Review of the year: The Olympic Bid
Coe's triumph, against all the odds
Friday 30 December 2005
In retrospect, there was a clue - the faint grin on the face of the International Olympic Committee's chairman, Jacques Rogge, as he prepared to announce whether London or Paris would get the 2012 Games. "The committee has the honour of announcing that the 2012 Olympiad is awarded to the city of..."
If it were Paris, established favourites, what was there to smile about? No, it had to be a wry acknowledgement by the former Olympic yachtsman that there had been a turn-up for the books.
As the shock waves travelled beyond the air-conditioned ballroom of Singapore's Raffles Plaza Hotel to the wider world, the delegation that had travelled from Britain, headed by their intensely political leader, Sebastian Coe, cavorted.
It was not so much in disbelief - even during the dark days of the previous year, when London's bid had slipped back down to a poor third in the ratings behind Paris and Madrid, belief had remained in the hearts of all those members of the bid team who mattered. But something more than relief was involved. That would surely have been the appropriate emotion for the French team had they won. Instead they stood, shocked and suited, just a few feet away.
Back in London, Trafalgar Square had just erupted into jubilation, with Kelly Holmes and Steve Cram leading the celebrations. "Happiness is a moment like this," reflected Sir Bobby Charlton, a member of London's official delegation who had vivid memories of entirely different feelings when he had supported Manchester's gallant, doomed bid for the 2000 Games.
That represented a third successive failure for Britain in the Olympic arena, following Manchester's bid for the 1996 Games and Birmingham's tilt for the 1992 Olympics. The IOC, that strange, private club whose 115 members hold the gift of the Games, let it be known that when Britain was serious about bidding for the Olympics, it would come back with London. Twelve years later, the capital duly arrived after a turbulent journey that had caused many to dismiss its chances well before the day of reckoning on 6 July.
The bid began in 2000 at the instigation of Richard Sumray, the vice-chairman of the London Council of Sport and Recreation and the British IOC member, Craig Reedie, who managed to get Mayor Ken Livingstone to back it on the proviso that the Games would regenerate a run-down area near Stratford.
The Government was slow to add its support, which was hardly reassuring given its earlier failure to deliver the Picketts Lock stadium on which London's successful bid for the 2005 World Athletics Championships hinged. In May 2003, however, Tony Blair announced that the Government would support the Olympic bid, and culture secretary Tessa Jowell revealed how the Games would be financed. Two months later, Barbara Cassani, the American founder of Go!, British Airways' budget airline, was installed as bid chairman. Cassani hired a number of crucial people, including the two men who would eventually see the project through to its triumphant conclusion - Sebastian Coe and Keith Mills, the inventor of Air Miles.
Unfortunately, the scrubbed enthusiasm of Cassani, a business graduate from Boston, did not translate well in the late-night hotel bars where IOC members came to have their egos stroked and their votes solicited.
On 18 May 2004, London made the IOC's shortlist along with Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow. But Rogge made it clear that Britain's efforts had slipped below those of the French and Spanish, and criticised London's "obsolete" transport system. The next day, Cassani stepped aside and Coe, the Olympic 1,500m champion of 1980 and 1984, took over. Intensive work began on addressing every problem the IOC had highlighted.
Coe, using the political nous he had developed as Conservative MP for Falmouth and an adviser to former Tory leader William Hague, began to gather support around the world. But the perception remained that Paris, turned down on two occasions but back for a third time, had the Games to lose.
On the eve of the Athens Olympics in 2004, the BBC Panorama programme "Buying the Games" damaged London's popularity with IOC members by claiming to prove that IOC votes could be bought. Five months later, the IOC's crucial four-day evaluation visit to London took place against the background of an unseemly row involving Livingstone, who had likened a Jewish Evening Standard reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Most costly of all, just six weeks before the Singapore vote, Coe was obliged to make an embarrassing U-turn over offering incentive travel packages for competing athletes after Rogge had warned candidate cities not to become involved in a "bidding war".
Coe and his team travelled to Singapore believing they had enough friends among rival bidders to attract crucial votes from cities knocked out in the early rounds. Coe's high standing with the Spanish - Juan-Antonio Samaranch used his position as IOC president to try and get Coe into the 1988 Olympics as a wild card - was a big factor after they failed to make the final two.
Paris's campaign had been conservative to the point of greyness, and the late arrival of President Jacques Chirac in Singapore did little for them - indeed his scornful comments about English cooking left an unpleasant taste in some committee members' mouths.
By contrast, Tony Blair was deemed to have played a blinder, erasing his earlier image as the man who had reneged on sport by spending two days talking up the London cause with all the key IOC players. Although he missed the vote, flying back to Britain to host the G8 summit, he had played a key role.
By the time Coe, Mills and the rest of the team arrived home, all jubilation had been cut short by the awful news of the 7 July bombings. They had achieved something historic. But it was only sport.
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