Sebastian Coe: 'It would be naive of me to sit here and say that nothing could go wrong'

The Brian Viner Interview: Despite the riots in London, the ever-unflappable figurehead of the Games remains confident that the Capital is right on track as preparations enter the final straight
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The Independent Online

Front-page headlines about mob rule and television images of London burning were not, to put it mildly, what Lord Coe of Ranmore wanted to see last week over his habitual early-morning macchiato. And although members of the International Olympic Committee expressed confidence in the city's ability to host a trouble-free Games next year, it must have pained the chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games that they felt the need.

His own pronouncements on the riots were, for the most part, deliberately bland, although he did declare himself "neither sanguine nor cavalier about the disfiguring images which were beamed around the world". Nobody could ever accuse Lord Coe of being cavalier, yet he is unflappable sometimes to the point of seeming disengaged. At any rate, if he was perturbed by the sight of a plume of black smoke drifting towards the Olympic Park from the burning Sony warehouse in Enfield, he certainly didn't show it.

We met a few days before the first rioter threw the first brick, when violence in the form of terrorism seemed more of a threat to the smooth running of the 2012 Olympics. I asked Lord Coe then what in his mind constituted the biggest threat. Was it terrorism? Or traffic chaos? Drug-taking? Or even the weather?

"We have risk-assessment teams for everything and there's nothing that gives me sleepless nights," he said. "What we have within our control is under our control. Before coming to see you I spent two hours talking about nothing other than arrivals and departures at Heathrow Airport, we're into that minutiae of detail. But it would be naive of me to sit here and say that nothing could go wrong. I don't want to sound too Macmillan-esque, but it's events, dear boy. Last year I was in [the sailing venue] Weymouth when a volcano exploded in Iceland, and by lunchtime British air space was closed. You wouldn't want that to happen again, but we even have risk management around that. Security and transport are always a challenge in big cities, but if you look at the handling of the royal wedding, we do these things extraordinarily well."

Assuming it does all go well, one wonders what kind of smile will play on Lord Coe's face during the closing ceremony of the Games 363 days from now? Will it be a smile of euphoria, satisfaction, pride, relief or heady anticipation of a future freed from the Herculean task of project management that has been his constant burden these past six years, not to mention the similarly onerous task of preparing the bid before that? Probably it will be all of these things, and perhaps it will also be a smile tinged with anxiety, for the end of the Games next 12 August will mark the beginning of the loudly-trumpeted Olympic legacy.

The legacy was at the heart of the successful bid in Singapore in 2005 and Lord Coe continues to stress its importance. He might no longer be in government but he is still too astute a politician to make himself unwittingly a hostage to fortune, so we have to assume that he is doing so consciously, aware that posterity might judge his efforts harshly, even if the Games themselves are a roaring success.

For now, though, everyone seems happy with Lord Coe's efforts, including Lord Coe himself. "We're in good nick," he said. "But I don't kid myself. The last year is the business end, and everything is much more in the public domain."

The tickets, in particular, are now very much in the public domain, with plenty of people still disgruntled by the way they were issued. And so I asked Lord Coe whether he considered the criticism of the ticket distribution was in any way justified.

"I think we're a pretty good organisation," he replied, in that slick politician's way of meeting a negative with a positive, "and I think we're doing for two billion what most organisations would do for three, but we ask ourselves all the time whether things could have been done better. The answer lies in the numbers, which are in themselves very revealing. When you've got two million people bidding for nearly 23 million tickets, and you've got just over six million to distribute, there are challenges. But those numbers have led to an extraordinary vote of confidence in 26 Olympic sports that have never sold out in previous Games."

In other words, the criticism was not justified? "Well, could we have done it differently? The technology would not have stood up to first-come, first-served, and it would have been much more difficult to control ticket touts. On the basis of such massive demand, I genuinely believe that the fairest way was for those over-subscribed sessions to go to ballot. We also wanted affordable prices, and I think we've got pretty near to that, with two-thirds of the tickets £50 or less, but we also had to recognise that ticket sales account for about a quarter of our budget, circa £500m." A small amount of that, it seems worth adding, comes from the Coe pocket. "I went into the ballot on behalf of my kids... we got some hockey, and I think one session of track and field."

I don't suppose too many people would have begrudged the LOCOG chairman (and, lest we forget, track-and-field legend, still the only man to win consecutive Olympic titles at 1,500m) a little insider-dealing when it came to tickets for his own children, but then he didn't get where he is today without keeping his nose scrupulously clean.

Where he was on the day we met, to be specific, was a large committee room at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, just off Trafalgar Square. There were just three of us seated at an enormous table: myself, Lord Coe and his PR chief Joanna Manning-Cooper, who was as affably welcoming as His Lordship himself, quite relaxed when the interview ran on for 15 minutes longer than my allocated 45, and happy to join in with some parting football chat (Lord Coe is a Chelsea FC devotee, who sometimes drops in on the training ground on his way home, and confessed to having spent the night before in front of Chelsea TV).

