'If this is the price of safety, then it is one worth paying'

The Interview - Simon Clegg: The news from Athens has not been good, but the man behind Britain's team is still a believer. Alan Hubbard hears his reasons to be cheerful
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The Independent Online

The bombs had just gone off in Athens and Simon Clegg found himself besieged by thrusting microphones and expectant notebooks. "So, are you going to withdraw the British team?" was the chorused question at London's City Hall. "Absolutely not," he replied. "Our plans are in place to deliver a full team to the Games and nothing that has happened today has changed that."

The bombs had just gone off in Athens and Simon Clegg found himself besieged by thrusting microphones and expectant notebooks. "So, are you going to withdraw the British team?" was the chorused question at London's City Hall. "Absolutely not," he replied. "Our plans are in place to deliver a full team to the Games and nothing that has happened today has changed that."

As chief executive of the British Olympic Association and chef de mission of Team GB, the 44-year-old Clegg is charged with the responsibility for the wellbeing and, crucially in these troubled times, the safety of 292 athletes in a score of sports. The buck stops with him.

But he remains steadfastly upbeat about both arrangements for the team's security and the ability of the Greeks to get to the starting tape on time and intact on 13 August to stage what he predicts will be "a stunning Games". He returned from Athens on Monday after an inspection visit 48 hours before the triple explosion outside a police station in the Greek capital rocked the confidence of a world already dismayed by reports of construction delays, including one showpiece roof abandoned and another unfinished. But he is confident Greece will deliver in all respects.

"I have said consistently that we expect to take a full team to the Games. Obviously we are disappointed and concerned by the bomb explosions, which seem to be a domestic rather than international issue and nowhere near Olympic facilities. But these will concentrate people's minds even more on security, and I believe the arrangements we have put in place for the British team, which have been planned in considerable detail over the past five years, are appropriate to provide a secure environment for our athletes. And that is our primary concern."

Not unexpectedly, the Americans are openly fretting about the security of their own team, and Australian Olympic chiefs said two jets would be on standby to fly their athletes out in the event of a terrorist raid. They also hinted they would hire their own armed guards to supplement those provided by the Greek security forces.

Clegg declines to be anywhere near as dramatic, or specific. To do so, he said, would compromise the plans already in place. The Greek authorities have promised round-the-clock armed escorts for the British athletes, who have been placed in the highest of the three risk categories, whenever they leave the Olympic Village, even on shopping expeditions.

All Clegg would say was: "We have been working with various authorities in Greece and the UK to provide the right level of support for the British team. What happened on Wednesday morning has not changed our plans, or our thinking. I can assure you we have not had a single telephone call from athletes about the situation. We have kept all the team managers up to speed on all aspects of the operation, particularly security. They are all very comfortable with the arrangements."

So do we have the intimidating prospect of Fortress Athens, with security so stifling it diminishes what the Games are supposed to be about? "I hope not. I still believe the Games need to be open, so that competitors and spectators can enjoy the Olympics being back in their birthplace. But the situation has changed, and the Games have to reflect that. If this is the price that has to be paid to provide a secure environment then it is one worth paying."

It was hardly coincidental that the Athens blasts, now believed to be the work of sympathisers of members of the leftwing revolutionary group ELA currently standing trial, came exactly 100 days before the Games are due to begin. But as a former military man - the Sandhurst-trained ex-para Clegg was one of the youngest majors in the British Army, at 29 - he knows you cannot capitulate to terrorists.

Athens will be the fourth Olympics at which he has been Team GB's chef de mission, following Sydney and the Winter Games in Nagano and Salt Lake City. "This will be the 10th Olympic Village I have lived in and I have always said it had the potential to be the best. From what I saw last week it is absolutely fantastic, quite stunning.

"The Greeks have received some negative publicity, but there are many positives about these Games. Apart from the Village, some of the venues are really first-class. When our sailing-team manager came back from the test event last year he said they could have organised the Games proper there and then. And our canoe-slalom team manager reckons this is the best canoe course in the world. Yes, they are behind, but the difference over the last six weeks has been significant. Sprint finishes are always the case with the Olympic Games. I remember arriving in Atlanta and they were still painting the grass green in the village.

