The Evening Standard

Lord Coe quite happily admits that he can be bloody-minded. “There is,” he says, “a belligerent streak in me.”

Not that he refuses to take advice or work in a collegiate atmosphere, but he insists: “I have always had a healthy disrespect for being told things aren’t possible.”

An attitude that is hardly surprising given that, as a boy, he was told he would never be fast enough to become an 800metres runner or tall enough or strong enough to be a miler.

The grown man won two Olympic golds in the 1500m, two silvers in the 800m and, in 41 days in the summer of 1979, set three world records in the mile, the 1500m and the 800m.

We are meeting at the offices of the London 2012 organising committee which 53-year-old Coe chairs.

It is only days after David Sullivan, West Ham’s new co-owner, had told me that it was “obscene in the credit crunch” to convert the 80,000-seater Olympic venue into a 25,000 track and field stadium once the Games have finished.

Sullivan had also dismissed Coe’s vision of a permanent athletics track as that of a dreamer from “a minority sport” reigniting the debate about the future of the 2012 arena.

But Coe, who only has to look out of the windows of his offices to see the emerging Olympic Stadium, insists the track will be staying.

“The idea that we have a City of Manchester stadium on our hands and that people will be ripping up the running track six weeks after the Games are over is not on the agenda,” he says.

“Let us be very clear about what we said at Singapore [where London won the bid]. This was that we would have a permanent 25,000 stadium whose primary purpose would be track and field.

That was non-negotiable, as we made very clear in our commitments to the International Olympic Committee. I take those very seriously.”

Coe is ready to accept that the stadium may not be kept uniquely for athletics. Alongside track and field, the peer of the realm also sees the venue being used as “an educational establishment, a base for national governing bodies or for entertainment”.

And he goes on to remind Sullivan that football and track and field have cohabited happily for decades.

Not that Coe intends to negotiate with Sullivan. That is the job of Margaret Ford, who chairs the Legacy Board.

“Margaret is very clear what our commitments in Singapore were,” Coe adds. “I don’t know the owners of West Ham. I am sure our paths will cross at some stage.”

As always with Coe, his voice is measured but there is no mistaking the determination he has to beat off the arguments of football men like Sullivan.

The West Ham owner would do well to remember that Coe is something of a master when it comes to converting unexpected defeats into even unlikelier victories.

The one that stamped him on the public mind was Moscow 1980. Then, having lost in his favourite 800m to Steve Ovett, he won the gold in Ovett’s favourite distance, 1500m, two days later and retained it at the next Games in Los Angeles.

Despite this, in some people’s minds, he has never quite erased the memory of his awful 800m run in Moscow.

Sixteen years later, returning from the Atlanta Olympics where he was a BBC commentator, Coe found himself sitting next to the legendary David Coleman on the flight home.

Coe recalls: “He was already seated in 1A, as he always did, and as I took my seat he immediately said, You know you ran that 800m race in Moscow like a plonker’.”

He can laugh now, all the more so, as in many ways his London 2012 journey has been an even more dramatic story of a plonker turning into a winner.

Coe took over the bid in May 2004 when the capital had come a poor third behind Paris and Madrid after the first round of the 2012 contest.

The following day, London’s original bid leader, the American business woman Barbara Cassani, resigned.

It emerged that, for all her considerable business skill, she did not fancy the job of hanging round the world’s hotels wooing the mainly old men who make up the IOC.

Under Cassani, Coe, despite the title of vice-chairman, largely had an ambassadorial role and expectations of him as the bid leader were not high. In fact Craig Reedie, the leading Briton on the IOC, took some convincing that Coe should become leader.

Another member of the IOC muttered that it meant London would fail. And the weekend he took over Coe, tried and failed to get a High Court injunction to stop two Sunday newspapers publicising details of his private sex life.

Yet Coe overcame all these obstacles before securing London’s first Games for 64 years when, supported by some of the nation’s biggest sporting names, he secured the historic final vote on 6 July 2005.

He admits, though, that the battle to win over the whole of the nation has been a tough one as the total cost of the Games – including the regeneration of the East London area – has risen to more than £9billion against the backdrop of one of the worst economic recessions in modern times.

“The UK and fervour tend not to collide often in the same sentence,” he argues. “As a nation we are slow burners in how we absorb things.”

