'Education then litigation': Lord Coe will follow Fifa's example to protect Olympic sponsors

With two years to go until the Games, the head of its organising committee explains his priorities to Robin Scott-Elliot
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The Independent Online

The Olympic rings are the most recognised logo in sport, and one of the most zealously protected. When the Games arrive in London in two years' time, the organisers are determined to "fearlessly defend" their sponsors – who have paid millions of pounds to attach their name to the event – from the ambush-marketing attempts that football's World Cup witnessed in South Africa earlier this month.

Such marketing is one of the most sensitive issues surrounding flagship sporting tournaments, and Fifa and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expect it to be uppermost in the minds of organising committees. While construction of the Olympics site in east London is publicly funded, the £2bn to run the Games themselves will be raised through sponsorship, ticket sales and merchandising. In these straitened times, the sponsors demand their money's worth and Lord Coe, the chair of Locog, the London 2012 organising committee, has warned Locog will do everything to protect those backers and will crack down on any orchestrated ambush attempts.

"The approach has been to educate before you litigate," Lord Coe says. "By the time we get to the Games, we will effectively have £1.5bn in sponsorship sitting around the table. Without that, we don't have a Games. It is always about proportionality, but we will fearlessly defend our major partners who are making all this happen."

At the World Cup in South Africa, Fifa brought more than 400 cases against companies and individuals under specially introduced by-laws against ambush marketing. In the UK, the Government can place further limits to those already on the statute book under the Olympic Symbol etc (Protection) Act 1995. "You also have to have a clear understanding that some people will do something at a much lower level and have no idea that they were transgressing the Act protecting the Olympic rings," says Lord Coe. "We need to protect, but on the other hand, if five Melton Mowbray pork pies turn up in the formation of the Olympic rings you can explain rather than send people knocking on doors."

On Tuesday it will be exactly two years until the opening night in London, and the organisers and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), the body charged with building the site in Stratford, are in better shape than any Olympics of recent times. Locog has not struggled to attract sponsors as some had feared and the ODA is on course to complete the build ahead of time and within the £9.3bn budget.

But Lord Coe is well aware that the perception of vast amounts of money being spent on a corner of London when the Government is preparing to instigate sweeping cuts across the nation is one that his team will have to battle against all over again.

Like millions of others, Lord Coe treks across the capital on public transport each day to reach Locog's offices in Canary Wharf, with its panoramic views over the rapidly developing site. The main stadium is up; the shimmering, curved roof of the aquatics centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, stands out. Behind it the patterned, padded looking white walls of the basketball arena are the latest eye-catching adornment.

"You walk out of the lift each morning and it's a constant reminder," he says, now seated in his office, a modest glass box on the 23rd floor of one of the outer towers that ring the Wharf. He has been in the public eye for more than three decades now – last Monday marked the 30th anniversary of his first Olympics in Moscow. People regularly approach him en route to work to talk about the Games. Most, he says, are positive, but whether that continues as the cuts intensify remains to be seen. The perception that the public is paying to build a handball court in east London while their child's school forgoes badly needed upgrading is a difficult one to combat.

It is an argument Lord Coe and his team believed they had won two years ago but are re-arming themselves to fight once more. "We are probably going to be back in the territory where we are making the same sort of value-for-money arguments that we thought were two years behind us," he says. "We probably have to recognise that the landscape has altered in the last two years. The economy hasn't altered very much – on balance it is marginally better than it was a year ago – but the response to that has of course altered and next year will, I suspect, be a very tough year for many people." Locog and the ODA know their attack (or is it defence?) lines: legacy, funding and delivery. What is much less predictable is how the outside world – beyond the meticulously planned environment of Locog and the ODA – will stand up to the unique strains of an Olympic Games. Transport is the big unknown. But whatever happens, a degree of disruption is certain.

"We have to be very open with Londoners about the nature of the Games," explains Lord Coe. "We have to be very clear here, this is not business as usual. This is an Olympic Games coming to the greatest city on the planet. Yes there will be some disruptions and I don't think we should be sitting here pretending there won't."

The priority will be the competitors and the swirl of accompanying officials and media. If the transport system that he describes as "pretty bloody good" fails, then the damage done to the capital will, he claims, be far-reaching. The Olympics veteran cites the Atlanta Games in 1996 which were beset by transport problems – Steve Redgrave nearly missed his race, and gold number four of five, as a result. It left the city's international reputation in tatters. This is particularly relevant to the London Games as they will attract an estimated global television audience of five billion viewers.

"If we don't get it right, the reputational damage for this city going forward is profound," suggests Lord Coe. "It's so important to have a Games that works. It is not a position that anybody, particularly the Mayor, wants to be in when we're surveying the reputational damage of not being able to do this at the biggest global moment in our living memory. We have to get this right." It is London's misfortune to follow Beijing, particularly at a moment of global belt-tightening.

