Sebastian Coe: Charm all part of the Olympic offensive for London's lord of the five rings

Brian Viner interviews Sebastian Coe

Tomorrow is a big day for London. A big day, at any rate, for London's bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. For it is tomorrow that the 16 members of the International Olympic Committee's Evaluation Commission arrive, their brief to consider the merits of the five cities that have pitched for the 2012 Games. Last week they were in Madrid; next they will move on to New York, then Paris and Moscow.

As I understand it, London will not win the Games on the basis of the Evaluation Commission's visit. But it could conceivably lose them. So I ask Lord Coe, chairman of the London bid and, as plain Seb Coe, a modestly successful Olympian in his own right, whether he will be nervous when he wakes up tomorrow morning?

"Not nervous, no. I think there's an analogy with training, actually. There comes a point where you just want to be tested. We have been through a shadow evaluation, a kind of dress rehearsal. We have written the Candidate File, which is 600 pages long and a Herculean piece of work. We're ready to be tested."

What happens if the coach transporting the Evaluation Commission round London gets stuck in the mother of all traffic jams on Marylebone Road?

"I don't envisage that happening," says Lord Coe with an enigmatic smile. We are sitting in his office on the top floor of the Canary Wharf tower, from where there would be a spectacular view of London were it not for the February murk. Outside his office is an impressively industrious scene, 100 or so people clacking away like mad on computer keyboards, or talking urgently into telephones. It reminds me of the hive of industry behind Dickie Davies on World of Sport, but writ large.

Back to the Evaluation Commission's progress round London: will they have police outriders, as on a state visit? Will there be police marksmen on rooftops, to pick off asylum seekers selling cheap roses? "No, but there will be traffic management in place. We're not talking about closing roads or anything, but there may be some, erm, resequencing of traffic lights. It's done all the time."

I am intrigued, I tell Lord Coe, by this notion of 16 people coming to London and every cog and wheel in the formidable machinery of the Olympic bid being deployed to make them content. There is even to be a dinner at Buckingham Palace, hosted by the Queen, who will doubtless treat them with due deference. But there will most certainly not be a Fortnum and Mason goodie bag awaiting each of them in their hotel rooms. Following the Salt Lake City corruption scandal, the IOC rules have been made very clear: the Evaluation Commissioners can expect to be treated handsomely, but not to receive so much as a Big Ben paperweight.

"They are here to do one thing," explains Lord Coe patiently, "and that is to make sure there are no mismatches between what has been said in the Candidate File and what we show them. The key issue is deliverability. And we have a lot of stuff already in place, old and new. Where we haven't got stuff we have cast-iron guarantees. Win or lose this bid we will have two new 50-metre swimming pools, and two diving pools, a mile and three-quarters from where we are sitting now."

His Lordship pauses to rip into a cheese sandwich. "We were able to say in the Candidate File that we will be able to move people from Kings Cross [on the new Channel Tunnel link] into the heart of Stratford in seven minutes. There will be 12 javelin shuttles an hour, capable of transporting 25,000 people. And there's already a lot of building going on. There's nothing too virtual about a bulldozer, and 4,000 people working to complete a railway station. We will even be taking them through the tunnel."

Let us hope that their hard hats do not make them impervious to Lord Coe's undoubted charm. And he concedes that charm is also part of the offensive. "The Candidate File is the basis on which we will be questioned, but at some stage between now and Singapore [where, on 6 July, the winning bid will be announced], they also have to make judgements about who they want to work with for seven years. That's a long relationship, and it lasts from the moment the president stands up and names the city to the last second of the closing ceremony."

The Evaluation Commissioners will not want, these next few days, for celebrated hands to shake. When they visit Wembley, Sir Bobby Charlton will be there to greet them. Daley Thompson will say hello, as will Sir Matthew Pinsent and Tanni Grey-Thompson, although regrettably not Sir Mick Jagger, who has just been made an unofficial bid ambassador.

"He communicated his interest through a friend of mine," Lord Coe tells me. "His father was the principal of Strawberry Hill, the PE college in Twickenham, so he's from a sporting family. But I think he's out of the country at the moment."

Not so the Queen, who might be more of an asset had she not somewhat unhelpfully been reported as having said that Paris would be a more suitable venue than London. Lord Coe is characteristically unfazed when I bring this up.

"I have no idea of the background to the palace story. But IOC members have said to me, 'Of course she didn't say it. How could someone in that position have said it?' The fact is that the campaign is a long haul, and every campaign will have its wobbly Wednesday, while Thursday looks quite good. I will tell you that it is actually too close to call, and with five months to go we'll settle for that. I know that a lot of members have yet to make up their minds. So the evaluation phase is more important than it's ever been, and the same goes for the presentation in Singapore."

