Coe happy with his place on last lap

London's leader feels he is poised on Paris' shoulder at the right time. Alan Hubbard talks to him
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The Independent Online

It is exactly a year since Sebastian Coe picked up the baton dropped by Barbara Cassani and began his dash for the tape in Singapore. There are now 46 days left before the decisive vote which will determine the destination of the 2012 Olympic Games, and his lordship is counting every one of them.

Since becoming the bid's chairman he has been flying the flag and pressing the flesh everywhere from Australia to Albania, via Athens, probably amassing more air miles on the way than the man who invented them, his chief executive, Keith Mills. Now there is just one more staging post on the road to Singapore, yet another on the A-list: Accra, in Ghana. And, as in his running days, he barely pauses to take a breath.

We caught up with him last week in Estoril, Portugal, where he was a member of the panel which decided the Laureus Sports Awards. There was not an International Olympic Committee member within earshot, but that did not stop him from pointing out that the winning double of Kelly Holmes and Ellen MacArthur, world sportswoman and world alternative sportsperson of the year respectively, did London's prospects no harm at all.

What might have done, though, according to many observers, is the recent affair of the incentives package which was widely interpreted as bordering on brown envelopes. While accepting full responsibility for the controversial "charters" presented in Berlin, which offered deals to national Olympic committees worth £15m for, among other inducements, free flights and accommodation, he insists it was neither folly nor faux pas, and the notion that it was designed to "buy votes" was ridiculous.

"I do not think we did anything wrong," Coe says, "but once the president of the IOC decided that he perceived them leading to a bidding war then the politician in me told me to take them off the table. But some of those pledges are in our bid book and could still be implemented.

"I withdrew them because you don't pick a fight with the returning officer three-and-a-half months out from an election. But everyone knows my emotional attachment is to making sure the athletes are not just talked about in warm words which are forgotten six months later. The free airline tickets, which everyone seemed to focus on, have been in the host- city contracts since Sydney, and what I did to try to improve [them] was to make it a full, flexible economy ticket, without being rerouted through 24 different time zones to arrive and compete in not the best condition.

"You've only got to read the athletes' report to the British Olympic Association to know that most Olympic competitors are on a hand-to-mouth existence. I was once chairman of the athletes' commission, and I am surprised that anyone should have thought that any of the offers we made were alien to anything I have ever spoken about."

Subsequently, there has been a suggestion that London made these offers knowing they would be blocked by Jacques Rogge, which in turn would cause some IOC members representing Third World nations in need of such help to turn against him and give their support to London. Coe laughs. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that this was some sort of Machiavellian strategy. I signed them off because they were everything I believed the Olympics should be about, and if the president was uncomfortable with them, that's fine. Any other interpretation is of no concern to me; I want people to know this bid is about sport, and the most important aspect that any organisation in sport has is its competitors."

Despite London's rise in the ratings since he took over, the past few months have not been the smoothest of passages for Coe. One of the latest apparent blips was the positive drug test on Mark Lewis-Francis, which, it was claimed, could damage the bid, for which the athlete is an ambassador. Coe dismisses this. "Every campaign will have its wobbly Thursday, but when you wake up the next day the world looks very different. IOC members know there is no country that is inviolate from these drugs issues. Sadly, it is the world of modern sport. People see beyond that. They don't say that Lewis-Francis has derailed a London Olympic bid, because they know he hasn't. I just hope Mark reflects on this for his own good. But the one thing I will tell him is that cannabis won't make him run quicker - I'm not speaking from personal experience, let me hasten to add!"

A key date in Coe's calendar is Monday 6 June, when the IOC Evaluation Commission, headed by his good friend Nawal el Moutawakel, publish their technical assessment after the five-city inspection visits. The word is that London could emerge on top. So why are Paris still perceived as favourites? "I don't know," says Coe. "You'll have to ask them. I won't speak about other people's bids, but I think we are very strong on sporting legacy, regeneration and deliverability."

With Paris sufficiently emboldened to host a lunch for the British media in the heart of London this week, Coe comes into the last lap on the shoulder of a front- runner, not for the first time in his life. "Well, if that is the position, then I am very relaxed, because I tend to know what the outcome is," he says. "I think the dynamics of our campaign have been right. Whatever happens, British sport will be left in a far healthier position."

Coe, as a boxing buff, can take heart from the victory of Amir Khan over Mario Kindelan. Upsets can happen if you work hard enough, and no one can question his industry and commitment to London's cause. "As I said when I took over, in the end it could come down to getting the IOC to believe in us. To trust us. I am convinced that we will be able to go to them in Singapore, look them straight in the eye and say, 'We can deliver'. And I honestly believe we will."