Coleman and Stefanidi offer hope to athletics – a sport in need of new names | Sean Ingle

The Guardian Sports 10 months ago

When Sebastian Coe wakes up on Sunday morning he will have a 6ft 5in-shaped headache. Usain Bolt, track and field’s greatest weapon as well as its biggest crutch, has run his last race. Mo Farah is heading to the roads. And the question of how the sport can shout loud enough to be heard by casual fans without the great Jamaican or the most successful British athlete in history – or a major global championships on the horizon – will move from a theoretical to an intensely practical problem.

If Lord Coe, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, feels this huge weight on his shoulders, he does not show it. He believes London 2017 has highlighted a number of new stars to go alongside established big names such as Wayde van Niekerk, Allyson Felix, Kendra Harrison and Nafissatou Thiam. He just wants them to promote themselves and their sport better.

“The agents and managers are incredibly cloying,” Coe claims. “They say: ‘You don’t want to say this, you don’t want to say that,’ to their athletes. We need to be relaxed about what they say. Look at Conor McGregor, who has got my kids talking about UFC. I’m not saying people should be like him – but I want more of them to give a view on things and to show their personality. “We’ve got to encourage the athletes to be themselves. That will make the media find them more interesting and help the public to become more engaged.”

Coe adds: “Usain Bolt, for whatever reason, was probably a personality the second he walked into his classroom. You are not trying to choreograph that but I do think it is important that athletes realise they are part of the entertainment business. The reason Usain is going to be missed is not because he wins all those medals – it is because he is prepared to give a view about things. He has instincts. He is not looking either side to his handlers.”

Coe believes Christian Coleman of the USA – who has an unbeaten record against Bolt having beaten him in their 100m semi-final and final – can help fill the void. Coleman says: “I have the utmost respect for Usain Bolt when I heard that I am only the only person who is unbeaten against him, I thought: ‘That’s pretty crazy.’ When I get older, that’s something I’m going to tell my grandkids. He pushed the sport along but we have other great athletes coming forward – and hopefully one of those is me.”

Other athletes have shown their personalities at these championships, too. They include the French runner Pierre-Ambroise Bosse, whose exuberance on television having won the 800m gold earned him thousands of new fans, and the Norwegian Karsten Warholm, whose shocked face when he won the 400m hurdles showed that he was more surprised than anyone else.

Coe accepts the IAAF also has to do more to promote its sport and stars. According to preliminary research conducted by athletics’ governing body, 75% of respondents said that track and field has to change – not only in how it does things in the stadium, but how the sport is shown on TV and online.

“There’s more need for us to really demonstrate that we have some incredible talent out there,” says Coe. “If you just look at the youth which has surfaced in the championships – it’s the youngest cohort of medallists, youngest cohort of winners. We had a 21-year-old who won the 400m hurdles and the youngest ever finalists in the men’s 800m. It’s very good out there – we just have to make sure that people know that.”

One of the stars in London this week was the Greek pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi, who delighted the crowd in dancing to Zorba the Greek after taking gold. She urged Coe to do more to talk to millennials, push field events into the centre of the area to give them more attention, and find ways to make the whole sport move a bit quicker.

“Even little things can make a difference,” she says. “It sounds silly but when I won and they played that music I got 20,000 followers on Twitter. I just wish I could dance better.”

Coe, incidentally, still believes that engaging with young people is the main challenge he faces – not doping. And he knows that Bolt, even as he heads to retirement, plays a key part. “I was chatting to him before the medal ceremony and, slightly tongue-in-cheek, he looked at me and said: ‘So what do you want me to do now, boss?’” Coe says. “And I went: ‘Anything you want to do, really.’” A more rounded answer to that question cannot come soon enough.

Tags: the observer
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