A man with a blue turban and a beard works the free weights. Another man—black, bald, encased in a Derrick Rose jersey—makes tracks on a treadmill. And there astride an exercycle in the Fitness Suite of the spanking-new Becontree Heath Leisure Centre in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham sits a middle-aged woman with red hair, perhaps the least exotic figure in this pageant of 21st-century Great Britain. She's chatting with Lord Sebastian Coe, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and chairman of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), who has come here to dedicate an Olympic water polo practice venue.
This is an article from the May 21, 2012 issue
The woman was moved to get off her bum and into the gym, Coe later reports proudly, "because the Olympics are coming and she wanted to feel a part of it." Score a little victory in the promotional and organizational omniathlon Coe has been running since he took over London's Olympic effort in 2004. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and former Conservative member of Parliament is trying to do nothing less than fire a nation (and the world, if you'll excuse the grandiose ambition) with Olympic dreams—and along the way help rejuvenate a long-neglected borough in the East End of this most sprawling and diverse city.
On Coe's calendar this is booked as a London Engagement Day. But he began the week in Rio de Janeiro, consulting with the 2016 Olympic organizers to whom London will be passing the torch on Aug. 12. Yesterday Coe chaired a LOCOG board meeting and met with Mayor Boris Johnson. Next week he will tour the Olympic Park, the centerpiece of that overhaul of East London, with a Moroccan delegation; meet with one cohort of volunteers to thank them for interviewing and selecting another cohort of volunteers; attend a summit with Prime Minister David Cameron (with whom he'll play badminton for the cameras in the garden behind 10 Downing Street); and brief the International Olympic Committee's Coordination Commission, which he must assure that London is on budget and on task. "It's an extraordinary parallel universe I'm in now," he says.
Those who consider Coe the greatest middle-distance runner of the 20th century—and there are many—rest their case on two pillars. One is the 11 world records he set, including three at three different distances over the summer of 1979 in races that still raise goose bumps on those who recall them. The other is his back-to-back gold medals in the 1,500 meters at the 1980 and '84 Olympics. Records and medals: exploits of the day and markers for posterity.
Such are the Games that Coe foresees for the city of his birth: a party with a legacy. The party will come easily enough after the grim, controlled efficiency of Beijing. The legacy will take a bit more effort. Job One is to ensure that what's left behind does not include an unpaid tab that the U.K. government, or the global economy, must pick up. The $18 billion London intends to spend is less than half the budget for the Beijing Games in 2008. Seventy percent of the 2012 venues existed before London won the hosting rights; among the rest there should be no white elephants, for most new buildings have already been dedicated to a post-Games purpose.
As Coe wrestles a nation of 62 million disputatious people to something close to an Olympic consensus, he uses words such as responsible and proportionate (but not austere, for austerity has become a politically charged concept in Britain as the country slips back into recession). Web servers balked as two million Britons applied for tickets to the opening ceremony and another million sought to attend the men's 100-meter final. Organizers received so many applications from people seeking to be volunteers, or Games Makers, that nearly three applicants have been turned away for every one accepted.
"We Brits tend not to look at the bright side, and that's why it's good to have someone like Seb in the lead," says 2000 triple jump gold medalist Jonathan Edwards, who heads LOCOG's athletes' committee. "He believes that if you have the right attitude, you'll succeed. If the Games go well, it's Seb. If the Games don't go well, it's Seb. No one will point the finger at the prime minister or Boris Johnson. Seb himself wouldn't say he set the world on fire as a politician, but as a sports politician he's been a real leader."
You can't expect others to be ready to party if you don't show an up-for-anything attitude yourself, and Coe has been almost indiscriminately game. He dashed the length of a hall at the Tate Britain gallery as part of a conceptual art installation that kicked off the Cultural Olympiad. (Though still trim at 55, Coe apologized for what was more "a hobble" than a sprint.) He had a small recurring role on Twenty Twelve, the BBC mockumentary that features Downton Abbey fixture Hugh Bonneville as a Coe-like "Head of Deliverance" in a LOCOG-style bureaucracy. When another BBC production, a genealogical reality show called Who Do You Think You Are?, divulged that Coe is descended from a sugar-cane mogul who during the 18th century owned slaves in Usain Bolt's home parish in Jamaica, Coe dealt gracefully with the revelation.
