Sebastian Coe has vowed to continue lobbying for votes until the very last moment amid indications that he has edged ahead of his rival Sergey Bubka in the race to become president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
Both Lord Coe and Bubka were still doing the rounds of meetings of the IAAF’s 214 members yesterday in Beijing ahead of today’s vote.
Coe, the double Olympic gold medallist who was chair of the London 2012 organising committee, claims to have met representatives of every member association since he began campaigning in earnest for the role late last year.
The Ukrainian former pole vaulter’s campaign, in contrast, has been more low key and is relying for support on personal and regional loyalties built up during his 14-year involvement with the governing body.
“We’re working hard and we assume absolutely nothing,” said Coe. “Elections are won and lost right up until the last moment.”
The campaign has taken place against a backdrop of mounting crisis within the sport, with allegations of systemic doping in Russia followed by claims, denied by the IAAF, that athletes with suspicious blood values were not properly pursued.
The electoral lobbying will continue during a welcome dinner in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square and long into the night as both try to convince wavering voters.
Coe is believed to be “well ahead” in the race based on those who have publicly declared a preference but Bubka has insisted that his lead does not reflect the true picture.
Bubka has drafted in fellow Ukrainian sporting stars Andrei Shevchenko and Vitali Klitschko to help his final lobbying effort and both could be seen milling around the lobby of the congress hotel flanked by heavy security.
Among those in Beijing as part of Coe’s back room team are Hugh Robertson, the former Conservative MP who was minister for sport and the Olympics during the London 2012 Games.
Coe was accused last week of a “cheap election manoeuvre” in declaring allegations that the IAAF failed to follow up on hundreds of suspicious blood tests amounted to a “war on the sport”. The suspicion was that by going on the attack he hoped to distance himself from the impression he was allied with the western European media.
It appears to have worked, at least in the short term, in creating the impression among many member federations he was the man to defend the sport’s reputation while also introducing a new independent, better resourced doping unit.
Where it leaves his standing in relation to the public, whom he will have to convince that the sport is serious about weeding out the cheats at all costs, is a question he has shelved until after the election.
Coe is, of course, no stranger to plush hotel lobbies. From the push to secure the London 2012 Olympics to his involvement in the ill-fated bid to bring the 2018 World Cup to England, he is well used to the peculiar mix of polite chit chat and political cunning required to swim in these waters.
But while those were team efforts, targeting the IAAF presidency became a personal crusade for Coe, having in the wake of the London Games resisted overtures from the Tory party for whom he was once an MP to consider jobs including those of London Mayor and BBC chairman.
But while he has been campaigning overseas, the last few months have not been plain sailing at home and he has faced tough questions over a range of issues from his stance on the latest round of doping allegations to the faltering Olympic legacy.
Yet he remains a popular choice among athletes. Mo Farah, who is targeting two gold medals in Beijing amid the swirl of allegations surrounding the methods of his coach, Alberto Salazar, has become the latest leading name to throw his weight behind Coe as a potential saviour.
“You don’t want to see anything bad in the sport, but if we all do our best that’s all you can do. Hopefully, with Seb stepping into the job, I hope he gets that job because I believe he can change athletics,” Farah said.
“What he did for London 2012 was incredible, so I believe he can do a great job. I don’t want to see anything bad in athletics because that’s the sport that I do every day and the sport that I love. I don’t want people getting the wrong end of the stick.”
That seems a coy way of describing a crisis in confidence in the sport that has festered for two decades but is now at one of its lowest ever points.
Even the 82-year-old Lamine Diack, who has weathered his own share of controversy down the years, admitted the sport would be dead if the public lost faith in what they were watching.
The Senegalese outgoing president has been in post for 16 years in which the sport has produced one undoubted breakout superstar in Usain Bolt but has laboured under the weight of doping allegations and criticism from those who feel it has not done enough to package, promote, nurture and commercialise athletics.
Diack on Monday trotted out the sort of platitudes that roll so easily off the tongue when international sporting administrators gather.
“I am all the more confident of what we have in store,” he said.
“I have laid the foundations for the future of the IAAF with our two great champions… whoever the IAAF athletics family elects he will be a bona fide son of our sport.”
Coe has traversed the globe four times since announcing his candidacy late last year, lobbying members and recognising he needed to make up for the time he was consumed by chairing the London 2012 organising committee while also juggling his IAAF and other commitments.
Coe has extended his lead among the minority of those prepared to declare their hand, with his total of votes standing at 38 to Bubka’s five, and there is a quiet confidence among his camp. But the Ukrainian’s backers say that those figures do not reflect the bigger picture among the 213 members who will vote today.
“For me it’s more important when it is a real vote. This is guessing, this is games. Normally I prefer a fair game, like in sport,” Bubka said.
“I feel very well. I am very confident. I feel very strong. I have big support from members of our federation and I’m confident,” the pole vault legend added.
For Coe and for the sport in which he has immersed his life, the stakes could not be higher.
The vote will be conducted electronically despite a proposal by the outgoing president Diack, stepping down after 16 years in the role at the age of 82, to use traditional paper ballots in light of previous problems with the electronic voting system.