"I believe they will deliver the Games in a very Greek way that is absolutely right and fitting for them. Just because they do things differently to the way we do them here doesn't mean they've got it wrong. That's not to say Athens won't be without its problems. But every Games presents different challenges. Remember Salt Lake took place only five months after 9/11. If there are any deficiencies I am sure we can adapt and amend our plans accordingly."

Security, said Clegg, has always been the top priority for Athens, ahead of performance. But results will be critical, too, if the feel-good factor after Sydney is to be relived. "We have the potential to do as well [11 golds, 10th in the medals table, the best results for 80 years] but whether we will is another matter. We still have to assess fully our gold-medal potential, but I believe we can deliver a number that the country can be proud of. One of the most encouraging things is the diverse number of sports where we can expect a medal."

But what happens should Team GB not deliver? A media backlash and reduced funding for underachieving sports? "I don't believe that will be the case. It will be up to us to defend our results."

As a board member of the London 2012 Olympic bid, which the BOA instigated, Clegg is also aware of the value of medals in Athens. "We need to continue demonstrating to the IOC that we are serious about Olympic sport, and the best way to do that is to deliver results at the Games."

Despite the inherent hassles and headaches, Clegg reckons he has one of the best jobs in British sport, and has assembled a strong and efficient team around him. Under his seven-year stewardship, and the experienced chairmanship of IOC member Craig Reedie, the BOA have modernised, professionalised, fully embraced commercialism and emerged as the most forward-thinking of the umbrella bodies governing sport. Even the Government acknowledge how well they are run, and with the perturbing degree of cap-doffing to Westminster now shown by the two principal sports quangos, it is refreshing that the BOA maintain their financial and political independence, receiving not a penny from Exchequer or Lottery coffers.

Some £16m has to be raised every year to fund the Games preparations. "Fortunately we have managed to create some brand value with the GB team," Clegg said. "It is no longer just about taking athletes to the Games and maximising the commercial opportunities over 17 days of competition, but about exposure for sponsors over the four-year period.".

The BOA have also taken a firm stand on the drugs issue, and for some time, together with a number of major sports, have supported the idea of an independent anti-doping agency. "Is it right to have the agency funding sport [UK Sport] also carrying out the anti-doping programme?" asked Clegg. "How is that perceived by individual athletes regarding a conflict of interest?"

Clegg is "absolutely adamant" that the BOA will retain life bans from the Olympics for competitors found guilty of drugs offences. "As the national Olympic committee responsible for 35 sports federations we have to provide some leader-ship on this. We have never shied away from taking a hard line in the past, nor will we do so in the future."

These are hectic times for Clegg. Following visits to Beijing and Athens, he presided over Wednesday's City Hall announcement of runners for the London leg of the Olympic Torch Relay on 26 June, and later a House of Commons launch of a scheme by Blue Arrow, one of the BOA's prime sponsors, to find another sort of security for Olympic athletes - employment after the Games. On Thursday he flew to Belgrade on more Olympic business, and soon it will be back to Athens again on another recce with team leaders.

Security is his priority; sanguinity his travelling companion. "The Olympic blood flows deep in the veins of all Greeks, and I know they will do everything in their power to showcase Greece to the world. These will be a great Games, a safe Games, hopefully for ourselves and the Greeks." And I swear his fingers weren't crossed.


Born: 11 August 1959.

Educated: Stowe School and RMA, Sandhurst. Trained as quantity surveyor.

Family: Married to Hilary, two children, Lucy and Toby. Lives Farnham, Surrey.

Military career: Joined Army 1980 as a private. Left as a major 1988. Member of UK's rapid reaction parachute force.

Sporting career: Biathlete and cross- country skier 1981-84. Manager of national biathlon team 1984-85.

Olympic career: Joined BOA as deputy general secretary 1989. Chief Executive European Youth Olympics 1994-95. Chief executive BOA since 1997. Chef de mission in Nagano, Sydney and Salt Lake City. Awarded OBE after Sydney 2000.