The celebrations which marked the 50th Anniversary running of Oslo’s Bislett Games offered many great athletes the opportunity to reflect on the days of their youth. As the cavalcade of classic open-topped Ford Mustangs made its slow circuit of the Bislett Stadium track before the main meeting began, the waving passengers – John Walker, Roger Moens, Javier Sotomayor, Jan Zelezny, Ingrid Kristiansen, Henry Rono - received warm waves of applause. For many of those rising in acclaim, these middle aged but still largely trim and athletic figures had created indelible memories on this oval patch of ground.
No one was applauding more warmly than Svein Arne Hansen, recently elected President of European Athletics, who has been involved in every Bislett Games since 1965 in various forms, serving as meeting director from 1985 to 2009.
For Hansen, the memory of 1985 is the one he cherishes most dearly.
“This was also my first meet as meeting director, and the crowd did not want to go home even if it was midnight.
“What is special is the knowledge of the spectators and their willingness to cheer all athletes on, creating the atmosphere we are so proud of.”
Hansen is uniquely well placed to appreciate the unique quality of the Bislett experience, and his all-time top ten serves as a vivid reminder of it.
"I will never forget July 27, 1985,” he told insidethegames. “It is No.1 in my memory with three world records – Ingrid Kristiansen in the 10,000m, Said Aouita in the 5000m, and Steve Cram in the Mile."
In second place he lists Ron Clarke’s world record in the 10,000m in 27min 39.40sec in 1965 – “with me as the starter’s assistant for the race.”
Third in the Hansen rankings comes Sebastian Coe’s effort of 1979 in setting the first of his four Oslo world records with 1:42.40 in the 800m.
Fourth, Ingrid Kristiansen setting her 10,000m world record of 30:13.74 in 1986. “I stood alongside her coach Johan Kaggestad on the infield. It was impossible to talk. We could not hear each other because of the cheering crowd.”
Fifth, Haile Gebreselassie setting a 10,000m world record of 26:31.32 in a packed stadium in 1997.
Sixth, Kenya’s William Sigei lowering the 10,000m world record to 26:52.23 in 1994.
Seventh, Norway’s own Trine Hattestad finishing her Bislett career in 2000 with a world record of 69.48 metres in the javelin.
Eighth, Coe setting a 1000m world record of 2:13.40 in 1980, and fellow Briton Steve Ovett following up with a mile world record of 3:48.80.
Ninth, Henry Rono setting a world 3000m record of 7:32.10 and claiming a $1,000 bonus to go with it in 1978.
And tenth, Usain Bolt setting a meeting record of 9.79sec for the 100m in 2012. “I had never seen anyone run so fast!”
Although they were not among those in the motor cavalcade, Cram and Coe were also present at the meeting, partly as guests, partly in work mode.
For Coe, Oslo was the latest staging post upon a marathon zig-zig journey around the world as part of his bid to become President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) - a journey that has been replicated by his rival in the August 19 election, Sergey Bubka.
Before the action got fully underway in the Bislett Stadium, Coe occupied a room within it to reflect on times past and times to come in company with a small media gathering. And as he spoke, it swiftly became evident that his most pressing concern is the continuing engagement of his sport - and sport in general – with young people.
First, however, he allowed himself a brief excursion into his own youth as he recalled his earliest experience of running on the Oslo track.
“It seems barely credible that it was 36 years ago, probably within a few days of so of this actual date, that I first appeared in his Stadium. I was invited to run in the 800m, in the days when there were two track meets at this stadium, the first one being in June, the next in July.
“As a fairly impoverished university student who had just graduated I managed to slither my way to 1.42 and bits, and found myself being invited back 10 days later to run in the Golden Mile,” Coe recalled. “Given that I’d actually run one Mile a year in the previous four it seemed like a fairly improbable exercise but that went quite well and the rest, as they say, is history.”
That particular opening flourish, just to spell it out, consisted of taking more than a second off Alberto Juantorena’s 800m world record from 1977, and then chipping almost half a second off John Walker’s historic mile mark of 3:49.4, the first under 3:50.
“When you get invited to Bislett it’s a little bit like coming of age,” Coe continued. “We’ve just had a beautiful reception with the sponsors and the array of athletes who have made it to the celebrations tonight, including Roger Moens, one of my predecessors as 800m world record holder, and of course John Walker, who set the tone and style for all of us really from the mid-70s onwards.”
But that excursion aside, it was to future generations of runners that Coe was, and is, devoting his fullest attention.
He insisted that his initiative in presenting a 100 Day Plan outlining what his immediate plans would be should he be voted as President was “not remotely tempting fate,” adding: “There is a lot of hard work to be done between now and the election on August 19. A couple of weeks ago my team that was travelling with me worked out on the back of a BA menu that we had covered well over 450,000 kilometres since last September - so my family are all very excited about the potential for air miles overt the next 30 years.