Lord Coe vigorously denies that he is pleased to hear that other cities are encountering problems with their bids. Paris, for example, has admitted that its Olympic swimming complex, intended to host the 2009 world championships, will not now be ready until 2011. Surely that news must have given him the slightest twinge of schadenfreude?

"No. I think it is counter-productive to get involved in other bids. I really don't rejoice if I hear they are having problems. I have to concentrate only on the things we can do something about."

Plainly, I am wasting my time trying to get him to admit to sticking pins into an effigy of the Eiffel Tower. And wasting time, too, trying to tease from him the slightest criticism of Tony Blair's government, for which, as a Tory peer, he might be expected to voice some disdain.

"Not for one moment have they fallen short, not since I've been chairman. When we needed some planning permission covering 500 acres in the centre of London, it was signed off by the Deputy Prime Minister in two days. I should add that it is also questionable whether we would have been able to do this project without a mayor. If we want something done he gets it done very quickly."

He and Ken Livingstone make pretty unlikely bedfellows, I venture.

"Well, I did have to pinch myself, standing at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool introducing Ken as my new colleague. There was a slight intake of breath. But we work very well together."

The landscape is not entirely one of co-operation and support, however. There is also a very British cynicism at large regarding this Olympic bid, which must annoy Lord Coe?

"Well, those who don't get the bid are really the people who don't get sport. They are the people who have never understood not only the crash, bang, wallop of a Tuesday night at Highbury, but have never understood the effect sport can have on a hard-pressed community. When I was running at Haringey Athletic Club, 40 per cent of the membership lived on the Broadwater Farm estate. Training on a Tuesday and Thursday night and Sunday morning was probably the only anchor for some of those kids. That's not really the same as sitting in the debentures at Twickenham.

"But if you ask me, do I get frustrated, then yes, I do. There are a lot of people who do get this, and they are not always the ones given a voice. You know, the Olympic Games can transform a lot of things. They can change the face of British sport, and they can change that community out there. We will leave housing, put train lines in, leave the largest urban park for 200 years anywhere in Europe, return wetlands, clean up canals ... but in essence it's a sporting bid. I want to bring the Games here because they are worth having here, and because of the multiplier effect of getting more young people into sport. I just can't see a downside."

I resist the temptation to applaud, and tell Lord Coe that I think he is wrong to assert that it is only non-sports fans who are sceptical about London's Olympic bid. Sports fans are only too familiar with the fiascos of Wembley and Picketts Lock.

"Yes, and I think we've answered those questions," he says. "But I'm certainly not going to tell you that we can walk away from our previous.

"Let's be open about it, previous bids that have left these shores have not been that good. In fact, they have been damaging."

Is he talking about the 2006 World Cup bid, spearheaded by Tony Banks MP?

"Yes. I have looked closely at it, and the timing was questionable, the messaging questionable, the way we went about it was questionable. We have learnt from that."

Returning to Lord Coe's running analogy, has he confronted the possibility that London might lose? "Not for five seconds. This is a winning bid."

Oh, come on. Surely he must wonder what he will do for the next seven years if it's a thumbs-down in Singapore?

"No. Just as I never gave a second's thought to what I would be doing after the Olympics in 1984 or 1988. The moment I stopped running was 10 minutes to seven on a towpath in Twickenham, on 15 November, 1989. I had just come under Twickenham Bridge, and was half way between there and the Barmy Arms pub..."

And really, really fancied a pint?

"No, the reason I stopped was that every year I worked out how, by doing more track-work, more weights, dropping commitments, I could run quicker the following year. I suddenly reached the point where I didn't think I could run any quicker."

To flog the analogy still further, is the emotional intensity of this campaign the same as it was before actually running in the Olympics?

"It's more intensive. I won two Olympic titles, which was great. My family were delighted, and I like to think I might have brought a few more people into athletics who might otherwise have gone into cricket or football or whatever. But it was a narrow outcome; this is so much broader. We're not talking about an Olga Korbut surge of interest here, we're talking about something we can build on for seven years, then build on again after 2012."

Lord Coe has finished his sandwich. Leaving the crusts, I might add.

He has a bid to run, so I ask him one final question. Which does he think have been the three greatest Olympic Games?

"I think 1984 in Los Angeles, for personal reasons but also we had come out of Moscow into the first overtly commercial Games, and [Peter] Ueberroth [head of the organising committee] did a remarkably good job. Also Sydney, which was the biggest birthday party of all time. And I would also say London 1948. That was the Nissen hut Games, the first time volunteers had been used, the achievements of Fanny Blankers-Coen. And London was the only city willing. It was actually asked to host the Olympics."

Would that the same were so this time. Although I have no doubt that, without the competition, Lord Coe would not be enjoying himself half as much.

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