Cheerful transparency seems to be LOCOG's ethos, and three cheers for it, but it can be disarming, perhaps intentionally so, and it wouldn't do to be disarmed of certain questions. For instance, is there a preoccupation with that L-word – legacy – potentially to the detriment of the Games themselves? And, for that matter, how does Lord Coe answer those who say that the legacy cannot possibly live up to the extravagant expectations? There has even been criticism last week of the names for the five new neighbourhoods due to rise on the site of the Olympic Park, though they were chosen by the public. The L-word, it seems, is daily undermined by that most British of C-words: cynicism.

Lord Coe admitted that LOCOG has not done a perfect job of explaining to people the difference between the operating costs of the Games, "which is borne by our ability to raise £2bn, and then the slightly tabloidy view that the cost of the Games is billions and billions, forgetting that 75 per cent of the billions is the regeneration of East London, which I would concede shouldn't have needed the Games to have done, but it has left world-class venues in a part of London devoid of any real economic momentum for as long as I can remember. I'm really proud of that, and it's an investment. People often sit there saying it's a cost, but in the Health Service they don't say a new hospital is a cost, it's an investment in community health. I don't think we've yet won that argument in sport."

And so to the other strand of the legacy, the likelihood of the Olympics, and of course the Paralympics, mobilising battalions of hitherto inactive children. Again, the subject has kindled cynicism and even think-tank studies suggesting that the impact will fall way short of the projections, but Lord Coe offered the best possible evidence that great deeds can spring simply from watching the Olympics on the telly.

"I had a very ordinary background in Sheffield, I went to a secondary modern, but I saw something on TV in 1968 that inspired me to join an athletics club, and 12 years later, with great coaching and the support of people who loved me a lot, I ended up at an Olympic Games. So it's not just about a triumph of project management, about traffic running smoothly, about people feeling enchanted by their visit to London. Those are all important but we do have to remember: 'Why did we go to Singapore?'

"Legacy is a very tangible thing, not as complex as people try to make it, and the skill after 2012 is making sure that every medal is translated into X thousand more kids participating. For many people the medals table is the measure of the Games, but for me it's just a league table. The real challenge, after we've finished fourth or fifth, is what can we do now? I'd like to feel that in 10 years' time I'll be looking back in my dotage at a landscape where more young people are playing sport."

For a man who turns 55 next month, Lord Coe still looks indecently fit and youthful, so I'm not sure his 65th year will represent his dotage exactly, but that aside, what if the landscape in a decade's time is not as he would wish it? Will he then consider London 2012 to have been a failure? "No, although I'd be disappointed. But I don't think people in East London will think it a failure."

I then guided him backwards rather than forwards in time, to 1988, when after he had failed to qualify for the Olympic squad, having run in the heats while suffering from a cold, the Daily Mirror ran a "Coe Must Go" campaign. I ventured that he was probably happy not to see "Coe Must Go" headlines in the Mirror now, and he obliged me with a laugh, then further obliged me by confirming the truth of something I found on Wikipedia – where no self-respecting journalist should ever do his research – that he was offered the chance to run for India at Seoul in 1988.

"Yes, because my mother's father was Indian, a hotelier in Delhi, and my mother's mother was half-Irish, so if I was playing the Vinnie Jones card, I could have competed for Southern Ireland or India. It's true that India did get excited for a time, which just shows that the Olympic Games is the perfect local story. In 1980, after I won in Moscow, the Sheffield Morning Telegraph described me as a son of Sheffield. In the Yorkshire Post I was hewn from God's own county. In the Leicester Mercury and Loughborough Echo it was world-class coaching in the East Midlands wot did it, and six weeks after the Games my grandmother was voted Grandmother of the Year by the Fulham and something Chronicle, while at the same time I was getting glowing editorials out of The Times of India." And The Irish Times? "No, the Irish still hadn't twigged. It was much later that they said: 'Shit, we had no idea you could have run for us'."

It is an exotic heritage, but the greatest and most direct influence on him was his formidable father and coach, Peter, who died three years ago last week, aged 88, without ever opening up about his extraordinary adventures during World War Two. Missing for almost 18 months and believed to have perished at sea, he had indeed been on a boat torpedoed in the Atlantic, but was rescued and captured by the Germans, then escaped from a train taking him through France to a POW camp. He made his way across the Pyrenees, walking by night and sleeping byday, only to be arrested and imprisoned in Spain for six months for not having the right papers. Is it fanciful to look for something of his father's remarkable fortitude in Lord Coe himself?

"Well, nothing I've done is comparable, but I guess we both had a streak of belligerence, though I like to think I have a few more people skills. I remember him having an absolute up-and-downer with the federation. I blanched at some of the things he said. But afterwards he said: 'I don't give a shit... the last 43 years have been a bonus'. That was one of the few times he referred to the war. Not a day goes by without me missing him intensely. He was a very smart guy."

So, undoubtedly, is Lord Coe. But maybe he needs to be lucky as well as smart. In 363 days' time we will know for sure.