Lord Sebastian Coe, has been at the heart of 2012 Summer Olympics in London from its very beginning, this may qualify as the biggest race of his life
Planning is in its final stages for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, with an unprecedented demand for tickets to the numerous events that make up this international athletic competition. For Lord Sebastian Coe, who has been at the heart of this enterprise from its very beginning, this may qualify as the biggest race of his life. Coe talked with Pearl Doherty about his evolution from Olympic champion to manager of London’s Olympic dreams.
You achieved incredible things over the course of your athletics career, especially winning gold and silver Olympic medals. What was your inspiration? What made you want to run?
I trace my earliest interest in track and field to watching, in school, the highlights package from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. The reason we watched was because two athletes from Sheffield, where I was living, had won medals; and I thought this was something I’d really like to do. A week or so later, when they came back to Sheffield with their medals, I queued up along with lots of other kids to see them at an athletics club at the edge of the city. Two days later I thought, I’ll join the club. Then two years after that, when I was 14, Sheila Sherwood, who had inspired me when she won her medal in the women’s long jump, gave me the first pair of shoes that I took to a major track and field event. My continued interest was promoted by my father, who was my coach and a remarkable man. He was very honest about my performances, which is what you need in a coach. You don’t crave adulation all the time. If you want to improve, you crave people who provide constructive criticism; and you do that in any walk of life. How can you make the boat go faster, how can you run quicker, how can you make this piece of machinery a more elegant mechanism? Of course, it helped that I’ve always physically enjoyed the sensation of running. I should add that I probably get more pleasure from that than any other form of exercise. I just find running very liberating.
It is often said that you moved into politics as soon as you stopped competing in sports. Is it true that you actually wanted to go into politics as a teenager?
Many people think that my jump from track and field into politics was so rapid because, in August of 1989, I was running in the world championships in Barcelona and then, just two weeks later, I was sitting in front of a constituency executive, hoping they might actually select me to represent their seat. But the transition was actually a much longer one and, in a way, a much more hidden one. I was made chairman of the UK Sports Council in my mid-20s, which focused me on the machinery of government. I recognised when I was making the case for greater funding in sport, that there were buttons to press and buttons to leave alone. And I came to understand that, unless you made really coherent, articulate cases for something, you got that you deserved, which was very little. I realised that getting greater levels of funding is inevitably getting into the arena of scarce resources, and the arena of scarce resources is controlled by politicians. And I guess that’s when my interest in politics hardened.
To go back, where did your interest in politics as a teenager come from?
I think my broader interest in politics came from the fact that I’m actually a news junkie. I could quite easily spend most of the day just channel-hopping, watching news. In my youth, political discourse was quite a regular thing at the supper table in our house. Also, my mother’s Indian, and I think a good part of the political interest comes from that side of my family. My uncle was Indian ambassador to London and to Washington for many years.
I have a cousin who was Director of Sports in India and went on to become a commissioner in one of the states. To add to that: growing up in the 1970s in Britain was politically quite interesting. It was a time of unions, strikes and three-day weeks that, for large parts of that decade meant, in day-to-day terms, the city I was growing up in came to a grinding halt over and over again.
Was there anything, apart from politics, that you considered as a career?
I did think quite long and hard about journalism. I enjoy writing. I still write pretty regularly for a newspaper; and, until this Olympic animal took over a few years ago, I used to pretty well dedicate one day a week to writing, which I love doing. I will do that again much more seriously once the Olympics are over. I also contemplated a career in the diplomatic corps because of my interest in foreign affairs, which, of course, was heightened by my travelling as an athlete. By the time I was 24, I had competed in pretty much every country behind the Iron Curtain in Europe.
What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve received as an athlete or as a politician?
The neatest piece of advice I ever received was from an American coach, who — on the eve of a race in the States, not long before the 1984 Games — said in response to my asking him what he thought I should do, said, “Run fast, turn left.” That’s about as simple a piece of advice I’ve got in track and field, and that’s probably not a bad thing to do. My father, who was perhaps the most inspiring figure in my life, gave all of his children (and all four of us have done very well) the best advice at every stage of our lives and our development that any parent can give.
Basically, his message was this: “I don’t really care what you guys want to go out and do; there are no orthodoxies here. You don’t have to go to university. You don’t really have to do it any way other than the way you want to do it; but just do it — and do it with passion.”
What are the things you’ve learned about the hard way, things that you did without the benefit of advice?
In athletics, I think, probably, recognising early on that, even if something seems like a lone voyage, it isn’t. Surround yourself with the smartest people that you possibly can. The same is true for every endeavour. You don’t have to be the best at every discipline in the world, but you have to know who the best are. When it comes to politics, perhaps I should have taken that lesson to heart a little sooner. Other than that, I’m really lucky. There have been disappointments, but I’ve always bounced back quite quickly. And I think, probably, the best piece of advice I would give to most people is to never look back. That’s not the same as don’t learn from mistakes, don’t sit down and figure out why something went wrong. But, when you’ve done that, just move on.
Given your history as an Olympian, it isn’t a surprise that you would be involved in the Games in London. But how did your journey into the position you now hold unfold?
