London’s Olympic Chair speaks to Daniel Whitehead about a future in politics, his views on current drug laws and the role of universities in discovering sporting talent.
“And the world record has gone, he’s knocked a second off it and done it all by himself. This must surely be the greatest front runner of all time. Astonishing.” It’s Oslo, 1981, and Sebastian Newbold Coe, aged 25, has just broken his own 1000m world record. Lasting for the next 18 years, this moment was considered to be one of the greatest achievements in modern athletics.
Fast-forward 27 years, and Lord Coe is no longer chasing his own records; instead he is charged with overseeing a new generation of British athletes, as the Chairman of the London Organising Committee for the 2012 Olympics.
I join him at York College, where he is hosting a presentation on the role of higher education institutions in developing sporting talent.
“Organising London 2012 is a huge project; but I’m enjoying it. It’s a fabulous job, and one of the nicer manifestations of it is going out into communities seeing what’s happening at a local level,” he states as we stride through the vast corridors of the college; his entourage in tow. “My work is very broad. It’s about putting a transport system together that allows 10,500 athletes to travel around the city and between venues. We need the right kind of venues that are cutting edge; that crucially are able to produce a return to local communities.”
Although York is unlikely to feature as a host of any major sporting events during the games, Coe is confident the city has a major role to play in the lead up to 2012. “We have all of the training venues now in place; a few are locally based [in York] and now it’s up to colleges and such venues to go out and work together with our organisations to attract sports, individuals and coaches. We want the games venues and training camps to provide proper preperation facilities, and for our local communities to engage with those teams not just coming to London to compete, but to all our parts of the country in order to prepare for the games.”
Coe, dressed in a trim black suit, white shirt and red tie, cuts an impressive figure with a towering and charismatic presence. Speaking to him, it is apparent that he is a man of great confidence and self-belief, which is understandable given his outstandingly successful career.
Born on September 29, 1956 in Chiswick, London, Coe is the eldest of four children. The family was known for its athleticism: Peter Coe was a cyclist, and Coe’s grandfather had been a sprinter. He started running at a young age, from which point it was clear he had great potential. That potential saw him become one of Britain’s greatest middle-distance runners, winning two Olympic gold medals at 1500m, and famously setting three world records in less than six weeks in 1979 for the 800m, 1 mile and 1500m.
After retiring, in 1992 he began a five year spell as a Conservative MP for Falmouth and Calborne before being ousted in the 1997 general election. When asked about rumours that he is looking to run for London mayor in the future Coe gives a wry laugh. “My future is set for the next four years; I don’t even think beyond that.”
In the meantime Coe is an assiduous ambassador for the London Olympics. Since the Olympic bid victory of 2005 in Singapore, Coe has been constantly under the media spotlight. His aim now is to distinguish London 2012 as an outstanding games.
“One of the things we said in Singapore was that we wanted the games to be athlete focused”. He tells me of his vision of a games where overseas athletes and local communities across the country work together to provide “proper preparation camps”.
It is apparent that his biggest challenge may be convincing a sceptical media that British athletes are capable of meeting the nation’s expectations.
When I ask him about a recent report which suggests British athletes are not receiving adequate support to meet the targets set for 2012 he begins to look uncomfortable. “The report is four and a half years out; some sports are driving ahead. Most of the sporting federations are doing pretty well given that we’re four and a half years out and focusing on something that is important for them to get right. It’s not just about funding; it’s about presenting their sport which is an attractive sport for the next generation of youngsters to come through.”
Coe is highly diplomatic throughout most of the interview; choosing his words carefully as to avoid controversy. His thoughts on British hopes for the Beijing Olympics were equally restrained. “It’s not for me to be confident or not confident – that’s actually for the British Olympic Association and UK sport, my responsibility is to make sure that we have a games in London which is operationally effective and that leaves a legacy behind. I’d rather let the medals tables and the forms of the athletes to the organisations that are better positioned to do that. It’s up to the British Olympic Association to meet the target it has set; it has set a very ambitious target which they will be judged on.”
As we continue walking he looks around uneasily for an excuse to end the interview. I push on for one final question. So what is your opinion of Dwayne Chambers attempt to repeal his lifetime Olympics ban? I receive perhaps the most forthright answer of the afternoon. “My opinion has never changed in the 30 years I’ve been talking about it; I’ve always been in favour of a lifetime ban. That isn’t what we have; we have a two-year ban in most sports. In my own sport, of which I am Vice-President, we are trying to move the ban to four years.
“I think it’s the responsibility of all governing bodies to make sure if anyone steps outside the rules particualrly as serious as drug abuse in sport, that they’re either kicked out of the sport or given a very serious penalty that acts as a deterrent to other people.” At this point he thanks me for my company and as with so many others before, leaves me trailing behind.