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Legend Seb Coe moves to shore up legacy at World Athletics with rich, new competition

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World Athletics president Seb Coe during an interview at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Photo credit: File| Nation Media Group

When he took over the reins at World Athletics in 2015, Great Britain’s Olympic middle distance legend Seb Coe found the world track, field and road governing body at sixes and sevens.

With the federation drowning in the murky waters of corruption, sponsor apathy, runaway doping and management inadequacies, 67-year-old Coe had to move with the speed that saw him shatter eight middle distance world records and bag four Olympic gold medals in his running prime to restore sanity.

At a special congress of the world athletics governing body in December 2016, Coe rallied a reform package to attack what he described as “grotesque corruption” at the Monaco-headquartered body.

The reforms included stripping himself powers as president, restricting presidential terms to 12 years and moving to avoid money being siphoned off the federation.

“Let’s not beat around the bush, our sport, our family, is under threat. Sitting out the fight is not an option,” Coe told the federation’s delegates then.

Coe’s bold reforms included change of the federation’s name and brand, from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to World Athletics (WA), and pushing gender parity in its leadership to 50-50.

The former Conservative Party Member of the British Parliament then moved to give athletes a bigger voice and wider platform to rake in income from the sport, recently announcing prize money for Olympic gold medallists, starting with $50,000 (Sh6.5 million) for each of the sport’s 48 winners at next month’s Paris Olympic Games.

Coe committed to increasing the prize purse to silver and bronze medallists at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

The WA President has also voted $13 million (Sh1.7 billion) for the development of the sport annually besides funding the autonomous Athletics Integrity Unit which is housed a couple of floors below the WA headquarters at Monaco’s Port Hercules.

World Athletics Series events now enjoy an annual funding of $24 million (Sh3.1 billion), besides a prize money purse of $2.4 million (Sh313 million).

World Athletics president Seb Coe with young volunteers during the World Under - 18 Championships in Nairobi in 2017.

Photo credit: File| Nation Media Group

Sponsors started trickling back, highlighted by Japanese apparel company Asics replacing Germany’s Adidas as WA’s official apparel and shoe partner on a 10-year deal ending in 2029.

Adidas had terminated their contract with WA four years prematurely in 2016 owing to “runaway doping” in the sport.

WA then announced a four-your business strategy running from 2024 to 2027 dubbed “Pioneering Change.”

Under this strategy, WA is keen on innovation with a view to growing the sport’s global reach.

This is with “faster paced and more exciting events for millions of people to watch, in the stadium and at home; more innovation across the board, not just on the field of play, but ways to bring athletes and fans closer together in and out of competition".

WA is also looking for more ways in which athletes can be the stars they deserve to be through competitions and targeted use of social media platforms and more inclusive and accessible entry points into athletics as a competitor, a coach, a referee, a volunteer or an administrator.

'World Athletics Ultimate Championship'

It is under this framework that Coe on Monday unveiled a rich ‘World Athletics Ultimate Championship’ that will inject innovation into track and field besides providing yet another opportunity for athletes to generate more income from the sport.

The World Athletics Ultimate Championship has been described by WA as “a groundbreaking new global championship event set to transform the athletics calendar and define which athlete is the best of the best.”

The championship – that has a prize purse of $10 million (Sh1.3 billion) - will bring together world champions, Olympic champions, the Wanda Diamond League winners and the year’s best performing athletes against each other, to crown the ultimate champion.

The prize package is the largest ever offered in the history of track and field athletics.

World Athletics President Seb Coe addresses journalists at the pre-event press conference on September 29, 2023 ahead of the World Athletics Road Running Championships in Riga, Latvia.

Photo credit: World Athletics |

According to World Athletics, gold medallists will receive $150,000 (Sh19.6 million) in the championship whose first edition will be held from September 11 to 13, 2026, in Budapest, Hungary.

“Designed as the ultimate season finale with an aim to captivate millions of television viewers worldwide, the global championship event will feature a thrilling and fast-moving new format for athletics,” World Athletics said in a statement unveiling the new competition.

Coe described the new competition as “a game changer in the way athletes are rewarded in a championship.”