"He's a crossover figure," says Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. "He's a sports hero and a politician who can also live in this curious hotel-dwelling, deep-carpeted sport bureaucrat's world that gets unimaginably bad press in Britain. People see him as just having to play the game. Nobody dislikes Sebastian Coe. He endlessly talks up how it'll all go right, whereas most people in Britain assume we're all doomed, all the time, about everything."
As Coe prepares to leave the Becontree Heath Leisure Centre, the countdown clock over its pool reads 126 DAYS AND 9:32:19 ... 18 ... 17.... "Delivering an on-time and on-budget Games is the same as delivering an athlete in peak condition to the start of the 1,500 meters," he says. "The deadline is immutable and constant. You can't go to the start and say, 'Gee, can I have another couple of months because I lost time training over the winter?' The opening ceremony will go off at 9:00 on the night of July 27."
To be British has long meant to be born into a certain station and—Mustn't grumble, carry on—muddle through there to the end of your days. Coe has traced a strikingly up-and-down path for a Brit. For all the highs he has hit, there have been spectacular lows—busts to fuel the next boom.
As a preteen he failed his 11-plus, the exam that in 1970s Britain sorted the academic wheat from the chaff, and he wound up at a "secondary modern," at the time a kind of glorified vocational school. But he rallied to make his way to Loughborough University, in Leicestershire in the East Midlands, where he earned a degree in economics and history.
He entered his first Olympics, in Moscow in 1980, with a personal best in the 800 meters more than two seconds faster than anyone else's in the field, only to run an uncharacteristically thick-headed final and lose the gold to his archrival and countryman Steve Ovett. Six days later Coe won the 1,500 meters that everyone assumed to be Ovett's, then dropped to his knees and touched his forehead to the track. "When I watched that display on the replay it was a bit embarrassing," he would later put it in his 1992 autobiography, Born to Run. "But it was such a bloody, marvelous relief.
"I didn't have any alternative [but to win]. I was driven by fear of [Ovett], by fear of repeating my own failure.... What determines the limit of an athlete's performance is the inner conflict, the doubt about your abilities. This can be either limiting or lifting."
Two years of injury and illness, including a bout of toxoplasmosis in 1983, led London's Daily Mirror to start a campaign to exclude Coe from the British team for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But there he defended his 1,500 gold, and moments after he crossed the line, his face darkened and, turning to the press tribune, he screamed, "Who says I'm finished now?!" Years later Coe would wonder how he could have been seized by such emotion, "anger bordering on hatred."
With his eye on a third 1,500-meter gold in 1988, Coe failed to earn one of two qualifying spots at the British trials and was passed over for a discretionary third spot. He learned of the track board's 11--10 decision on his car radio. Two other countries, India (Coe has Indian ancestry on his mother's side) and Belize, offered him spots on their teams, and IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch explored ways in which Coe might compete under a special dispensation. Even the Mirror rallied to his side, launching a COE MUST GO campaign. All those intercessions were unavailing, and Coe spent the day of the Olympic final with a girlfriend on a boat off the coast of Sicily. But by the end of the following season, back on the British team, he once again sat atop the national rankings in the 800, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the mile.
Over the years Coe had mulled over a variety of occupations for his posttrack life: banker, morning-show host, even sports minister if he were to choose a career in politics. In 1992, on his first try, the former treasurer of Loughborough's Young Conservatives Club won election to Parliament from a constituency in West Cornwall. But he was turned out after one term in the anti-Tory wave of 1997—after being ranked by fellow MPs as one of the "least impressive" in his class.
In 2001, with the Tories in opposition, Coe became chief of staff to Conservative Party chief William Hague. He encouraged Hague to take up judo and joined him for workouts. The epithet Hague's judo partner (not to mention bag-carrier-in-chief, head gatekeeper and chief factotum), combined with Hague's own increasing irrelevance, sealed Political Seb's reputation: good fellow, but lightweight and feckless. As Prime Minister Tony Blair and New Labour consolidated their rule, the Mirror began to send a clown to Hague's public appearances, and it fell to Coe to keep the interloper out of the picture. One day, in the doorway of a shop in Welwyn Garden City, things went horribly wrong. "Daddy," four-year-old Harry Coe asked upon his father's arrival home that evening, "why were you on television punching a clown?"
Then, in May 2004, only 14 months before the IOC would make its decision on the host city for 2012, Barbara Cassani stepped down as head of London's bid effort. With London sitting no better than third, Cassani was ready to yield to a candidate better equipped for the schmoozing and selling now required. The vacancy seemed perfect for a man who had come from the cinders.
