Lord Sebastian Coe is arguably one of Loughborough University’s most distinguished graduates: as well as being a double Olympic champion, he was also a key part of the team which brought the 2012 Olympics to London. In between those feats, he managed a five year stint as an MP and is now the Chairman of the British Olympic Association, a role which he performs alongside his ongoing job here at the University as a Pro Chancellor.
Last year, he was elected as the new President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which is the global governing body for world athletics. The IAAF is going through turbulent times, and is mired in allegations of doping and corruption. Just over a week ago, Panorama aired a documentary on the BBC called “Seb Coe and the Corruption Scandal” (which is still available on iPlayer), but what exactly do they think our Pro Chancellor has to do with it all, and how has he responded to their claims?
The Doping Scandal
In December 2014, a German documentary revealed that, despite failing a drugs test in 2011, a Russian athlete called Lilya Shobukhova had still been allowed to compete at the Olympics a year later. Evidence was uncovered to show that she had been asked to pay a bribe of €450,000 to the authorities to allow this to happen, which was (somewhat bizarrely) partially refunded to the tune of €300,000 via an account allegedly linked to a man called Papa Massata Diack. At the time, Diack’s father, Lamine, was the President of the IAAF.
The scandal appeared to show that the governing body had serious issues, right at the very top. What makes things even more awkward is the suggestion that Lord Coe was reportedly told about the conspiracy before the aforementioned documentary was broadcast. Dave Bedford (a fellow former British Olympian) sent an email to the then-Vice President in August 2014 which included a report explaining the case against Shobukhova and how she was subsequently blackmailed.
A year after revelations were first seen on TV, Lord Coe appeared before our government’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to answer questions about the scandal. He told MPs that he was “certainly not aware of the specific allegations that have been made around the corruption of anti-doping processes in Russia”.
In a statement released after the BBC programme was shown, the IAAF say that whilst Lord Coe did indeed receive an email from Bedford, he forwarded it to the body’s Ethics Commission without reading the attached document. In response to possible suggestions of negligence or lack of interest, the body argue that their President’s actions were perfectly reasonable and ensured that “the right people in the right place were aware of allegations and were investigating them.” Some members of the Commons Select Committee were less convinced, however, with Damian Collins MP suggesting that his answers may have been ‘misleading’ and that the issues raised were criminal in nature and so should have been looked at by an external investigation.
One thing that we know for sure is that Lamine Diack and his son were both impacted by the scandal: Lamine was arrested following an investigation into corruption just three months after Lord Coe replaced him, whilst Papa Massata Diack is currently living in Senegal, but is likely to be charged with similar offences should he attempt to leave the country.
To muddy the waters further, Nick Davies, who was close to Coe throughout his election campaign, was suspended earlier this month (having earlier resigned his post as deputy general secretary last December, after Lord Coe’s appearance in the Commons) in response to evidence showing that he was aware of the cover-up of how Shobukhova was treated and wanted to enlist a PR firm called CSM (a group chaired by Lord Coe) to address the resulting “international media scandal”.
Lord Coe’s Election Success
Messages sent by Coe and the man who led his election campaign (the afore-mentioned Nick Davies) appear to show that Papa Massata Diack helped the former Olympian to victory in his election as President of the IAAF, despite his alleged wrongdoing being public knowledge at the time. However, it is important to note that Panorama themselves questioned the credibility of Diack’s claims and, in a further damaging blow, apparently refused to let officials from the IAAF have sight of the ‘electronic evidence’ which they were shown.
As well as an email in which Davies commends Diack’s ‘political campaign advice’ and thanks him on Coe’s behalf, the BBC were able to air a specific, detailed allegation. Coe appeared to arrange a meeting between Diack and a figure referred to as ‘our friend’ who it is suggested is a senior African official called Hamad Kalkaba Malboum. By looking at the chronology of messages, we can see that Davies appears to question whether African delegates plan to back Coe, before the support of “24/30” is confirmed by the former President’s son. A later communication from Diack to Coe suggests that the new President should thank Kalkaba in his victory speech, to which Coe’s reply was “Thank you … Of course I will”.
If there is any substance to these claims (of which we should be sceptical given Diack’s status as a man with very little to lose), then it could be said that Lord Coe enlisted the help of a man who he knew to be corrupt in order to rise to the most prominent role in world athletics. Whether such an approach could be considered ethical is certainly debatable and was described by one of the investigators in the Shobukhova case as ‘disgusting’. The allegation about African support was also flagged as a cause for concern, given Coe’s winning margin of just 23 votes: one fewer than the number of African delegates which Diack Junior may or may not have secured on his behalf.
Other alleged communications between Coe and Diack appear to suggest the incoming President appearing to agree to a request to praise his predecessor in a speech. This task was duly fulfilled as Coe told a press conference that Lamine Diack would always be his ‘spiritual President’, though it could also be argued that these were simply the actions of a humble victor giving sincere thanks to the man who he had served as Vice President for a number of years.
The IAAF strongly refute the claim that their President sought out Diack’s support. They say that while Coe was ‘civil’ in his exchanges with Papa Massata Diack, he was ‘wary’ of him as there was a suspicion that he may also have been supporting rival candidates. As well as explaining that, during a leadership contest, advice may be received from a wide variety of sources which may be either unrequited or of little help, the IAAF also insinuate that Diack’s supposed blaming of Coe for criticising him and his family in the media also meant that his advice would have been treated with caution.
Coe’s Connection to Nike
Lord Sebastian Coe resigned as a Nike ambassador last November, over three months after becoming IAAF president. He had held the role for over thirty years but ultimately relinquished it due to suggestions that it may cause a conflict of interest, despite assuring the public that such a possibility had previously been investigated and dismissed.
One situation which got people talking was the awarding of the 2021 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships to a city called Eugene, which is the second largest city in the US state of Oregon. Eugene is also the hometown of the sports giant Nike, a company to which Lord Coe still had ties when a major decision was made in April 2015. Despite reported interest from Gothenburg in Sweden, the 2021 contest was awarded to Eugene, despite the fact that a full bidding process was not conducted.
Whilst some were quick to note the fact that games have been awarded without such a campaign before, and that holding the contest in America was a commercially astute decision, others had doubts. Lamine Diack, the IAAF President at the time, was reportedly the driving force behind the decision, though French investigators told Panorama that Lord Coe’s potential involvement in the decision to award the games without tender, as well as the fact that it was presented to that particular American city, was an area which his department was looking into.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Papa Massata Diack also plays a role in this story, as text messages (whose believability we should once again be wary of) appear to show that he suggested enlisting a man called Phil Knight to help with Coe’s leadership bid. These messages, sent between Nick Davies and Diack, would have been sent four months after the awarding of the 2021 Games.
In a message laden with what many may consider to be excessive punctuation, Diack suggested putting Knight, who is Chairman of Nike, Inc., in touch with Steve Miller in order to secure his ‘pledge’. Miller was acting at the time as a USATF delegate and so was able to vote in the leadership contest. If we are to take Diack at his word, this would suggest a close personal link between Coe and Knight, and could even lead to questions about Knight’s motivation to lobby on Coe’s behalf.
In his defence, Lord Sebastian Coe says that he did not lobby on behalf of Eugene’s bid and stipulates that the “noise level around this ambassadorial role” was the reason behind his resignation as an ambassador for the sportswear giant: essentially, press interest in the possibility of a conflict of interest was distracting him, affecting his ability to effectively address all of the issues facing the IAAF at that time.
– By Liam David Hopley