Lord Coe: 'I don't think I could have played God with the tickets'

With a year to go before Britain's most ambitious sporting extravaganza London 2012 is on track and under budget, but for Lord Coe this is no time for complacency. Alan Hubbard meets Lord Coe

The last lap was always Sebastian Coe's speciality but he was never one for complacency, even when well ahead of the field. London 2012 may be on track, but those of us who have known him from lad to lordship will attest that counting chickens is not among his characteristics.

Which is why, exactly one calendar year from this Wednesday, when the lights go up on the most ambitious sporting extravaganza ever staged in Britain, the biggest sigh of relief in the Royal Box will be emitted from the lips of Baron Coe of Ranmore.

Next week coincides with another milestone, the 31st anniversary of Coe winning the first of his two 1500 metres Olympic gold medals, avenging the earlier defeat over 800m by his greatest rival, Steve Ovett, in Moscow.

A reminder of this brings rueful recollection of a more recent occasion when he attended a protest meeting of local residents who objected to equestrian events being staged in Greenwich Park. "We won the debate but I was still sitting in Woolwich Town Hall in the early hours of the morning when this lady came across and she clearly wasn't happy. 'I have to tell you, Mr Coe,' she said, 'that I always preferred Steve Ovett anyway.' Inevitably you can't please everybody."

The lesson has been well absorbed of late by the man who galvanised London's efforts after winning the bid six years ago this month. Myriad mandarins and quite a few moguls have been enlisted to help the 55-year-old Coe carry the torch towards 2012, but it will be the one-time MP for Falmouth who carries the can if it all goesbelly-up between now and then.

It won't, of course. Complacency is one thing, confidence another, and Coe has that in spades, though events of the past few weeks indicate it is not going to be a cakewalk in the Olympic Park.

Since his inspirational leadership in Singapore which sealed London's acquisition of the Games ahead of the favourites, Paris, Coe and his team have enjoyed showers of bouquets, not least from the International Olympic Committee, whose progress-chasers have delivered glowing reports stating that no city has ever been as far advanced or better organised in its planning.

The main stadium is virtually up and running and the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, announced this week that 88 per cent of projects are complete and the Games are several million pounds under budget. There is every indication the host nation will exceed even the unprecedented triumphs in Beijing. But lately some weighty brickbats have followed those bouquets.

In his eyrie 23 floors above Canary Wharf, the lord of the Olympic rings talked of the trials, tribulations and, he hopes, the ultimate triumph of the coming year, acknowledging it will be a bumpy ride. "Yes, it will be tough. I don't think I have ever said anything different. We are now into the guts of the project, the sharp end of it, where things are quite public, but we are in really good shape. I say that without any mock heroism. How we come out of this next 12 months is going to determine the shape of the Games."

Currently a flak jacket might be more appropriate than the tailored coat on the back of his chair. Over the past six years there has been the occasional blip – the mocking of the logo, protests over Greenwich Park and ongoing litigation over the football future of the stadium – but nothing quite as bruising as the outrage that erupted over the sale of Olympic tickets.

Coe sighs when reminded that the phone-in lines were jammed with ticketless fans cursing his name. "Over a seven-year project, there will be times when it hits choppy water. The reality is that it was a no-win situation. Tell me, in your lifetime, where there has been a demand on this scale for a sporting event anywhere in the world. Nothing remotely touches this.

"We had 23 million applications for tickets and there were six million available. I don't dismiss for a moment the disappointment that has been expressed by those who didn't get tickets. I'm a sports fan myself so I know how they feel. But there is no system you can put in place, given that scope and that scale, that is ever going to be perfect.

"I know it may sound heartless to those who missed out because of the incredible demand, but I don't know a way that was fairer. I don't think I could have played God or could have said, 'I'm going to limit you to two tickets'. And first come, first served would have been a tout's charter.

"My number one priority was that I wanted full stadia. I don't want to be a chairman of an organising committee when those watching on television are asking, 'Why was the hockey arena only a third full? Why were there big chunks of seating available for track and field?' But I also wanted people who looked like they wanted to be there.

"I wish we could have built a 150,000-seater athletics stadium or a 50,000 aquatic centre. To put 60,000 seats around the velodrome would have been wonderful, but I doubt the people of East London would have been particularly chuffed three weeks after the Games when they are trying to figure out what to do with them.

"When you have that kind of demand in a sports-mad nation you are going to have people that didn't get tickets, and I feel for them. That's why we targeted the next group specifically for those who lost out, and ultimately I believe we'll get nine out of 10 across the line." This is because, as he revealed, there will be a million more tickets available next year, including 8,000 for athletics – even some for the 100m final.

Was it all a ploy to make sure the stadiums were full? "Absolutely not. There was no ploy. We honestly believed this was the best way to do it, and still do."

Two million applied for the opening ceremony; a million for the 100m final. The number of tickets for Joe Public at these blue-riband events in the 80,000-seater stadium will be about 50 per cent, "because of the huge media demand, the VIP and sponsor take-up and the Olympic family".

The next tranche of tickets will be "contingency" ones. "We were never going to sell a ticket we weren't sure we had. We have 21 sports that are not in the Olympic Park. We have a mountain of temporary venues and configurationof those seats is still being thought through, so early next year there will be another chunk of tickets available, including some for the athletics."

Tickets, or the lack of them, have not been the only issue causing "Pissed off of Peckham" to lambast Coe. Londoners are beginning to realise how seriously inconvenienced the lives of some of them could be next summer when the five-ringed circus hits town, with former mayor Ken Livingstone joining a chorus of cabbies and shopkeepers incensed over the disruption they believe will be caused by the contentious Olympic traffic lanes.

Coe argues: "The Olympic network is about 200 kilometres and barely one per cent of that will be Olympic lanes. These will be kept clear for very good reasons because they are the lifeline for the athletes, the Olympic family and people working at the Games.

"The secondary consideration is that you can either be remembered as a Barcelona or an Atlanta, and I don't want to be remembered as the latter, thanks. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an exceptional period in the history of London, and I think Londoners get that. We are all going to have to recognise that this is not business as usual, but business unusual.

"I know it's going to be hard from now on, and everyone's prepared for that. This next year is the guts of our vision. I really want people to start believing now. I want them to start seeing beyond the next hillock."

Lord Coe, who two weeks ago married his long-term partner Carol, the daughter of former England cricket captain Mike Smith, as always seems to be pacing the distance well. "I wouldn't be sitting out this dance for anything. OK, not every day is an unalloyed joy, but I know I am incredibly lucky because I know I have the best job in the world."

My hopes for 2012 by Lord Coe

1 The great story will be the unexpected, we'll be sitting there thinking, 'We knew he or she was good, but not that good.'

2 I was born in London so I instinctively think like a Londoner. I want this city to showcase modern Britain. I am very proud to be in a multicultural city with extraordinary creativity and diversity.

3 I don't want to sound jingoistic about this but I do see the Paralympic Games coming home. This is our event, it's our movement and we should be proud of it. We can really use them to challenge public attitudes about disability.

4 Who will be the supreme star of the Games? I would love it to be Jess Ennis. Everyone talks about the Usain Bolt day but I hope it will be overshadowed by the Jessica Ennis day – which is the same day as the 100 metres final. That's the bit of the Sheffielder in me.

5 The greatest legacy of 2012 will be to have more kids playing sport because of the catalytic effect of these Games.

6 The showcasing of sports that are not usually in the public eye in this country. Sports like handball and water polo will have a wonderful shop window.

7 I want a Games that are well run, with the athletes as the first consideration. I want them to look me in the eye and say, 'There is nothing more you could have done to help my performance.'

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