October 28, 2011 10:13 pm

Torch-bearer

The man who will be welcoming the world to the London Olympics opens his house in a little Kent village

Sir Keith Mills does not look as though he has been partying until 1am at the Olympic Ball as he welcomes me to his home in a little Kent village, a few miles from Tonbridge. He is dressed in jeans and a sweater and his eyes do not betray any strain from an evening with Stephen Fry, Princess Anne, a raucous auctioneer, the singing of Tom Jones and the champagne that flowed in London’s Olympia the previous night.

“I have,” says Mills, “learnt to pace myself.” He has had plenty of experience since helping London win the Olympics and, as deputy chairman of London 2012, he will have plenty more before the Games start.

This Grade II-listed house is his family home – he also has a Georgian house in London and one in Devon. Part Tudor, dating back to 1530, a Victorian middle leads to an extension that Mills built after he moved in 10 years ago. As he shows me to the modern living room, he heads for the Bechstein piano – he does not play but his daughter does. Displayed on the opposite wall is the French Limoges porcelain dinner set his wife Maureen bought while they were living in Boston. It cost just £300 and Mills had advised her not to buy it. “It is probably worth £10,000,” he says proudly, “It dates from 1920.” It is so precious that the Mills hardly ever use it.

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In a room full of paintings, the one he really treasures is behind the piano. By German painter Otto Piltz, it shows a continental café scene. “My favourite painting,” says Mills. “Look at all the little detail, mud on their boots.”

It was attention to detail that marked Mills out when London bid for 2012. His job was to woo members of the International Olympic Committee and work out their voting intentions. On the morning of the vote in Singapore in 2005, he wrote on the back of an envelope that London would beat Paris by four votes. That is exactly how it turned out.

Yet two years earlier, Mills had given no thought to the Olympics, nor even attended a Games. Then, when bid leader Barbara Cassani needed to find a deputy, to his surprise he landed the job. “I was”, confesses the man who invented Airmiles and Nectar cards, “very naive when it came to the Olympics.”

This “naivety” proved useful. It prompted Mills to seek advice from IOC members. “They quite enjoyed being consulted,” he says, and that helped to diminish the British reputation for arrogance that had doomed three previous bids. “We were not saying give us the Olympics because we invented half the sports in the world. We built on the ideas IOC members gave us and they felt London’s Olympics were their Games.”

Mills agrees that one IOC idea, special Olympic traffic lanes, is not going down well with the public. His justification, that they are necessary for athletes, coaches, medics and officials to get to the venues on time, is a familiar one. But what about sponsors such as Coca-Cola using the lanes?

Carriage clock from a Kent charity shop

Carriage clock from a Kent charity shop, a joke gift from Mills’s wife

“Over half of £2bn plus operating costs of the Games,” says Mills, “have come from sponsors. They will be travelling to the events in coaches with their customers, the benefit from shelling out £1bn. The need for Olympic lanes is one of the many things we have to explain between now and next summer.”

Mills concedes that he will never be able to convert some Britons to the Olympic idea. “Twenty per cent of the nation will always believe the Olympics are bad. But, when the torch arrives in May and goes round the UK, you will see the excitement. By the time we light the flame in the Olympic Park in July, the whole country will be on the edge of their seats.”

He accepts the forecast made by Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, of a depression worse than the 1930s but insists the Games will help bring back the nation’s smile. “We did not plan it that way when we bid. It would have been tougher to get the bid through the Treasury now. Even in 2003, Gordon Brown was very against the Olympic Games. Now what the country needs is not just a financial injection but a morale injection. We are putting billions into the economy and, the closer we get to the Olympics, the country will experience a much-needed economic and emotional boost.”

When Mills himself needs a boost, all he has to do is step over the threshold of his living room, past his study, and into the Tudor drawing room. The Mills have preserved the old fireplace and the original front door. The only modern touch is a television concealed inside a cupboard. “This is our family room; it is fantastically cosy.”

The snooker room has cartoons about Mills on the walls

The snooker room has cartoons about Mills on the walls

It leads on to a snooker room, the walls of which Maureen has plastered with cartoons depicting Mills’s life including the launch of Airmiles and the Olympics. A different kind of history is recorded on a plaque on the wall outside. It reads: “Above this roof the Battle of Britain was fought and won August 8-October 10 1940.”

Mills regrets he will not be able to make British sailing history by winning the America’s Cup, something no Briton has ever done. Last September, having spent, he says, “tens of millions” getting a competitive boat and a crew headed by Olympic champion Ben Ainslie, Mills withdrew from the competition.

“Sadly the Americans won the Cup again and they have now designed a competition that is not winnable other than by them. But that is very consistent. For 130 years since the competition began, the Americans have been making it impossible for others to win. If the rules gave the challenging teams a fair chance I would put another team together.”

The failure hurts but, should the London Olympics be the success that Mills predicts, that will more than compensate. It will also be a personal first: seeing a project through from start to finish. As he says, half in jest, “All my life I have started businesses then got a management team in and moved on to the next idea. That is the flaw in my character.”

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FAVOURITE THINGS

1902 America's Cup book

Mills hates hoarding objects, but he cherishes this 1902 America’s Cup book showing the history of the Cup (pictured below). “I love its rough edges and old printing.”

On an etching called “All the World’s London”: “I commissioned Graham Clarke, a Kentish painter, to depict the Olympics in London: every single sport and the 1908 and 1948 Games. He brings out London’s diversity, Italian and Indian restaurants, and Harrods, where he appropriately put Maureen. I wanted to give it to IOC members but was told I could not, so I gave it to the Queen and Tony Blair.”

On Millie and Molly, six-year-old West Highland terriers: “They came five years ago, when Maureen had breast cancer and we thought she might die. They are my Essex girls.”

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