PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Sebastian Coe knows the next big track star is out there. The next enticing performance-enhancing drug? It’s out there, too.
The president of track is all too aware that his sport suffers from an image issue these days, with lingering doping scandals and corruption charges overshadowing the action around the oval.
For a weekend, though, Coe caught a glimpse of track as he envisions it — with 7,000 ardent fans cheering on every lap and leap at the world indoor championships.
The question is: can he clean it up so fans can truly believe in what they’re seeing.
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In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Coe discussed topics such as doping, the status of Russian athletes for the Rio Olympics, how to bring the sport into the 21st century and where Usain Bolt ranks in the pantheon of track’s elite.
“We must always, always remember that, yes, our product is athletics, but our business is entertaining people,” Coe said. “You would not have been sitting here (the other night), concluding we’re a sport in terminal decline. Because we’re not.”
Recent scandals have knocked it off course, though. The Russians didn’t compete at world indoors after the IAAF suspended Russia in November following an independent report by a World Anti-Doping Agency panel detailing systematic corruption and doping cover-ups in the country.
Coe said a decision could come in May or early June whether Russia’s track and field program has done enough to repair its anti-doping measures and can compete in this summer’s Olympic Games.
And then there’s the issue of meldonium, an endurance-boosting drug Coe knew nothing about until tennis great Maria Sharapova tested positive for it at the Australian Open. The drug was added to the banned list in January, and athletes are being caught with it in track, too. At least one athlete missed the world indoors over use of meldonium.
Asked if the sport could ever get to the point where there’s no talk of doping — where the athletes and their accomplishments grab the headlines — Coe said: “I would love to be able to tell you that has to be our ambition.
“But practically, I’m afraid there probably are always going to be a few people in a few systems that will want to try and buck the system. We have to be proactive, have to really throw every effort behind creating opportunities for clean athletes. This is all about protecting clean athletes.”
Some athletes have voiced their concern over taking the starting line against competitors they know are dirty and losing out on the medals and moments at big meets they’ll never get to treasure.
“It’s fundamentally about creating a platform for clean athletes to be able to show the world they’re extraordinary talents, without people necessarily sitting in the stands questioning whether what they’re watching has got anymore merit than professional wrestling,” Coe said.
Even more, Coe wants to take the sport into the 21st century by mixing it up a little bit. Make it quicker paced and more fan friendly.
Part of that was on display in Portland, when athletes were introduced in grand style before finals and medal ceremonies were held at a nearby plaza. It was another chance for fans to interact with medal winners.
Recently, the sport lost a Diamond League stop in New York when the organizers elected to hold a street race instead. If it sparks interest, Coe is all for it.
“We have to be realistic about this — a lot of people are not going as a first instinct, to come into our stadiums to watch track and field,” Coe said. “If they’re introduced to it, in and around shopping malls, in a big population center, if that helps us bring them into the stadium, that has to be a good thing. If New York is saying they can really create an exciting experience in the streets, that’s fine. That’s absolutely fine.”
Other topics discussed by Coe:
— On Ethiopia, Morocco, Kenya, Ukraine and Belarus being in “critical care” and needing to seriously improve their anti-doping programs: “It’s important that we understand where there are problems and how we can work together with the federation to fix them. That was the principle behind the discussion around those five countries.”
— On the controversy surrounding the bidding process for the 2021 world championships that was awarded to the city of Eugene: “The council voted to go to Eugene and that’s where we are. We’re looking forward to being back here. If you can bring a few of these people (from Portland) as well — that will be one heck of a stadium.”
— On concerns over the Zika virus and political issues at the Rio Games: “It doesn’t really matter where you are in the world, doesn’t matter if it’s Madrid or Tokyo, it’s hard (to stage an Olympics). It’s the toughest thing any city has to pull off.”
As for his thoughts on Bolt being the best track athlete of all time, well, Coe didn’t want to go down that road. No, that would be a disservice to the likes of Jesse Owens, Haile Gebrselassie or Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“We’re very lucky to be able to talk about generation after generation of athletes, across so many disciplines, that are frankly blowing our minds in terms of their genius ability to do what they do,” Coe said.