Sochi is setting all the wrong records with it being the costliest Olympics and having the worst pre-Games publicity but since Sebastian Coe arrived in this Black Sea resort a week ago he has seen nothing here to feel that the Russian spend of £30billion was unwise or, in the long term, pointless.
As I ask him about Sochi’s wretched public image there is a long sigh and he says: “I am inured to this. In all Games there is always a tendency, particularly in the lead up to the Games, when there isn’t much sport to talk about, to write about things that are not sport.”
The chairman of the British Olympic Association recalls how a year before the London Games he took his 2012 team to the ExCeL and showed them negative headlines prior to previous Games that went on to become great events. Two headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald made a deep impression on his staff. One, just before the start of the 2000 Games, predicted it would bring shame on Australia. The second, following the closing ceremony, gloried on the honour it had brought to the country.
“I did this just to show there is often a disconnect between what is happening on the ground and the media. The reportage doesn’t ultimately reflect the reality of the Games.”
But surely the reality of Sochi is that it is being held in a county which, even as it prepared to welcome the world, passed anti-gay laws? Coe rejected Stephen Fry’s plea to boycott Sochi and argues: “We have to recognise there are very few countries you will take the Games to where somebody doesn’t have issues on foreign or domestic policy.
“You have to be very careful with boycotts. Boycotts of this proportion only tend to hurt the athletes. My overwhelming concern will always be the well-being of the athletes. In Olympic sport it is rare for competitors not to devote half their young life to this. Their families will have given up all sorts of things to allow them to do that. I know that because my family did. And boycotts never really resolve what they set out to achieve.”
For those who argue that the sports boycott helped bring down apartheid Coe makes a sharp distinction between white South Africa and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “South Africa brought race into sport. I chose not to go to South Africa for obvious reasons. I felt very strongly about that because of my heritage [his mother was half Indian]. Also because I would not be competing against the best athletes South Africa had in track and field at the time. That for me was sport in an abnormal environment.”
Coe points out that did not apply when he was part of a British team who defied Mrs Thatcher’s call to boycott Moscow in 1980 because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Coe, who won the first of his two 1500metre Olympic golds in Moscow, says: “There, unlike South Africa, I knew the best athletes who were there would be competing.”
Coe, who was made a Lord in 2002, is convinced international sport can actually promote social change. “The International Olympic Committee in choosing cities have often been ahead of the political norms.” His best example of this is taking the 1988 summer Games to Seoul. “Only 50 per cent of the world recognised South Korea diplomatically. The Paralympic Games brought a profound change in Korea. When the organising committee announced Paralympic athletes would be going into the Olympic village they were told there would be very little resale value in those properties when they went on the market. Yet, within a few years of the Games, South Korea had become an exemplar in the region for disability rights.”
The Seoul Games cost £4.5bn but Sochi’s bill is almost seven times that. The Russian showpiece cost two-and-a-half times more than the previous most expensive winter Games — Nagano in 1998 was £10.7bn — and beats the summer high of Beijing in 2008 by £5bn.
However, Coe says: “The Games do not cost £30bn. The real cost of the Games is the operating budget and Sochi’s operating budget of £1.46bn is in line with operating budgets of previous winter Games. The £30bn comes when you throw in roads, rails, seafront, the venues, hotels.”
This, of course, is an argument that all Olympic officials make that they cannot be responsible for what governments spend. But Coe goes further. “Cities must be allowed sensibly to drive their own ambitions. In London, the cost of our Games was not £9.6bn, that went on creating a sustainable community around east London and the multiplier effect on the back of the Games you would take within a heartbeat every time.”
The effect for Sochi, argues Coe, is to repair the sporting damage caused by the fall of communism. “Since the break-up of the 1990s Russia has not had winter sports facilities. All the winter sport venues were effectively located in countries that are no longer part of the federation. There is a strong argument for saying Sochi’s legacy will be this country will have winter sports facilities it did not have before.”
Coe has had an excellent chance in the last few days to survey these facilities, hurrying from coast to the mountains, watching the performance of the British athletes, the highlight coming on Sunday as Jenny Jones won Britain’s first snow medal, a bronze in the snowboard slopestyle. Coe skilfully skirts the question whether BBC commentators were a touch hysterical as Jones made history but says with pride: “That was terrific. It has clearly got to be good for everything Olympic sports stand for when two big national newspapers run a photograph of a winter sportswoman on the front page.”
‘Funny guy’: Slopestyle skier WoodsAnother British athlete Coe feels the nation could soon fall in love with is slopestyle skier James Woods, who competes on Thursday. Both men were born in Sheffield — they went to the same school three decades apart — and met for the first time at a BOA Olympic Ball three months ago.
“He is just a funny guy and we have developed a sort of bond,” says Coe. “I met him up in the village and I asked, ‘Are you calm?’ and he said, ‘Yes, really’. But it is one of these sports where everything is on a knife edge. You can win or finish 60th. These athletes are a breed apart.”
With Britain having sent their biggest team to a winter Olympics the talk has been about a record medal haul — they need to win five — but this is when the realist in Coe emerges.
“It will always be a challenge to be competitive, to break into the triple lock that the Scandinavian countries and a good part of Northern Europe has on skiing because of not having a deep tradition of winter sports, with the exception of a small part of Scotland. But what is good about snowboard and some of the new disciplines is that they actually call for any number of skill sets.
“Billy Morgan came from an acrobatic background. Jenny was a gymnast. What that actually says is there are things we can certainly be competitive at, and create our own history, which is not going to be determined by snow and altitude. In the last couple of games in skeleton, we have punched our weight. That is the real potential.”