Sebastian Coe: 'London 2012 has been beyond my wildest dreams'
Lord Coe has fashioned an astonishing Games, and now, he says, the country must move quickly to build on their success – for there'll never be another chance like this. Alan Hubbard meets Sebastian Coe
Sunday 12 August 2012
Sebastian Coe has certainly come a long way since Princess Anne called him a prat – or something suspiciously similar. It was back in the Nineties when Manchester was making an abortive bid for the Olympic Games and the news was relayed to HRH, the president of the British Olympic Association, which was backing it, that Coe was assembling an exploratory group to prepare a future alternative bid for London, rightly believing the capital had the only realistic chance. "What a pratley," she snapped tetchily to those around her.
Now, of course, they are bosom pals – they were even on the dance floor together when London celebrated that winning bid in Singapore seven years ago, and Lord Coe has probably become the nearest thing to royalty you can get without actually donning a coronet.
Barring unforeseen mishaps before midnight, Coe will have fashioned an astonishing Games, one of the most successful ever, and unquestionably the finest episode in British sporting history, lapping even England's football World Cup victory in 1966.
He has done so with professionalism and panache, and the result, so far, has been beyond anyone's wildest dreams, including, he admits, his own.
On the day of the opening ceremony I encountered him strolling casually through the Olympic Park, ear glued to his mobile. "Good luck Seb," I said. He smiled nonchalantly: "Que sera, sera," he mouthed, as if he didn't have a care in the world.
Nonchalant is a word that might have been invented for Sebastian Newbold Coe, aka Baron Coe of Ranmore, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, whom I have known since he was plain Seb, a 17-year-old, fresh-faced, prodigiously talented young athlete living in Sheffield, who I first reported on for his local newspaper.
During these Games I have been reflecting on a friendship stretching almost 40 years, an extraordinary journey during which he has gone from lad to lordship, impecunious student to multi-millionaire, Olympic champion to London's Games overlord, while observing him at work in a role which has been the fulfilment of his destiny.
"We are bloody lucky to have him, aren't we?" remarked Mayor Boris Johnson as he watched Coe, the consummate sports politician, networking the VIP box at the Olympic Stadium.
High among the aspects of these Games that have pleased Coe most is that the city in which he was born 56 years ago next month has embraced the Games and presented such a pleasantly positive picture of the capital to the world.
This time last year London was enveloped by riots; now it is wrapped in rapture, burning again but this time with pride and passion. What a difference an Olympics makes.
"The London of a year ago is not one I recognise," says Coe. "I am delighted and relieved that the world is now seeing the London I do know."
True, there have been pockets of discontent, notably a security shambles saved, as Coe says, by the professionalism and humour of the conscripted military, and the controversial distribution of tickets and subsequent embarrassment of empty seats at several venues Ω the one legacy he never wanted.
But otherwise it has been gold all the way, not only for Team GB but for those behind the athletes and in Coe's team who have masterminded such a brilliant operation.
Have these been the best Games ever, as IOC president Jacques Rogge surely will proclaim? Certainly up there with Sydney as the best of the dozen I have attended, and amid the rainstorm of GB medals and plaudits from home and overseas, Coe has sailed through it all, taking everything in his stride as elegantly as he did in his running days when he won his two Olympic gold medals.
Yet he says: "Every morning when I wake up I have to pinch myself to think that we are staging an Olympic Games in London.
"What has been happening these past two weeks is beyond my wildest dreams. We have witnessed some of the best sport ever. It has been like glugging your way through a quart of cream.
"It has always been my intention that these would be an athletes-led Olympics and the athletes have responded to the crowds not only in the stadium but at every venue. And those crowds have been fantastic in their support both for British athletes, and to those from overseas."
The critical postscript will be what 2012 bequeaths to youngsters in Britain. "Inspire a Generation" has been the buzz-phrase. But will it?
"The legacy for school sport is paramount," says Coe. "That legacy will not fall into our laps just because we've had a Games that we think will excite and inspire. If we don't do something that is coherent and strategic then we will end up like Wimbledon, when the tennis rackets come out and a fortnight later are back in the cupboard. We can't afford that because we will never have this opportunity again.
"We are in great shape to build on the success of these Games but it is not going to come without a concerted, hard-nosed political will locally and nationally. It will need successive cabinet ministers, London mayors, borough leaders, prime ministers to really go driving forward to embed sport at the heart of the political and social agenda."
But what of his own future? What happens when he wakes up tomorrow morning and it is all over? How does he see life after 2012? "You've been asking me that question for the last four years. The answer is, I don't know."
After this he'd surely be a shoo-in as successor to his pal Boris as Mayor of London, but he assures me he won't be returning to politics, admitting that the five years spent as a Tory MP for Falmouth and Camborne were not the most auspicious period of his life.
But sports politics are a different matter. His eye is firmly fixed on the presidency of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) which would lead to an automatic seat on the IOC, where, in a decade or so, he could even become president.
He must wait three years for the IAAF opportunity, when present incumbent Lamine Diack steps down, and he will have a fight on his hands with new IOC executive board member Sergei Bubka, another iconic Olympian. But after the glories of London, you would expect Coe to win this one.
While waiting, he could be put in charge of a combined UK Sport/Sport England, and there is already pressure on him to become either president or chairman of the British Boxing Board of Control, not least from promoter Frank Warren, who is orchestrating a campaign to remove the present chair, Charles Giles.
Coe is a great fight fan and a former steward of the board, but whether he will relish this particular scrap is open to question. Whatever, it is unlikely he will be lining up at the jobcentre alongside the lesser mortals in the Locog team.
What also remains to be seen is how long the feel-good factor will last. The Olympics have given Britain a much-needed makeover as a nation in terms of patriotism and philosophy, and Coe's hope has to be that what they have done for the country and for sport will linger long in the consciousness after the first Rooney groin strain nudges the current euphoria off the back pages.
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