Sebastian Coe has defended the IAAF’s controversial decision to award the 2021 World Athletics Championships to Eugene, following news that the process is under investigation by French authorities.
The US city, which has close ties to the sportswear company Nike through its TrackTown USA athletics centre, was awarded the event in April without a vote – angering Sweden’s Gothenburg, which had been preparing a rival bid.
Last month, leaked emails showed a senior Nike executive, Craig Masback, discussing a conversation with Coe, then vice-president of the IAAF and a long-time paid Nike ambassador, about Eugene’s prospects.
France’s national financial prosecutors said that the case would now form part of their wider investigations into corruption allegations involving the former IAAF president Lamine Diack, but added: “At this point, no conclusions can be drawn. We considered that there are elements that merit being checked out.”
Speaking to the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, Coe defended the process, insisting the decision was made because Eugene represented the best chance to stage the event in the US for the first time since the World Championships began in 1983.
“First, it’s not without precedent,” said Coe. “We’ve selected cities without bidding cycles before. Second, Eugene was not put forward by the IAAF, it was put forward by United States Track and Field … as the best opportunity in the foreseeable future to get world athletics into the United States.”
The IAAF Council voted 23-1 in favour, with one abstention, with those behind the Gothenburg bid left frustrated and confused at the change of tack. Björn Eriksson, leader of the Gothenburg bid and a former head of Interpol, subsequently said the decision “smelled” and needed an investigation.
Coe has denied that his £100,000-a-year role with Nike represented a conflict of interest in the process – though he severed the link two weeks ago.
Explaining that decision, Coe told the BBC: “I made it very clear when I became president of the IAAF that everything I did is under review. I made a judgment to step down from the Nike role because there was too much noise and distraction around challenges I already have.
“There are two distinct separate issues. Trust in the governing body, but also trust on the track. I represent a sport under serious scrutiny and we’ve got to return trust.”
Coe also denied that the IAAF’s struggles with alleged corruption were as bad as those at Fifa but refused to discuss the ongoing investigations in detail.
“No, no I don’t actually believe that [the Fifa comparison]. I’m not walking away from the seriousness of what I’m confronting, but we are talking about an investigation into a handful of people. It’s a matter of police investigation, so I can’t maintain a running commentary on that. But if people have done [wrong] it would be abhorrent and they must be punished.”
Sebastian Coe again denied that there had been a conflict of interest over his role at Nike during questioning by the DCMS over his handling of the athletics scandal
When it was put to him that it was extraordinary that he was unaware of what was going on in the organisation at a time when he was vice-president, Coe said: “That, I’m afraid, is the traditional model for sport. Don’t predicate sport on well-run FTSE 100 [companies].
“That is the big challenge I’ve now got. Of course it’s got to stop and those are the changes I’m making, we need a wholesale restructuring of the governing body, bringing on accountability and responsibility. I have a very, very clear roadmap for what we need to do. Too much power sat in the hands of too few people, and the walls were too high.”
Coe also restated that, should Russia’s athletics federation not comply with new IAAF criteria on doping, the country will not be able to take part in the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“The issue is to get verifiable change across clear criteria. It’s very simple. If we don’t get the change we want then Russia’s clean athletes will have to sit this out. It’s entirely a matter for the Russian federation to meet the criteria.”
He also tried to clarify comments he made in August suggesting that the wave of media allegations about widespread doping represented a “declaration of war” against his sport.
“Those words were never an attack on the media, they were very carefully chosen; I was frustrated about the selected use of data from blood passports. I would die in a ditch for the right of the media to challenge, question me, impugn my motives. It was never meant as an attack on the media.”