Sebastian Coe’s Olympian tasks

It is not quite as painful as the freezing Peak District training runs of his youth but tonight Sebastian Coe is learning about a new kind of physical discomfort. We are three-and-a-half hours into a planning meeting at Woolwich town hall to decide whether the south London borough’s councillors will allow Greenwich Park – a world heritage site – to have its turf trampled and ancient oaks disturbed as the venue for equestrian events at the 2012 Olympics.

So far, either through municipal tradition or as a misguided tactic to keep contributions short, there have been no comfort breaks. Lord Coe, two-time Olympic gold medallist and chairman of the organising committee for the London games, sits ramrod straight with his advisers as dozens of opponents air complaints. It’s already 10pm.

One elderly man says closing the park to the public for the four-week duration of the games breaks ancient by-laws. Cyclists worry about access. Tree preservationists fear pruning of the sweet chestnuts will be too severe. There are questions about the shortcomings of a bat survey carried out the previous autumn. Each objection is greeted by wild applause from the floor.

As we near midnight, Coe moves to the microphone to make a practical case couched in the boilerplate language of “partnership” and “consultation”. He struggles through questions about bat habitats and ambulance response times, but it’s on such occasions that the mystique of being a former Olympic champion can override logistical concerns. In his racing days, he recalls, he would use the park to compose himself “physically and mentally” before big events. He ends with a stirring call for the councillors to “lend the park to the world”. After some fierce questioning from the councillors (“What has ‘lending the park to the world’ got to do with planning law?”), they vote by 10-2 to grant permission. By 1am, another small step on the road to London 2012 has been taken.

When I meet Coe in his office on the 23rd floor of a Canary Wharf tower the next day, he seems temporarily demob happy. At 53 he retains the stringy build of the athlete who, with Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott, helped Britain lead the world in middle-distance running in the early to mid-1980s. He concedes that failure to get permission in Woolwich could have been “tricky” but says the planning process “does make you a better organisation. Greenwich Park is a national treasure, so we’d better have some pretty good answers.”

He is aware that, in two years, the buck will stop with him when it comes to ensuring that London 2012 is seen as a success. Building the venues is the responsibility of the government-funded Olympic Delivery Authority but it’s his job to make concrete the stirring dreams about “increased participation” and a “sporting legacy” that he sold to the International Olympic Committee in Singapore in July 2005 when London won its bid.

He has agreed I can shadow him for a week to get a sense of what his work involves. Amid moments of the mundane, it proves to be a fascinating but odd combination of circus ringmaster and chief executive. One moment, he’s waiting 20 minutes to answer three questions on the Midlands Today news bulletin about why Stoke-on-Trent should care about the Olympics (even then, he’s knocked off the top of the running order by an item on flood warnings). Then he’s struggling to turn a pot at Wedgwood in Staffordshire as a photo opportunity for the Stoke Sentinel. Again and again, he makes the same stump speech about the importance of grass-roots sport. But the purpose is always the same: keeping the Olympic flame alive in regions that are paying for the games but are often sceptical about seeing direct benefits.

I also join him at a series of meetings, where he proves an expert in Olympic minutiae, from the problems of getting volunteers in Los Angeles to clock off when they had finished their shifts to the tendency for Dutch sports tourists to attend the games in their camper vans.

There are anxious moments at a meeting to discuss the ticketing registration scheme, launched the previous week, which provides the first tangible evidence of public interest in the games. The £9.3bn cost of new infrastructure will virtually all be paid for by the government but the organising committee has its own £2bn budget that is almost entirely privately financed through sponsorship, merchandising and ticket sales and a portion of the international TV rights. Any profits it makes will be ploughed back into grass-roots sport.

