Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Almost 40 years after successfully defending the Olympic 1500 metres title at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Sebastian Coe flew back to that city having attended the Tokyo 2020 Games.

He was accompanied by numerous American athletes who had won medals in the vast, glorious emptiness of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.

"I expected to get off the plane with them in LA and to be side-stepping the media who wanted to chase them and catch their reunion on domestic shores," the World Athletics President said in a virtual media discussion on Friday.

"And they walked through the airport unescorted."

Athletics is on a roll right now, with COVID-19 circumstances meaning it has four years on the spin with a global championship on the programme - Tokyo 2020, the World Championships in Oregon postponed to 2022, the Budapest World Championships of the following year, and then the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Coe was glad to pass on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) data from the Tokyo 2020 Games - broadcasting and social media figures which indicated that athletics was, in his words, "the number one Olympic sport".

But with little more than six months to go until Oregon22 begins in the compact new athletics-centred Hayward Field, Coe acknowledges that the "conundrum" of the United States' relationship to track and field persists.

"The US is still the powerhouse of global track and field," he said. "But it still poses that challenge that we've got athletes that are recognised within the sporting athletic world and more than ever are beginning to cross over into greater perception outside of track and field, but that tends to be outside of the US.

"I know that what we consider to be household names in the sport can still walk with relative anonymity in their own home cities in the United States."

Despite towering performances at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, many US athletes are still not widely recognised in their home country, which will stage the World Athletics Championships in Oregon next year ©Getty Images
Despite towering performances at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, many US athletes are still not widely recognised in their home country, which will stage the World Athletics Championships in Oregon next year ©Getty Images

Hearing from a California-based journalist attending the virtual conference that the local impact of Oregon22 outside the track and field community was "nil" was not great for Coe, although it was hardly news to him.

"I know the challenges that there are in promoting the sport in the US," he said. "I know we are coming from a fair distance back.

"Oregon is a really important moment for our sport. We are into the United States. It is the largest market for us and other sports. We need to leave what I have described as an indelible footprint.

"And that's not about our ability as an organisation to have great comms. Oregon is about every facet-– we need to come together with the Local Organising Committee, with USA Track and Field, our own teams internally, just to make sure we leave with all the fruit.

"I have written a message to all our member federations making sure that they understand what a serious opportunity this will be.

"I'm not saying we are going to swallow up all that ground in the next six months. But I see this not just as a way of promoting Oregon, I see it as a way of promoting the sport more generally in the US so that we have a growing trajectory for it.

"We had the World U20 Championships in Oregon in 2014. They were very successful. We then had one of the best editions of our World Indoor Championships in Portland in 2016. And we always felt the natural extension to that would be a World Championships in Eugene, Oregon.

"But we can’t just sit there and say, 'Well, we got the three-up, and maybe in a year or two's time a cross country bid as well.' We need to continue to ramp this up because 2028 is a very important marker for us in the sport as well.

"And it will be a runway, too, into the 2028 LA Games."

Asked if he had confidence in the financial situation of the Oregon 2022 organisers, Coe responded circumspectly.

Hayward Field has been refurbished for next year's World Athletics Championships ©Getty Images
Hayward Field has been refurbished for next year's World Athletics Championships ©Getty Images

"The budgets have been settled," he said. "We know that these are going to be a challenging Championships - the stadium is smaller than we have been used to, but we also recognise that this is the first purpose-built stadium in the US, arguably, in my lifetime.

"It's a jaw-dropping stadium but it is relatively small compared to the average 40, even 50,000-seater venues that have been available to us. Financially the budgets are settled. We know we are living in financially straitened times. All sports are going through that.

"The number one priority we set for ourselves within the HQ when we went into the first lockdown in March 2020 was to make sure our finances were in as good and as sustainable shape as possible, because otherwise that would mean bringing into question funding for our member federations and funding the events that we have managed to get out of the traps.

"The budget is the budget, and we will deliver a great Championships within that budget. There's always a little bit of arm-wrestling between Local Organising Committees and World Athletics, but the teams have worked closely together and it's really important that these are great Championships."

Pressed on whether he could supply any details about what kind of footprint World Athletics will seek to establish in the United States with regard to Oregon22, Coe responded: "If you look at the metrics we’ve been talking about at the Tokyo 2020 Games, it would be in the same areas - it would be about social media, broadening the footprint on traditional media, getting broadcasts, getting promotional work done in advance of the Championships."

Referring to the "challenge" of arranging three major athletics competitions within the space of less than six weeks next summer - the Oregon World Championships are due to be held from July 15 to 24, with athletics at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games scheduled for July 30 to August 7, and at the Munich 2022 European Championships from August 15 to 21 - Coe said: "Everybody gave a bit, everybody took a bit".

"What we did in order to be the best partners we possibly could - I mean, we are the number one event next year, we are bigger than the Commonwealth Games or the European Championships, we recognise that the World Championships will be the number one target for athletes - but we were prepared to move our event slightly forward," Coe added.

"That was in order to give a little bit more recovery time for those athletes, particularly in the endurance events, who wanted to do both the Commonwealth and the European championships - around 73, 74 federations in World Athletics take the Commonwealth Games very seriously."

Oregon22 clashes with golf's Open Championship, which is due to be held at St Andrews in Scotland from July 10 to 17, but Coe believes that can offer a silver lining - "because we can market into and promote into the golf coverage the fact that track and field will be coming on afterwards."

