Prepare to be inspired. Prepare to be dazzled. Prepare to be moved.” One year on, Lord Coe’s words at the opening of the London 2012 Olympics have a resonance few can disagree with.
As the first anniversary of the Games approaches, the man who did more than most to inspire, dazzle and move a nation remains as laid-back about it all as he was on the morning of the Opening Ceremony when I encountered him strolling casually through the Olympic Park, ear glued to his mobile. “Good luck, Seb,” I said. He smiled nonchalantly. “Que sera sera,” he mouthed, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
What we did not know then was that the man who masterminded the greatest hi-tech sports event in history was a techno philistine. Lord Low-tech, as he calls himself, doesn’t tweet, has never sent a text or an email, or even used a computer. “I have no technical skills at all – my lack of technological understanding is legendary,” he laughs. “I use a phone as a phone.”
Now the British Olympic Association’s chairman, he recalls how a few weeks ago he was in a hotel abroad where, to his absolute horror, everything was operated by iPad. “I slept with every single light on, the television going, the air-conditioning blowing. I kept thinking: ‘Oh please, someone just give me a fucking light switch!’ At one point I tried to sleep in the bathroom! It was the only room that didn’t have 27 lights on!”
The stage lights may have dimmed after the curtain came down on the East End smash hit but the leading man says he has never felt any sense of anti-climax. For him, the Olympic show goes on. “I have always genuinely thought of this being a 20-year project. I won’t be doing it in another 20 years, even 10, but when I had the conversation with the Prime Minister about doing the legacy role [he has an office in Downing Street as the Government’s Olympic legacy ambassador] I saw that we needed to get this right structurally in the first year.
“I believe we have made a good start but we shouldn’t sit here pretending that it is going to be a line that will go straight up. It never has and it never will. But we are in a much better position now to capture the excitement of last year. There is now a greater confidence in British sport. Team GB showed other sports that Brits can be winners. Just look at what has happened this summer.
“I’m not sure we can claim Andy Murray as a legacy issue but I feel he did more in those three sets at the Wimbledon final than the LTA have ever done to encourage more kids to play tennis in inner-city centres. We have always used the ‘Wimbledon syndrome’ as a sort of sporting shorthand – the tennis racket comes out for a week over Wimbledon, a week later it goes back under the stairs. Then, for the next year, we wonder why we’ve never had a Wimbledon champion. Well we have one now.
“I’d hate people to think there’s something random about this. The risk is that we feel this level of success is cyclical; it’s not. There’s nothing random about what Andy Murray [also a gold medallist] has done. He’s been doing this for 10 years, competing at the highest level. There was nothing random about what the Lions did, with a great crop of competitors, or Rory McIlroy or if we win the Ashes.”
“We have to get out of the mindset that we are forever grabbing victory out of the jaws of defeat. We are not any more. So we must lose this habit of thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’ve waited 77 years for Murray to win Wimbledon and we’ll have to wait another 77 years for another to come along’. It would be a national disaster if we wait another 10 years to get another player in the top 10.”
High among the aspects of the Games which pleased Coe most is that the public so enthusiastically embraced the Para-lympics. He tells how he used to dread getting into taxis before the Games. “When drivers tended to talk to me for the last seven years it was normally a bit of a rant. ‘I can’t get my cab down the Olympic lanes, you’re going to close the roads, it’s going to be a bloody disaster, why is it costing us so much?’ So when I was in a cab a few months ago and the cabbie turned round and said, ‘You’re that Lord Coe, aren’t you?’ I’m genuinely thinking of shortening the journey to save myself some grief!
“Then he said, ‘I have to be honest, it was great’. I was waiting for the ticket onslaught but he said he got tickets, including the 100 metres final, in the ballot. ‘You won the lottery,’ I replied. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘That Usain Bolt’s good, but do you know the thing I most enjoyed – and you’re not going to believe me – was the Paralympic dressage.’ At that point, I was thinking, ‘Are you taking the piss?’ But he was absolutely serious. He said, ‘My kids loved it as well’.”
Coe is 57 in September but the Olympic experience doesn’t seem to have aged him. “I hope my sanity is still well intact. My health is good.” The biggest personal toll, he admits, was on his four children. “There were moments when they had to do without me around. That was probably more painful for me than for them!
“I tried when I could to get to many things with them. They were really understanding. I don’t think my youngest daughter can ever remember a time when I wasn’t doing this. She’s 14 now but she was three or four when I started. I once remember apologising to her, saying, ‘Sorry Alice, I can’t be there’. ‘It’s alright, dad, we want the Games too,’ she replied. That was when we were bidding! They were very forgiving about it.
“I look back on it as being an extraordinary time in my life but if I’m being honest, I don’t think it was a sustainable lifestyle for some of us. I doubt we could have gone on at that level for another six months. By the time we got to the Games we were running on empty.”
Naturally Coe is still running, about 30 miles a week. “Any time I can. I couldn’t function without exercise. I am not obsessional about it, I don’t have to run every day, but I do have to run. That’s my thing.”
There has been speculation that the one-time Tory MP might run again in another political race – for mayor of London in 2015. David Cameron certainly wants him to, but it seems improbable, as in the same year he will fight another election, to become president of world athletics. Whatever. The one certainty is that what will be, will be.