Sebastian Coe: Lord of the Flyers

We don't want it to be like Wimbledon, when people grab a racket for about a week then put it back in the cupboard
Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the greatest athletes of all time will head for the Beijing Olympics this week to promote London 2012 – which will begin four years from today. Lord Coe is running the show, and Britain is promised a sporting revolution. So why is he admitting that the Games have never been able to deliver one?

The Olympics have never inspired people to take up sport. Not in great numbers. That is what Sebastian Coe says, and it is an astonishing thing to hear from him. "No Olympics has ever really achieved that."

Why is it astonishing? Because he is one of the great Olympians, the winner of two gold medals, who took up running after he saw the Games on television. Because Coe is now in charge of the 2012 Games, responsible for producing a spectacular event with a lasting sporting legacy. Three years ago, he won the Games for London with a pitch that was all about the power of sport to change lives. But most of all, his admission is astonishing because he is backed by the Government, and one of the reasons ministers give for wanting to spend £9.3bn on an event lasting just 16 days is that it will bring about a sporting revolution.

They have even set a target of two million people becoming "more active" as a result of the Games. Yet here is Coe admitting: "There is no solid evidence that an Olympic Games has ever provided a once-and-for-all shift in levels of participation. They didn't manage it in Australia. They certainly didn't manage it in Athens." But isn't that exactly what all the critics say?

Coe just smiles. He will reveal his hand in a moment, but for now he looks relaxed in his high-rise office at Canary Wharf, with a view across London to where the stadium will rise. The Games are coming, whatever anyone says. The builders are at work. Half the corporate sponsorship is in already. Seven days from now Coe will fly out to Beijing to learn from this year's event and tell the International Olympic Committee (IOC) how the next one's coming on.

He will also watch, nervously, as Britain has eight minutes of the closing ceremony in which to impress the world. "It has been called the curse of the handover," says Coe, cheerfully. The Sydney organisers sent "plastic kangaroos and prawns on bicycles" to Atlanta in 1996 and "Australia almost had a complete nervous breakdown afterwards, saying, 'How on earth did we manage to depict ourselves in that way?'" Rumour has it that London's show will feature David Beckham and the cast of the urban musical Into The Hoods. "There has been a lot of supposition." Will it cause Britain to have a heart attack then? "I really doubt it very much. I am hoping that people will be uplifted by what we do out there."

Coe has personal reasons to smile. At 52, he looks almost as youthful and light as he did in his racing prime. His longish hair is so dark some people wonder whether it is dyed, but there is grey at the temples. The golden boy of athletics is now Lord Coe of Ranmore in Surrey, so you might expect a suit ... but he is casual in an open-necked, powder blue shirt and indigo jeans with an infuriatingly tiny waist. "I still run every other day. Longer at weekends. I probably do 35 miles a week." The swine.

Back in the early Eighties, when Britain was gripped by his epic battles with Steve Ovett, Coe was a middle-class media darling. He was the posh boy, Ovett the free-spirited working class hero. Most of the country chose one or the other to cheer at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Ovett won the 800m, which was supposed to be Coe's distance. When they collected their medals Coe shook his rival's hand – in the words of the TV critic Clive James – "as if he'd just been handed a turd".

They barely spoke then but are mates now, apparently, although Ovett lives in Australia. Coe is said to be much more at ease with himself these days. Always a bit of a committee man, he became involved in sports administration while still competing. Given his high profile, it was a fairly straightforward run into politics as MP for Falmouth – although he lost the seat after just one term.

Coe stayed in politics as chief of staff to William Hague, the then Tory leader, who engaged him in regular, competitive bouts of judo. But their partnership was broken by a crushing general election defeat. By then the athlete had been made a Lord.

In 2002, he was divorced, amicably, from the former eventer Nicky McIrvine after a 12-year marriage. Coe sees their four children – two boys and two girls, aged from nine to 16 – most weekends. He was linked with quite a few women after that (one of whom sold a kiss-and- tell story to a red top) and why not? He is fit and good looking, earns at least a quarter of a million pounds a year working on 2012, and presumably much more from business interests including his health clubs. He was once asked to submit a recipe to a cook book and suggested oysters and lemon juice, as a great aphrodisiac. But Coe is settled with Carole Annett, a champion at real tennis. Is he going to buy a flat near the Olympic site in Hackney, as a recent story suggested? "Er, no. I live out on the A3. My children are in Sussex."

