Excited, prepared and rested: the minister behind the Games

The London Olympics have occupied Hugh Robertson’s mind every day over the past decade, he tells Tom Peck

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The Independent Online

With five days to go until the opening ceremony of the Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad, the Sports Minister is not having sleepless nights.

“I’m a fairly decent sleeper,” he says, in his expansive Whitehall office. “We were shelled for twenty four nights in a row in Sarajevo, so I can keep the problems regarding the Olympics in perspective.”

Before entering politics, Hugh Robertson spent more than a decade in the armed forces, giving him better insight than most into the security saga that has engulfed the build up to the games.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people, and there is no anger in the armed forces about bailing out G4S. There is a wonderful tradition, in the army, of having a moan about things, and then getting on with it and doing it extraordinarily well.”

He predicts a “grim week ahead” as the world's press casts it forensic eye on London, but insists that “the moment the starting gun fires, everyone's attention is on the sport. The only thing people will be taking about is gold medals. Outcry over the shortfall in G4S’s preparedness to provide security for the Olympics is, he claims, a “classic example of all the extraneous crap you have to try not to focus on.”

“You can analyse to death why this all happened, but the fact is last Wednesday we had a problem and we had to fix it, which we did,” he claims.

“If you said to most young soldiers, ‘Would you rather be sitting in your barracks at Bassingbourn doing guard duties, preparing to go on exercises on Salisbury plain, or do you fancy doing a couple of weeks at the Olympic Park doing all the security?’ To a man or woman, they would rather be at the Olympics.”

For rather longer than the military, Mr Robertson has been absolutely central to the Olympics, and while understated by character, he is evidently rather excited.

“Look at that,” he says, pointing at his ministerial red box. “‘Minister for Sport and the Olympics.’ The only red box to have Olympics written on it.”

Sport, and politics, as he knows, are often not the most attractive bedfellows. Where one is played out before the eyes of the world, the other is regularly mired in tales of corruption and dodgy deals. But Mr Robertson’s views are unambiguous.

“It’s not a popular thing to say but I think the International Olympic Committee are a fantastic organisation. [The President] Jacques Rogge is a fundamentally decent human being. The way he tackled the Salt Lake City controversy [several IOC members were expelled over allegations of bribery in the US City’s bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics], and the speed at which the ethics committee moves to sort out any wrongdoing is highly impressive.”

“FIFA on the other hand, are very different. They are utterly untransparent. I don’t see any evidence of the things that their attempts to change anything are having any effect, and I would want to see evidence of things having fundamentally changed before we considered bidding for a World Cup again.”

Having become Shadow Minister for Sport in 2004, three years after joining the House of Commons, Mr Robrtson has been involved with the London Olympics since before the bid.

He knows, like almost no one else, the intricate details of TeamGB’s medal prospects. Of all the athletes, the gold medal he says he would most like to see is, “one of the women rowers.

“Wouldn’t it be great for them to win one. Katherine Grainger, if she got a gold after her three silvers, that would be quite something.”

A bet with his Australian counterpart means that should the Aussies top TeamGB’s medal haul, he will have to dribble a hockey ball around Australia House in full Australia kit.

In the unlikely event that it should happen, it would certainly mark a low point in a two year long ministerial career that began in a curious fashion.

There was a lengthy period, in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election, where no one was quite sure who was running the country. On the first Sunday after when the coalition agreement had been signed, the head of the Football Association was forced to step down in a classic Sunday tabloid kiss and tell sting. When the 24 hour news cameras were dispatched to the new sports minister’s house, it was a clear sign that the Conservatives were back. Stood on his front doorstep in the rolling Kent countryside on a bright sunny Sunday morning, was Mr Robertson, in a tweed jacket of the kind not entirely in line with the Cameron Conservative rebrand. It hasn’t been seen since.

“I suspect that’s because the cameras have been back round to my house on a Sunday morning since,” he says. “I’m not much of a clothes horse. I just picked up the first thing that was on. No one’s told me I can’t wear it.”

Mr Robertson has a packed schedule for the forthcoming weeks, visiting dozens of Olympic venues. Of particular interest will be the beach volleyball on Horse Guards Parade. On the wall of his office is a picture of the Queen’s birthday parade in 1993. “That is me,” he says, pointing the head of the household cavalry, sat astride an impossibly giant black horse, in gleaming helmet and breast-plate, sword at side, in front of row upon row of scarlet-clad machine gun wielding officers in bearskin hats, their every nerve fixed to the attention of his barked instructions.

“If you’d have told me then that the world’s most famous parade ground was going to be turned into a venue for beach volleyball, I would not have taken you terribly seriously I think it’s fair to say.”

One imagines if he had arrived to open the Media Press Centre at the Olympic Park three weeks ago in such uniform, the G4S security guards might not have taken forty minutes to decide to let him in. “That really did annoy me,” he confesses. “They didn’t seem to accept that in order for me to officially open the building they would need to grant me access to it.”

It is hard to comprehend, in a way, that while it is five days til the start of the Olympics, it is only 22 days til the end. Robertson, like so many of those who have devoted such a serious chunk of their lives to the coming fortnight, really doesn’t know what he will do next.

“Everything I have done for the past eight years has been concentrated on the London Olympics. There has not been one day since 2004 when I haven’t thought either about the bid, or the games. What am I going to do after? I really haven’t thought about it, and that is not a politicians answer. I really haven’t.”