London bid in higher gear as Madrid gets on its bike

Lord Coe mocks the latest hurdle to 2012 success. Alan Hubbard hears a leader in strident mood

Amid the various hurdles put in the path of London's attempt to win the 2012 Olympics, the last obstacle Sebastian Coe expected he would have to overcome is the suggestion that if Britain loses the Silverstone Grand Prix it will also lose out on the Olympics. He leaps over it with a snort: "What a ridiculous assertion. If the International Olympic Committee were that bothered about a grand prix they would not have definitively closed the door forever two years ago on making motor racing part of the Olympics.''

London's bid leader is understandably dismissive of the notion that Bernie Ecclestone - supposedly a London 2012 ambassador - could drive a Ferrari through the city's hopes. "The IOC will see this as a totally internal issue. All they want to know is that the people who stage the Games are competent to do so and are in their comfort zone.

"We know we are thought of as a serious contender, people who are quite capable of holding the Games. We believe they like what we are doing, and the thought that they are sitting there fretting about the fate of the British Grand Prix is ludicrous.''

Coe is right to point out that the IOC are far more likely to endorse the view of the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, that a cash-rich industry should not receive money at the expense of grass-root sports. So, having put Formula One firmly in the pits, Coe can now concentrate on his own grand prix, for which he believes he has a winning formula.

He appreciates that with 11 months to go before the vital vote in Singapore, London are still not in pole position. But he insists that they have gained ground on Paris and Madrid, both of whom they trailed after the IOC's initial assessment in the spring.

The turning point, he says, was Athens. "Athens nailed a number of misconceptions about London, chiefly that there wasn't any political support. Well, the Prime Minister was there and he met many IOC members. If you want to look at the twittering in the dovecots of other cities, then the fact that the British Prime Minister was the only political head of state present was quite helpful. Also the level of support from the fans and the success of the British team would have gone down well.

"I really do think we have gained real momentum. Last week I went to the Mansion House with [London's Mayor] Ken Livingstone, where there were representatives of 435 major business corporations. These guys are not only already putting their hands in their pockets but asking what more they can do to help."

Coe's team are now putting the finishing touches to the final bid document - a massive four-feet-high tome - that will be presented to the IOC on 15 November, together with those of the four other competing cities. Then they await the crucial visit of the Evaluation Commission in February.

First stop for the commission will be Madrid, who by all accounts have front- runners Paris now looking anxiously over their shoulder. Theirs is a bid that has gained as much ground as London's - the King and Queen of Spain were in Athens to support it - and is greatly enhanced by the wily former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who still has the ear of many members. He may well be in a position to call in a few favours.

One irony is that before Coe was co-opted on to the London bid, where he subsequently replaced the out-of-her-depth Barbara Cassani in May as chairman, he had been approached to lead Madrid's bid. Even rival observers admit that Madrid's bid is "coherent and organised", and that it has tremendous public support.

Last weekend Madrid held a "bicycle day'' to publicise the fact that they are planning to build a 62km cycle route connecting their proposed Games facilities. Half a million people rode their bicycles for three hours around Madrid's streets in support of the bid.

Amid the optimistic spinning coming out of Canary Wharf, home to the London bid, and the Sports Minister's office - Caborn even claims London is now neck-and-neck with Paris - London is doing and saying all the right things. Coe and Co are polished and professional, but this cannot disguise the fact that all Paris seems to have to do to win is stay on its feet and not put one of them wrong.

This it is determined to accomplish, as evidenced last week, when President Jacques Chirac personally honoured all 48 French Olympic medal-winners. He referred to the "mobilisation of the entire country'', adding that "the candidacy of Paris is the candidacy of the entire nation''.

Britain has yet to get this feeling, but Coe says: "I don't want to get into the business of runners, riders and favourites. The situation is a bit like when I was running for Loughborough as an 18-year-old in the relay. We needed to win the race to win the entire event, and I was expecting a momentous talk from the coach, but all he said was, 'For f***'s sake don't drop the baton'.'' Coe didn't then, and his track record suggests he won't now.

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