SEBASTIAN COE: CURRENT SITUATION CAN BE AN OPPORTUNITY TO REIMAGINE SPORT

Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics (this photo was downloaded from the World Athletics [then IAAF] website in February 2019. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

“ We should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit. This should and could be the new normal.’’

Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics, has said that the predicament the world currently finds itself in can be an opportunity to look at sports differently.

In an open letter to the athletics community, dated March 27, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics, Coe said, “ in sport we have a unique opportunity not to tip toe around things and tweak at the edges. We have the chance to think bigger, to rip up the blueprints and banish the ` that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality.’’ He felt that while the current priority is to tackle the pandemic, stay healthy and stay at home, in the long run, social distancing may actually bring the world closer as a community and sport can be right at its center.

“ The situation the world finds itself in today is a huge wake up call for all of us – as human beings, as businesses and as sport. We should capitalise on this and work out new ways of delivering events, create and plan new events that embrace the many as well as the few. We can use this time to innovate and extend our sport across the year. Rather than just focusing on one-day meetings and one-day road races at one end of the spectrum and 10-day extravaganzas at the other end, we should look at weekend festivals of running, jumping and throwing that take advantage of the Southern and Northern Hemisphere seasons. We should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit (I rather fancy more people are exercising this week – doing 15-minute exercise routines in their homes or going out for a daily walk – than they have probably done in the last month). This should and could be the new normal. We don’t have to do things the same way,’’ Coe said.

According to him the recent announcement by the Japanese Government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was what athletes wanted. “ The focus of us all must be on the health and well being of ourselves, our families and our communities. And hard as this is for us in sport to say, sometimes sport needs to take a back seat,’’ Coe said.

The new dates for the Tokyo Olympics haven’t been announced yet. Once that is available, “ we will look at what, if any, impact that decision has on our World Athletics Championships Oregon 21,’’ he said. World Athletics, Coe noted, is currently focused on four priorities. First, it would like to get athletes back into competition as soon as possible, once it is safe to do so. “ We will continue to do whatever we can to preserve and create an outdoor season of one-day meetings in 2020, starting and ending later than usual, so athletes, when they are able and it is safe, will have access to competitions in every region. Diamond League events have been postponed up until June at this stage, as have Continental Tour Gold meetings, but we are mindful that our athletes need to compete at some point this year so they can benchmark their performances and adjust their training accordingly for an Olympic Games in 2021,’’ he said in the letter.

Second, World Athletics plans to expedite it’s review of the Olympic qualification process “ and release any changes to the process as soon as possible so athletes know where they stand. Last week all sports agreed to the IOC’s proposal that all athletes currently qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will remain qualified for next year’s event. In athletics the primary qualification avenue is by meeting the entry standards set out in March 2019. Once those places are allocated, the remaining athletes are drawn from the World Ranking list. As of today, all athletes who have met the entry standards for their event will remain qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. This is approximately 50% of the places. What is important now is that we develop a clear and fair process for the remaining athletes to qualify, given many events have been postponed. We will work with our Athletes’ Commission, our Council and the IOC to do this. We are also looking at how we can preserve an outdoor competition season this year with a series of one-day meetings on each continent that may begin as late as August and run to early October, so our athletes can get back in to competition as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so,’’ he said.

Third, there is the need to reorganize the global calendar of events, not just for the next two years which will see some major disruptions, but for the long term. We are committed to working with all sports to sort out the sporting calendar in 2021 and 2022 and this will take some time and compromises all round. We started a review of our own sport’s global calendar in February, bringing together a team from different aspects of our sport and from different parts of the world to review the range of events that happen every year on a national, regional and global level, ‘’ Coe said. According to him, World Athletics is looking to expand its one-day meetings and deliver high quality events in all parts of the world so that athletes do not have to travel across the world to compete and earn a living but can do so on their own continents and in their own countries.

Fourth, World Athletics has teams that are planning a new kids athletics programme; new events and competition formats, new partnerships to help get the world moving, new collaborations around sustainability, air quality and health and the use of new technology to highlight the talents of athletes and bring it home to millions of fans around the world.

The priority for all right now is to contain the pandemic, stay healthy and stay home. “ But where we can continue to drive our sport forward, we must,’’ Coe said, adding, “ the world will not be the same after this pandemic. It will be different and that could be a good thing. Going back to core human values, back to basics of what is important, redefining our purpose, is something we can all do on a human, business and sporting scale. We have heard a lot in the past week from governments, health care professionals, Prime Ministers and Presidents about social distancing and we are all practising it. But as I said at the beginning, although we may be separated physically during this period, my instinct is that ultimately this will draw us closer together, not further apart.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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