The MT Interview: Sebastian Coe

The Games double gold medallist is now chair of the London Olympics organising committee. After his track exploits - he once held three world middle-distance records - he developed powerful persuasive skills as a Tory MP and peer. In the run-up to 2012, he'll need them ...

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

On the 23rd floor of the Barclays tower at Canary Wharf, the view extends over a great swathe of London's East End. There, in the distance, it's possible to pick out the cranes that are beginning the job of constructing the main site for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Looking at them, it's hard to imagine what the scene will be like in a few years' time. After Beijing, London is next. The scale of the task is frightening.

Just some of the facts: by the time of the opening ceremony, about 100,000 people will be working on the London Games, including 3,000 staff, 70,000 volunteers and a large number of contractors; there will be 26 featured sports; 10 separate railway lines will transport spectators to the park; some 9 million tickets will be available for the summer Games and 1.6 million for the Paralympics. But what started out as costing £2.3bn has already risen beyond £9bn.

Given our sorry history with major public projects, I'd be tempted to jump out of the window. But all is calm in the offices of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog), the body charged with staging them, and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), responsible for building the venues and infrastructure.There's no noise, doors close quietly, and everybody has a purposeful but unhurried air.

An organisation takes its lead from its management. Lord Coe chairs Locog. He's 51 now, but he looks far younger. Indeed, he looks pretty much the same as he did when he won gold in the 1,500 metres in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Okay, there's a facial line or two and his brownish mane looks as though it would be grey if he allowed it, but he seems just as trim and fit.

Two quotes spring to mind in relation to Sebastian Coe. One is the remark of his rival Steve Cram, beaten into second place in LA: 'On the day there was only one man, and on the day Seb Coe was that man.' The other is Coe's own observation, that 'stress is entirely self-inflicted'.

There are plenty of people who look as fit as Coe does, but none has his record of winning. When he ran, he didn't simply charge to the line; he did so with rare beauty, as neat as when he started and not so much as a hair out of place.

When I was a teenager it was Coe or Steve Ovett, his arch-foe. They were chalk and cheese. You were for one or the other, never both. I was for Ovett. There was plenty about the immaculately turned out, squeaky-clean Coe that the rebel in me couldn't abide. My mother was for Coe, as was my sister, but then mothers and sisters were. My father, my friends - they were all behind the meaner, moodier Ovett.

Of Ovett, there has scarcely been sight or sound in this country since he ceased running (he does commentary work in Australia). Coe, meanwhile, went on to be a politician and, more significantly, to lead London to victory in its bid to secure the Olympics. But although Ovett looked more mannish, he wasn't tougher. Coe's grimace as he headed for the tape was proof of an unshakable determination to overcome pain.

And Coe displayed a rare ability to come back from adversity. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Ovett pipped him to the 800 metres gold. Coe said: 'Tomorrow is another day, and there will be another battle'. True to his word, he hammered Ovett in the 1,500 metres final to win gold. That took guts.

Today, his room at the 2012 headquarters is small and all-glass. On a bookcase are family pictures and one or two pieces of memorabilia, but nothing screams his presence. It's obvious his colleagues like him. He has an easy, relaxed manner, but it would be foolish to be taken in - as his fellow racers were lulled into a false sense of security on the track. He possesses a ready and sharp tongue when it suits him.

Is it true, as has been claimed, I ask, that even at his age he is not far off the qualifying time for the 800 metres in Beijing? He laughs. 'If my life depended on it? I could probably do it. But what happened was that I ran with the kids at the Battersea running track one Saturday morning. I wasn't wearing proper kit - I even had on a pair of good shoes. Daley Thompson runs a group down there and he was winding me up. I ran 400 metres and did 54 seconds. Afterwards, I had to try hard not to throw up. Then someone said: "Fifty-four multiplied by two - that's about 1 minute 47 seconds for the 800 metres" - which would get me into the Olympics.'

He smiles. 'Of course, I know that's nonsense. These days,' he says, 'I run for pure fun. I ran at the weekend in the grounds of Charterhouse School, where my boy will be starting in September (he has four children). I spent about 40 minutes with a couple of the athletes.'