The cross country bid to which Coe had referred related to the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics, where, he believes, the door is open for this element of athletics to return to the Games for the first time since the ill-fated running at the Paris 1924 Olympics, when most of the athletes dropped out due to extreme heat and pollution from a nearby power station.

"The door is open - it's certainly not closed," Coe said.

"We got quite close for Paris 2024. We had good conversations at the time in the lead-up a few years ago with the Paris organising committee and the IOC.

"I sort of accepted the rationale that this probably wasn't the time to add new disciplines into the Olympic world at that point. Particularly with COVID, with the extra costs and resource implications. We agreed to park it.

"But the conversations that have taken place with the IOC and also now with the Local Organising Committee in Los Angeles do mean that the door is open. It does look highly likely that if the door remains open and we do land this that it would be 2028 Summer Games that will be our first opportunity.

"From a personal perspective I tend to think cross country it sits more comfortably in the Winter than the Summer Olympics. 

"I have been told by the IOC in the past that you can only have a winter sport that's done on snow and ice.

"I've not been that aware of recent Olympic Games where there has been an abundance of snow and ice anyway. I'm slightly tongue-in-cheek here, but I also think it would add to the diversity of the Winter Games, that does tend not to have representation from a large part of the world, for obvious reasons.

"I think cross country would help with that.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe welcomed the recent European Cross Country victory for Olympic 1500m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen, centre, which helps boost a discipline that may be included in the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics ©Getty Images
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe welcomed the recent European Cross Country victory for Olympic 1500m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen, centre, which helps boost a discipline that may be included in the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics ©Getty Images

"But I am nothing if not relentless and I am not coming off this agenda. I do really feel for all sorts of reasons that cross country is really important.

"I was delighted that our current Olympic 1500m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen won the European cross country title last weekend because it did rather drive a coach and horses through some modern coaching thinking that says you can't possibly be a great athlete on the track and win cross country at the same time.

"I'm surprised that anybody has ever come up with that nostrum. They have certainly not discussed it with Haile Gebrselassie or Paul Tergat. The importance for me of cross country is that I have always believed it is an essential pathway to middle distance and endurance on the track.

"And I’m not saying you need to be world class at cross country, but I think the world in endurance events does separate between those that have had a grounding in cross country in their formative years and those that haven't.

"And I think there is a very close correlation between success on the track at the highest level and having a passing understanding of the mental and physical attributes cross country provides for athletes in their formative years."

Turning to the perennial problem of when the suspension of the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF), imposed in November 2015 in the wake of revelations of state-wide doping in the country, might be lifted, Coe steered away from suggestions made in some reports that 2022 could see that happen.

While this may be the ambition of the Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin, whose intervention earlier this year prevented the RusAF from being cast even further into the wilderness, it is not being actively espoused by the World Athletics President.

"We are closer to the end of it than we are to the beginning," Coe said. "We have a reinstatement roadmap. One of the issues that still remains is not within our gift, and that is the status of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) within the World Anti-Doping Agency. And that is one of our reinstatement criteria, so that is really important.

"We’ve had twists and turns, we’ve had some really frustrating times, we've had subversion as well. And we were making good progress until the previous RusAF leadership decided to be a bit fast and loose around whereabouts. We were very tough. It hit their ANA [Authorised Neutral Athlete] status.

"For me it's very clear. It will be ready when I and the Council are entirely satisfied that reinstatement does not remotely jeopardise the devoted efforts of the thousands of clean athletes around the globe. Only when we are satisfied will that take place.

World Athletics has no immediate plans to widen the category of events in which DSD athletes such as Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba are ineligible to compete ©Getty Images
World Athletics has no immediate plans to widen the category of events in which DSD athletes such as Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba are ineligible to compete ©Getty Images

"But I am more optimistic than I have been for some time, because the feedback that I get from people whose judgement I value in this, such as the chair of the Russian Taskforce, Rune Andersen - and do remember we are now working with two independents who are inserted into RusAF and working alongside the Taskforce so that we do have constant feedback from the front line. 

"And I am sensing now - and it’s taken too long to get there - but I am sensing a more collegiate and collaborative approach from Russian sport on this.

"We had a report from Rune on this at the recent Congress - that was his third Congress report since the initial suspension. So yes, of course, we have to be in a better place by having Russia back in there, but it has to be on fully understood terms of confidence and trust.

"So, again, I am not suggesting that this is weeks away any more than I am suggesting it is years away. It will be what it is."

Asked whether the World Athletics ruling precluding athletes with differences in sexual development (DSD) - namely female athletes with natural testosterone levels in the male range - competing in events between 400m and the mile would be extended to shorter or longer distances, Coe offered a cautious response.

The questioner cited the women's 200m silver medal won at the Toky o2020 Olympics by Namibia's Christine Mboma, precluded from her main event of 400m by the World Athletics ruling.

There was also a reference to another DSD athlete, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, who set a women's world 2,000m record of 5min 21.56sec this year as well as winning the Diamond League 5,000m title in Zurich.

"All our rules and regulations are always under review," Coe responded. "We don’t have teams sitting here looking at this moment at extending over the short-haul extension to those disciplines that fall within our regulations - but everything is within review.

"But don’t jump beyond my words into thinking there is something immediate that’s likely to happen.

"We will just review this. We have always made it clear that the 400, the 800, the 1500m and/or the mile, were those disciplines that for our case to be in the Court of Arbitration for Sport were those events that were most impacted. We had the evidence. We are comfortable with the science, but we then took the added data and relevance to those events.

"We will continue to work on this, and future Councils at World Athletics might decide that there are other disciplines that need to be considered but at this moment we are where we are."