Looking Back with Sebastian Coe: 'I hate being told I can't do something'

London's 2012 Olympic bid leader - now chairman of the organising committee - has always been good at winning races. Mike Rowbottom concludes our series of interviews with key sporting figures of 2005
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The Independent Online

The London 2012 headquarters are 50 floors up at the top of the Canary Wharf tower, and the view from the office of the man widely credited with re-energising Britain's flagging Olympic bid and forcing it over the line in first place on 6 July is vertiginous.

It seems appropriate that Seb Coe should now find himself located at a dizzying height. The chairman of the organising committee gives brief consideration to the question of whether he has ever felt tempted to take a running jump at the lights that twinkle so far below to escape the seismic pressure he endured in the last couple of years.

"Thank God you can't open these windows," he says with a grin. "But no. I don't think so." Of course not. Ever since he emerged as a slight but scarily competitive athlete in the late Seventies, Coe - or Lord Sebastian Newbold Coe as he does not prefer to be known - has demonstrated on innumerable occasions that he possesses a core as resilient as any of the cutlery that his dad, Peter, once helped engineer for Sheffield Steel.

The factors which persuaded the International Olympic Committee to entrust the 2012 Games to the London bid, a decision which Coe believes is "probably the most important thing that has ever happened in British sport", are numerous. Endless attention to detail, a late but telling intervention from the Prime Minister in the hours before the final votes were cast, the endorsement of Nelson Mandela, an inspired presentation to International Olympic Committee delegates in which all spoke with genuine passion and the burden of the plea was carried by the voices of the children who would stand to benefit from a London Games. If more recent stories are to be believed, the errant finger of the Greek IOC delegate may also have played a part in the third round of voting in which Madrid was eliminated.

Holding it all together, however, was the will of a man who had already proved himself one of the great winners in his sport, an athlete who came back from a catastrophic defeat to Steve Ovett in the 1980 Moscow Olympics at 800 metres to win Ovett's own specialist event, the 1500m, an athlete who could not even run in 1983 because he was so ill, but who returned to the Olympic venue the following year and collected another silver and gold medal... Combined with that willpower was an innate political sense which allowed him to intuit the mysterious shifts and balances of power and influence within the IOC, a sense that had been refined by four years struggling against the tide as chief of staff for the Leader of the Opposition, William Hague.

For all its Olympian height, Coe's room is a virtually anonymous ensemble of standard office equipment and utilitarian carpet tiles. The only clues as to its occupant are an insouciantly displayed pennant from Les Comités Olympiques Européens (COE) and what looks like a spare floor tile propped against a wall with the message: "Congratulations on winning the 2012 Olympics from Milliken Carpet."

There have been less prosaic plaudits for Coe since he clenched his fist in triumph in the ballroom of Singapore's Raffles Plaza Hotel - most recently when he was given a special award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

In terms of historical precedents, you cannot help thinking of Sir Francis Drake, who set off on an endeavour of great risk and returned to the court of Queen Elizabeth laden with golden booty. Coe does not embrace the analogy with any great enthusiasm. "He was a pirate! Well, a privateer. Don't describe me as a pirate, it will fit every image L'Equipe have of me."

But he put himself hugely at hazard by taking over from the previous leader of the bid, Barbara Cassani, in May last year when London was adjudged by the IOC to be running a poor third to Paris and Madrid.

"I said before I set off for Singapore that if we won I would carry the flame, and if we lost, I would carry the can," he recalls. "I would have done too, I reckon. I've always accepted if I ever lost a race I got blamed for it, and if I won a race I was the greatest tactician in the world. I think probably if I'd been hard-nosed and calculating about it I wouldn't have done it. I would have preferred the earlier months to have been slightly easier. But life is marginals, isn't it, at the best of times? It's about timing and belief."

Fifty floors below, the London Evening Standard is on sale with a front-page headline "Betrayal of Our Olympics" and a story detailing the Commons row between the sports minister, Richard Caborn, and his Conservative counterpart, Hugh Robertson.

Shortly before we sit down to talk, Coe has absorbed a sharply pointed television interview which invited him to join in the criticism of the Government for failing to include in its pre-Budget statement the extra £50m sought by the British Olympic Association to boost Games preparations.

It was an invitation he studiously avoided, although he did give his questioner to understand that the money would probably emerge in time, perhaps through different means.

"This job has meant and will mean working very closely with this Government," he says. "It is about getting a lot of support when I need it but knowing also the right time to press those buttons. I know probably more than most people because I ran the life of a leader of the Opposition for four years. I know what those pressures were. Magnify those 10 times and you understand what the Prime Minister does.

