Column: Coe passes leadership test, on second time of asking
MONACO -- Sebastian Coe won Olympic golds and silvers for running very fast in circles. Now, as chief administrator of his sport, he's proving to be skilled in the art of U-turns, too.
That flexibility, the ability to retreat, change course, compromise and put his sport's interests before his own, is an asset for Coe as he seeks to steer track and field through hurricanes of scandal that could sink it.
Severing his lucrative ties to Nike Inc., however reluctantly, was the smart play for the new president of the International Association of Athletics Federations.
For starters, it disassociates him from the company that previously sponsored Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones and this year signed a new deal with Justin Gatlin. That wasn't good company for Coe to be keeping given that the absolute priority of his presidency must be cutting out the doping cancer eating at track and field's heart.
That Coe gave up the reported 100,000-pound ($150,000; 140,000 euros) a year ambassadorial role not because he wanted to but because critics, especially British media hunting as a pack, were demanding it also shows that he is willing to climb down if it serves a bigger cause -- in this case, a sport in need of saving.
"The current noise level about this ambassadorial role is not good for the IAAF and it is not good for Nike," he said. "Frankly, it is a distraction to the 18-hour days that I and our teams are working to steady the ship."
In short, Coe showed that he listens. He disagreed, as is his right, with the argument that his Nike relationship left him at risk of putting the sportswear giant's interests before those of the sport he has been elected to lead. He didn't feel the two roles were incompatible. Nevertheless, he heard his critics and responded to their concerns with action not just words.
And that, at least on this occasion, sets Coe apart from other sports leaders -- Sepp Blatter at FIFA of course springs to mind -- who over the years have given their profession such a bad name by being, among many other failings, too often scornful of criticism, especially from the media.
Granted, it took Coe a while, probably too long, to reach the conclusion that he didn't want his whole presidency to be defined from its early days by this Nike issue alone. The smarter play would have been to have made this break on the day he was elected president in August. Still, better late than never. Coe should get at least some credit for having reached the right decision in the end.
Aside from the financial hit, losing Nike clearly also had an emotional cost for Coe. He noted that their ties went back decades to his years as a star athlete and that he recently saw a photo of himself wearing a Nike T-shirt taken in 1978, before he first became an Olympic champion in the 1,500 meters at the Moscow Games of 1980.
Given that so many other sports administrators have used their rise to the top to illegally line their pockets, Coe's decision to forego perfectly legal money from Nike makes a refreshing change. And this because of a job -- the IAAF presidency -- that is unpaid. Coe has also cancelled the luxury hotel suite in Monaco that the IAAF kept for the use of his predecessor, Lamine Diack.
Diack has since been snared in a corruption and money laundering investigation by police in France, the other major mud-hole that Coe must now extricate the IAAF from. So Coe is right: his own interests with Nike weren't worth fighting tooth-and-nail for when his sport has far bigger problems.
Most of all, the Nike connection looked bad, far too cozy for an IAAF president, even if it wasn't necessarily bad in itself. That impression was reinforced by an email the BBC unearthed and published this week and which made uncomfortable reading. In it, a Nike executive chummily referred to Coe as "Seb" and revealed that the Nike ambassador had reported back to the firm about internal IAAF decision-making. This was in January when Coe was an IAAF vice president, months before his election to the top job.
That sort of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" backroom dealing no longer washes in the court of opinion. That is the fault of sports administrators before Coe who have long abused the power and connections their positions offer, treating them as an unlimited buffet of privilege and personal gain.
Because of such crooks, confidence in sports leadership is at rock-bottom. The new normal is that any new sports administrator starts out with zero credibility until he or she prove that they are different. And cozy is seen as early steps down the slippery ladder toward corruption.
In sum, the Nike tie was an early test of Coe's leadership. He failed it at the first time of asking but found the right answer in the end.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press
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