Trying to keep up with Lord of the rings who is always on the run
Seb Coe spreads the word to the shires and asks communities to pick up the Olympic baton. Alan Hubbard joins him on a whistle-stop tour
Sunday 20 June 2010
We are on the 8.10am from King's Cross to Leeds, and Baron Coe of Ranmore is sipping tea from a cardboard cup and scooping fruit salad from a plastic container, a somewhat less than lordly repast hastily purchased from the station buffet. He is also digesting the day's schedule and as usual the double Olympic champion, now lord of London's Olympic rings, is on the run, as he has been since his persuasive eloquence was instrumental in securing the 2012 Games five years ago.
Subsequently he has become sport's supreme travelling salesman and today he is on another retailing mission, to deliver the message that while the Olympics and Paralympics are a capital idea, it is not just London which can profit from staging the biggest sporting show ever held in Britain.
To this end, the London Olympic Games Organising Committee have initiated a number of schemes to encourage cities, towns, villages and communities throughout the UK to play their part in making 2012 a national celebration and convince them, in Coe's words, "that this is a momentous opportunity for British business in the current economic climate". He expands on this as we head north to what the London-born Coe claims is actually his manor – Yorkshire.
"I have always regarded it as my home county," he says. "It was where I learned my trade as an athlete. I was at school in Sheffield, did most of my early athletics there, went to university in Loughborough and my mother was Indian, so I don't naturally view the world from inside the M25.
"From the outset, even before we won the bid, I was trying to convince people that however compelling the story was, this could not be seen simply as 200 acres of regeneration in east London. There had to be a relevance to the people in Truro and Stornaway. We set up these programmes in the early days to drive this message into their own backyards, modelling it on the nine English regions, plus Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We involved all sorts of people and organisations, local MPs,sports bodies, schools and health authorities. The whole idea was to inspire another generation for sport. For me this has always been the template.
"In Yorkshire some 28 businesses have picked up contracts in connection with the Olympics. Everything from construction to publishing, several hundred million pounds' worth of business. When you think we have to procure about a million pieces of sports equipment, 16,500 shuttlecocks, 146 weightlifting bars, 30 horses for the modern pentathlon, that we have an Olympic village to furnish requiring 17,000 beds – that is an example of how British businesses can profit from the Games in London.
"I recognise that when I go to Stornaway, there aren't too many people there who are going to be at the Games. But there are businesses there who can benefit. They can use the Games as a showcase. It is really important that the Games leave a legacy, and much of that legacy must be outside London. When people ask, 'Is there really anything in it for us?' my job is to persuade them there is."
We arrive in Leeds at 10.23am and half an hour later Coe, briefed in the car by his aides, ultra-efficient former media executive Angela Salt and 20-year-old Becky Syrett, who joined 2012 for work experience and has now landed her first job with them, is addressing an audience of 200 at the Yorkshire Gold Business Club conference at Bradford's Valley Parade. He speaks effortlessly and largely without notes. "Things come alive when I get out of London and come to places like this," he assures them.
By noon we are across the city at Lister Park, and a programme called Bradford Gold, where local Young Ambassadors display their fabric work highlighting the Cultural Olympics. Next he is mobbed by Yorkshire schoolkids and hands over plaques and certificates, starts a cycling demonstration and yells encouragement as breathless young runners pound the grass track in a 400m race.
As he chats with the kids and glad-hands the dignitaries, it is with dexterity borne of the politician he once was. Handed a microphone, he slips into oratory overdrive. "We've got the Games, we've got the structure, we've got the strategy. Now it is over to you and your local communities to pick up the baton," he tells them.
On our whistle-stop tour there is hardly time to catch breath, barely time to snatch a sandwich – or in the 53-year-old Coe's case, half a pork pie.
At every stop he is greeted like royalty, and in sporting terms he is probably the closest thing we have. In Shipley, at 1.45pm, he stops by a local pool to present a certificate to 13-year-old Sam Thornton, a Tom Daley wannabe. "What advice would you give me?" asks the dripping-wet red-headed lad. "Listen to your coach and just live your dream," he is told. Coe adds: "It's a pity you're a bit too young for London, but I'll see you in Rio in 2016."
It's back to Bradford for 3.15pm where he is joined by the new sports minister, Hugh Robertson, for more speeches and presentations, this time at the 500th Inspire Network project, which rewards smart and creative ways to promote a 2012 connection.
Then it's the 4.05pm back to London, where Coe is dashing to yet another evening of flesh-pressing. He says: "When we went to Singapore, we were not just bidding for 16 days of sport, the intention was always to inspire young people throughout the nation to get involved. There is one word which sums up 2012: opportunity."
It has been a day of endless interviews and photo-opportunities, all undertaken with patience, charming everyone as he signed autographs and posed for "just one more please Seb". "He's not at all uppity for a lord, is he?" one bystander remarked at Lister Park. In the 30 years I've known him, uppity is not a word you could ever associate with Lord Sebastian Coe.
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