From the construction to the spectacular opening ceremony, the organisers of the last Games were seemingly able to solve any problem by throwing huge sums of money. It is estimated the budget was more than £20bn. The sight of empty stadiums is one that every organiser fears. Swathes of unoccupied seats were the main issue for an otherwise impressively run World Cup in South Africa. But it is not only a question of filling the seats, it is also a matter of who sits in them.

"I want full venues and I want people to look like they want to be in that venue," says Lord Coe. "It drives me to distraction when I'm sitting in the Shed End at Stamford Bridge [he is a Chelsea fan] and people are walking back to their corporate boxes 20 minutes into the game. It grates."

He refuses to be drawn into any explicit criticism of previous Games – that is very definitely not the done thing in Olympic circles – nor of the sight of the "rent-a-fans" dispatched by China in support of North Korea at the World Cup. The presence of corporate ticket-holders is a necessary evil at any sporting event that relies so heavily on sponsorship, especially at the blue-ribband events, such as Usain Bolt in the 100m sprint final or a finals night in the pool with Michael Phelps. But Lord Coe believes London's ticketing plans will offer a genuine chance for fans to get to events.

There has already been intense interest in tickets with around 1.4 million people having registered. Tickets will be distributed – with prices to be announced this autumn – via a public ballot and Lord Coe promises 75 per cent of them will be available that way. Another 16 per cent will be sold to fans across the world through local Olympics bodies, and 9 per cent will be split between corporate hospitality, broadcasters and the IOC. The remaining 1 per cent of the 10 million tickets to the Games and the Paralympics will go to "prestige hospitality". The schedule is still being finalised but one of the key aims is to have shorter – and therefore more – sessions, as well as Wimbledon-style handovers where departing spectators can pass on their tickets.

Lord Coe ran in two Olympics, winning a gold and silver both in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. It was his impassioned delivery of London's bid in Singapore five years ago that did so much to edge the capital ahead of Paris by 54 votes to 50. The Olympics is an event that matters deeply to him and, for all its commercialism and political and financial baggage, the 53-year-old remains a believer. In fact it's more than that: he is a preacher.

"It does make a difference," he says. "The Olympics has a great opportunity to do something off the back of the last two years [the recession]. There are of course economic reasons as to why we are where we are, but in part because a lot of people did things with very narrow, aggressive, individualistic ends and they were the absolute antithesis of Olympic values and spirit, of most sporting values. The movement has a real opportunity to try and recalibrate some of those values, the friendship, respect, courage, determination, equality. There is a real moment here for sport and the Olympic movement."

He pauses and grins. "I never let a good crisis go to waste."

The east London venue takes shape

Broadcast Centre

One of the more problematic areas, with doubt still surrounding the viability of its future use. Once completed, it will house 20,000 journalists and broadcasters, feeding them around the clock at its 24-hour restaurant.

Hockey Stadium

One of the temporary venues – at the end of the Games, it will be shifted to the north of the park to form a cluster of reduced venues at Eton Manor. For the Games, this will be a 15,000-capacity arena with a 5,000-seater alongside.


Cycling has been Britain's most successful event in recent Games. Demand for the 6,000 seats will be high. The velodrome should be completed before next year's test events. A temporary 6,000-seater BMX venue is being built next door.

Basketball Arena

A striking sight with 20,000 square metres of padded fabric stretched around the 12,000-seat arena. Being built by a Glasgow-based firm which will dismantle it after the Games for re-use elsewhere. Will also host the handball final.

Main entrance

A sweeping 250-metre long, 45-metre wide land bridge will offer the main pedestrian access point to the Olympic Park from Stratford Station. It will cross the northern end of the Aquatic Centre and form the roof of the warm-up pool.

Stratford Station

Transport is one of the key issues and £100m has been spent upgrading the station which is set to handle most of the 900,000-plus spectators. King's Cross, and its links to the north of the country, is now just seven minutes away.

The Energy Centre

Plans to build a 130m wind turbine have been scrapped, leaving this as the green centrepiece of the park. It will provide power during the Games, using woodchip-fuelled biomass boilers and a natural gas-run power plant.

The Olympic Stadium

The roof that will cover two-thirds of the 80,000 spectators is now finished. The stadium itself will be ready next summer, and on Tuesday Michael Johnson will become the first man to run in it, in an event to mark the two-year countdown.

Otter holts

The waterways that criss-cross the park have been cleaned up and two artificial otter holts have been constructed, as well as nesting banks for kingfishers. After the Games, parts of the nothern half will become a wetland habitat.

The Village

From a distance, it may resemble a dour Soviet-era housing scheme, but a state-of-the-art facility for 17,000 athletes is promised, with shops and restaurants included. After the Games, it will become 2,800 new homes.

Arcelor Mittal Orbit

The 377ft-tall, ruby-coloured steel monstrosity/iconic structure (delete according to preference) will tower over the site for decades. Designed by the Turner Prize winner, Anish Kapoor, and dubbed the "Hubble-Bubble Tower" by Boris Johnson.

Aquatics Centre

The signature piece of the Park. The Zaha Hadid-designed roof covers two 50m pools and a diving pool. All three have been filled and tested, with no leaks reported. They are now being tiled and will be ready for test events next year.