As Sebastian Coe assumes his new mantle this week as president of the International Association of Athletics Federation, track and field’s governing body, concern is building that his longtime association with Nike Inc. could represent a conflict of interest. Coe’s appointment came amid USA Track & Field’s public clash with star runner Nick Symmonds, who was left off the U.S. roster for the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China, after he would not agree to wear Nike gear at loosely defined “team functions.”
Coe, a longtime IAAF vice president, won the organization’s election Wednesday and immediately promised to enact a new “independent testing process” to combat performance-enhancing drug use among track and field athletes. But Coe, who also serves as a global ambassador for Nike, was less forthcoming about his ties to the sports apparel brand on Wednesday. He “appeared flustered” when asked if he would resign from his Nike post in light of his new role with the IAAF, the Telegraph reported.
“I have only been at Nike since 1978, so that’s a fairly new relationship,” said Coe, with more than a hint of sarcasm. Eventually, Coe said he would make “adjustments where appropriate” concerning his Nike ties.
Nike sponsored Coe during his prolific run as a member of the British track and field team in the 1980s, during which he won four gold medals. Coe has worked as an adviser to Nike since 2013, but has been on Nike’s payroll for more than three decades, reported Fortune, adding the company declined to comment on what the role of “ambassador” entails.
Coe’s appointment came at a difficult time for the IAAF. The organization became embroiled in a doping scandal after leaked documents showed more than a third of medal winners in endurance events from 2001 to 2012 had “suspicious” test results, the BBC reported.
At the same time, Symmonds, the American runner, accused USATF of “bullying” athletes with its restrictions on personal sponsorships. USATF has an exclusive outfitting deal with Nike though the year 2040, worth a reported $20 million annually. Symmonds says athletes see very little of that money. USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer denied the organization enforces restrictions on what its athletes can or can’t wear during their personal time, or in terms of athlete footwear during events.
Steve Miller, the chairman of USATF’s board of directors, served as Nike’s director of global sports marketing until 2009, Deadspin’s Fittish blog noted. For its part, Nike has denied any responsibility for the USATF’s flap with Symmonds.
But as Nike’s influence over the USATF and the IAAF comes under great scrutiny, critics will be watching Coe’s leadership closely for any sign of impropriety.