“I’m very excited about the prospect of the election in August. I take absolutely nothing for granted, this is ultimately a decision that has to be made by the bulk of the 214 Member Federations and it is incumbent upon anybody that is throwing their hat into the ring for a role that is this important and with the status that the sport deserves that I should be out and about, I should be communicating, I should be listening to aspirations and challenges .
“As I said when I threw my hat into the ring in December and produced a manifesto, the exercise of an election is important.
It really has reinforced many of my instincts about the extraordinary nature of our sport, and the global challenges of our sport, but also what we really do need to do as member federations coming together in the sport for the next 20-30 years. Because we shouldn’t be blind to the fact that there are challenges out there.”
One of the key areas in which Coe would seek to influence the benign development of young sportsmen and women is his proposed Youth Marketing and Communications Division.
“It is very clear to me on my travels in the last year or so and the 10 years I was involved with London 2012 as a project that we need to engage and communicate with young people in a very different way,” Coe said.
“We need to use technology that is far more familiar to them than it is to people of my age and we need to use language that is also understandable and we are not doing that as well as we should.
“We’ve made a very good start on this in the last few years and where we have done it well we’ve seen a significant difference. But we do need to give our sport a new shape, and that shape needs to be given a youthful view.”
Coe added that there would also be a significant benefit to potential young athletes in the creation of an IAAF Values Commission.
“I think it is absolutely vital that we create a structure that helps shape the values of the sport. I’m not talking simply about doping or age manipulation. It is important that we are able to articulate the core ideologies that our sport stands for. And I think that in turn can help young athletes navigate their way through and actually avoid some of the malign influences that we know are out there. It needs to be almost a Praetorian Guard for young athletes.
“It is very important that athletes between the ages of 14-18 have that robust, secure knowledge about what the sport is, what the history of their sport stands for, why it is really important we do what we do with integrity.
“Young people don’t simply look at our sport through the optics of a sport. They sit at all the moral hotspots on all the big issues of the day, they are profoundly anti-discriminatory, they want to see a sport that represents the world that they live in and conducts it affairs in the way that they see the world they live in.
“They want to see organisations that reflect the broad section of people that live in the world, and if we have these rather laboratory academic terms we just throw out – ‘it’s courage, it’s respect’ – what does that actually mean in real terms for young people?
“I want young people to have that voice and I think it will be very insightful and instructive. And I recognise that the young generation see the world and the way its organisations should be conducted in a very different way than many people of my generation, and I want my sport to reflect that.”
Nobody would ever accuse Sebastian Coe of lacking in ambition, either for himself or for those potential rising athletes with whom he is so obviously concerned.
His take on the London 2012 Games which he did so much to bring to Britain and to render into a reason for Britain to be proud was always that is had to create a sporting legacy, particularly for young people.
The latest figures released by Sport England demonstrate the enduring difficulty of such aspirations being achieved.
The good news, certainly for Coe in track and field mode, is that the governing body’s Active People Survey for the six-month period from October 2014 to March 2015 shows running is on the rise, with the figure up 63,000 to 2.1 million a week.
Sport England lists “informal running” events such as parkrun and the Color Run as part of the reason for the rise in running participation figures.
But the overall figure of 15.5 million people doing some kind of sport once a week, every week, for the six-month period is 222,000 fewer than six months ago. Among the activities to have seen participation figures drop is swimming, with 144,200 fewer people taking to the pool in the last six months.
“Whilst we’ve seen the number of people playing sport increase by 1.4 million since we won the right to host the London 2012 Games, these results highlight that our current investment model has delivered all the growth available in the traditional markets for sport,” commented Sport England’s chief executive Jennie Price.
“We have already started working with a wider range of partners and will be looking further at with whom we work, and what we invest in, to get more people playing sport.”
While many of his athletics contemporaries and forbears enjoyed a long night of it in Oslo, Coe was on the overnight flight into Baku, wearing his metaphorical hat as chairman of the British Olympic Association, in order to meet and speak with some of the young sportsmen and women who are representing Britain in the inaugural European Games.
Partly for the reason that there has only been a 30-months lead-in time to these first Games, which has precluded many competitors from taking part because of longstanding alternative commitments, Baku 2015 involves a large proportion of younger athletes, with all the aquatic activity involving European Junior Championships.
Here is a testing pool for the future of many sports at Olympic level. The involvement of so many young people, and the efforts to engage so many young spectators and followers, are what will keep sport alive in Europe and the wider world.
“If the 20th century was about taking sport to the world the 21st century is about taking sport to young people.” Says Coe. “And that is as profound in track and field as it is in any other sport.”