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How the athletics crisis put Lord Coe's Nike ambassador role under the microscope

John Reynolds, a former Campaign, Marketing and Media Week journalist who now freelances for titles including The Guardian, casts his eye over the big stories in sports marketing.

Lord Coe is to face tough questions from MPs in the coming weeks over the doping crisis that has engulfed athletics.

MPs will quiz Lord Coe, the president of the IAAF, over claims revealed in the explosive WADA report that Russia ran a state-sponsored doping programme and that Coe’s predecessor Lamine Diack took bribes to protect Russian drug cheats.

MPs will want to know how Russia managed to get away with such flagrant cheating under the noses of the IAAF and Coe himself, who served as Diack’s number two as an IAAF vice-president for seven years during when the alleged cheating occurred.

Damian Collins and other MPs will also grill Coe about his decision not to give up his highly-paid ambassador role at Nike.

Critics argue that his Nike role presents a clear conflict of interest, as Nike sponsored Russian athletes, such as 800m champion like Mariya Savinova, who are caught up in the controversy.

Coe, as he likes to remind everyone, has strong ties with Nike dating back to 1978 and the brand funded his multiple medal winning triumphs in the 1980s.

Coe has effectively been on Nike’s payroll for over 30 years, despite only taking on the ambassador role in 2013.

Commonwealth Games silver medalist Jade Johnson, for one, thinks now is the time for Coe to quit.

“This is probably a bit controversial because I know this is something he’s said he doesn’t want to do …but I think when you’re in bed with a company like Nike, who for me don’t have a problem sponsoring one of the most renowned cheats in our sport at the moment, Justin Gatllin, that to build trust and to show integrity and transparency that [Coe leaving his role as ambassador], is one of the first things he needs to do ASAP,” she told BBC 5 Live.

A further thorny issue centres around the IAAF’s decision to bypass the normal bidding process and award the 2021 World Championship to Oregon, which is on the doorstep of Nike’s headquarters.

Coe’s stock response to the charge of any potential conflict is to point out that he was chair of the organising committee of the London Olympics, when Adidas – Nike’s main rival – was a sponsor of the games.

A potential conflict of interest for Coe does not just end there, though.

Coe is also chairman of CSM, the sports unit of Chime Communications, a role which some feel represents more of a conflict of interests than his Nike role.

CSM’s business proposition is largely built around advising countries and cities on bidding and hosting major sporting events.

As the Financial Times recently pointed out, CSM advised Azerbaijan on hosting this year’s European Games for its capital city Baku. The British Olympic Association, which Lord Coe also chairs, voted for Baku to be awarded the competition.

CSM also advises brands, including the Russian state-backed oil giant Gazprom – which has a big sponsorship programme beyond its Champions League sponsorship – on sport sponsorship, commercial tie-ups and getting involves in major sporting events.

Gazprom likes to trumpet the millions its has spent on its Gazprom for Children project, a massive social project which funds the building of improved sports facilities across Russia.

The oil giant also hosts Spartakiad Games, a mini-Olympics which brings together thousands of Gazprom employees who compete against each other.

Should the IAAF agree to provisionally suspend Russia from all competitions on Friday as expected then it will not only be a huge embarrassment to Russia but also to Gazprom, which likes to see itself as a brand which has helped grassroots and professional sport flourish in Russia.

Rupert Pratt, managing director of Generate Sponsorship, said: “I am not questioning Coe’s individual integrity. But anything that is perceived as not being transparent is just not helping the sport.”

While there has never been a suggestion that Lord Coe himself is corrupt, he will understand completely why people are questioning why he is hanging on to his multiple roles.

John Reynolds is a freelance business, media and sports journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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