And is trying to give Britain the Olympic Games pure fun? 'It is, definitely ...' And he's off on a tour-de-force explanation of what 2012 will mean for this country and its children.

Coe always wanted to be a politician. His answers are confident and long. He talks determinedly about society, about its ills and how reform can be achieved. He still is political - not in Westminster but in the corridors and committee rooms of the world's sporting halls.

'If anything, my enjoyment has hardened. In my mind, the importance of this project is this big ...' He extends his arms as wide as they'll go. 'These Games are a vehicle to address so much that is wrong; sport is a catalyst for social change. I'm delighted that the project can be used to clean up the capital's rivers and to leave a sustainable new community behind, of course I am, but this is about sport. It's still about sport. It was sport that I went to Singapore to canvass on our behalf for. I've never been bashful about that.'

He is a consummate and persuasive communicator. 'I feel that way because we all have blood on our hands politically. We did immense damage in the 1960s to the development of sport for our children. There were the nostrums about mass participation in the 1970s and '80s, but we sold off the playing fields. Then we sat through the 1990s and did nothing. Now, we're worrying what to do to remedy the damage we've done. I feel more acutely now than ever that these Games can bring about serious change.'

There is a bit of the evangelist about him - he's like a white, sports-mad Barack Obama. 'I was in Wales yesterday. I went to an inner-city school in Cardiff, where they're using the Olympics as a way of getting their attendance up. They've got 20 kids in our '100% Club' (a 2012 initiative) who are giving 100%. They're attending school 100%. They've challenged them to be part of the ceremonies for 2012. One child has set a target of 20 minutes 12 seconds to see how far they can run in that time. Another is planning a superb image; another is doing something else ... That's three children at just one school. Imagine what that is like nationwide.'

Coe is saying that those who mock the Games and question their rising costs just don't get it. 'At the pool in Cardiff, Dave Haller, the old UK swimming coach, has come back - he coached champions in 1980 and 1984 and he's in his mid-sixties. Now he's coaching children to Raise Your Game (another Coe & co scheme) to get them into the Games in 2012. Something special is happening around the country in our sport.'

Yes, but while this is occurring, I say, the Games are permanently on the political pages, the centre of funding rows - the latest being the suggestion that, owing to the economic downturn, Locog itself will struggle to meet its £700m sponsorship target. He nods. 'I was talking to the people from Barcelona (the 1992 host) about this only recently. It started off for them with everybody fantastically excited. Then that changed to worries about the cost. Yet they delivered a great Games and regeneration - which is continuing even now, long after 1992.

'In Sydney in 2000, on the morning of the opening ceremony, the Sydney Morning Herald was writing that Aussies should hang their heads in shame, they would never pull it off ... And then, after the ceremony - which was spectacular - they were saying it was their idea and the best thing that had ever happened to Australia.'

Coe shakes his head at our collective failure to embrace the Games. 'I'm not cavalier about the "static", of course I'm not. There are important issues to be discussed - over the legacy and housing, for instance. But when I go round the country and see the children, that's not what is exciting them. I reckon not even 2% of the discussions I have are about the cost.'

He leans forward. 'You know, it's human nature for someone to see me and say: "Right, I've got him here, I'm going to unload." I was a constituency MP for five years and I can tell you it's a cherished view that if you're well-known, people don't tell you what's what for fear of upsetting you. It's cherished and it's wrong. They do seize the chance to tell you. But nine out of 10 conversations I have are positive.'

There's no stopping him in full flow. 'People come up to me and ask: "What age were you when you started track-and-field?" They'll say: "I've got a son who can run 75 metres in 8.8 seconds, how can I get him training?"'

He pauses. 'That's where most people are. It sounds Clintonesque, but I've never lost sight of what it is we're trying to do - it's sport, stupid.'

Presumably, Beijing will raise the excitement quotient. He pulls a face to suggest no. 'By instinct, as a nation, we're quite slow-burn. I don't think the handover or Great Britain doing well or Paula Radcliffe winning a title will make people go "Oh my God!", but we will get there.'

