Comment: Interview: Sport enters no-Coe area: SEBASTIAN COE

Britain's renowned Olympian has ruled himself out of the running for role as overlord.
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The Independent Online
If British Sport plc really is head hunting a Mr Big to run what is now one of the nation's big industries it need look no further than Sebastian Newbold Coe OBE.

He has the perfect CV - double Olympic gold medalist, multi-world record holder, politically and commercially experienced, an all-rounder who loves football, a former steward of the Boxing Board and judo green belt, 42- year-old father of four, happily married to an equestrian champion, with a cupboard full of trophies and not skeletons.

Moreover, he has been voted the personality who contributed most to British sport in the past half- century. With such an impeccable pedigree, he could pick his post: chairman of the Sports Council, principal of the new Sports Institute, head of Quest (the proposed government body which will oversee public spending on sport), or even, if the Minister for Sport Tony Banks' pipe dream is ever realised, Britain's first US-style sports commissioner.

Banks has always said that, despite their political differences, he would snatch Coe's hand off should he ever come on to the sporting market. "He may be a Tory, but he's one you can do business with." Alas, Coe himself says thanks, but no thanks. He is content being chief aide to the Conservative Party leader, William Hague, a role which includes not only being his henchman and confidant but fitness guru, judo partner and daily running mate - a sort of going-for-a-spin doctor.

Last weekend he was in Jordan, attending the funeral of King Hussein, shadowing Hague; this weekend he's pressing the political flesh in the United States and Canada, again at Hague's elbow.

On Thursday he's back on more familiar territory at Loughborough University, returning to his Alma Mater in his cornerman's role as Hague flexes his muscles in an attempt to show that he is no mere lightweight champion of the sporting classes.

Sport is now big news and even bigger business and the Tories, left on the touch-line when New Labour's Team Tony - Blair and Banks - pulled on the first-team jerseys now feel the need to get back into the game.

Bringing sport into Hague's "Listening to Britain" campaign was Coe's idea but, he insists, that is the extent of his political involvement with his former existence as Britain's supreme Olympian.

Yet with his track record it is hardly surprising that sport is reluctant to let him go and Coe makes it clear that his decision to leave the arena is by no means a snub to the world he graced as an athlete for nearly two decades.

He'd hate us to think it was a case of delusions of grandeur or getting too big for his running spikes. "Certainly not. I'm flattered that so many people apparently would like me to become involved in sports administration at the highest level, but that is not what I'd like to do.

"It is not because I don't consider sport important enough, I do. It is a vital part of the fabric of this country. But for me, sport was always purely an enjoyable activity, one I took very seriously, but not something I envisaged as my lifetime's work. I always said I never saw it as something I would be involved in by the time I was 40.

"I loved my five years as an MP and I'm totally focused on the job I'm doing with William now. I just don't think in terms of doing anything else." Bad news for Banks, still searching desperately for someone of Coe's calibre to pick up the fragments, heal the rifts and restore dignity and credibility to a commodity which recently seems to have fallen apart at the seams. Coe would be the ideal overlord figure that Banks envisages.

Coe the politician picks his words as precisely and purposefully as he did his way around the world's tracks as the most switched-on of British sports personalities. The thought of becoming a Pooh Bah of sport holds little appeal. "I'm not sure how it would work and in any case, I don't think it could. For one thing, I don't feel sport needs such a figure because it is not in anything like the mess some people seem to think. OK, so the standard of public affairs in relation to sport is currently abysmal, but that's something to be dealt with. Some pretty bad advice has been flying around.

"But sport must not lose its nerve or sacrifice the right to police itself. Its future is in its own hands. Outside forces like governments have a role to play, but this should be supplementary and not dominant.

"I've never believed that government should get involved with the day- to-day management of sport, and while I certainly don't think we need politicians, including ministers, crawling all over it, there has to be an understanding on both sides that a close working relationship is not harmful. To pretend the two don't have anything to do with each other is ludicrous. When people in sport talk about keeping politics out, what they really mean is keeping party politics out.

"Also I know from my own experience that when a sportsman or woman wakes up in the morning with a problem they look towards their coach or governing body to sort it out. They aren't going to run to any Ombudsman, the United Nations or World Health Organisation."

Whatever his aspirations in the political marathon, Coe knows that deep down he can never really run away from sport. Various sports ministers, past and present, have sought his counsel and, because he is articulate and forthcoming, he is at the top of the media's celebrity vox pop list whenever a contentious issue arises. There have been plenty of late, not least surrounding the Olympic movement in which Coe retains a keen interest.

At the recent drugs conference in Lausanne, he was scathing in his public condemnation of the cheats and some of the implausible excuses they use to get off the hook. Since 1981, when he became the first athlete to speak at an IOC congress, he has been an advocate of a lifetime's ban. Lately he has been equally outspoken in slamming the sleaze that has corroded the Olympic ideal, although he refuses to join in the clamour for the head of Juan Antonio Samaranch. He admits they have always had a "shared respect" for each other.

"Samaranch should never be underestimated. He knows that the way he handles things over the next few weeks will determine the style and tone of the Olympic movement for years to come. What has happened has been pretty awful, but it's not terminal. It's rather like sport in this country. There's nothing that strong leadership and the resolve to take tough decisions cannot put right."

Always the pace-setter, Coe was the first British athlete to take the money and run on to millionairehood. When he got in to Parliament, the bookies laid odds on him becoming Prime Minister by 2010.

A more likely wager is that, despite his determination not to be pigeon-holed, he will, by that time, be an influential British member of the IOC, probably as a replacement for the Princess Royal, whose disaffection with Samaranch's crumbling fiefdom has become increasingly acute.

Coe winces at such speculation, dismissing it as "hypothetical", though I believe he would jump at the opportunity, such is his love of the Olympic theatre. He likes the occasional wager, but he reckons the only odds that interest him are those against Chelsea winning the Premiership. Even so, those credentials he steadfastly declines to submit for a top job in British sport might prove equally ideal for a role on the biggest platform of all - as president of a reformed, democratically run and elected IOC by the time he is 55. Don't bet against it.

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