"So on the few occasions when I decided I needed some help I picked up the phone and basically I got it. But I would not have got that if I had been the 17th time I'd put through a call that week.

"Secondly, if you look at the totality of the two-year campaign, it's very easy to say, well he did that, she did this, but you have to look at it holistically. I don't actually think there was a tipping point. At the end of two years IOC members were not simply voting on the passion of the presentation or the pinpoint accuracy of every word. They were also voting on the tone and style that they had judged us by over those two years."

Coe was a ubiquitous presence in the months leading to the vote, shaking hands in hotel lobbies all over the world as he clocked up more than 200,000 miles of air travel. He was the clubbable man at the bar. He was the respected former athlete. In Madrid earlier this year, at the European Indoor Championships, he wooed the influential IOC member Irina Szewinska with a charm that virtually smouldered. Like all natural politicians, the man is adaptable.

"Very early on we decided that we didn't want to be seen thinking that anywhere was a no-go area for us," Coe says. "We wanted to break away from the view that there were alliances or that there was predilection for the Commonwealth to vote for us any more than there was a predilection in the Caribbean or Central America to simply to say we have a large Latin interest and therefore Madrid is going to get the votes. So we basically appealed to everybody, and we were strategic in the way that we did it, and we understood who we were talking to.

"I know the perceived wisdom is that had Madrid got through to the final they would have beaten London. I don't believe that.

"The numbers show that the reasons Madrid didn't make it to the final is that some of those people who would normally have been expected to vote for Madrid at that point came to us, or had probably decide that this was probably a London-Paris decision. But we were always saying it was going to be close. I think people thought I was just coming out with the same old mantra, 'I'm sorry, it's just too close to call.' But four votes in 104 tells me I was right."

Whether the Greek delegate's mistake put Madrid out of the running in the third round is now as academic - albeit fascinating - as the debate over whether England's third goal in the 1966 World Cup final crossed the line. The Cup, and the Games, have been won.

What remains mysterious is Coe. Soon after he took up the Olympic challenge, his former team-mate Dave Moorcroft, now the chief executive of United Kingdom Athletics, described the double Olympic champion as the most driven personality he had ever encountered. Where does the drive come from? Is it lust for glory - or fear of failure?

"I don't know," Coe replies, "and I don't really think I'm probably even remotely capable of answering that question because what I think is normal may not be. I mean, I started track and field at the age of 11, I was told very early on that I would never be big enough to make an 800m runner, I would never be fast enough to be a miler. I failed an 11-plus and was basically shovelled off into a secondary modern where aspiration, I think, was fairly low. I hate being told I can't do something."

Fifteen years ago, after he stepped off the track for the last time, he was collared by an announcer in front of the Crystal Palace crowd and questioned about whether he might be the next Prime Minister. To have put such a proposition to any other athlete would have been ludicrous, but with Coe, well, you felt it might just be worth a punt.

Time and circumstance told against his political ambitions. Voted in by the electors of Falmouth and Camborne in 1992, he went the way of most Tory MPs as Labour returned to power in the landslide election of 1997, and his four years spent subsequently in the service of Hague provided little other than frustration and a sore neck from where the Leader of the Opposition had applied an overly severe headlock while they were engaging in one of their occasional bouts of judo.

Had the voters decided otherwise in 1997, where does he think he would be now? "I had made a commitment that being a constituency MP was what I did," he says. "I wouldn't have stood if I didn't want to stay there given a chance. I wasn't given a chance. I lost by about four per cent that night, and given that most Conservatives suffered swings of 14 or 15 per cent I thought that was pretty creditable. But the people spoke - and boy, did they speak that night - and I'm not very good at looking back. I recognise that that sometimes is a strength, it can sometimes be a weakness. But I do move on quite quickly."

Coe has paid a personal price for his efforts on London's behalf. Newspapers have run stories detailing his private life. And he has had to make hard decisions in a year when his mother, Angela, died of a disease of the nervous system.

"It's been a difficult year for all of our family because my Mum died," he says. "It's my Mum's birthday today. I've just realised that. I saw her for the last time in hospital and I knew I was going abroad when I spoke to her and she knew I had to go. She was very sick, but she would not hear of me not going, and she died when I was overseas. I came back for the funeral and three hours after I was on a plane to Brisbane. In fairness, I haven't really had a chance to sit down and think about her very much. I'll probably do that in the next few weeks. It was great to come back and tell my Dad about the good news from Singapore. I just wish she'd been there. Because of all people, she really did understand what all this was about."