Coe kindles the dream of a new Olympian age
Thursday 07 July 2005
He delivered the 2012 Olympics to London not as a triumph of planning and any surefire certainties but a reach of the spirit, the kindling of a dream. It was the dream that he sold against all the odds - Paris were still 3-1 on favourites yesterday morning despite the brilliance of Coe's onslaught - to one of the most cynical organisations in any corner of the world, let alone sport: the International Olympic Committee.
He conjured the idea that London's bid was about youth and hope, a regeneration of priorities, and he did it with such immense style and nerve that, if the leaders and the people of Britain and London can meet the challenge he has set them, could result in a legacy of the ages.
The legacy might just be that a land which down the years has produced a brilliant array of great Olympians, finally becomes a place which truly understands the degree of the sacrifices and the extent of the achievements of such as Coe and the epic rowers Sir Steven Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent, key players in the London bid. That this has never been truly the case was, for some, the great weakness of the London campaign, but in that void of belief Coe ran the most inspired race of his life.
He sold, more compellingly to the rulers of Olympic sport than perhaps anyone else, the possibility that the 30th Olympiad might just inspire a great city, a nation and perhaps even the wider world to see sport in a new and brilliant light, as a vital part of society rather than an occasional diversion and celebration.
The concept accepted by the IOC in Singapore was that if the runaway favourites, Paris, had a superior sports infrastructure - more Olympic-standard facilities for young people in the city, for example, than in all of Britain - London had a clearer idea of what victory in the voting might mean to both the wastelands of the East End and the horizons of young people. London, cheekily but vitally, talked not so much of the reclaiming of east London but the entire and much-discredited Olympic movement. Coe said, with passionate conviction: "Let us show the world what you can do for us - and what we can do for you."
Stunningly at 12.46pm yesterday, Jacques Rogge, the Belgian lawyer who succeeded Juan Antonio Samaranch Snr as president of the IOC when the ageing Spaniard had been made a lame duck by the corruption scandal following the award of the winter Olympics to Salt Lake City, announced that Coe's strategy was the winner. Celebrations in Trafalgar Square, led by Dame Kelly Holmes, a double gold-winner in Athens last summer, were ecstatic. In front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris the band stood down, the Parisians wept and it started to rain.
The French, who were scuttled when votes cast for third- placed Madrid - first Moscow, then New York had been eliminated earlier - went en masse to their remaining rivals, had sneered that the London bid was built on computerised virtual reality wizardry, a heavy play on historic landmarks like Horse Guards Parade and Wimbledon hosting beach volleyball and tennis, and slick salesmanship. London were the ace sales team, they said, but Paris had the goods. Substantially, they were right but they omitted from the equation the poetic vision of the man who ran for gold in Moscow and Los Angeles and, by way of an encore, turned London into a potential springboard for a new age of sport as a cornerstone in the lives of ordinary people.
It is impossible to minimise the extent of Coe's achievement after the London campaign - deeply scarred by a highly critical early report from the IOC evaluation committee - appeared to be melting down under the uncertain command of Barbara Cassani, an American of no sporting background and notable chiefly for her flair for selling cheap airline tickets.
Coe not only got the grounded campaign to fly but also to soar. He did it despite his private admission that he could never remove all of the impedimenta. He couldn't claim that London and Britain didn't have a shocking record in the provision of sports facilities - way behind European nations of similar size like France, Germany and Italy.
He couldn't obscure the fact that while Paris had been the brilliant centrepiece of a superbly organised 1998 football World Cup - a sports event second in global importance only to the Olympics - and credit-worthy hosts of the world track and field championships, the honour of holding the latter event was withdrawn from Britain because of the collapse of government aid to the doomed Pickett's Lock stadium in another faded corner of London.
He could hardly dispute the scale of the Wembley Stadium fiasco - or that the relentless decline of physical eduction in British schools had sent the nation's youth charging up the world's obesity league table. He had other problems, not least widespread doubts about London's ability to move Olympic traffic without causing fresh chaos on the streets of the capital.
So what could he do? He could impose his dream and he could flood the argument with the weight of London's meaning to the world. He could relentlessly parade the great Olympians, Redgrave, Pinsent, and then, at the vital moment yesterday, place at the heart of the winning presentation the more readily assimilated charm of the beautiful gold medallist Denise Lewis. And all the time Coe could sell his dream and press the Olympic flesh, however jaded, however immersed in the old culture of deal-making and preferment. At high noon yesterday it was clear that Coe had won every phase of the engagement. He had outpoliticked Paris to an extraordinary degree, and, if you read between the lines closely enough, you might have picked up a tacit admission of this from Pinsent. He was asked how winning gold medals compared to winning the Olympics for London and he said that of course there could be no comparison. You couldn't compare sport with the "politics and diplomacy of sport". One was about a surge of the blood. The other was about a careful and maybe inspired presentation of your case.
Across London and across the country you could see that Coe's victory both out in the open and in the corridors of Olympic politics had had a similar effect on many millions of Britons.
The reckoning, of course, will come in seven years. In the intervening time London will be put under the most piercing of examinations. It has been the fate of every winning city. In Montreal in 1976 the city's floundering attempts to come in on time and budget (the roof of the Olympic stadium was never completed) - and negotiate both with trade unions and, it was said, the mafia - threatened the future of the Games. Atlanta in 1996 was a cheap bazaar, killed by a grubby descent into the most crass of commercialism. Greece delivered a triumph of sorts last year after running a gauntlet of doubt, but many Greeks say the cost was violently excessive.
For a working model, London is best advised to follow the example of Sydney, a triumph of hope and faith over drug scandal and cynicism. Sydneyites made the Olympics, as perhaps Londoners might in 2012. But then Australia did it from the breezy confidence of being, pound for pound, the most successful and committed sports nation on earth.
The challenge facing London is much greater. A whole new infrastructure has to be created. A culture of commitment beyond the exceptionally motivated elite sportsmen has to grow virtually overnight. The claims of the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, that, from now on, sport will be an integral part of government policy is welcome but still needs to be tested in the heat of performance rather than promise.
None of this, however, needs to dissipate the wonder of the mood that overtook London and the country yesterday. It said Britain did indeed have a place in the front rank of the world's affairs. Perhaps, it is at least nice to think, some of the IOC voters remembered their history - and how it was, when a world exhausted by war needed a host of the Olympics to remind everyone that life was being resumed properly. Ration-book Britain responded with the 1948 London Olympics. They weren't so glamorous, but then how could they be? They were pre-fabricated, cut-price Games but they brought the Olympics back to life.
Now, with infinite skill and a touch of that poetry of mind and action that registered so unforgettably all those years ago in Los Angeles, Lord Coe has made a wider promise, but one that at its heart is maybe quite similar. It has brought, for some of us, an unlikely challenge. But it is no less dazzling for that.
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