BERLIN, August 24 – The future of athletics is encouraging but it also faces challenges to maintain a high profile and encourage the young to flock to it whether as participants or spectators, British athletics legend Lord Sebastian Coe told AFP, saying the sport has plenty more to offer than offer than Usain Bolt.The 52-year-old – a two-time 1500 metres Olympic champion – said Jamaican superstar Bolt was one of many selling points, though clearly the feats of the 23-year-old 100m and 200m world record holder has helped push athletics to the forefront of the public’s imagination – just as he did when winning three Olympic golds last August.
But Coe – whose inspirational leadership was seen as a major factor in London stunning favourites Paris to win the right to host the 2012 Olympics – insisted that it was not just the Bolt factor that gave him cause for optimism.
"It’s no different to other sports," said Coe, referring to the seeming obsession that Bolt was the only athlete talked about.
"We shouldn’t be trying to explain that away.
"In Britain, people talk about Andy Murray the whole time as if he is the only tennis player in the world. But in actual fact out there globally there are only two tennis players being talked about, namely Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
"Do you think people here, both young and old, are talking about Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button or indeed Nadal and Federer this week? No they’re not, they’re talking about the Bolts and Sanya Richards’," added Coe, who is a vice-president of the IAAF and touted as a potential successor to present president Lamine Diack.
The former Conservative Party MP – he represented the west country seat of Falmouth and Camborne from 1992 to losing it in 1997 – said that athletics was one of just three sports that could truly lay claim to being global.
"Look at the official flags hanging from the rafters, there are 215," he said.
"Athletics along with football and tennis are the three truly global sports.
"Rowing, sailing and swimming are great sports but they are not global in the true sense of the word.
"This sport is massive and what they are competing for out there is a serious business."
However, Coe said that the sport had to also understand its potential audience and to attract them by adapting to their needs.
"It is as much a case of understanding the sociological landscape as understanding the angle at which you approach the high jump bar.
"There is now a much more sophisticated younger audience out there with a very different set of priorities to those of my generation.
"We have to navigate them into understanding our sport and build on its appeal. However, we have to understand young people who get involved whether they are competing or there as spectators."
Coe said that despite it being a highly successful championships – in terms of organisation and the level of competition – there were improvements that could be made to the biennial event.
"There are still some issues. The flow of activity and the symmetry of the championship. For instance you can go from Usain Bolt winning in a world record time to the second round of the women’s 400m hurdles which isn’t really going to maintain the buzz in a stadium," he said.
"They are right to focus on the programme because young people don’t want to sit in the stands and watch only a handful of events."
Coe, though, did say tradition should not be sacrificed in an attempt to spread athletics’ appeal.
"We have to be protective of our birthright," he said.
"And not take out events because they may not be overtly popular.
"Because if you start doing that you rip the heart out of our sport."