He was in Wales yesterday, Northern Ireland the week before, the north-east the week before that. Next week, it's Wales again. It's non-stop and punishing - but clearly, he loves it. However, there's the reality of London to return to - the plans to build thousands of affordable homes, for instance, during an economic downturn. 'I'm a realist. There are no unique issues here. But it's not our responsibility to decontaminate the land or make sure the Olympic stadium is built within the time-frame. Our job is to put on the Games.'

Locog, he points out, is raising all its money from the private sector - it's not relying on handouts from the taxpayer. 'But we have to recognise there are concerns that impinge on our ability to deliver. We can't say: "That's got nothing to do with us", and disappear. We know we have to deal with it.'

When he tours the country, he holds old-fashioned, town hall public meetings. 'Anyone can come and ask whatever they want. About 75% to 80% of the questions are about sport, but there are some about the grant towards the building work - about the national lottery contribution, for instance. It's the same with John Armitt and David Higgins (of the ODA) - they can go and hand out a contract for part of the building work and be asked about the local gym club and how it can get people into 2012.'

But there's only one team in 2012 and few athletes will get into it. Isn't he over-selling the participation aspect? 'True, the team will be about 700 athletes. But the real challenge is convertibility. If a girl from Wales gets into the British gymnastic team, what is the convertibility rate of her being involved? If she wins a medal, better still. It's how many people will take up the sport because she took part, inspired by her.

'Once,' he adds, pushing back his chair, 'we ruled the athletics world and we let it slip. I remember after the 1984 Games coming back to Haringey with Daley Thompson. We'd both won gold and there were 50 or 60 kids queuing up to do athletics. But we had no coaches and we were arguing with the local authority about resurfacing the track. Now it's even worse, the Haringey club has merged with Enfield - it's no longer in the borough at all.

'How can it be that our hockey team win gold in one Games and then struggle to qualify for the next? That can't be allowed to happen again. Look at ice-skating. We had John Curry, Robin Cousins, Torville and Dean, all with sublime skills, then we had nobody in the top 20.'

When he'd entered professional politics in 1992, as the Conservative MP for Falmouth & Camborne, he set his sights on being minister for sport. He worked as parliamentary private secretary to Nicholas Soames and to Michael Heseltine and he was made a government whip, but the one office he craved eluded him. In 1997, he lost his seat.

He wasn't down for long. He was made private secretary to new Tory leader William Hague. He threw himself into the post, even embarking on judo sessions with his boss. His continuing political usefulness led at a peerage in 2000. In the 2001 election, the Tories were defeated, Hague resigned and Coe was again out of a job.

He thinks it perfectly reasonable for the British Olympic Association and UK Sport to set targets for its athletes and where they would like to see us placed on the medals table. 'I had a coach at 14 and every year for eight years he set a target for me to hit until I reached the Olympic title. There was nothing subjective about it. Each year, I had to run faster. Athletics isn't like golf, where Arnold Palmer wins and then Jack Nicklaus wins and then Tiger Woods - and golfers can argue as to which of them is the best champion. It's about a stop-watch that says 3.49 is faster than 3.50. There's no debate as to whether Coe is better than Herb Elliott or Steve Ovett is faster than Alberto Juantorena - the stop-watch is the only arbiter.'

It was his father, Peter, who pushed him at 14. They didn't always get along but it's obvious that Sebastian didn't need much cajoling. He's one of the most driven, passionate people I've met.

Yet what he'd like to see isn't a heavy medals haul but what he calls 'big British moments', when a large TV audience watches a British winner and is lifted by it and enthused into having a go themselves. 'We all watched Kelly Holmes in Athens or Matthew Pinsent or the "blondes in the boat" in sailing. Heavens, 20-odd million of us saw Rhona Martin win the Olympic curling title. Of the top 15 TV audiences of the last 20 years, six or seven have been Olympic moments.'

Mention drugs and sport and his eyes flash, his anger barely containable. Of the drug-takers and their helpers, he says: 'They have brought damage beyond belief to my sport.'

He was the first athlete to address the IOC on drugs and is a ferocious critic of doping. 'There should be life bans for the athletes, the coaches and the doctors but we're now tied up in the legal implications - whether such a ban contravenes their human rights or is a restraint of trade.' (On 18 July, the High Court upheld the ban.)

