Olympics legacy: Lord Coe interview - 'we have made a really good start, but it is only a start...'

A year on from the golden euphoria of London 2012, Games architect Lord Coe talks to Robin Scott-Elliot about the challenge of building on those triumphs
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It was in the dog days after Christmas (not Boxing Day, as Boxing Day is always football, always Chelsea) that Sebastian Coe opened the DVD box set of the 2012 Olympic Games his children had given him. It was an appropriate present, not because their father was responsible for the Games but because there was a gap in his experience of the greatest show on Earth. He slid the first disc into place and, for the first time, sat back to take in the opening ceremony in its entirety. Six months after Danny Boyle’s London spectacular first wowed – and at times puzzled – the world, Coe got to see what the fuss was about. What did he think?

“I thought it was fantastic – really fantastic,” says Coe. “There are things in it for everybody. I have friends who have kids who [still] ask for it to be put on – they love the Mary Poppins bit.”

A squadron of fleet-footed Poppins, armed with umbrellas, travelling bags and determined smiles, descended into the stadium that night while Coe was meeting and greeting, popping into Danny Boyle’s control box and waiting beneath the stands to make his speech. From the beginning, there was something of the Poppins can-do, jolly-well-will-do mentality to Coe and his Olympic team. The smiles rarely wavered, the umbrellas were needed but not as much as had been feared – the poor weather in the build-up stopped just short of becoming a major problem: “It was a nightmare – I can say it now,” says Coe – and the travel bags were a must because the 17 days of the Games were a staging post, albeit the most prominent one, in what Coe regards as a 20-year journey.

We are halfway through his suggested London Olympic era, from the time a proper bid was put together, through winning it, through building the venues, through hosting the Games and now on to what they  will leave behind. It is a legacy that can, according to Coe, only be judged a decade down the line. “We have made a really good start, but it is only a start,” he says.

It is asking plenty amid our snapshot zeitgeist, the demand for instant gratification from media and politicians, to request judgement 10 years on. It is also, the cynic can say, a convenient means of postponement, a method the London organisers, the body Coe chaired, deployed around accounting for tickets and spending public money.

Coe is no cynic. There are real reservations over how strong and lasting the political commitment he insists exists will prove to be, but if anyone in public office (he chairs a Downing Street-based legacy committee) has earned time to prove his point it is Seb Coe.

A year on from London 2012, Coe sits at a table in the central London HQ of the British Olympic Association. He is now BOA chairman. He arrived late for this meeting with a handful of journalists. A Londoner had stopped him at the Tube to reminisce. “For him last year was momentous,” says Coe. “He saw London in a different way. I think there is still an awful lot of excitement out there and the legacy role I have done for the last year tells me that there is still a real reservoir not just of excitement – the need to feel there is more to it than simply looking back. There are loads of things happening out there, outside London as well; that tells me this is going to happen and that it has its own life now.” He talks of four key areas – schools, venues, volunteering and business and claims progress in all. He praises the £150m given for sport in primary schools in particular; what that is replaced by when it runs out next year will be a true indicator of government commitment.

“Look at the school sports stuff,” he says. “That was the commitment of a prime minister to recognise that this was not in a great space. It was the first time in my political career that I have sat round a table discussing sporting activity in primary schools, or any part of school, with the Secretary of State for Education, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Health, the Cabinet Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. That in itself is quite a strong legacy.

“If you are saying does this need the foot hard to the pedal; do they need the political drive a prime minister can bring to it, then yes... if we [are to] really maximise it over the next 10 years. [Sport] has always occupied a big place in British society. I just don’t think it has always occupied a really good space in the political lives of this nation.”

Coe suggests why it should continue to matter: “The average child is 50 per cent less active at the age of 15 than they were at nine. That is not sustainable. The cost of inactivity in the UK is about £20bn a year, which is roughly the equivalent of the NHS efficiency savings – nobody’s quite realised where the link between those numbers is. It’s about activity. Unless the first experience of sport for young people is a positive one they won’t continue.”

The stumble in sporting participation post-Games – recent figures show a 100,000 drop – is brushed away. “We shouldn’t sit here mithering over a set of numbers that from one month to the next will vary,” he says. “The overall story is a good one. Since 2005 when we won the right to stage the Games, a million and a half more people are playing sport, a good chunk between 16 and 25.

“Volunteering has gone up 6 per cent in the last year. Philanthropy has gone up about 5 per cent, against the trend. We mustn’t claim too much around the Games, but there are things that are not simply coincidental. Businesses [tell] me doors are open that were not open two or three years ago because people trust British businesses that have been seen to deliver a successful Games.”

A year ago Coe was packing his bags to move into a hotel for the Olympics. On the hotel’s advice, for privacy, he booked in as Mr Swann, his mother’s maiden name. Then it began.

Coe picks out three particular moments that have stuck with him. Unashamedly biased, given his own athletics background, he chooses David Rudisha’s stunning 800m victory as his performance of the Games. He lauds the “Herculean” showing of Britain’s boxers under Rob McCracken, a coach Coe believes deserves as much credit as Dave Brailsford and David Tanner, the brains behind cycling and rowing. And he sees Jess Ennis’s gold as a key part of the attempt to inspire a generation. “I think she does connect in an extraordinary way, with people in general, but specifically with young girls,” he says.

That morning Coe had been stuck in traffic after a water main leaked. “Thank God that didn’t happen last year,” was his first thought.  “You get dragged back to it in odd ways. I enjoyed everything last year and most of the seven years. Some days were just hard pounding – like athletics, really. You know you just have to get up and do your mileage.

“The overwhelming feeling when you come out of something like that is relief – relief that you haven’t let people down. You are just monumentally relieved that you haven’t screwed up and the nation wasn’t sitting there with its head in  its hands.”

Case studies: Golden hangovers

Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and David Rudisha

Two of the three gold medallists from Super Saturday are now struggling to be ready for next month’s world championships in Moscow. Brits Jess Ennis-Hill, above, and Greg Rutherford have both been dogged by injury – while the Kenyan 800m world-record holder, David Rudisha (Lord Coe’s favourite from 2012) is already out of the championships.

But Coe says: “It doesn’t dramatically surprise me. My dad used to say that coaching me a year after the Olympic Games was a bit like coaching an eggshell. You do go to the well an awful lot of times in an Olympic year, mentally and physically. Track-and-field athletes, particularly, do come out of a Games slightly fragile .... When you are in an Olympic year there are no tomorrows. You live for the moment. In 1985 [after winning gold at Los Angeles in 1984], I don’t think I put more than three or four training weeks together without an injury.

“I’m not writing off the British team ... but it doesn’t surprise me that some of those athletes that competed really well last year are having a bit of a fragile time.”