out his agenda for a wholesale reform but is instead again likely to be dominated by questions over his Nike links and what he knew about alleged corruption under Diack. Coe was a vice president for seven years under the Senegalese, to whom he paid florid tribute in August.
Coe has been involved with Nike since 1978 but only took up his current role as an international ambassador, focused anti-obesity campaign Designed to Move, in 2012 after the London Olympics.
The double Olympic gold medallist has been adamant that he won’t be pushed into giving up the role, insisting it does not represent a conflict of interest. But he has said he will review all his arrangements within his first 100 days.
The role is believed to pay around £100,000 a year but is also thought to be linked to a complex multimillion-pound earn out deal that Coe signed when CSM, the Chime sports marketing arm he chairs, was sold to Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP and private equity firm Providence with the rest of the company this year in a deal worth £374m.
Nike is now based 100 miles from Eugene in Portland, which will host the world indoor championships next year. In 2014, Coe served as head of the evaluation commission for the 2019 process, which resulted in the Qatari capital of Doha winning.
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