There is much that Lord Coe can feel satisfied about but for all his considerable achievements on and off the track, none would match London having a successful Olympics.
I am talking to Coe in his office in Canary Wharf just as he has come back from Moscow, where he returned to the scene of the first of his two Olympic golds. While standing in the Luzhniki Stadium he could not help but reflect on that moment in 1980 when he beat Steve Ovett in the 1,500 metres just six days after losing to his British team-mate and great rival over his favoured 800m.
“That moment was massive for me,” says the chairman of London 2012. “It defined the way I think about the world, the way I do things. But I don’t kid myself that this is a more profound moment. This collective effort to deliver the Games will inspire people long after they have forgotten I was a runner. Most people do not even know I ran. They think I am an event organiser.”
The former Conservative MP got that tag after securing Britain the Olympics in 2005. That success in Singapore was achieved on the promise that London can leave a lasting legacy, something no previous Games have achieved.
When I press him on that pledge, he admits: “I cannot sit here and say I can deliver on legacy but we have a much better chance than previous Games. The 2005 master plan for the Olympic Park has legacy sitting centre stage. It is not something that we have shuffled off stage left. The first big legacy is what we have created: the Games.”
Coe, though, is confident that the Olympic Park Legacy Company, headed by Margaret Ford, will find users for the stadium following the Games. After months of acrimony about West Ham leasing it, a new search for tenants has begun with the company also looking to sell the stadium naming rights. “Margaret will get us across the line. She is a very competent woman,” adds Coe.
On a personal level, the legacy Coe wishes for is that every athlete will leave London feeling the organisers have done all they possibly could for them.
“I never want an athlete telling me he did not make a final because the Olympic Village did not create the right atmosphere, or he did not get the right service or the transport did not work,” he says. “The Games have to work for the most important client group, the athletes. I can’t screw it up for them. That would be a cardinal sin.”
The Olympic lanes – reserved for members of the “Olympic family” such as athletes, media and Games delegates – should ensure the competitors are not delayed but the knock-on effect is likely to be traffic jams in some parts of the capital.
Londoners have also been warned there could be severe disruption at some stations, although Transport for London hopes to avoid this by getting commuters to adjust their working day. Coe accepts it is a challenge addressing the needs of the athletes and of Londoners.
“What we are not saying is that London is closed during the Games. We have to manage the key locations, the 10 or 15 hot spots: King’s Cross station, London Bridge, Canary Wharf.
“Transport for London has sat down with the key groups to get agreement on flexitime working. Eighty per cent of people in Canary Wharf agreeing not to use the Jubilee Line at those times does free up capacity. There are simple things we can do. Don’t all go to London Bridge station, get off at Monument and walk across the bridge.”
For Coe, though, everything must be done to aid the competitors and as he gets London ready, the words that ring in his ears are those of John Coates, the organiser of the 2000 Games.
“Sydney got it right,” he says. “They ticked as many boxes as any Games have ever ticked and John said, ‘Never forget Games are athletes-led. It is an athlete-led atmosphere that spills from your stadium on to your street. It will not happen in your street unless it happens in those venues’. Any organising committee needs to be forensically attuned to the delivery but the spirit of the Games is just as important.”
In recent months the 2012 spirit has taken a bashing over ticket sales, particularly after the first ballot, when two-thirds of applicants, around 1.2million, were unsuccessful while others received multiple tickets.
Coe is aware that some prominent critics, led by the Standard’s own Simon Jenkins, even question the idea of staging the Games. The response of the 55-year-old is sharp: “As this project develops, more and more people with less understanding of the complexities will come to it intermittently to maintain a running commentary. The Simon Jenkins of this world are very inconsistent. The same stuff gets circulated and some of it is quite lazy journalism.”
Then, shaking his head, he adds: “Simon has made thoughtful observations about inner-city regeneration. But he does not accept that the 2012 Games have moved it to a different level, not just for Olympics but in creating a new benchmark in regeneration for this country. I accept we should not have had to stage the Olympics to give east London parity with large chunks of the rest of London. But it would not have happened on this scope, scale and time frame had we come back empty handed from Singapore.”
That victory in the Far East was forged in a different world. Surely the critics have a point that spending £9.3billion makes no sense in the current economic climate? “I would say it is even more important to host the Olympics than it has ever been,” says Coe. “The recession has made these Games even more important.”
And talk of the credit crunch brings out the economic student in Coe as he quickly rattles off the figures: “You still have 11,000 people working on the building sites and 30,000 will have worked on that site either directly or indirectly over the course of the Games. Ninety eight per cent of the £6.5bn spend on construction has gone to British business. The employment created has been a lifeline for some very vulnerable communities.”
But do we need to spend an extra £41m on the opening and closing ceremonies – a decision condemned by Paula Radcliffe as “frivolous”? The cash injection was seen by many as trying to emulate the extravagance of Beijing’s opening ceremony and led to suggestions that the world could be welcomed with Morris dancers. That idea makes Coe laugh as he says: “It is not for me to talk about Morris dancing, I am not the creative director for the opening ceremony. But this extra government money wasn’t an attempt to match Beijing. It was a very clear declaration of intent by the Prime Minister and the Mayor, a position I unreservedly support.”
London will become the first city to host three Olympics, following the Games of 1908 and 1948, and Coe sees 2012 as an “historic opportunity” for Britain. He says: “We are a country at the leading edge of arts and creativity. We have to make the opening ceremony uniquely British. It’s particularly important as we battle our way through this global turbulence that we showcase everything that is great about this country at the world’s biggest event. It’ll be watched by a global population of four billion, an audience in the stadium of 80,000 of which 100 will be heads of state.”
The operating budget of £2bn is also stretched, a point emphasised by chief executive Paul Deighton when he gave evidence to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee last month. “Paul was right to point out nobody should be sitting here thinking this is anything other than a hand-to-mouth existence,” says Coe. “We have seven months to go and we have a balanced budget. But we do not have a Plan B.
“We intend to land the project in budget. We will get there.”
If he does that, and London 2012 is a success, then even the younger generation will remember Coe for being much more than just an “event organiser”.