He was heading for an easier life, indulging his loves for jazz and Chelsea Football Club, until Barbara Cassani resigned as chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games four years ago. Coe took over, and friends say he became a new man: regaining some of his old focus and self-discipline, and discovering new abilities to work a room and charm an audience. It worked on the IOC. Ask him about progress and his answers are long, intricate and positive. It's going fine, is the message. He clearly believes in the main aims of the Olympics: to make the UK a leading sporting nation; to transform east London; to make the Olympic park a blueprint for sustainable living; and "to demonstrate the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place".

But what about this idea, at the heart of it all, that the Games will get fat, lazy Brits out of their armchairs and into sport?

Six years ago, a government report said: "Hosting events is not an effective value-for-money method of achieving ... a sustained increase in mass participation." Only last Thursday, a Parliamentary spending watchdog said there was no evidence that watching elite athletes on the television made many people want to run. Disarmingly, Coe agrees. "Participation is a tough one." Now I get it. That old political tactic: accept what your critics say, then tell them how it's all different this time.

"Nobody has really tried before. We are the first host city that has actually stopped to think about it four years out."

Corporate sponsors are already paying for campaigns to get people playing. But the big challenge is to politicians. "It really shouldn't be beyond the wit of government, Sport England, UK Sport, the British Olympic Association and the office of the Mayor of London to think that one through."

Over to you then, chaps. Asked why anyone outside London should care, Coe enthuses about the projects – rowing, canoeing, gymnastics – starting up around the country, not funded by the Olympics but inspired by it "because the coaches can say the Games are about to happen on their doorstep."

He does give the impression ministers will have to do more than they have so far – mostly a promise of free swimming for everyone by 2012. "The lasting structures must be put in place. We don't want it to be like Wimbledon, when everybody grabs a racket but a week and a half later it's back in the cupboard."

Coe started running after watching the Mexico Olympics on the family's black and white television in 1968. He was not as privileged as everyone thinks. "My mother was Indian, brought up in Delhi. My grandparents were born in Bow and Poplar."

His father Peter, an engineer, dedicated most of his life to helping his gifted son win, acting as his coach while famously wearing a collar and tie under his tracksuit. Sebastian spent his school years in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, before going to Loughborough to read politics and economics. The rivalry with Ovett just made both of them run faster. Coe got over his 800m defeat to win the 1500m in Moscow, and retained the title four years later in Los Angeles. "Dad was there watching over me. Nobody ever suggested I took drugs. If my old man had been within half a mile of such a conversation he would have seriously hurt someone."

Coe does not believe athletes decide to cheat on their own. "You do not wake up in the early hours of the morning in a state of depression, deciding that you are sick and tired of finishing fifth or sixth, and want to get up on the Olympic rostrum – so therefore you will take drugs. It doesn't work like that. You have people around you. Coaches sit there and say, 'I had absolutely no idea.' Well then, you are either an imbecile or a liar."

As vice president of the world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), he wants tougher penalties. He was furious when Dwain Chambers, the runner banned for admitting drug use, fought a legal battle to try to get to Beijing. "People forget Dwain Chambers ran something like the second or third fastest time ever in his distance when he was clean. This guy was quite capable of getting to the very highest level without drugs."

Does Coe feel any sympathy for him? "No," he says quickly, "I can have sympathy for the human condition ... but the fragile state he and others have left my sport in will take a very long time to recover from."

Coe gets worked up about drugs. Brace yourselves, all you mums and nanas who used to cheer him on, because the clean-cut boy is about to swear. The athlete in him is forcing his way past the administrator, the politician and the charmer, fighting for the front like the old days.

Chambers could have been preparing for Beijing this week, with a chance of a medal, if he'd stayed clean. That, above all, is what gets to Sebastian Coe. For a moment there is a flash of the intensity we used to see on the track: that rage in his eyes when he wasn't winning. Here is a glimpse of whatever wild drive pushed him through all those training runs on freezing, rainy nights. He'd do it again. He can't bear it when somebody wastes the chance. "There is an element in me that says this is just such a fucking waste of talent."


* 1956 Sebastian Newbold Coe, born 29 September in Chiswick, London.

* 1979 Breaks three world records in 41 days.

* 1980 Wins gold medal at 1500m (below) and silver at 800m at the Moscow Olympics.

* 1982 Appointed member of The Order of the British Empire.

* 1984 Again, wins gold in the 1500m and silver in the 800m at the Los Angeles Olympics.

* 1990 Marries Nicky McIrvine, a former equestrian champion.

* 1992 Becomes Tory MP for Falmouth and Camborne.

* 1997 Made private secretary to Tory leader William Hague.

* 2000 Becomes a life peer.

* 2002 Coe and Nicky Irvine get divorced.

* 2004 Appointed London 2012 Olympic bid leader in May.

* 2005 Given special award at BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

* 2007 Becomes vice-president of the International Association of Athletics Federations in August.