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World Championships an amazing platform to future-proof and change the face of athletics

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Sebastian Coe is President of World Athletics and a Member of Laureus, a sporting movement supported by the world’s greatest athletes, which celebrates and harnesses the power of sport.

The most successful World Championships ever in Budapest marked the start of a vital four years for the sport.

My competitive experiences at World Championships have been abysmal. I was injured for the first one, injured for the second one, and was retired by 1991 in Tokyo. So, I didn’t actually compete in the World Championships. But I’m fully making up for these omissions now.

Budapest was a very special World Championships because it was the 40th anniversary of the first one in 1983 in Helsinki, and it was also the first one that gave me the opportunity from the outset to decide what it should look like.

I became President of World Athletics in 2015 and it’s inevitable that any incoming president inherits already chosen, existing World Championships. Budapest was the first that I could say was mine.  

The No. 1 requisite was simple. I didn’t want an empty stadium. It makes our sport look marginal unless we’ve got noisy, passionate, knowledgeable fans in the theatre. 

And that’s what we had. We sold tickets to well over 100 countries. 

In 1983 there were about 1,300 athletes from 150 countries. This year we had almost 2,100 from 197 countries. The field was really strong. Wherever you looked, everybody performed at the very highest level.

As president, I have to be balanced and fair, but I’m always going to drift towards middle-distance running and I must say how much I loved the season Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon has had. 

The first woman to break three minutes 50 seconds for the 1,500 metres; a week later in the Diamond League in Paris, she broke the 5,000-metres record.

She left Budapest with gold medals from an extraordinarily difficult double – the 1,500 and the 5,000 metres. Very few have achieved it. So, for me, she is the female performer of the year. 

As a Laureus Academy member, I will be watching to see if she is nominated for the 2024 Laureus World Sports Awards in the New Year.

I wrote at the beginning that we had the chance to shape Budapest in our own fashion. We’ve had medal plazas in the past, but this one just seemed to catch fire. I gave the medals to the 100-metre guys and Noah Lyles broke down and said, “I’ve never been to a medal ceremony like this.”

In the past we’ve been conservative; we’ve had it in the stadium, often at the end of the evening when most people are home or on buses. This time, it was in front of thousands of people in a fan zone. I think it’s highly unlikely we’re ever going to go back to presentations in a stadium.

We also changed the way that we introduce the athletes. They don’t just come out now and find their lane. We showcase it. I think the public needs to be nudged gently about our history. So 1,500-metres winner Josh Kerr walked out, past Steve Cram and Hicham El Guerrouj, which shows that we’re a sport with a deep history and heritage.

I’m very honoured to be given the stewardship of the sport. The first four years were difficult. We had come through a really bad period and it was self-inflicted. 

We didn’t have the right governance in place; people behaved appallingly badly. I remember having to travel almost every day of the week, just to keep our sponsors on board.

The next four years were dealing with all the things that we certainly could not have done while we were in crisis mode; issues around transfers of allegiance; the way the calendar comes together; the challenges of state-sponsored doping in Russia; the illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Then we had to get the building blocks in place before we could really do what I wanted to in the last four years of my mandate, which is to have a ruthless, forensic analysis of what is working and what isn’t. Particularly around competition.

We’ve come out of an extraordinary World Championships and we have an amazing platform to build on. 

Our next World Championships in two years will be in Tokyo. In Budapest, we saw some of the best broadcast numbers we’ve ever seen in the first weekend: 28 million in Japan alone were watching athletics.

I’m not designing the sport just around 15- and 16-year-olds, but you do need to recognise that the world has changed. The way young people consume everything has altered. And we need to make sure that our competitions are exciting and salient.

We should question whether a nine-day World Championships is too much. Does it fit into the lifestyles of people?

We talk about our season being May through to September, but it’s really July through to September. And that isn’t the basis of a professional sport. So we do need to get the athletes out on more occasions – we need to see more head-to-heads; that’s what excites people.

From this point, 2026 is important for us because it’s the first year where we don’t have a World Championships or an Olympic Games, so we’re going to create a three-night athletics spectacle. It will be a television product. 

We’ll take a limited number of the very best athletes per event, and there will be a big prize pot.

Also, Netflix has been following our 100-metre runners, male and female, through the season. The last filming was at the World Championships. There will be a series of 40-minute programmes leading up to the Paris Olympics.

Athletics is, by some distance, the largest Olympic sport and a fifth of the competitors you will be seeing in Paris next year are track and field athletes, so we have an amazing platform. That’s why Paris matters so much.

This is a start, but we have to continue to future-proof the sport. 

Some tough decisions may need to be made. But by the time I leave, I hope our sport will look very much different. DM

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  • Louise Louise says:

    Lovely article, thank you! I sincerely hope that the “fan zone” continues to inspire! It’s wonderful to celebrate true male and female competitions, where everything is fair and focused on the genuine enjoyment of athletics.

    • Michele Rivarola says:

      I am not sure which world you live in. By the IOCs own admission many of the top performers take “something to assist” their performance, they are just unable to detect it at the time and when they do detect it they face major headwinds from their commercial sponsors Christie being a case in point. They should have the druggie athletics championships so that we can also enjoy a drug free championship

      • Matthew Hall says:

        I take “something to assist” my performance on a daily basis, I warrant you do too. Granted, I’m not a high level athlete, nor am I tested, ever, but to imagine that the cutting edge of physical performance doesn’t also include the cutting edge of chemistry (as it would include the cutting edges of materials, training regimens and sports psychology, to name but a few) is naive.

        Name any sport (golf is not a sport) and I’ll bet the same is true there, too.

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