DJ Taylor: Coe, the corporate reality softener

We should not be surprised if the former 1,500m world record holder now defends official high-handedness on the podium

Related Topics

Anyone who took an interest in the world of track and field athletics back in the early 1980s will find one aspect of the current Olympic Games a source of mild unease. I refer, of course, to the front-of-house role occupied by the former 800m and 1,500m world record holder and one-time Tory MP, Lord Coe.

Thirty years ago, when he appeared on television on an almost weekly basis with most of the world's middle-distance runners flailing vainly in his wake, Sebastian Coe was about the nearest thing this country possessed to the Corinthian ideal: clean-cut, nicely spoken, sporting, intelligent (there was a sensation when he was pictured descending an aircraft's steps with a copy of The Spectator under his arm), and as likely to have taken performance-enhancing drugs as to be guest vocalist on a Sex Pistols come-back album.

Here in 2012, on the other hand, Lord Coe's persona is necessarily rather different. He has now been reinvented as a corporate apologist-cum-reality softener, the man who, should it turn out that McDonald's and Coca-Cola have been secretly awarded the catering contract for dozens of inner-London schools, will have to face the cameras with a smile. At the same time, my own private sorrowings at the depths to which this hero of my late adolescence has been reduced are tempered by an awareness that what we have here is, broadly speaking, an elemental law: the absolute right of sporting heroes to carve out destinies for themselves that may not conform to the expectations of their fans.

In fact, looking at Lord Coe as he marches to the podium to defend some piece of official high-handedness, I was reminded of the moment, in about 1973, when I realised that the well-nourished gentleman striding towards me in the bowels of Norwich City FC's Carrow Road ground was Sir – as he now is – Geoff Hurst, then manager of Stoke City. "Please Mr Hurst," I quavered, "may I have your autograph?" Alas, he strode on. Then, I was hugely indignant at this slight. Now I realise that what might be called the Coe Principle applies and, just like anyone else, ex-professional sports people should be allowed lives of their own.

If one cannot admire the way in which Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, handles the business of his department, one may at least relish his absolutely colossal cheek.

Quite how Mr Hunt managed to hold on to his job in the aftermath of his appearance at the Leveson inquiry is one of the great political mysteries of the age, for he emerged from it horribly tainted by the reek of compromised loyalties.

You might have thought that his exposure as the Murdoch empire's Cabinet fixer might have encouraged Mr Hunt to keep his opinions to himself for a while. But no, there he was again earlier in the week hinting that future Olympic Games could be screened on Sky TV. Having recently shelved the last government's scheme for a review of key sporting events, including the World Cup and the Olympics, the Culture Secretary has declared that he will revisit the issue when the digital switchover is completed later this year. "We thought that was the right thing to do because the broadcasting landscape is likely to change," he innocently remarked.

As an example of sucking up to your friends while speaking the language of sweet, technological reason, this deserves some kind of award. Above it hovers a first principle which a government supposedly keen on inclusiveness – and even that enticing abstract, the national spirit – has never bothered to examine. Surely if an international sporting event involves the participation of a United Kingdom team, then it becomes a national spectacle, of potential interest to everyone, irrespective of their ability to afford a satellite dish, and not simply a means to inflate Mr Murdoch's profits? There are enough government-sponsored rips and holes in the national fabric already, without Mr Hunt wanting to unravel it even further.

Q: What is the link between Hello! magazine and the novelist George Gissing, author of such gloomy late-Victorian masterpieces as New Grub Street (1891) and Born in Exile (1892)? The answer, I discovered from reading Professor Pierre Coustillas's monumental The Heroic Life of George Gissing Part III: 1897-1903, is that Gissing, albeit indirectly, was responsible for our current use of the collective noun "paparazzi".

Visiting the southern Italian town of Cotrone in 1897, Gissing had the misfortune to lodge in a grim hotel ("not very comfortable", the food "very poor") named the Albergo Centrale, whose proprietor was a certain Corialano Paparazzo. Sixty years on, having come across a copy of Gissing's travelogue By the Ionian Sea (1900), in which Sr Paparazzo appears, Fellini gave this name to the seedy snapper in La Dolce Vita.

Trying to think of a comparable instance of baton-passing, I came up with the American rock band Death Cab for Cutie, whose name is taken from a song performed by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. But the Bonzos stole this from Richard Hoggart's celebrated socio-literary survey The Uses of Literacy (1957), where it features as the title of an imaginary and morally injurious gangster film. No doubt about it, cross-media cultural transmissions are almost as mysterious as Jeremy Hunt's ability to hang on to his job.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little