He spits the words out. 'I'll tell you this: if we give up the ghost on this we might as well go home. The TV audience will think what they're seeing is not legitimate and the outcome has been decided by something other than natural talent, because one lot have got better chemists than the others.' If the authorities don't take a firm stand, his sport is 'heading to oblivion'.

Is he being listened to? 'Yes. Firstly, I'm telling athletes I was in a hugely successful team where people would no more take an aspirin than jump off Beachy Head. Secondly, it's dangerous and third, it's cheating.'

Over the years of trying to win the host-city bidding he became close to London mayor Ken Livingstone. They formed an effective double-act in extracting IOC votes. But he doesn't feel for Livingstone having lost to Boris Johnson, 'except in one respect. I know what it's like to stand in a draughty gym, built circa 1965, at 5.30 in the morning - for me it was in Camborne - and have a crowd jeering that you've got your UB40. I know what it's like to lose an election. It's not a gradual transition out of office; it's brutal. You're at the wrong end of a set of numbers, you get in your car and think: now what do I do?'

The recent British experience of major public works is hardly a good one. Is he nervous that we'll end up with another Millennium Dome or Wembley Stadium on our hands? 'No. British construction is hard at work, all over the world, all the time. It's the best there is. The Dome was delivered on time and to budget. It went wrong because the politicians believed they knew better than the Disney Corporation as to what should be in it. When I entered politics in 1992, Wembley was being discussed. When I left politics in 1997 (or politics left me), Wembley was being discussed. When I went back, to the House of Lords, one of the first things we discussed was Wembley and whether it should be for football or rugby or track and field.' He shakes his head.

'It was unbelievable. This project had the combined forces of the British Olympic Association, UK Sport, four or five ministers, the FA, Trevor Brooking, Ken Bates, everyone ... and the specification kept being altered as sure as the leaves come down each year in autumn. Then everyone was shocked because the banks became a little bit queasy! With 2012, we know what we want and they're starting building and they'll hand it over as soon as they can. It's going well - the completion of the Olympic Stadium has already been brought forward three months.'

What's also ahead of schedule, he says, is finding commercial sponsors. Locog now has six tier-one partners - Lloyds TSB, EDF Energy, Adidas, British Airways, BT and BP - and one tier-two supporter, Deloitte. More are on their way. Despite the reported target problems, he is unfazed by the impact of the downturn. 'These are economically fragile times, it's true, but they're joining the Olympic family here; they're not just putting their logo on a shirt, like in football. They've got to invest in the idea. They can't have a mindset that they're investing for 18 months and then they'll take a look at the economic cycle. We're asking them to look at the next four, five, 10 years and afterwards. Four years out,' he adds, 'and we're beyond 50% of our fundraising target.'

And for Coe, what next? 'I've never planned anything in my career. I'm not one of those who says: at 24 I'll be doing this, at 30 I'll be an MP, at 40 I'll be in the Cabinet or else I'll be a failure. My life has been a series of blocks, like the Olympics every four years. In 1980, in Moscow, I walked off the track - I couldn't tell you what I was doing next. I lived in Italy for two years and taught and tried for 1984. Then, when I came off the track in 1984, in LA, I went and sat on a beach in Malibu and thought about what I should do. I'd always been interested in politics, so I thought I'd get into front-line politics.'

Whatever it is, whether it's heading the IOC - as has been mooted - one thing is certain: there will be no slacking.

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING COE

1. Staging the best Olympic and Paralympic Games ever in 2012

2. Ensuring Britain embraces the Games as a sporting spectacle, rather than grouching about the cost

3. Inspiring enough people to take up sport, thus helping Britons to become fitter and healthier

4. Banishing drugs from athletics

COE IN A MINUTE
1956: Born 29 December in Chiswick, west London. Educated Tapton School,
Sheffield and Loughborough University
1979: Sets world records in 800m, 1,500m and mile
1980: Wins Olympic gold for 1,500m in Moscow
1984: Repeats the feat in Los Angeles Games
1992: Becomes Conservative MP for Falmouth & Camborne, defeated at next
election
1997: Appointed private secretary to then Tory leader William Hague
2000: Made a life peer
2004: Takes charge of London's bid for the 2012 Olympics
2005: Made chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games
(Locog).

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