Chris Townsend, the committee’s commercial director, says: “This is the first games in which the power of the web has been unleashed to target tickets directly to interest groups. We are targeting sports fans and won’t spend hundreds of millions of pounds advertising tickets to everyone.” Coe asks for a read-out of the most popular sports in the ballot. Events with British medal hopes such as athletics, swimming and diving are near the top, along with football. But there is also interest in sports such as handball and wrestling, where there is little history of British success, though, adds Coe with a half-smile, “I did think that beach volleyball would be a lot higher.”

That afternoon we take the Docklands Light Railway to the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, to view something that looks recognisably like a sports venue: the floodlights on the blancmange-bowl shaped stadium have just been hoisted into place, the swimming pools are being tested for leaks, and the futuristic curved roof has been added to the velodrome where the cycling will take place. As we walk on the Greenway, one of the new permanent walkways that have been created, Coe explains that “the complexity is of a completely different order from the delivery of any major championship. It’s the ability to move 15,000 athletes around the city. It’s the ability to use 22,000 technical officials. It’s the 22,000 members of the international media that descend. We are really working very hard now.”

I ask what his greatest worry for the games is. “I run the risk of giving you a Macmillan answer, which is, ‘Events, dear boy. Events.’ It’s the things we don’t know about. You wouldn’t want to start the games as Athens did [in 2004] with two of their poster children [sprinters Ekaterini Thanou and Konstantinos Kenteris] missing a random drug test. That’s where you look for leadership in the governing bodies.”

And what of the outcome the public and politicians fear most – is he confident he won’t leave the taxpayer with a gaping black hole to plug? “Yes, I am. Absolutely. The question I often get asked is, ‘Are you getting sleepless nights?’ And the answer is, ‘No’. I am surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. The hallmark of any good business is the ability to raise revenue and we’ve done that. We’ve maintained control over costs extraordinarily well.”

Construction, which will be ready next summer, is also slightly ahead of schedule. But Coe is keen to check any false confidence: “We used to have a joke in the whips’ office,” he says, referring to his time as a Conservative MP from 1992 to 1997. “Somebody would say, ‘It looks all right.’ Someone else would look at his watch and say, ‘It’s only lunchtime.’”

His years amid the dying embers of the John Major administration and during William Hague’s turbulent time as Tory leader have taught him how crucial it is to stay ahead of the game. I remind him that he had a reputation for putting his hand over photographers’ lenses to stop unflattering pictures of his leader. He winces at the memory of Krusty the Clown, dispatched by the Daily Mirror to pose with Hague. “I knew I should give up politics when my son said, ‘Dad, why were you wrestling a clown on TV?’”

With the Conservatives returned to power and his old boss appointed foreign secretary, Coe should be ideally placed to prevent the Tories from distancing themselves from the spending decisions made on the Olympics before they came to power.

The next day he leaves London to visit Stoke-on-Trent – one of his regular missions to sell the Olympics to the regions. En route he reminisces about running here as a boy in the annual Stoke schools versus Sheffield schools fixture, a reminder that – despite his Brideshead Revisited-era Christian name and Conservative politics – he is a product of Tapton Secondary Modern in Sheffield. “I think in Sheffield they’re only getting over the fact that I did actually become a Conservative MP,” he says. After a visit to a Wedgwood factory in Staffordshire to see some of the 2012 merchandise, we reach the wind-blasted cold of Trentham Lake. Before an audience of proud parents, and Team GB canoeing hopefuls, he gives his standard stump speech thanking all the volunteers who “cut sandwiches in club houses, rake sandpits, marshal in cross country races and provide lifts”.

Afterwards, I ask him about the widespread perception that, far from helping clubs such as this, a gold-plated Olympics is sucking funding out of grass-roots sport. He agrees that previous games have failed to increase overall participation levels: “But we’ve a better than even chance of breaking that trend because we’re talking about it now – whereas in the past most ‘legacy issue’ conversations tended to take place post-games.”

