When you work for a company whose executive chairman is a former middle-distance track world record holder, sedentary catch-up meetings are not encouraged.
Sebastian Coe arrives at the Hong Kong offices of CSM, the sport and entertainment agency he has chaired since October 2012, having spent the early morning hours leading a cohort of brave CSM employees and clients on a jog around the city. (Only a few "got lost" on the way, we hear.)
As he tells Campaign Asia-Pacific in an exclusive interview, Coe believes physical inactivity is a "ticking time bomb" that will elevate the importance of professional sport around the world in coming decades.
Half the population of China, the UK and the US, we’re reminded, are predicted to become "physically inactive" within the next 20 years. In Coe's view, "smart" brands are those that recognise how professional sport can feed into a broader "health agenda", backed by governments concerned about global health and associated economic risks.
For example, when the pan-Asian insurance firm AIA (a client of CSM) extended and expanded its partnership with the English football club Tottenham Hotspur last year, it aligned itself not only with the Spurs players’ popular profiles but also their healthy lifestyles, capitalising on the rising interest in wellness in Asia.
Going beyond the big-time
Such efforts to connect with sport as a means of promoting general good health are also reflected in the trend for brands wanting to be more than the name attached to sport’s "jaw-dropping moments," says Coe, who is also a member of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Coordination Commission.
"Look at the proliferation of brands that now see value in, for instance, mass participation runs. Years ago, if a brand attached itself to the London Marathon or to a big city marathon, it was probably dealing with a relatively small group of people… now we’ve got city marathons where your elite group may only be 25 or 30 athletes but [there are] 30, 40, 50,000 people."
Mass participation events are indeed on the rise in Asia, as a growing middle class starts to prioritise healthy living. The Hong Kong marathon turns away some 30,000 people every year, but it’s in China that mass is truly taking off. Applicants for the 37th Beijing Marathon last year were up 48% on the previous year and 328 marathons and road races were registered with the Chinese Athletics Association in 2016, 14 times the number hosted in 2011.
While China has always excelled at certain sports, Coe says he is starting to see a "proliferation of performance" in other disciplines—women’s football, for example, in which China aims to have a World Cup winning team within 10 to 15 years—that he describes as "very exciting". Major investments in sports coaching and infrastructure are also an indication that the government has a good understanding of the importance of physical activity, including how it relates to academic performance, says Coe.
"I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Chinese schools where sport is taken very seriously and it’s not seen as an add-on to the curriculum, it’s seen as a central part of the socialising skills of children."
Developing a culture around team sports—and physical contact in those sports—in China, however, remains more of a long-term goal. This is largely to do with the country’s 36-year one-child policy, says Simon Drake, head of account management for Asia at CSM. That policy meant that historically, Chinese children were encouraged to compete against each other.
"You have children who are trained from a young age to sit exams and to be individually great but not collectively good at teamwork or problem solving, because everybody is the enemy and there are a finite number of jobs and opportunities," Drake says. "[China is] now having to tackle that and actually start to say to people that by coming together and doing team sports, then actually it goes beyond the educational sphere and it is helping with teamwork, problem solving, winning as a team, losing as a team."
Sport as a mechanism for social reform
If sport succeeds in being a conduit for changes to the way Asian society thinks about physical activities and healthy living, it will reinforce Coe’s narrative about the many social "issues" that have benefitted from sharing the same spotlight as global sport. He mentions two historical instances—the "Black Power" salute of the 1968 Olympics and the awareness around disability discrimination that grew from the 1988 Seoul Games, when the Paralympics were held directly after the Olympics for the first time, using the same facilities.
It is not yet clear how controversial new regulations limiting the testosterone levels of some female athletes, introduced on April 26 by the International Association of Athletics Federations, of which Coe is also president, will end up sitting within this discourse. The rulings have been criticised by advocates for transgender and intersex athletes, and have raised debates about the nature of gender classification and competitive advantage. A spokesperson for the African National Congress has said the rulings "infringe on the human rights of athletes, targeting mainly those in east Europe, Asia and the African continent."
"It’s the stuff of discussion," says Coe on how such debates might play out in terms of brand involvement in sports—and it is "inevitable" that sport is the medium through which the world is having this conversation. This isn’t only a "sporting issue", however. "It’s a debate that will always get a higher profile when you have sport attached to it because it’s what most people are excited about."
Sport is "the most potent social worker in all our communities," he continues. "It’s the deftest wielder of soft power, and it shines a light on things that politicians rarely want to get anywhere near."
As a former politician himself—Coe was a member of Parliament in the UK from 1992 to 1997—Coe knows plenty about this: he speaks the lines above when asked about another recent "issue" associated with sport, this time one that has sprung up around the Tokyo 2020 Games. At the beginning of April, the US NGO Rainforest Action Network filed a 110,000-signature strong petition to the Olympic authorities after officials confirmed that 87% of the timber used to build the New National Stadium in Tokyo came from rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia, despite Japan’s commitment to making Tokyo 2020 a sustainable Games.
Coe won’t be drawn on the ethics of this, but says such hurdles, common in the run-up to every Olympics, are "inordinately complicated"—and matched in complexity only by the organisation of the event itself.
"The one thing that you have to remember is that the operational integration around the delivery of an Olympic Games is greater than almost any other piece of project management on the planet, and it challenges a city in a way that no city is ever challenged under normal circumstances."
Controversy aside, Tokyo is already proving itself up to the challenge. As Coe points out, the 2020 Games are breaking records for Olympic Games sponsorship with some 800 days still to go until the opening ceremony. With Japan also hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and bidding for the 2026 Winter Olympics, and with the Asian Games coming to Jakarta this summer and the 2022 Winter Games being hosted in Beijing, Asian sport seems on a roll.
"I think there is a real recognition among governments in Asia that it’s part of a good balanced society," says Coe. "And yes, sport can also showcase nations in a way that other things don’t always grab or capture the imagination."
A version of this article was first published by Campaign Asia-Pacific