I can remember exactly where I was when Sebastian Coe won gold at the 1984 Olympic Games. It was a hotel lobby in the city of Trabzon in eastern Turkey, and I was transfixed by the television behind the reception desk. In distant Los Angeles, the slight figure of Coe was streaking away from the field, becoming the only man ever to win the 1,500m at successive Olympics.
Now, almost three decades later, I am sitting in a restaurant in Chelsea, waiting for Lord Coe, as he now is, to arrive for lunch. Most great athletes drop out of the public eye when their sporting careers come to an end. But Coe is once again a hero in Britain, after chairing the organising committee for the London Olympics. The games went far better than many Britons had dared hope – and Coe is basking in public approval. His memoirs are being published, just in time for the Christmas market.
He has chosen to meet at a small Italian restaurant, just a block from Chelsea football club. Coe, who was born a couple of miles away, is a devoted Chelsea supporter and season-ticket holder, who sits in the Shed End, among the diehard fans. As I wait, the proprietor of L’Antico, Franco D’Alessio, tells me proudly that Coe eats at his restaurant before every home game. Indeed, he is such a devotee that the previous weekend Coe had booked the whole restaurant for his son’s 18th birthday party. This sounds like a very grand gesture – but L’Antico is a small and unpretentious auplace. The plastic menus contain all the Italian standards and the whitewashed walls are decorated with Chelsea memorabilia.
Slightly late, Coe bustles in. I have positioned myself at the back of the restaurant, since it is quiet. But Coe asks if we could sit at his favourite table, which is in the front room, near the other diners. Now aged 56, he looks remarkably unchanged from the athlete, who I watched winning the Olympics all those years ago. Casually dressed in brown cords and a pink shirt, under a cotton jumper, he remains slim and fit-looking with a full head of black hair.
As we settle down, I tell him that the story that I had most enjoyed in his book was about the evening in 1979 when Coe first broke a world record. He was running the 800m in Oslo. After the race, he had to go up to the deserted press box to find a phone and call the factory in Sheffield where his father and coach, Peter, worked as a manager. A secretary answered the phone and asked if there was a message to pass on. “Just tell him his son’s broken the 800m world record,” said Coe. “All right, love,” came the reply.
I remark that the whole episode had made me feel nostalgic for a distant age – before the internet, Twitter and texting. But it seems as if Coe still inhabits that world. “I’ve never sent an email in my life,” he says. “My kids laugh. I often hand the phone to them and say can you text this message to somebody. I don’t even have a computer on my desk.” Struggling to suppress my incredulity, I ask how he had managed to run the London Olympics. “Well, I’m being slightly disingenuous,” he smiles. “I do have a team of people and I dictate things, and they do go out on email.”
As I digest this news, Franco the proprietor arrives. “Penne arrabiata,” he says to Coe. It is a statement, rather than a question. Coe nods his assent. Impressed by this, I say that I will have the same. Coe gives me a thumbs-up and says, “It’s the best arrabiata, west of Naples.” He orders a green salad, and a lemonade. Not to be a complete copycat, I order a Caprese salad and some sparkling water.
Since Coe has mentioned his children – he has two boys and two girls, by his first marriage – I ask whether they inherited his athletic ability? “They’re all sporting. I’ve got hockey players and rugby players and riders and things like that, and they all love sport. But I don’t sense they’re quite as obsessive about it as I was.” I ask whether it is hard to avoid putting pressure on them. He shakes his head emphatically. “No, I never do that ... I think that they’re all good runners. I’ve no doubt about that. But I think they’ve probably figured out that, if they are going to make their mark, it will be a more comfortable experience for them, doing it in a sport where there would be no comparison.”
Coe’s relaxed attitude to his children contrasts markedly with his relationship with his own father: Peter Coe became Sebastian’s coach – and devoted himself to bringing the best out of his son’s prodigious talent. “He was an engineer, a good engineer,” recalls Coe. “He built a leg press for me, so at the age of 14, 15, I was under a great big lump of Sheffield steel and two guiders, three or four nights a week. I’m sure my brothers and sisters and my mother thought we were both absolutely demented.”
All this makes Peter Coe sound like something of a slave-driver. But one of his biggest contributions, his son insists, was actually to reduce the amount of training Sebastian did. In the 1970s, middle-distance runners were expected to do huge amounts of running in training to build up their endurance. Peter decided that this increased the risk of injury. His son would cover less distance in training, and would concentrate on building up his speed. The new approach worked. “In the space of a decade,” Coe tells me, “he really did change the nature of middle-distance running ... He wrote what is now still considered to be the definitive book on the art and science of middle-distance running.”
But when the time came for Coe to defend his Olympic title, in 1984, he broke with his father, deciding to train in the US, while his father stayed in Britain. Coe says it was one of the most difficult choices of life, but “I just needed to get away from speculation, questions about whether I was too old, too tired, too knackered.” His first reaction when he won in 1984 was not pure joy. It was to turn to the press box in Los Angeles and roar, “Who says I’m finished now?”