I was asked early on to get involved with London’s application to become the 2012 Olympic city; and, for about a year, was a classic vice president. I became head of the bid committee in 2004, once we’d moved from being an applicant city to becoming a candidate city. The thinking was that we just needed to move it up a gear and maybe have a little bit more international understanding about sport. It was, for me, however, the time to gain a real grasp of what the motivating vision should be, which is very different from a mission statement (which tend to be trite and merely restate the obvious). I think we created, around the London
Olympic and Paralympic bid, a real sense that this was more than just a few weeks of extraordinary sport — that we did have to leave something behind, some sort of true legacy.
Once the bid was won, what were the qualities involved in getting it up and running?
A successful bid is, essentially, a successful communication programme. You need to be able to explain exactly how you are going to deliver, in the space of 28 days, 26 simultaneous world championships — and then do pretty much the same with 20 Paralympic world championships. The host city has to cater to 10,500 athletes, 4,500 Paralympians, 800,000 visitors and 22,000 journalists. As part of doing that, I believed that we had to answer the question: Why are we doing this? And it wasn’t until we started to articulate, internally as an organisation, that it was about using the Games to inspire young people to participate in sports that we each understood what we had to do. Of course, a bid is very different from the delivery stage. For the delivery, you start out with the bid team and then you build on that. You determine the skills sets you need to manage: the siting and building of the venues, the marketing of the Games, ensuring the infrastructure needed for moving people around — and the people with those skills tend to come from outside of the world of sports. My chief executive was chief operating officer at Goldman Sachs for many years. My human resources director ran HR at the BBC. My communications director was, essentially, doing pretty much that job at the Sydney Games. Our commercial director was one of the founding fathers of Sky Television. And we have a Paralympic director of integration who has won more medals than any other Paralympian in history. We’ve brought the best of the best to the table.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I have no idea. It’s probably a question best asked of other people. I think I’m comfortable, once I choose whom I consider to be the right people and put them in the right place and in the right structure, with letting them get on with it because they probably know more about it than I do. I like to think that I’m the niggling conscience sitting in the background, and I like to think that I set a vision that stole its way into the psychology of the people that work around me. I also am very aware that everything needs time to develop, that meticulous preparation and focus are essential to success in every endeavour. Good things don’t happen instantly; and, as a leader, I hope I have the requisite amount of patience.
You’ve often mentioned the legacy of the Olympic Games. How does one measure such an important concept?
That’s a really good question, and it is probably the weakest part of the Olympic story generally. We’ve had great sport; we’ve had great venues. We have to be very careful, of course, how we define ‘legacy’ here. It’s rather lazy when people say things like
Athens had no legacy. Well, if you are an Athenian, you are now living in a city that has a 21st century transport system. You have new roads, you have new rails, you have trams, you have metros and you have a new airport and a high-speed rail link between the airport and the city centre. Another Olympic city that profited enormously was Barcelona, which has exploded as a tourist destination thanks to the attention brought by the Games and the infrastructure improvements that have made it such a pleasure to visit. Sport has always been a tougher legacy, with the risk that you have what I’ve always dubbed the Wimbledon Syndrome; that is, everybody plays tennis for two weeks after Wimbledon, but then the tennis racquets go back in the cupboard while we sit there hoping next year somebody from Britain will win the title and stir up interest once again. And so I think it’s really important that these games have been defined to a large extent by discussions about legacy from the beginning. The master plan that we created within the first year of the delivery phase of the Games had the concept of creating a legacy at its heart. Even before our games have been held, we already have an Olympic Park Legacy Company working on the future use of venues. I went to the tenth anniversary of the 2000 Sydney Games, which is generally considered to be the high-water mark of Olympic Games. The chair of their Olympic Park Legacy Company had only been
in place for a very short time, which seemed a startling number of years wasted after the Games ended. So I think getting people to think seriously about legacy early on has given us a much better chance — much more so than trying to get the soufflé to rise again once the show has left town.
What about the challenge of increasing participation in sport among young people when they’re used to such things as talent shows with instant fame, instant achievement, as opposed to the long-term focus that it takes to achieve excellence in athletics?
One of the mistakes we’ve made in sport for far too long is we’ve thought that, in order to attract more young people into sport, you change the sporting programme or you try to do things that you hope are going to appeal to young people. Actually, the first port of call is to understand much more thoroughly the landscape young people live in. As a result, we’ve concentrated on trying to understand the nature of communications with young people, which is no longer through the traditional formats. The average young person is not going to be attracted to track and field because they read 30 erudite paragraphs in The Times or The Daily Telegraph. That’s a part of the process, but you’ve got to do other things. You’ve got to reach them through digital media, you’ve got to be very much more creative about the way you present sport, you’ve got to shorten the formats and you’ve got to have much more action and flow. Fundamentally, it’s about gaining a greater understanding of the world young people are living in, and it is a world that has never changed at a greater rate than it changes now.
Speaking of change, what do you see yourself doing after the Olympics? Politics? Writing?
Not more politics. I’m not a great person for looking back. While I enjoyed my time in politics (and politics will always fascinate me), I don’t have any real ambitions to be front line anymore. While I probably will continue to write, it’s not likely to be my main focus. The honest answer to the question is: I don’t know — and I think that, for me, that is probably a good place to be.