Sebastian Coe, the president of the IAAF, has reluctantly ditched his controversial £100,000 a year role as a Nike ambassador but still maintains that it was not a conflict of interest.
The double Olympic gold medallist, under growing pressure to cut his longstanding ties with the US sportswear company, said he had made the decision because “the current noise level” was becoming a distraction from his mission to save his crisis-hit sport.
“It is clear that perception and reality have become horribly mangled. I have stepped down from the Nike position I have held for 38 years,” Coe said following a day of talks with his fellow IAAF Council members.
Besieged by allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia and corruption claims levelled at his predecessor, Lamine Diack, Coe said the Nike issue was interfering with his attempts to lead athletics out of its current malaise. “The decision I chose to take in the last few weeks is one that reflected my absolute intention to focus as long and as hard as I can on steadying the ship that has been rocking rather badly recently,” he said.
Yet he insisted the decision had not come as a result of growing pressure arising from an email uncovered by the BBC this week that showed he had discussed a successful bid to host the 2021 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, the birthplace of Nike, with a senior executive from the sportswear company. That information had then been passed back to the leader of the bid.
He also said that the International Association of Athletics Federation ethics committee had reassured him that he could have retained the Nike role and his position as chairman of the sports-marketing company CSM as long as he was not involved in decisions relating to the sport’s world governing body. He at once insisted he had not been bounced into standing down yet argued that it was the “noises off” around the issue, rather than the substance of it, that had caused him to relinquish the lucrative contract.
“The current noise level around this ambassadorial role is not good for the IAAF and it is not good for Nike,” he said. “And, frankly, it is a distraction to the 18-hour days that I and our teams are working to steady the ship.”
Coe also announced he would be stepping down as the British Olympic Association chairman after the Rio 2016 Olympics and that his sports-marketing company CSM would not tender for any IAAF work. In the immediate aftermath of his narrow victory over Sergey Bubka to become president of the IAAF in August, having served as a vice-president under Diack for seven years, Coe told the Guardian he was unlikely to give up the Nike role. “No. Because I don’t see that at any stage it’s ever been a conflict with anything I’ve done,” he said then. At two press conferences in Beijing he restated his belief that it did not represent a conflict of interests.
But pressure has grown in the months since, leading to Thursday’sreluctant climbdown. Nike said: “Seb has been a Nike athlete since the 1970s and we are obviously disappointed, but respect his decision.”
Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who sits on the culture, media and sport select committee that will question Coe next week, welcomed the decision but said there were still questions to answer over the Eugene bid.
Nike has been embroiled in a string of recent controversies, from its decision to hand an endorsement deal to the twice-banned sprinter Justin Gatlin to its backing for the Project Oregon coach Alberto Salazar, the subject of a continuing investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency into allegations he denies.
This week’s questions over Coe’s role in the decision to hand the 2021 championships to Eugene without a vote, which enraged a potential rival bidder, Gothenburg, further turned up the heat. But Coe, who has insisted that the advice he gave to the Nike executive Craig Masback in January 2015 was no different to that he gave to many others, again defended his conduct .
“As an ambassador of Nike I would have been discharging my duties as per normal. I made it very clear that it was my understanding that the best advice that I could give anybody in this bidding process was to get back into the race and bid properly for the 2021 World Athletics Championships, and I gave that advice both to Eugene and Gothenburg.”
At that stage Coe, who has been open in his support for Eugene but insisted he did not lobby on its behalf, was expecting there to be a decision on the next host city no earlier than November 2016. It was only a few days before an April council meeting, he said, that Diack decided to hand the championships to the Oregon city without a vote.
The 59-year-old Coe took on his current consultancy role, which pays at least £100,000 a year and is centred on the US sportswear company’s anti-obesity campaign Designed to Move, in 2012. But his links with Oregon-based firm go back to 1978, when he first signed an endorsement deal with the company.
“This has been a long and historic relationship. It has been a relationship I retained without any question through the Locog years when Adidas were our partner and through the BOA years as I have been conducting my duties as chairman,” said Coe.
The council meeting took place at the same Fairmont hotel where Diack, arrested earlier this month amid allegations he accepted bribes to cover up positive drug tests, once had a grace and favour suite.
Coe was flanked by Frankie Fredericks, the head of the IAAF athletes’ commission and the US Track & Field president Stephanie Hightower, attending her first Council meeting.They opened by naming Ashton Eaton and Genzebe Dibaba as athletes of the year, and naming six new members of the athlete’s commission including Paula Radcliffe, but any attempt to shift the focus to events on the track was soon overtaken by the deluge of doping and corruption allegations consuming the sport.
The IAAF president confirmed that if the award of any recent championships were called into question by an ongoing French police investigation, which resulted in Diack being arrested as well as the former anti-doping chief Gabriel Dolle and the IAAF legal adviser Habib Cissé, then he would take action. Coe has set in train a number of internal reviews and a reform process to be overseen by the former London 2012 chief executive Paul Deighton.
“I have always made it very clear that in our own internal reviews, the criminal investigations that are currently ongoing or any of the recommendations or conclusions from the report to Wada, if any of those show impropriety then action will be taken,” said Coe.
Following a damning report by the former Wada president Dick Pound that revealed state-sponsored doping in Russia on an industrial scale, the IAAF confirmed that the country has been suspended from the sport indefinitely and has formally accepted the sanction.
Coe insisted there was no timescale on their return to the sport, despite a widespread belief in Russia that they would be able to put the necessary measures in place to return in time for the Rio Olympics.
IAAF insiders confirmed there was no way that Russia would be re-admitted before the world indoor championships in Oregon in March. Fredericks said that the athletes’ commission supported moves to make the IAAF presidency a paid role, which it had not been under Diack. “I think the athletes commission would want someone at the helm who would be remunerated, to make sure they do a professional job for the athletes.”Coe said that decision was not in his gift, but it will be discussed as part of an ongoing corporate governance review.
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