It is a much more relaxed figure who is sitting across the table from me, working his way through a vast bowl of penne arrabiata, swiftly and methodically. Coe managed the transition from athletics relatively seamlessly. Unlike many athletes, he had a career plan – politics. Unusually for a student in the 1970s, he had joined the young Conservatives at Loughborough university. Once he had retired from athletics, he had little difficulty in finding a parliamentary seat. In 1992, he was elected as a Tory MP for Falmouth and Camborne. Suddenly, he was in a new environment: “I rather assumed that when I went out on the track most people wanted me to do well, rather than badly ... You suddenly go to an occupation where, on a good day, you’ve probably only got about 30 per cent of people that are prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
In 1997, however, Coe lost his parliamentary seat in the landslide that carried Tony Blair to Downing Street. But his political career was not over, and he was appointed as chief-of-staff to William Hague, the inexperienced new Tory leader. It was a pretty thankless task since Hague made little headway against Blair. When the Tories lost a general election in 2001 and Hague resigned, Coe found himself in demand again – this time from Blair himself, who asked him to head London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics.
Spearing a last piece of pasta, Coe recalls that “I was literally out of the door of the leader of the Conservative party’s office and a year later briefing a Labour prime minister on international sports politics.”
Coe’s new job allowed him to regain his non-partisan status. But I notice that he has retained one political trait. He rarely speaks ill of anyone. So William Hague is described as “extraordinary fun, very grounded”; Tony Blair is “unbelievably good at what he did – one on one, really very very good”. Coe even speaks warmly of Sepp Blatter, the head of Fifa, the governing body of world football, and who is a hate-figure in England after the country’s unsuccessful bids to host the World Cup. “It’s easy to caricature people but I know him [Blatter] and he’s actually quite thoughtful. People talk about how he doesn’t like England. But actually, like a lot of Swiss, he really does.”
Coe continues: “If you look at it from his point of view, he’s in charge of the international game and he looks at a club system [in England] that’s never keen on releasing players for things [international fixtures]. And, I’m not saying anything that’s remotely remarkable, he just doesn’t really rate the people that run the game in this country ... Football, as a national sport, is still pretty dysfunctional.”
One of the reasons for Britain’s post-Olympic euphoria was that there had been widespread fears that the games would be a chaotic mess. The weeks before the opening ceremony had featured endless stories about ticketing snafus, security scares and transport nightmares. I ask Coe whether he had been surprised by the success of the games. “No,” he replies, bluntly – and with a hint of exasperated aggression.
After a pause, he continues: “I just guess I knew more about what was going on ... This wasn’t a case of ‘it’ll be alright on the night’. We spent three years crowd-modelling, working out the last mile, thinking about the spectator experience, working with Transport for London. That’s why it worked.”
. . .
Now “legacy” is the buzzword – and Coe has been put in charge of making sure London builds on the success of the games. “I think we’ve done things that can be taken forward,” he says, “because I think when it comes to service London has, in places, fallen behind.”
At the mention of service, as if on cue, a waiter arrives to ask if we would like a coffee. We both order double espressos.
Although lunch is winding down, Coe is warming to his theme: “We have an awful ability in this country to doubt our ability, often in the face of all credible and sensible evidence ... We should know that, as a nation, we’re absolutely at the top when it comes to event management ... Most people overseas were not remotely surprised by what we did ... IOC members were saying: ‘You guys are going to do a great job, look at the way you deliver Wimbledon, look at the way you do pageantry, cup finals, the Last Night of the Proms.’ ”
This is almost a political speech. And it strikes me that with his drive, name recognition, track record, clean-cut looks and political instincts, Coe would be touted as a senator or even a presidential candidate in the US. The British system works differently – and now that he is no longer in parliament, top politics looks closed to him.
Instead, he has a portfolio career in business, public speaking, consultancy and sport. He is in demand as a director and has just sold his consultancy firm and image rights to the marketing company Chime Communications in a complicated deal that is expected to net him an initial £1.5m, with the prospect of further millions over the next 15 years. He also seems bound for another intensely political world: the upper reaches of international sports administration. He is the only candidate to be the next head of the British Olympic Association and may eventually play a bigger role in the International Olympic Committee.
Still, Coe has firm views about his own country. He is worried that, having run themselves down excessively before the games, the British are now spending too much time patting themselves on the back. His reaction after winning an Olympic title in 1980 was to set out to win another one. To make his point, he rather scornfully recalls the open-top bus-ride that was awarded to the England cricket team, after they finally won an Ashes series against Australia in 2005. “The Australians wouldn’t give their guys an open-top bus-ride around Melbourne after winning the Ashes. They’d go, ‘Fuck that – we’re going to win it again in two years' time.’ ”
The sudden profanity is a hint of the locker room toughness that lies behind Coe’s smooth charm. But, of course, you do not get to be an Olympic champion without plenty of manic aggression and self-belief.
Still, to the general public, Coe remains an all-round nice guy. Twice, during our meal, other diners in the restaurant have come over to introduce themselves – both times, they naturally call him “Seb” – and Coe chats affably. As we finish our coffee, there is a last interruption. A woman approaches to say that Coe is needed outside to autograph the bonnet of a BMW for a charity auction. Coe may once have thrived on the lonely training regime of an Olympic champion, but these days he is public property. I settle the bill and, on the way out of the restaurant, notice the double Olympic gold medallist crouched over a gleaming car, marker pen in hand.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist
564 Kings Road
Penne arrabiata x2 £16.00
Mixed salad £5.50
Insalata caprese £8.00
Sparkling water £2.00
Coffee x2 £3.00
Total (inc service) £36.50