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London’s bid looked doomed after a false start before the Olympic medallist took the lead, writes Mihir Bose

LONDON’S dramatic victory over the favourite, Paris, was due to many factors but The Daily Telegraph can claim credit for having pointed the capital on the winning road.

In October 2002, when this newspaper launched its campaign for London to bid, it suggested that the ideal leaders would be Sebastian Coe and Cherie Blair.

Yesterday many members of the International Olympic Committee were saying that London owed its victory to Lord Coe’s leadership and the fact that Tony Blair, helped by his wife, spent two and a half days lobbying members in Singapore.

Coe, an Olympic double gold medal winner in the 1500 metres, showed that London had the right sporting leadership and the Prime Minister, by taking time off before the G8 summit, demonstrated the Government’s commitment.

The contrast with President Jacques Chirac, who arrived in Singapore only the night before the vote, was telling.

However, it took London many months to find the winning road and there were quite a few wrong turnings. Despite the Telegraph’s campaign, the Government took months to give the go-ahead. By the time it made up its mind in May 2003, it was the last of the cities to announce its intent.

Coe was not offered the job of bid leader, which went to the American-born businesswoman Barbara Cassani, largely at the behest of Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, who had been impressed by the way she made a success of Go, the cheap airline.

There were worries at the time that IOC members might wonder why London could not find a British leader. Also, the question was raised whether, as a stranger to the Olympic movement, she could come to terms with the IOC, a very select, self-appointed club with many strange rules.

A year into the bid, she stepped down, saying that she did not much like spending hours in the foyers and bars of hotels around the world lobbying committee members.

Coe, whom Cassani had made vice-chairman, took over but by then the bid looked in serious trouble. An interim evaluation by the IOC not only placed London behind Paris and Madrid but cast serious doubts on its transport claims. That was the first of many moments when the bid looked doomed.

Coe had to change many of the plans, particularly the ones on transport, and had to dig deep within himself. Having lost his seat as an MP in the 1997 election, he had served as chief of staff for William Hague and, for all his prowess on the track, had never really performed as a sports administrator, a situation not helped by jealousies within British sport that had kept him out of the IOC.

The first indication that a new Coe was emerging came in the summer of 2003 when London made a presentation to the Asian Olympic Council and Coe emphasised his Asian links: his mother was half-Indian, something he had not alluded to much as a politician. It favourably impressed the Asians.

But while under Coe’s leadership, helped by his shrewd chief executive Keith Mills, London began to look credible, there were moments when the British seemed intent on scoring own goals.

Last August, just before the Athens Olympics, a BBC Panorama team posing as London businessmen willing to offer bribes to gain the Olympics, exposed an IOC member from Bulgaria who suggested that he might be tempted. He was suspended and the committee will vote on his expulsion tomorrow.

However, the methods used by the BBC led to fears among committee members that giving London the Games would result in seven years of such media investigations. Although the bid had nothing to do with Panorama, it attracted most of the flak.

Then, three months ago, during an Olympic meeting in Berlin, London offered various sweeteners to athletes, such as free travel around Britain, discount cards for shops and theatres and a sum to each national Olympic committee to help with training expenses.

Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, was outraged that the proposals carried echoes of the Salt Lake City corruption crisis and London had to withdraw them.

At that point, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former president, told me that he expected Paris to win. “They are very strong,” he said.

But by then London felt that if it could persuade Mr Blair to fly to Singapore, that might turn the tide.

No 10 arranged private meetings with many committee members and when I spoke to some of them on Tuesday I could sense that the Blair magic had worked.

Coe’s narrative presentation, describing how the Olympics could convert a new generation of young people all over the world to sport, did the rest.

Kai Holm, the member from Denmark, told me: “Today the French behaved like the English and were all buttoned up. The English showed their passion and won.”

© Mihir Bose

      

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