Sebastian Coe begins work tomorrow on recharging the batteries for London's 2012 Olympics bid. It will be his first full day in the chair vacated after 11 months by the American Barbara Cassani, and when he opens his hastily rescheduled diary it will reveal, he says, the greatest challenge he has ever had - on or off the track.
"I simply do not accept that this is now a lost cause, a race we cannot win," he said. "That's balls. We're still in this with one hell of a shout. It's going to be tough, bloody tough. I'm under no illusion about that. But we will get there."
The breathtaking pyrotechnics that lit up the Thames at the end of the riverboat party to celebrate, a tad too vain-gloriously for comfort, London's inclusion as a shortlisted candidate city for the 2012 Olympics alongside Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow, were followed by a distinctly damp squib when it was realised that the International Olympic Committee's initial audit of the capital's prospects was actually quite damning. The real fireworks were to follow the next morning, with the announcement of the top-job swap.
Some of us were not surprised. Just under a year ago we reported how Madrid, now ranked well ahead of London and just behind Paris, had attempted to poach Coe to lead their own bid. He declined, because he felt it would be an act of disloyalty, even though at the time he appeared to have been snubbed by those assembling the London team. We also reported the comment of one IOC member, who said: "London has got it wrong. Surely Sebastian Coe should be heading up the bid?"
Well, London 2012 may have finally righted the wrong. And, it is to be hoped, not too late for the double Olympic champion to win what could be the toughest race of life.
Cassani's reasons for stepping down are valid enough, but there is more to it than meets the London Eye. Had she not gone quietly she surely would have been pushed by the end of the summer, for there was a growing feeling that she was becoming a liability, alongside London's wretched transport system. It is to Cassani's credit that she had already recognised she was a square peg in the Olympic rings.
I have believed for some time that it would not be Cassani but Coe who would stand on the podium in Singapore next July to deliver the final argument in the case for London. Before last week's decision we reported how Cassani was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of an IOC unconvinced of her credibility as a bid leader, and how Coe was already filling that void. With anti-US sentiment mounting, she wisely decided it was time to go.
It has enabled boxing aficionado Coe, "Lord of the Rings" as the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, termed him, to come out fighting. "Let's be pragmatic about this. We are one of five major cities sitting at the table with everything to play for. We could have been Rio, out on our ears. OK, so we are lying third behind Paris and Madrid. But I've been in this position before and gone on to win. I always relished a sprint finish, and this is a race that could be decided over the last 40 metres. In the end it could come down to getting the IOC to believe in us, to like us and to trust us. I am convinced that we will be able to go to them in 14 months' time, look them straight in the eye and say, 'We can deliver'.
"Spin alone is not going to get us through this. Substance will. Yes, we are behind and that did not really come as a shock to me. But since that report was submitted in January things have moved on. We know what we have to do, particularly in terms of transportation, but nothing is going to be glossed over. What needs to be done will be done. The Government have already agreed to spend £17 million on Greater London transport for the next seven years. This is the greatest opportunity we have ever had to revamp our transport system.
"We were also criticised because it was suggested public opinion was not sufficiently behind us. Well, part of my job will be to ensure that there is some passion in the bid. The message will be delivered."
Might this involve team changes? "It's early days to think about that yet. But we will do what we need to do. All I will say is that there won't be anybody out there who might be able to nudge this bid in the right direction who won't be spoken to. I want people of the right calibre working flat out for this bid, people who are serious, imaginative, human and who can deliver."
Coe insists his appointment has nothing to do with damage limitation, or is even a wake-up call. "Nothing I saw in that IOC report fazes me. I know from past experience not to get overexcited by the best or depressed by the worst. We'll get it right, that's a promise."
While Cassani takes a back seat, she still has much to offer with her business expertise. She had assembled a highly professional team but remained a babe in the wood of Olympic politics. It is an inescapable fact that the IOC voters are more likely to be impressed by a Lord than a lady, especially one with a Bostonian twang.
Poisoned chalice it may be, but with Coe in the driving seat London's bid will have more impetus. And because of his Olympian status there is less chance of the unthinkable, that it could suffer the ignominy of being jocked off in a year's time when the IOC next meet to consider whether to make a shortlist of five even shorter.
President Rogge's mood in Lausanne last week suggests he is ready to be ruthless. "I really do not see that as a possibility," Coe said. "But from now on nothing will be taken for granted."Reuse content