Lord Coe receives his Lifetime Achievement award from the Duchess of Cambridge on Sunday. Image courtesy of The Sunday Times

The Evening Standard

After the magical summer that Lord Coe and his team conjured up, the reception he received as he stepped on to the stage at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards on Sunday came as no surprise.

An audience of 15,000 at the Docklands ExCeL Arena, including many of the Olympians and Paralympians who revelled in a home Games, hailed the man whose vision turned the dream of London 2012 into a glorious reality.

But the admiration for Coe stretches far beyond these shores, as I witnessed in Doha last week when I got a glimpse of how the Games have changed Britain’s standing across the world.

The 56-year-old was one of the speakers at the Doha Goals forum, an event to demonstrate that Qatar’s ambitions extend beyond staging the 2022 World Cup.

Among those addressing the three-day conference in the Aspire Dome were current and former heads of state, sporting powerbrokers — including Sepp Blatter and Jean Todt — and greats from sport such as Oscar Pistorius, Ian Thorpe, Francois Pienaar and Mark Spitz.

I heard former France President Nicolas Sarkozy tell the audience why he is delighted Qatar has been awarded the World Cup and was in favour of switching that tournament to the winter. Doha is set to bid for the 2024 Olympics and, if successful, Sarkozy also favours moving the summer Games to avoid the intense heat in the Arab state.

However, when it was Coe’s turn to speak he offered some caution on Sarkozy’s ideas.

“I accept that properly to globalise sport, we are going to need to take these events into all parts of the globe,” said the former MP. “But it’s not quite that simple because the structures are well set. We have the numerous football leagues, basketball, baseball and track and field programmes.”

Coe spoke for some time in this vein and, at the end, a leading sports’ administrator approached me to say: “Can you believe Sarkozy ­sounding like Michel Platini and Blatter making no sense? But Coe was inspirational.”

As he praised Coe, the screens filled with images from London 2012 while an adjoining screen posed questions about Britain’s contribution to the Olympics in the last century. While all that was going on, Guy Drut, one of the leaders of the Paris bid competing against London, passed by almost unrecognised.

To put this in context, when Doha last held such a conference in March another Briton made the news. On that occasion, David Richards, chairman of the Premier League, denounced FIFA and UEFA for “robbing” English ­football of its heritage and then walked into the dining hall, slipped and fell in a pond of water. Richards later ­apologised for criticising the two most powerful bodies in the sport.

Against this background you would expect Coe to be triumphant. But, when I finally manage to disentangle him from all those who want a word, he says modestly: “I would never sit here pretending that I’m from the ­Harvard Business School or I’m a practised FTSE CEO.

“I know my skill sets and I know my weaknesses. I sometimes lack patience. If I see the end game, I want to get there quite quickly.”

So what was the secret of 2012? “What I am proud of was that pretty much to a man and woman, everybody in the senior team saw it through from appointment to delivery,” says the man who headed LOCOG. “That’s almost unheard of in the Olympics. It was that continuity that delivered the Games.”

Then, as Coe often does, he refers to his father, Peter, the man who coached him to two Olympic golds. “I learned through him to go out and find the smartest and brightest people. Then you will resolve whatever challenge you’ve got.”

And the smartest of men Coe and his deputy, Keith Mills, found was London 2012 chief executive Paul Deighton. “We both had a template about the kind of guy we wanted and we came up with the analogy that, if you’re sitting in a plane, mid-Atlantic, and the engines clap out at 36,000 feet, who would you want in the cockpit? When Paul Deighton appeared on the scene, we both looked at each other and instinctively knew he was our man.”

But did Coe never wonder why Deighton, then making millions at Goldman Sachs, would want to leave the City?

“Yeah, that was my first question. And his answer was: why would I be living in this city with the opportunity to do this once-in-a-lifetime job and not want to do it?”

For Coe, appointing Deighton was thinking outside the box, another lesson he learned from his engineer father. “The great thing that my dad gave me was a belief that you have to challenge orthodoxies,” he says.

He then tells me about the moment his father made him rethink his entire training programme after he had lost to Steve Ovett in the final of the 800metres at the 1978 European Championships in Prague.

“We recognised that running 800m at world record pace is running 80 per cent of the distance without the ability to absorb enough oxygen. The remedy to that is really thinking completely differently about that event. The world had moved on and, unless you did, you’d get left behind. So we recruited and not just from these shores.”

Coe’s point is not merely to praise his father, which he does often in his book, but to deal with the fact that, when he took over the chairmanship of the bid in 2004 from Barbara Cassani, there were many who doubted he could deliver. London trailed Paris and Madrid in the race to host 2012 and his critics included many from the Conservative party.

But he insists: “The criticism did not rile me, not remotely. If you have profile, you tend to live in a world of criticism. After Prague, when we changed my training routine, household names in my sport used to come and say, ‘Why are you spending two hours a week on a treadmill with blood chemistry analysis?’ You’ve got to remember my background: en route to excellence, top athletes live in an environment of criticism, they crave criticism. Coaches criticise you all the time.”

He is, though, a bit surprised by one bit of criticism he has received since the Olympics. That was from Decca Aitkenhead in The Guardian, who found him insufferably boring. “We only spoke for 18 minutes,” he says with the precise timing you’d expect from a runner. But, while bemused, it is not something he wants to dwell on.

What he does dwell on is talk that he wants to succeed Boris Johnson as London Mayor. “I don’t want to go into frontline politics. I did that from 1989 to 2001,” he says.

This period covered from being Conservative candidate to five years as an MP and then serving as William Hague’s chief of staff. “I want to play a more structured role in the House of Lords, issues that I want to talk about in a serious way and things I want to get engaged in. But frontline politics is over for me.”

Coe’s sports politics ambitions are, however, not dead.“I am not coy about being president of the IAAF. If I get the opportunity to shape the direction of a sport that I’m passionate about, then that is something I want to do.”

Last month, he was appointed chairman of the British Olympic Association but he is well aware that, ultimately, 2012 will be judged on legacy. No Olympics has delivered one but he is certain the London Games are different.

“Legacy would not be the easiest subject to talk about now had we been sitting here saying, ‘Oh, it was okay but it wasn’t good.’ But 2012 captured the imagination of a whole generation.

“We delivered the Games in the spirit of collaboration and collegiate involvement. We need to deliver legacy in that way and there’s a real appetite for it.

“The great thing we have is that, in the next 10 years, virtually every sporting event other than the World Cup, is coming to our shores: cricket and rugby world cups, track and field championships, the European hockey championship. So there is a massive opportunity.”

Coe’s mention of the 10-year horizon is pointed, for his overall legacy message is that we should not imitate his weakness and be impatient. “The delivery of the Games from vision to delivery was 10 years. Legacy is also a 10-year project.”

But he accepts that, in a year’s time, Londoners will want to know how far we have got. “When you’re sitting down with me on July 27 next year and saying, ‘What have you got to show?’ we need to be able to explain.”

So , come next July, will the future of the Olympic Stadium have been resolved? West Ham may have been selected as the favoured tenant but the word is that the Stratford venue may not be ready until 2015.

Coe says: “I’m not sure that the timings that have been talked about are necessarily that accurate. It’s moving in the right ­direction.”

And does that mean the mistakes of the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games will not be repeated?

The stadium is rented out to Manchester City and at least one owner (the disgraced Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra) reportedly walked away with a £100m profit and has since said he bought the club because it had a stadium.

“That is one of the considerations Boris and his team have given. In fairness, the game has fundamentally changed since 2002. Yes, of course, that was a public asset that in hindsight has probably gone a little cheaply. But 20/20 vision is a wonderful thing.”


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