LONDON — Peering over glasses and hunching slightly his still-thin frame, Lord Sebastian Coe looks more professorial than Olympian. He fields angry questions about empty seats at venues, and attempts to maneuver past the controversial subject during a press conference.
“I don’t think this is going to be an issue right through the Games,” says Coe, who then outlines the plan for handling the problem.
He is tireless and tirelessly optimistic when it comes to the London Olympics, even when confronted with headline-making glitches and typically dour British attitudes.
Coe, 55, sees the 17-day event in grand, inspiring, legacy-leaving terms. And as the chairman of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and the face of the Games, he embraces the challenge of it all, much the way he welcomed the challenge of middle-distance running when told he wasn’t fast enough to be an 800-meter runner and not tall enough for the mile. Coe became arguably the greatest middle-distance runner of the 20th century, perhaps of all time, with 1,500-meter gold medals in the 1980 and 1984 Games and 11 world records.
Now, his athlete’s drive, discipline, and determination have London barreling ahead.
“You never compare or contrast Games because that’s rather pointless,” said Coe. “But I’ve been very keen to enshrine the best that I’ve witnessed both as a competitor and somebody who’s worked at Games as a broadcaster.
“We’ve got a large team of people who spend all their waking hours and probably too much of their sleeping hours figuring out how this works to the benefit of everybody. So, I guess the reality of that is that’s very, very similar to the way you prepare for an Olympic Games. We’ve all got to do the best work of our lives now. We’ve got to run a race right the way through the finishing line. Sorry to use that analogy. And we’ll get there. But this is the biggest thing that most people on our teams will have ever been involved with. This will be the toughest thing that any of us have probably ever done in our lives.”
And this from a man who was responsible for iconic Olympic track moments in the 1980s, who won election to Parliament in 1992, who served as chief of staff to Conservative Party head William Hague, who took over the London Olympics bid 14 months before the IOC held its final vote and mounted a come-from-behind victory over favored Paris.
When asked where organizing the London Olympics ranked on his list of most challenging endeavors, Coe added: “It’s up there. I was chief of staff in a political party in England. That had its moments. And I’ve competed at a really high level in my own sport. But I think probably for consistent focus, consistent day-by-day, hour-by-hour focus, this is every bit as challenging as winning two Olympic titles.”
Coe proved he was the right man for the job during the bid process. When he took over from American Barbara Cassani, London was thought to have no chance at winning. With many of its venues built and sentimentality on its side because of French Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, Paris seemed practically a lock.
Then, Coe went to work.
The Olympian known for his meticulous training crafted a final presentation that focused on children, on inspiring the next generation of sports fans. From his own experience, he knew the power the Olympic spirit held over young fans. When Britain’s David Hemery won the 400-meter hurdles at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Coe was a 12-year-old in Sheffield. He saw the glory of the Games and joined a local track club.
Similar to his racing style, Coe sat back, paced himself, then made a late surge for the victory in the bid process.
That win thrust Coe into the spotlight in a different way than his gold medals and world records. For the past seven years, he championed the London Games around the globe and weathered criticism at home. He has made cameos on a mockumentary about preparations for the 2012 Olympics, and he has been accused by the London Assembly, an elected group primarily charged with being a check on London’s mayor, of running LOCOG like an “oligarchy” and “being obsessed with secrecy” with regard to ticket sales. He takes it all in stride, though he’d probably cringe at the use of another track analogy.
“I accept that I tend to take most of the media interest,” said Coe. “I do have to handle the project on a day-by-day basis and that’s important. If you look at the complexity of the relationships amongst the stakeholders — keeping local governments on board from the mayor through to your London boroughs, 44 business partners, 205 national Olympic committees, 170 Paralympic national committees — it’s a project of extraordinary complexity. The multidisciplinary nature of the Games is what people who don’t get close to it don’t understand. It’s not a project for the faint heart.”
No one would ever accuse Coe of being faint-hearted, certainly not track fans who remember the 1,500-meter final at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
At those Games, Coe entered the 800 as the prohibitive favorite, only to lose to rival Steve Ovett. Six days later, Coe raced Ovett again in the 1,500 meters. This time, Ovett was the favorite, having won 45 consecutive races at the distance. But Coe triumphed, crossing the line with face strained, arms outstretched, and eyes wide in astonishment at capturing his first Olympic gold medal.
He would win the 1,500 again at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, becoming the only one to win consecutive 1,500-meter Olympic titles.
His experience as an Olympian formed his vision for the London Games, particularly when it came to athlete accommodations and venues. He wanted to make sure “the athletes were competitors and not commuters” with practice areas within striking distance of the Athletes’ Village.
“If you have the athletes at the center of the project, you’re not going to go far wrong because they are the most important to the plan,” said Coe. “You’re not doing it for the sponsors or the spectators. You’re actually putting it on for the athletes.
“I say to my teams every day, ‘You have to remember that every time you see an athlete walk into an arena, to stop and remember that they devoted over half their lives to be there.’ So, you have to make sure whatever you do that you are delivering the best possible environment for an athlete to perform at their highest level. It’s likely to be the biggest moment of their lives.”
Amid all the frenzy of preparing for the Games, of traveling the world promoting London 2012, Coe tried to work out and stay fit. He figures he still logs about 35 to 40 miles per week, usually on hotel treadmills. But he rarely gets nostalgic for his Olympic glory days.
“I feel very lucky, very privileged to have been a competitor in this environment, but that was a long time ago,” said Coe. “If I ever get nostalgic or think I’d like to be back doing it, I just tend to open the training diary on any page over 14 or 15 years and suddenly realize why I’m not still doing it.”
That said, running the Games has proven just as demanding as running in them.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.