But, as he goes round London, Coe insists that people no longer quiz him on the Olympic budget but instead ask: “How does my child get into gymnastics?” He adds: “They are saying, Bring the Games on, it is going to be an unbelievable experience’.”

Such is the progress that has been made by Coe that later this week, as he stands in front of the IOC session in Vancouver, he will not have to work very hard to convince those listening that London is ready to become the next Olympic city.

2012 has made such an impression that some in the IOC feel it provides an ideal template of converting a winning bid team into a well-run organising committee.

Coe ascribes this to his ability to be an Olympic leader. “Like Napoleon, I have always worked alongside lucky generals,” he says. “I surround myself with smart people. Look at the teams we have got here, look at the quality of our chief executive Paul Deighton.”

And yet, even though the preparations are progressing smoothly, questions over the Games legacy – as highlighted in a recent secret government report revealed by the Standard – still persist.

The politician in Coe comes out very quickly when I raise the issue with him and ask if he is going to be good on his promise to convert a nation of couch potatoes into sports activists.

This vision was held out by Coe in Singapore and is one of the crucial factors in winning the bid.

“Legacy is deep in my DNA,” he insists.

“It is often forgotten that, when I made that final presentation in Singapore, it was not Sebastian Coe making it to the IOC or even Sebastian Coe making it from the bid company.

“I made it on behalf of and agreed it with the Government, the Mayor’s office and the British Olympic Association. The two key organisations responsible for delivering legacy are the Government and the Mayor’s office.

“If it is how to get more kids into sports in this country, then that is effectively the Government’s role. If it is participation, that is a London-driven programme and that is why the Mayor has appointed Kate Hoey to drive a grass-roots strategy in London.”

Margaret Thatcher once said of Coe, “The young man does not understand the politics of sport,” after his decision to defy her and go to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

But his remarks on legacy demonstrate how much he really does understand politics and how he has used this to reinvent himself since becoming bid leader.

A crucial factor in this has been his friendship with Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former IOC president who treats Coe almost like a son.

When, in 1988, the BOA refused Coe a place on the team for the Seoul Olympics, Samaranch proposed Coe should run under the Olympic flag to try to win the 1500m for a third time.

The first thing Coe did on taking over as bid leader was to fly to Madrid to have dinner with Samaranch. While they disagreed on whether London or Madrid would win 2012, the two men regularly dine.

Samaranch’s influence meant that, even when Coe was an MP, he was always close to the inner working of the IOC and he readily acknowledges his debt to Samaranch.

“I am extraordinary grateful to him for helping me to understand the international nature of sport,” he says.

This understanding has also helped Coe play his Indian card very shrewdly. Despite his roots in the country on his mother’s side, he only first visited India in October 2003.

Aged 47, he was the only member of his family never to have gone there – his mother and sisters had been going back every year and stay for weeks.

So why did he shy away from his Indian roots for so long?

Coe says: “It was just the nature of my life. I was training, racing then becoming a Member of Parliament. There was never a chance to go to India. I didn’t want to go in and out in one day.”

He did meet his Indian relations in London – many move between Britain and India – and, in 1988 when he was refused a place by the British Olympic Association for Seoul, the Indians, who have never won a track and field medal, wanted him to run for them. But he declined.

Since that visit in 2003 Coe has been back several times and says: “It has been really fascinating to discover my Indian roots. Now I intend to spend more time there.”

Coe’s discovery also produced Olympic dividends for Britain. The occasion for his first visit was the Indians hosting the first Afro-Asian Games.

They were then bidding for the 2010 Commonwealth Games and wanted to trade support for London’s 2012 bid.

Coe shrewdly engineered that support which was to prove crucial in Singapore. In the past failed British Olympic bids often concentrated on the old white Commonwealth.

But Coe made sure that mistake was not repeated.

Since then, despite the fact that multiculturalism is no longer fashionable, Coe has always flown the flag of a sporting world of many colours.

Not long ago several leading members of the IOC sketched out a scenario to me which saw Coe becoming an IOC member after the London Games and then becoming IOC president.

This, they thought, could happen in 2013 when the present incumbent Jacques Rogge’s term ends – or he might have to wait a bit longer.

When I put this to Coe, he says: “These are very flattering thoughts but I am not even a member of the IOC. 2012 is a massive challenge and I will greet that when I get there.”

With that he laughs. But Coe’s eyes could not conceal that the 800m plonker, who became a 1500m champion, may in time relish the challenge of becoming the first Briton to head the Olympic movement.


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