People

Emma Coburn: “There’s an Endless List of Ways to Improve an Athlete’s Life.”

The Olympic steeplechaser is stepping up to help bring important issues for professional athletes to the forefront.

When you’re a bronze medalist married to your coach and training with multiple other Olympians, your dinner-table conversation is just as likely to revolve around athlete contracts and anti-doping as it is politics or pop culture. So for steeplechaser Emma Coburn, broaching these topics in more public forums—something she’s done with increasing frequency recently—doesn’t feel like much of a stretch.

“When it’s a topic that matters to you, it feels pretty easy to Tweet about it or talk about it,” says Coburn, whose husband Joe Bosshard also coaches Olympians Aisha Praught Leer and Dominique Scott Efurd. “Sometimes lifting up the veil a little bit and sharing the ins and outs with people who might not know the details is the next step.”

She backs up her words with actions. Last year, World Athletics announced it was cutting several events from the Diamond League schedule, including the triple jump and Coburn’s specialty, the steeplechase. The stated purpose was to increase audience interest in the broadcast of the prestigious track meet circuit, which mostly takes place in Europe, but the effect, she says, was imperiling athletes’ livelihoods.

In response, Christian Taylor, Olympic and world triple jump champion, announced the formation of an advocacy group called Athletics Association. Coburn immediately jumped on board and now serves as vice president. 

“There have been many, many decisions over the years, both in track and field and at a bigger Olympic level, that have been made without real consideration of the athlete’s opinion,” she says. Most governing bodies have athlete councils, and Coburn calls those who serve on them “great advocates. But I think having an independent group as well, one that’s not afraid to ruffle feathers and is able to really speak freely, is important.”

After gathering an impressive board of runners, jumpers, and throwers from around the globe, they urged World Athletics to reconsider. Late in 2020 they prevailed, when the Diamond League announced it would return to a full program of 32 disciplines in 2021, adding back all they’d cut. “We’re really proud of that; it’s proof our mission was successful,” Coburn says.

And they’re just getting started. In March, when the International Olympic Committee was still deliberating the fate of the 2020 Tokyo Games, the Athletics Association surveyed more than 4,000 athletes worldwide. The overwhelming majority couldn’t train safely and wanted the Games postponed or canceled. Taylor and Coburn used the results to advocate for an immediate postponement, which occurred a day later.

Related: The COVID-19 Crisis: Pro Athletes Recalculate Their Careers

In November, the Athletics Association joined other international athlete groups and anti-doping organizations to call for reforms at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Clean sport is an issue that Coburn’s been speaking up on for years. It’s frustrating enough that she must compete on an unfair playing field, but she’s also seen far too many peers lose out on medals and wins. “Seeing the pain and frustration of those athletes, it’s hard to not want to step up and be involved and do your best to help,” she says.

In addition to its role as a powerful collective voice, the association will provide other benefits to member athletes beginning this year, including cash grants, product discounts, and courses on issues like financial literacy. “There’s an endless list of ways to improve an athlete’s life beyond just their paycheck. We hope to discover what some of those gaps are and athlete welfare and how we can help,” Coburn says.

Coburn doesn’t fault those who put their heads down to focus on training or racing. She’s done it herself. But at this point in her career—even as she aims to make her third Olympics this summer—she feels she performs better when she feels she’s making a difference, no matter how small. “That fuels me,” she says.


This profile was first published in the Winter 2021 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2021” which celebrates 25 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.