Wouldn’t all those billions be better spent paying for local sports clubs? “I don’t think anyone in the UK has an excuse for saying they haven’t got facilities any longer – apart from rural areas. For me the issue is the role models. You need young girls in Liverpool to know that Beth Tweddle – the first [British] girl to win a world gymnastics gold medal – comes from an ordinary background and went to an ordinary school.”

Hosting an Olympics might seem an expensive way of encouraging the nation’s youth to swap their games console for a sports field but Coe thinks the prospect of the games is already having an impact. “When you come to Stoke and see 50 kids canoeing who weren’t two years ago, and some of them are edging towards national standard, and you ask why they are here, they will use the word, ‘Olympics’.”

But he agrees it is harder to get young people enthused by Olympic sports than it used to be: “It’s a very difficult challenge when you are a coach at Haringey Athletics Club and you are saying, ‘Come to the track or the pool.’ And [kids] may not see results for five or six years. And yet they are watching [reality TV shows] where people emerge famous after five or six hours.”

Over a 41-day period in 1979, Sebastian Coe toppled world records in the 800m, 1,500m and mile. At the 1980 and 1984 Olympics he won the 1,500m. Memories of this era are heightened by his rivalry with Steve Ovett, with whom he traded victories and world records. (Some prejudices live on. After the Greenwich planning meeting, one protester approached Coe and muttered: “I always preferred Steve Ovett to you anyway.”) Spending time with him, it is clear he was chosen to lead the Olympic bid not only for his leadership skills but also for the imaginative power conjured by his sporting prowess.

Before he visited a school near Haringey Athletics Club, where he used to train, kids too young to remember him race looked up blurry YouTube footage of his runs – “from the olden days” – and were impressed. “Do you know David Beckham?” they ask. “Are you rich?”

Does he think the pressure of a London games makes it easier or harder for British athletes to win medals? “I would love to have run in front of a home crowd,” he says wistfully. “Medals will be won because the good athletes will rise to the occasion. I’ve told a lot of athletes about [the pressure of] competing domestically in the biggest moment of your career.”

I ask how his anxiety levels compare to those he felt before taking on Ovett in those Olympic finals? He says: “There is a higher level of expectation in delivering something of national importance. Sheffield was pretty disappointed when I buggered up the 800m in the Moscow Olympics. But I don’t kid myself that making a mess on that occasion would be the equivalent to making a mess here.”

From super furry animals to British steel

Remember Hidi and Howdy? Sukki, Nokki, Lekki and Tsukki? No, they were not puppets from the days of black-and-white television, but Olympic mascots, writes Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson.

The forebears of Wenlock and Mandeville, unveiled on Wednesday by the London 2012 organisers, represent a puzzling pantheon of anthropomorphic misfits.

They start with Schuss, a ball-headed squiggle of a skier who became the unofficial image of the 1968 winter games in Grenoble. Four years later mascots achieved official status, when Munich commissioned Waldi, a striped dachshund.

Amik the beaver, Mukmuk the marmot and Millie the echidna have since come and gone. A few stick in the memory. Michael Payne, former marketing director of the International Olympic Committee, recalled in a 2006 book how the Barcelona games organisers had presented Cobi, “an avant-garde dog”, to Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC’s late president. “Samaranch looked on in utter disbelief,” he writes. Even Cobi’s designer, Javier Mariscal, admitted: “It is hard to fall in love at first sight with a dog that looks as if he has been run over by a heavy goods vehicle.”

Cobi turned out to be a success. Others are less fondly remembered. Whatizit, Atlanta’s mascot, was dubbed “a sperm in sneakers” by Time magazine.

From many options, London’s organisers settled on the pear-shaped pair, supposedly formed from two drops of steel from the Olympic stadium.

“One of the roles of a mascot is to add depth and personality to the games,” says Lucy Unger from brand consultancy Fitch, who worked on the Sydney mascots. With their camera lens eyes, Facebook pages and YouTube “back story” videos, London’s mascots fit the city’s ambition to create a modern games and reconnect children with sport admirably well, she says.

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