The clock is ticking but we're setting a good pace
Tomorrow the London Games will be exactly three years away. One long-distance runner is confident that both delivery and legacy are right on track
Sunday 26 July 2009
Sebastian Coe was never one for complacency. He will cheerily tell of the moment soon after returning from Beijing last summer when he was invited to lead a lap of honour of returning Olympians around the pitch at a Chelsea home game. As he paraded past the Shed end, the crowd burst into an impromptu chorus of "There's only one Steve Ovett".
Those of us who have known him from lad to lordship will attest that counting chickens has never been one of his characteristics, which is why, exactly three years from tomorrow, when the lights go up on the most ambitious sporting extravaganza ever staged in Britain, the biggest sigh of relief in the Royal Box will be emitted from the lips of Baron Coe of Ranmore.
The man who has galvanised London's efforts, from winning the bid in Singapore four years ago this month to sanguine fruition 1,097 days from now, says he cannot wait for 12 minutes past eight in the evening (that's 20.12 precisely on the clock – geddit?) on 27 July those three years hence when the new Olympic Stadium in Stratford will be the world's centrefold.
A myriad of mandarins and quite a few moguls have been enlisted to help Coe carry the torch towards 2012 but it will be the 52-year-old former double Olympic gold medallist who carries the can if it all goes belly-up between now and then. Of course there's no chance of that. Complacency is one thing, confidence another, and Coe has that in spades, although he admits it is not going to be a walk in the Olympic Park.
Since the inspirational leadership in Singapore which sealed London's acquisition of the Games ahead of the favourites Paris, Coe and his team have enjoyed showers of bouquets, not least from the International Olympic Committee whose progress-chasers have delivered glowing reports which say that no city has ever been as far advanced or better organised in its planning.
The main stadium is shaping up well ahead of schedule and there is every indication that, in terms of performance, the host nation will exceed even its unprecedented triumphs in Beijing.
However, lately there have been brickbats hurled at Coe's door in his office high above Canary Wharf, although most, such as the missing £100 million in the accounts for the land development at the Olympic Park, are not his babies as chairman of Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) but those of the LDA (London Development Agency) and ODA (Olympic Development Authority).
While he is bullish that the recession will not diminish the Games plan, it has forced a rethink over some of the venues and there are both new and existing issues surrounding those that will be used for a number of sports, notably boxing, shooting and equestrianism. And, of course, there's the buzz word that has become a bug word: legacy.
So how does 27 July 2012 look from 27 July 2009? "On budget and on time," replies Coe, the Olympics ringmaster insisting that London won't be clearing up the mess deposited by white elephants either.
"We've had our moments but I don't really think there's anything I'd describe as a downside. To say we are sitting here with three years to go with two settled and resilient budgets, with the bulk of our venues nailed down and signed off, with a fund- raising effort on our side of the fence that has exceeded anything that a previous summer Games has achieved, and that we've still got an 80 per cent approval rating UK-wide, well, if you'd asked me three years ago if I would take that, yes I would.
"But the delivery of the Olympics is never a steady upward trajectory, but we will get there. I really want people to start believing now. One of the things I adore about this country is that we have an ability to doubt our ability more than any other nation. In the past two weeks I've been on the road in Singapore, Africa and Europe, and everywhere they are enthused about the Games and the progress we are making.
"Quite a number of countries are already making plans to establish their pre-Games training bases in various cities here. They see this as an extraordinary project.
"So what do I want, three years out? I want people to start seeing beyond the next hillock. As a nation we are slow burners but we will get there because in east London the skyline is changing and in Middlesbrough there are now parents who have got kids rowing when a couple of years ago they didn't even know what a boat looked like – and they will get there because from a depressed area in a suburb of Newark you've got a cluster of kids who in October are going out to Brazil in our Olympic exchange programme."
So does he see some of the blips, such as the £100m hole in the Olympic Park programme and the rows over venues, as merely minor irritations? "No. To say that would be very cavalier about important issues. All these we have either worked our way through or are in the process of doing so. I am chairing an organisation that in the space of 16 days is going to deliver 26 simultaneous world championships across 34 different venues. Then we'll take a short breather and do pretty much the same for 20 Paralympic sports over 25 venues.
"You have to put these things into perspective. I haven't seen very much in these past three years that has either surprised me or made me less believing in what we are doing."
But doesn't this make him sound, er, complacent? "Complacent? Never. The complexity of this project is of such an order that even a vestige of complacency would be a very dangerous thing. But this is not the time to be timid.
