Don't go treading on Coe's toes - or he might run away

High-level wranglings over the way the Games should be organised might even lead to loss of the man lauded for bringing them to London
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The Independent Online

Lauded, applauded and newly knighted, Sebastian Coe's New Year resolution is to make London's Olympics the greatest ever. We know that when it comes to winning races, no one does it better. But will the world's supreme middle-distance runner still be there at the finish of the 2012 marathon?

He promises he will, and for the Games' sake we must hope he is as good as his word. But the politicians and their pushy Sir Humphreys would be wise not to test his staying power.

It is not just the worrying wobbles over Wembley that are causing eyebrows to be arched, albeit surely prematurely, at International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne. It is the escalating rumours of developing tensions between Lord Coe's team and Whitehall over the way the Games should be organised.

It is not so much ministers but meddling mandarins who are said to be "getting up the noses" of some Locog (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) board members with unnecessary interference. Coe is known to be irritated by what has been described as a "supercilious" attitude of at least one senior bureaucrat, and it would be no surprise if there was some ear-bending soon in high places. "Cocky, arrogant and full of himself - the wrong kind of person for the Olympics," is how a former minister paints the mandarin.

An early blueprint for 2012 drawn up by officials at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport was apparently dismissed as "bollocks" by London's mayor, Ken Livingstone. "There is only one man who will run these Games," he is reported to have said, "and that is Sebastian Coe."

Of course, it is not a one-man show. But Coe is the indispensable orchestrator and the Games cannot afford to lose him. It may seem inconceivable, but I believe they might if the infighting becomes an unseemly political war.

As a national hero, Coe is not short of options, including eventually running for the presidency of the IOC (even vanquished Paris say they would support him) or even lining up against his new best friend Livingstone for the post of mayor of London. That is why the Government should keep Seb sweet.

With six-and-a-half years to go, London is already well ahead of the Games - perhaps more than any past host city - thanks to both Coe's team and the Government hitting the ground running after the Singapore vote on 6 July. Yet I wrote before the vote that if London won, there would be those in Westminster and Whitehall who would be holding their heads in their hands and muttering: "Oh my God, what have we let ourselves in for?" It seems this may have come to pass, and that Chancellor Gordon Brown is one of them.

Coe's deputy, the estimable and also knighted Sir Keith Mills, an experienced yachtsman, will testify as Locog move into their new permanent headquarters in London's Docklands tomorrow that there are stormy waters to be navigated between now and 2012. When it comes to organising an Olympics, there is no such thing as plain sailing.

London 2012 seems to be torn between two squabbles: which Government department is responsible for the Games, and the spat between Brown and the British Olympic Association, whose election as chairman of Lord Colin Moynihan, a former Tory sports minister, the Government desperately attempted to thwart, as revealed by this newspaper.

Hugh Robertson, the opposition spokesman for sport and the Olympics, told The Independent on Sunday: "The Government is clearly paranoid about Tory links to 2012. It is an open secret that there are huge tensions in Government about where res-ponsibility for the Olympics lies and who should be running things. There are also clearly tensions between Richard Caborn [Sports Minister] and Tessa Jowell [Olympics Minister], which is symptomatic of the pressures that are there at the moment.

"Since last July, Government ministers have been fighting like ferrets in a sack over who controls the Olympics. They should stop picking fights with the BOA, and get on in a cross-party fashion and deliver this wonderful opportunity for the nation."

Jowell's ill-conceived suggestion that only those who have podium prospects in 2012 should receive Government funding did not help, alarming huge elements in sport, as did the Chancellor's failure to cough up the £350 million funding package requested by both the BOA and UK Sport. It is believed this will eventually be delivered, but was delayed to show Moynihan who was boss. "A piece of political spite," said one senior sports figure.

Surely not? But Brown playing Scrooge at Christmas could prove costly in terms of early preparation and there was disappointment that Jowell, who did such a decent job in getting the Government to back the bid, was not similarly persuasive in making Brown back those who will take part. While cosying up to her putative boss, has the head Blair babe taken her eye off the Olympic ball and let her civil servants do their Bruce Forsyth impression?

So who really is in charge? A meeting to be chaired by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, this month will look at restructuring the way the Games are overseen in Whitehall. Jowell is concerned that responsibility will be moved from her DCMS, where it sits uneasily, to the Deputy Prime Minister's office, where there is more financial clout. If so, she would want to move with it.

Coe has maintained an excellent rapport with Westminster and will hope this can be retained when Brown takes over from Tony Blair, of whom Coe says: "We may have been political adversaries but no one has greater admiration than me for the support he gave the bid, and his magnificent efforts in Singapore."

The danger is that parsimonious Brown, having already hitched his wagon to a potentially less expensive football World Cup bid, may consider the cost of the Games outweighs any advantages and insist on a more austere Olympics than either Coe or the IOC envisage.

Like Coe's own appointment of multimillionaire banker Paul Deighton as Locog's chief executive, the impending hiring of a director of programme support for the Olympic board by the DCMS is critical. Part of the brief is "maintaining an overview of the Olympic Games". Whoever gets the six-figure job should beware of treading on his lordship's toes. For the one certainty is that 2012 cannot afford to be a no Coe area.