Amid the hype and hoopla of the two-year countdown to 2012 celebrations, another significant milestone in Seb Coe's career seems to have been overlooked. It was 30 years ago today that the man now orchestrating the biggest sports event in British history first showed his mettle by winning the first of his two Olympic gold medals.
Both, perversely, came in the 1500 metres and not the 800m that was his signature event. The scenario was to be repeated four years later in Los Angeles, but on a humid evening in Moscow six days before the 1500m final, Coe had been beaten by Steve Ovett over two laps during an era in which their rivalry had been as fiercely and unremittingly combative as that of Ali and Frazier.
When Coe crossed the line he raised both arms and imperiously thrust his index fingers in the direction of the press box. He was to insist later that this was not the "up yours" gesture some thought but merely signified "to certain people" he was No 1. It also conveyed a symbolic message to the boycott-demanding Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher – later to become his political boss in Parliament – that he wasn't someone to mess with.
Ubiquitous is a word that might have been invented for Sebastian Newbold Coe, aka Baron Coe of Ranmore, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, whom I have known since he was plain Seb, a 17-year-old, fresh-faced, prodigiously talented young athlete from Sheffield, where I worked for the local newspaper. Now, as footy fans have chanted about every midfield dynamo from Alan Ball to Joe Cole via Charlie George and Stevie Gerrard, "He's here, he's there, he's every bloody where".
These past few days it has been impossible to open a newspaper without digesting voluminous interviews with the lord of London's Olympic rings, whose omnipresence and oratory were decisive factors in securing the 2012 Games. And just about the only breakfast-time TV sofa he hasn't sat on is Jeremy Kyle's.
Yet the most astonishing aspect of the blanket coverage given to the Olympic countdown is that despite the hundreds of thousands of words he has spoken on the subject, he rarely repeats himself. What is remarkable is that he can give so many interviews, speaking in the same precisely measured manner in which he floated so elegantly along the track, delivering the same upbeat message, yet saying something different virtually every time: sport's consummate salesman.
I have been reflecting on the 36 years of our friendship, during which he has gone from lad to lord and now overlord, impecunious student to multi-millionaire, while observing him at work in a role which seems to be the fulfilment of his destiny. "We are bloody lucky to have him, aren't we?" remarked one senior member of the sporting establishment at the rapidly blossoming Olympic Park where Coe was wooing the British media he has termed the most forensic in the world. Yet less than a decade ago he was the last person that many involved in putting the bid together wanted on board.
He was perceived as too much of a smooth operator, cocksure, complacent and fired with unrequited political ambition. And a definite threat to those blazers who liked to think they were sport's powerbrokers.
So forgive a spot of personal indulgence. If it were not for a couple of media colleagues and myself, Coe might not be where he is today, and we would probably be making plans to spend the summer of 2012 by the Seine. It was seven years ago, after the confirmation that London would be bidding for the Games under the chairmanship of the American Barbara Cassani – a jaw-dropping left-field appointment engineered by London's then mayor, Ken Livingstone – that a raft of board nominees was announced by the Government. Among them were worthy figures such as Craig Reedie, Alan Pascoe and Keith Mills but there was one glaring omission: Sebastian Coe.
It was believed his political affiliation (he had been a somewhat wet Tory MP for Falmouth and William Hague's chief of staff and judo partner) was not to the liking of the Labour Government. And so forceful was his personality, it was felt his presence might put a number of noses out of joint.
It was at a Grand Prix athletics meeting at Crystal Palace that we chanced upon Tessa Jowell, the minister of state who had just persuaded Tony Blair to back the embryo bid. We gave her quite an ear-bashing about the omission of one of Britain's greatest Olympians. Why, we asked, was an articulate, well-connected favourite son of the IOC being snubbed?
Tessa was clearly taken aback by the force of our argument, but to her credit she listened, promised "I'll look into it" and shortly afterwards Coe was recruited as a vice-chairman. A few months later Cassani – always a square peg in the Olympic rings – stepped down when it was apparent that the bid was imploding. Coe was the natural choice to take over as chairman. Any political and personal prejudices were shoved aside and the rest, as they say, is history.
A month short of his 54th birthday Coe, currently in Barcelona after going to India with David Cameron, seems inexhaustible, rising at dawn in the Surrey home he shares with Carole, the daughter of former England cricket captain Mike Smith. He and the former Badminton three-day event champion Nicky McIrvine were divorced eight years ago but Coe remains close to their four children. Sport's best-known figurehead also insists on staying in touch with the people and chats to the Jubilee Line punters when travelling to his 2012 eyrie in Canary Wharf. Lord he may be, lord it he doesn't.
Coe reckons the enormity of the Olympic project and the effect it will have on our lives have yet to fully impact on us. He believes England's ignominious exit from the World Cup did the 2012 Games a huge favour, as the nation needs something to look forward to that is both positive and uplifting. Knowing Seb, no doubt he will triumphantly strike gold two years from now – just as he did 30 years ago.Reuse content