"Given that we have got partly into the current economic mess by some rather narrow, individualistic behaviour, there is never a better time to refresh and remind people that the values that set us off bidding for these Games are never more apposite.
"You look at the values of the Olympic movement and of sport and they are about fairness and pulling together in the community, about competition, courage, determination and endeavour – the very antithesis of what has been happening in a certain place across the city."
So speaks a former politician, a breed of which he says his late trades unionist father and coach Peter always had a low opinion. In fairness, since getting the Olympic job, the one-time Tory MP for Falmouth has avoided stepping into any political puddles as adroitly as he quickstepped his way around the world's tracks.
However, there are political issues to be dealt with, whatever government is in power in 2012 – legacy, and in particular the future of the Olympic Stadium, being the most contentious of them.
"Legacy will not fall into our laps just because we've got a Games that we think will incite and inspire. If we don't do something that is coherent and strategic then we will end up like Wimbledon when the tennis rackets come out and a fortnight later are back in the cupboard. We can't afford that because we will never have this opportunity again.
"I am not sitting here being overly complacent but nor am I in any doubt that in the key areas we will get that legacy. But how we monitor it and how we make sure that tap is not turned off after 2012 is very important.
"What is the legacy? If you are a Londoner, you will have a world-class track and field facility, a velo-park, a proper swimming facility and more than an even chance of having a new home in east London.
"But you can't just look at legacy as bricks and mortar. For me, legacy is about leaving behind a sustainable community, and an 85,000-seater stadium is not contributing to that. You don't want anything that local people can press their noses up against and wonder why we built it in the first place."
So is the idea of converting the athletics-destined Olympic Stadium into a potential football venue for the 2018 World Cup – and Coe himself is now part of that bid team – out of the window? "The primary purpose of the Olympic Stadium, which has always been track and field – though not uniquely so – is still on the table.
"I do remind people that it was basically football that turned its back on that facility and in some quarters there was this romantic view that we were going to hand a £400m asset across to a Premiership football club.
"Believe it or not, I did not go to Singapore to pitch for Premiership football. Premiership football in London can stand on its own two feet. I am more concerned about the have-nots. Football has always made it clear that it does not like playing in a track-and-field configuration, passing over the fact that the last three Champions' League finals have been in a stadium that's had a running track and I haven't noted any lack of enthusiasm over that."
As we chatted in a pavement cafe in Leicester Square a woman ventured across from a nearby table. "Good luck with the Olympics, Seb," she said, "I'm sure it will be wonderful."
"We'll do our best," smiled Coe.
Flecks of grey may be sprouting in his hair but as ever he seems to be pacing the distance well. "I wouldn't be sitting out this dance for anything," he said. "I'm very lucky to be able to do what I am doing. I wake up every day excited."
But what happens when he wakes up on the day it's all over? How does he see life after 2012? "You've been asking me that question for the last four years. The answer is I don't know."
So here's a thought. While Coe says that any ambitions are now sporting rather than political, if it all turns out to be as wonderful as the lady suggests, wouldn't he be a perfect candidate to pick up the London mayoral baton if Boris Johnson decided to pass it on?
After all, by then even Chelsea fans might have acknowledged that there's only one Sebastian Coe.
The International Olympic Committee's glowing reports
'They are as much a testament to the quality of our team as they are to the vision we took to Singapore. I will always have a huge debt of gratitude to Tony Blair, who saw the big picture straightaway.'
Changing Mayors in London
'Boris [Johnson] and I have a very good and close working relationship but I will always pay the most fulsome tribute to Ken [Livingstone]. We wouldn't have done it the way we did without him. Boris probably gets sport more than Ken, who saw it as a way of regenerating the East End.'
England's 2018 World Cup bid
'Is it winnable? My gut says yes – if we get the message right – but it's a bloody long slog and you have to sell a very compelling vision. I don't bid for a hobby but I've got a reasonable nose for a campaign and this is a good one with a good team.'
Moving Boxing to Wembley
'I am a boxing fan [and a former Board of Control steward] and the one thing I will never compromise on is the welfare of the athletes. Wembley is the spiritual home of boxing and it is up to us to find a solution where we can use this great place and still allow them to be part of the Olympic atmosphere.'
The UK catching Olympic fever
'I think there was a seismic shift of attitude during Beijing. What we did threw all the cards up in the air. People were staying up to watch caneoing at 2.30 in the morning.'
British hopes in the World Athletics Championships
'I don't think there will be a sack full of medals in Berlin but I want to see a slightly higher strike rate, particularly more men getting into finals. We are coming from far further behind for 2012 than I would like but Charles [the coach, Van Commenee] is a serious player.'
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