“You will understand the trajectory that our sport has been in… Where possible we will do whatever we can to improve the financial wellbeing not only of the sport, but of the athletes who are the stars of our sport,” Coe said on Monday.

Responding to questions from Nation Sport, Coe explained that his federation was looking at innovative ways of considering the interests of broadcasters who may not be in a position to eke out high live broadcast fees for the new even and other World Athletics Series competitions.

“Rest assured that we are very conscious that we want to give an opportunity for more people, not less, to watch our sport and Free-to-Air (live broadcasting) is really important to us,” Coe reacted.

“We are not just going to chase the greatest revenue stream that we can from broadcasters who may not be able to show it in the numbers that we want,” said Coe who was flanked by WA’s chief executive Jon Ridgeon and head of communications Jamie Fox in the zoom call from Budapest.

And Kenya’s top athletes have welcomed the new competition, saying it augurs well for the sport’s development and for the athletes.

“This will be very good for athletes,” Africa 100 metres record holder Ferdinand Omanyala reacted from USA where he is on transit back to Kenya for next week’s Olympic Games trials in Nairobi.

“I’m happy that the money is coming back to athletics. I’m hoping that other meet organisers will see this and also increase their prize monies,” Omanyala noted.

“This will also bring more interest to the sport and more fanbase. I am excited to see how the next four years will be plus the introduction of the sprint series on Netflix,” he added, excited at the innovation the sport is enjoying.

Former world javelin champion Julius Yego implored African athletics officials to follow Coe’s example by innovating and creating a better environment for athletes.

“Most African federation leaders are voting machines only! They have neglected the sport totally. They should borrow some knowledge from Seb and not just be there to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on policies,” Yego put it in his typical, no-holds-barred fashion from his Eldoret base.

Sebastian Coe and William Ruto

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe (left) shares a moment with President William Ruto at State House, Nairobi, on January 5, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool | PCS

“Coe is always thinking about the sport’s development and progress with the current trends and also how the athlete can get the value of the talent. Kudos to him!”

Most significantly, the new championship will see the top-ranked athletes run for their nations.

“Taking place over three evening sessions, each under three hours in duration, the Ultimate Championship will showcase the best of athletics, including sprints, middle and long-distance races, relays, jumps, and throws, ensuring a spectacle that both existing and new fans will not want to miss,” WA said in their Monday announcement. 

“Athletes will represent their national teams to ensure that individual success is underpinned by national pride,” World Athletics added.

Riding on the back of hosting one of the most successful World Athletics Championships editions in history last year, Budapest won the bid to welcome nearly 400 of the world's top athletes for the inaugural championship in 2026.

“With only the best of the best on show and cutting straight to semi finals and finals, we will create an immediate pressure to perform for athletes aiming to claim the title of the ultimate champion,” said Coe on Monday. 

“The World Athletics Ultimate Championship will be high on action and excitement for fans, setting a new standard for track and field events. 

“Featuring athletics’ biggest stars, it will be a must-watch global sports event and means track and field will host a major global championship in every single year, ensuring for the first time that athletics will enjoy a moment of maximum audience reach on an annual basis,” Coe added.

Adam Schmidt, the State Secretary of Sports in Hungary, said they explored ways of remaining relevant in athletics after successfully staging the Worlds last year, hence their decision to organize the inaugural World Athletics Ultimate Championship.

“Hosting the inaugural edition of the Ultimate Championship is an excellent occasion to keep the pace and together with President Coe we have even more plans to deliver,” said Schmidt.

“These partnerships have a very positive impact on our national sport curriculum and Hungary is always happy to welcome the world in our magnificent capital city, Budapest.”

World Athletics also said they will keep engaging various stakeholders with a view to making the sport more innovative and relevant to changing times.

“By embracing innovation and breaking away from traditional models, we are looking to reach a broader audience, particularly younger fans, and elevate the entire sport,” said WA CEO Ridgeon. 

“There will be a strong focus on television audiences, with an aim to reach the biggest global audience possible. We also want to enhance the viewing experience, both at home and in the stadium, so we are looking at what new competition innovations can be introduced, all of which will be thoroughly tested in advance. We truly believe this will be a game changer for our entire sport.”