As Seb Coe turns 60, the IAAF president and British middle-distance great reflects on his career and the first turbulent year of his time at the helm of the sport’s world governing body, insisting there is no place he’d rather be
This Thursday, September 29, is Lord Sebastian Coe’s 60th birthday – a point when many people would stop and take stock of their lives, where they’ve been and where they are headed.
It’s quite a life Coe has to look back on. As a double Olympic 1500m champion, serial world record-holder and the man who brought those unforgettable Games to London in 2012, his place in the sporting pantheon had been assured.
There were plenty of laurels for him to rest on but, just at a time when he could be forgiven for wanting to slow down a little, in something akin to an echo of his athletic heyday he has instead placed himself in the eye of the storm and decided to metaphorically employ that trademark kick in an effort to achieve his goal.
This time that aim is reforming his sport and securing its future. Despite the flak and the scrutiny, he insists he is in the right place at the right time.
“I’m happy,” says the IAAF president. “Happy is perhaps a fairly weak word but, yeah, I guess I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing.
“It’s 40 years ago this year that I first got invited to compete in an international meeting in Gateshead. Brendan Foster gave me the opportunity to race a few weeks after John Walker had won the Olympic title in 1976. Dave Moorcroft got seventh place and most of the finalists in Montreal were on the track that night.
“Yes, I suppose I sit back and think that was 40 years ago and by that point I’d been in the sport and fairly active in it for seven years,” he adds. “So to say that I’d started training on a scrubby track in the lee of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and now to be speaking to you at this moment at the IAAF headquarters in Monaco as the president of the sport that I absolutely adore — and actually I hope people realise now that I would die in a ditch for — then why would I want to be doing anything else?”
There are a few reasons that immediately spring to mind. The death threats he received not so long ago following the decision to expel Russian athletes from competing at the Rio Olympics is one. Another might be the fact that he admitted earlier this year that the maelstrom of controversy surrounding both him and the IAAF was taking a toll on his family. Is there never a time when he thinks to himself, “do I really need this?”.
“I guess, maybe, I’ve just become a little inured to it but I suppose I’ve always sensed that, whatever I’ve done, there’s been stuff that’s come with the territory,” he says. “So yes, you know, you occasionally sit back and you think about what it is you want to do with life and what it is you want to spend time doing and I guess I’m pretty comfortable with the decision I’ve made.”
Now his role in athletics has changed, having watched such incredible competition unfold in Rio, was there a small part of Coe that was itching to pull on the spikes again and be out there competing?
“I do love running,” he says. “That’s the one thing I will always do.”
Asked if he’s ever tempted back to the track, however, and the answer is unequivocal. “No. That’s an easy answer,” he says. “I’ve often watched people, as they get older, running a good distance but actually if you’re not careful it can make you look like running on broken bottles after a few years. So actually maintaining stride length – and maintaining a few drills – is a good way of maintaining what I’ve got left in my knees and hip flexors!”
So it’s safe to say Coe finds himself still in decent shape on this landmark birthday. Now improving the long-term health of athletics is next on his never-ending agenda.
» This is an extract from an extensive interview with Seb Coe which forms part of a 32-page special insert to mark the British middle-distance great’s 60th birthday. For more from this feature, plus his thoughts on the future as president of the IAAF, reflection on his golden years on the track and much more, see the September 29 edition of AW magazine