Cassani aims to stay out of Dome's shadows

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As she struggles to fit an unruly gold earring, Barbara Cassani briefly runs through the rules for the imminent photo-shoot at the top of the Docklands skyscraper which has recently become her office.

Wearing a leather jacket and trousers instead of the "First Lady" look she otherwise prefers for publicity, she says there will be no shots while she is talking and anything featuring the Dome - a reminder of the perils of ill-conceived Government projects looming several hundred metres below - is strictly off limits, because it sends out all the wrong messages.

The impromptu photographer's briefing offers a glimpse of the savvy and single-mindedness of Cassani, an American mother of two who shot to prominence in the City by setting up British Airways' budget airline Go, before she was chosen to lead the capital's bid to stage the 2012 Olympic Games.

When the Government finally joined the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the Brit-ish Olympic Association in backing the bid three months ago, Cassani was penning her memoirs - having pocketed a reported £9.5m from the sale of Go - and was considered an also-ran in the race for the chairman's job.

But while the early favourite, Sir Christopher Meyer, declared himself fully occupied at the Press Complaints Commission and the television executive Charles Allen was similarly snowed under with the Granada merger, Cassani was working furiously behind the scenes to land the role with the help of consultants she used at BA.

In barely two months since taking the £150,000-a-year job, she has encountered criticism from naysayers, wondering why the bid lags behind arch rivals Paris and New York and questioning her decision to divide her time with a non-executive directorship of Marks & Spencer as of this week.

She suspects that much of the "flak" has come from among the 100 applicants she rejected - from quangocrats to specialist lawyers - during a successful drive to find a handful of executives who have just got their feet under the table at the bid company's still spartan offices on the 50th floor of the Canary Wharf tower.

In the first lengthy interview since taking the role, she said: "I had to close my head to the criticism and ask myself in a darkened room: 'Do I think that I have missed good people because I have been slow?' No, absolutely not. Do I think that people in the sporting world are among the most sensitive people I have ever met? Sure. It's been interesting, because in business when you don't hire someone they don't turn around and go 'Baagh!' to the press." However, she adds: "I'm used to taking the flak."

Cassani, 43, admits that in the early, lonely days she was anxious about meeting deadlines, and jokes that in the past two months she has aged considerably.

She may have a hotline to "the highest levels of Government", but will continue to make a virtue of the necessity of keeping ministers at arm's length, lest her project go the same way as Wembley Stadium, the Dome or the Picketts Lock fiasco.

Cassani says that the Government's abandonment in 2001 of the Picketts Lock bid for the 2005 World Athletics Championships - which would have involved building a 43,000-seater stadium on the north London site - for financial reasons, has caused most damage to the bid.

"One of the lessons (the Government) learned from the Dome is behind my appointment. They feel very strongly that it should be a business person who is known for being quite a 'toughie,' and had a background of financial success. I am an outsider, and if you want to avoid getting caught up in the mistakes of the past you bring in an outsider.

"If I ever thought for a moment that I was harming the bid, I would be out of here. Winning the Games for the city is the most important thing.

"I am not from Government. I don't know the right hats to wear. All those people with all those titles, it makes my head spin! What do they do?"

No such questions can be asked of around 40 staff working at desks clustered in the corner of the bid's office, which was until recently occupied by at least three times as many investment bankers.

Entries to the competition to design the "London 2012" logo are piled neatly on the floor, and one wall is covered in colour-coded stadium designs by HOK, the consortium responsible for planning the redevelopment of the Lower Lea Valley, clearly visible a few miles to the east.

Cassani believes London's late entry may prove an advantage at a seminar in Lausanne next week, when the International Olympic Com- mittee will present to the nine competing cities their wishlist for the 2012 Games.

"The whole thing is moving forward at a really systematic pace that means it is sort of a just-in-time bid. You produce as you need and our view is that the whole thing is coming together. There are no parts in this bid that were done 10 years ago, that we are dusting off and putting in."

Cassani hopes to sign up a professional sports club to pay the rent on an 80,000-capacity main stadium or else it will be designed to be partly dismantled after the Games.

Alexandra Palace, Olympia, the Dome and the Greenwich Observatory are all possible venues, while the future of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, a potential training site, remains a source of wrangling between the leaseholders, Sport England, and the local council.

The masterplan has to be submitted to the IOC in January and after that Cassani hopes to create a buzz about the bid to coincide with the Athens Games next summer.

Having been thrilled by a street party thrown by her neighbours in Barnes, south-west London, for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, she plans a cultural programme in the capital.

"We will be using all of the parks all over the city to create concerts and put huge screens up to watch various events."

Cassani has made big strides herself in a relatively short period. "Only 10 years ago, I was this bog standard business executive in the middle of a very big company. I always enjoyed new challenges, but I just got on with it. And just because I am an American, I can assure you that I didn't do this to become a Dame."