Mike Lee: Clint Eastwood with a clipboard leaves his trail of construction

Man behind London 2012, Qatar's World Cup bid and Liverpool takeover says he is no spin doctor but Olympic Stadium saga whirls around him. Alan Hubbard meets Mike Lee
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The Independent Online

Spin doctor is not a job description to which Mike Lee answers happily; neither does he take kindly to being called a "hired gun" – a sort of Clint Eastwood with a clipboard – which is what the former Olympian Alan Pascoe labelled him in these pages recently in the shoot-out between Tottenham and West Ham over the future of London's Olympic Stadium. But he has built a burgeoning reputation in international sports politics as a game-winning strategist who knows which – and whose – buttons to push.

Lee set up his own communications company, Vero, soon after completing his role as Lord Coe's Alastair Campbell in the winning bid for the 2012 Games – a function which embraced a promise, along with the rest of the team, to ensure an athletics legacy at the Olympic Park, and one for which he was rewarded with an OBE.

Things have moved on apace since 6 July 2005, the day that London won the Games, with numerous and curious twists and turns and, if he'll pardon the phrase, a not inconsiderable dollop of spin which now sees him arguing against the case he helped to present in Singapore, working on behalf of Spurs and advocating a football-only stadium. Whereas West Ham, the club where he was once a director and consultant, say they are happy to retain the athletics track.

While he awaits the Olympic Park Legacy Company's judgement on this acrimonious domestic dispute in his office just off London's Strand, Lee, 53, is at pains to explain that what he does with proven success is not really spin-doctoring. "I don't regard myself as a spin doctor," he said. "What we do is about campaigns and communications, thinking through strategies to make the best of your case and trying to create momentum around a campaign. I always think 'spin doctor' is an easy phrase but I'm not sure it reflects what I do."

A gun for hire? He rather resents that. "Nor do I see myself like a barrister, arguing a case just because he is paid for it. I think you have to be able to articulate things that you believe to be right and stand up to scrutiny. For instance I was very pleased to be part of the International Rugby Board's campaign for the inclusion of Sevens in the Olympics [the sport will make its debut in Rio, whose successful 2016 Olympic bid Lee also helped to engineer] because I believed it was right for rugby and the Games. Mine isn't a false passion."

So had West Ham offered to employ him before Spurs, he would have said no? He pauses and thinks. "I don't believe that the current West Ham proposal works, so no, I would not have accepted. When I was involved with West Ham the original idea was to propose a Stade de France type of solution and subsequently to reject the idea of a 60,000-seater venue, so as it currently stands I don't think it is viable. You do try and ensure that you work with things you believe in and present the best case you can.

"If you look at this current debate, I do believe that the Spurs proposal combined with AEG – the company that rescued the Millennium Dome – on the Olympic Park site with the proposals for a world-class athletics stadium at Crystal Palace and an investment in the sport on balance is the right option.

"I have always believed that there has to be an athletics legacy but if football is needed in the mix, you have to have a bespoke football stadium. The two sports don't work together in a stadium environment. Experience has shown that in Europe.

"Once the 25,000-seater option failed, the specific bid-book promise had to be looked at because ultimately in international sport, including the Olympic movement, there is a huge fear of white elephants. I really struggle to know what athletics can do with a 60,000 venue which is going to be largely used for football. I fear if we go down the wrong route we may live to regret it.

"The 25,000-seater venue with athletics at its core was a specific part of the bid book but I think it's wrong to say it was the deciding factor. The truth is that the option was in the marketplace here for two years and no anchor tenant could be found to sustain it economically. That's the reason football was invited back to the table after initially being rejected. These are tough decisions and if you don't make the right ones they can become a liability and a burden to the taxpayer."

Lee moves in ubiquitous ways, his communications and PR wonders to perform. He was also a prime mover and shaker for the John W Henry-Tom Werner takeover of Liverpool. "I felt that was right for the club, I had a long-standing relationship with Rick Parry, the former chief executive who had been a victim of the previous regime."

Perhaps even more controversial than "spinning" with Spurs was orchestrating Qatar's bid for the 2022 World Cup. "Qatar only became controversial when Qatar won. I felt there was something very exciting about bringing the World Cup to the Middle East and we fought a good campaign. The controversy that has followed since is not surprising but the issues about changing dates have come largely from Fifa and not from Qatar. But if you are going to work in the business of sport internationally, you don't do so below the radar."

As it happened, the Football Association in their usual infinite wisdom decided not to hire Lee for their own 2018 bid. Lee says: "That was their decision but I felt that it was important that if I was going to work on a World Cup bid it wasn't one that was in direct conflict with England.

"The Middle East is a hugely developing area for international sport. It's a changing sporting world, and you've seen this with golf, Formula One, the Olympics and the World Cup. While world sport was once dominated by the US as the number one economic powerhouse and to an extent by Europe, it is no surprise that this is changing because the economics and the geo-politics of the international environment are changing. That's why you've seen the rise of Asia, the Middle East and countries like Brazil, India and China. It is partly because of their resources and partly because they have a passion for sport."

His current major international campaign is the South Korean city Pyeongchang's bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics. They are favourites, having narrowly lost the 2014 event to Sochi. Lee hasn't had many lost causes, although Salzburg, which he backed for the 2014 Winter Games, was one – Putin-power swinging it for Russia.

"That wasn't a very happy experience," he acknowledges. "But what I have learned since starting to work in sport is that anything is possible and you have to be part of a great team. 2012 was a great team and that is one of the reasons I hope we all stay great friends, although we are on different sides of the argument at the moment."

Which begs the question, has his once close relationship with Coe, who is firmly on the side of the West Ham bid, been damaged? "I've no reason to think so. We have stayed in touch and seen each other in different parts of the world. I know Seb is totally sincere about what he is saying, just as I am. I don't see it as a battle with Seb; there are two propositions on the table and it is up to the Legacy Company to decide on them."

That decision is being mulled over, final evidence having been submitted last Thursday with the verdict now expected within a fortnight; then to be endorsed – or otherwise – by London's mayor Boris Johnson. How will it go? Lee reckons it could be a close call. Might it be appropriate to spin a coin?

Life and times: The Black Cat who got the cream and rose to the top

Born in Sunderland and educated at Oxford, Mike Lee OBE, 53, is chairman of Vero and former director of communications for London's 2012 Olympic bid.

He began his professional career as Parliamentary adviser to the former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett and moved into sport as communications chief of Uefa, football's European governing body, and the Premier League from 1994-2000.

He says: "I was a sports nut as a kid and always had this secret ambition to work in sport. But as I was never going to become manager of Sunderland, working with the Premier League was the next best thing."

Voted PR Professional of the Year in 2005, he set up Vero with a portfolio which now includes Rio's 2016 Olympics, Qatar's 2022 World Cup, Pyeongchang's 2018 Winter Games, the International Rugby Board, the International Cricket Council, UK Sport and now Tottenham Hotspur.

His partner is the Jamaican-born film producer Heather Rabbatts, a former Lambeth Council chief executive and Millwall FC chair who was once mooted for a major role at the Football Association.

"I am biaised but I think they missed a great opportunity. If football had a more open mind they should have grabbed her with both hands."

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