Olympic ringmaster tames football beast
Coe tackles another 'difficult issue' as he turns 50
Sunday 29 October 2006
There is no higher - nor more frequent - flyer in British sport than Lord Sebastian Coe, but he was brought down to earth with a bump when he turned up as guest of honour at last week's Boxing Writers' dinner.
As he walked through the lobby of London's Savoy Hotel he espied the former world middleweight champion Alan Minter, who was talking on his mobile phone. They exchanged nods, and Coe revealed later that as he passed by, he heard Minter say: "Hey, you'll never guess who's just walked in: that Steve Ovett!"
This has echoes of the famous occasion when, as plain Seb Coe, the lifelong Chelsea fan arrived at a Midlands ground where a ticket had been left in his name. When he presented himself at the VIP entrance he was told by a jobsworth he would have to go round to the other side of the stadium to get the ticket.
"Do I really have to?" he asked. "You must recognise me. I'm Sebastian Coe."
"In that case," came the sniffy reply, "it won't take you long to run round there, will it?"
Lord Pooh-Bah of the Olympics he may be - a recent survey declared he had the best job in British sport - but the London 2012 chairman, lauded from Downing Street to Docklands, retains a refreshing touch of self-deprecation. The double Olympic gold medallist seems to have found his niche in life, first in winning the Games, now in running them. He was 50 last month but says he finds little time for celebration.
He arrived at last week's boxing dinner from Zurich just in time for his speech - as a former Boxing Board of Control steward he follows the sport almost as avidly as he does football - having just chaired the first meeting of Fifa's new Ethics Committee, which he has been recruited to head with the approval of the IOC president, Jacques Rogge.
He spoke for the first time about this revolutionary role, which he insists will not eat into his day job with 2012. "We will meet only four or five times a year," he says. But does he really need the aggravation?
"It is something I wanted to do, because I feel very strongly about the governance of football and the morality around it. As a fan I sit among people who each week are spending a large proportion of their hard-earned disposable income on supporting their team. It is hard enough for them and their families to do that on a regular basis at a time when the governance of the game is anything but clear and transparent."
Does the new watchdog have any teeth in dealing with such issues as corruption, doping and racism? "Oh yes," he says. "We are a sanction-making body and we do not have to clear our findings with Sepp Blatter or anyone. We will deal with things like the conduct of cities bidding for future World Cups, the conduct of members of Fifa, and of agents if necessary. We can also look at domestic issues if, say, an organisation like the FA refer them to us should there be international ramifications.
"I do not see myself as a knight on a white charger crusading to clean up the game. If you look at my career you will know I have never dodged difficult issues. I am no figurehead to sit there and be supine, because for some people the game is at the point of becoming risible, and it is not just because of the public perception that footballers are overpaid."
Coe points out that 95 per cent of his working week is still involved with Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games), an operation that IOC chiefs say, at just under six years out, is the most advanced of any Games in history. "I am a full-time chairman, probably the first the IOC have ever worked with, and it is the only job I have ever had where I go to work and my kids know what I am doing.''
Last month Coe spoke at all three political party conferences about the London 2012 strategy. "In fact," he confided, to his fight-game audience, "I am the only Conservative to address the full Labour conference - apart from Tony Blair!" He was jesting, of course, as he is adamant that, though he is a Tory peer, his Olympic role is apolitical. He is on first-name terms not only with the Prime Minister but David Cameron, Sir Menzies Campbell and Gordon Brown. He has to be, in case of a change of leadership.
So is he satisfied that any new Olympic stewardship in Westminster would have no detrimental effect on the Games? "I have to be. All three political parties are committed totally to the Games, and the present Chancellor is very much behind them. We know from Sydney that political change does not need to derail the hard graft of delivering the Games."
But the build-up to any Games is historically beset with problems. Are there any alarm bells ringing? He says not, though fears have been raised recently, not least by the former Sport England chairman Lord Carter in this newspaper, about the Games' legacy outside of London.
"Well, what I will tell you is that I'm acutely conscious as someone born in London, brought up in Yorkshire and educated in the Midlands, that the Games cannot simply be seen as something that has no relevance outside London. It is absolutely vital that we leave a lasting nationwide legacy."
What for Lord Coe after 2012 is done and dusted? He rules out a return to politics, but what about heading up, eventually, the IAAF or even the IOC? He replies interestingly: "I don't rule out anything, but at the moment as far as international sports politics are concerned, I am focused on my work with London and also with the IAAF Council, for we have a lot of work to do in athletics, a sport which is at the crossroads for reasons that are all too apparent.
"If we don't get a grip on the drugs situation then parents will vote with their feet and kids will turn their back on sport. We must not lose our nerve in dealing with this. Better to sort it out in the short term than the embarrassment of a long-term trip down the tubes. We must not blink." Which is something Coe himself hardly has time to do.
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