Coe's multiple reinventions and resurrections seem not only un-British but also downright American. Suggest to Coe that he's a kind of English Peter Ueberroth, and he doesn't dispute it. "I admire America immensely," says Coe, who during his racing days relied on an orthopedist in Chicago and a sports-medicine specialist in Atlanta. "Americans are some of the cleverest people I know. Maybe something's rubbed off. I've always taken the view that life is fundamentally what you make of it."
Coe's upper lip isn't stiff. It quivers. He wouldn't rattle off past slights if they didn't still lurk close to the surface: "At 14, I was told I'd never be fast enough to be an 800-meter runner. [He would set a world record at that distance that stood for 16 years.] Then, that I'd never be tall enough to be a miler. [Coe remains the only man to have successfully defended a 1,500 Olympic title in a four-year cycle.] There's always been a motivation, an enjoyment, in proving people wrong. I've always enjoyed taking on, not insuperable odds, but the challenge. At the beginning of the bid process I was told it was between Paris and Madrid. That was the challenge. As a racer I always did like coming from behind."
At first, as he would later confess to The Guardian, Coe felt "like a slightly dodgy timeshare salesman." Yet before he could really lobby the IOC, he had work to do at home, where cynicism ruled after Britain's melodramatic struggles to bring two major sports venues off the drawing board: first the financially troubled Millennium Dome (now The O2), and then a stadium envisioned for Picketts Lock, where London was to have staged the 2005 track and field world championships. In 2001 the city had to give the event back to the IAAF because organizers couldn't come up with the $150 million to build the stadium. Coe, who had put his reputation on the line to help secure the gemstone event in the sport he once ruled, questioned whether the government was capable of "operating a whelk store."
Once at LOCOG, Coe delegated Steven Redgrave, the rower who won gold medals at five consecutive Olympics, to bring the prime minister on board. (Paris was seen as such a prohibitive favorite that Blair at first balked at throwing himself into a contest in which he'd simply get punked by French president Jacques Chirac.) Then Coe had to persuade the IOC that public skepticism in Britain wouldn't translate into open opposition. The IOC conducts polls to determine domestic support, and if a prospective host falls short of 70%, it can imperil a bid as much as geographic ungainliness or an aged transit system—London's two most glaring liabilities.
But by coming so late to the table, the city reaped certain advantages. The bid committee didn't have time to indulge in the kind of bureaucratic temporizing at the heart of so many Monty Python sketches. New rail lines and a huge shopping mall were under construction already around the projected Olympic Park site. Most critically, the short schedule gave Coe the freedom to build a bid of his own choosing. London's were to be a Games as seen through the eyes of a child—specifically, the young Seb Coe, whose early Olympic memories changed his life.
In 1968, Coe was trundled into an assembly with his classmates at their school in Sheffield. On a black-and-white TV flickering on the stage, the kids watched highlights of a local couple, John and Sheila Sherwood, winning Olympic medals in the 400-meter hurdles and the long jump, respectively, in Mexico City. Seb, then 12, would later stand for more than two hours at a welcome-home event to catch a glimpse of the Sherwoods; in 1970, after he had joined the local track club, he accepted a new pair of shoes from Sheila herself to wear in his first English schools championship.
That seed would grow into the 2012 Games' slogan: Inspire a Generation. As London built its case, it would fold in a calculated extra, an "international inspiration" program that pledged $67.5 million to help UNICEF deliver sport-for-development programs to more than 12 million children around the world. Essentially Coe proposed staging an Olympics that would do for kids globally what 1968 had done for him. "It's amazing," he says, "how you can set people on a course in a moment." When the bid book detailing London's vision was finally ready, Coe sent Amber Charles, a 14-year-old basketball, cricket and track athlete from East Ham who claims English, Brazilian, Chinese, Caribbean and even Native American ancestry, to deliver it to IOC headquarters in Lausanne.
Before the final presentation and vote in Singapore in July 2005, Coe tested out phrases on audiences for months, in a kind of rhetorical interval training. Scratching out one last draft in Singapore while jet-lagged at 4 a.m., he discarded anything he could even remotely imagine another city saying in its presentation. He was not to be boxed in: Coe would run London's race in the Olympic final.
On the final day Redgrave was struck by the formal quality of the Parisians' pitch, with its focus on hotel beds and its parade of speakers in gray suits. "I thought perhaps we'd gone down the wrong avenue," he says.
London's pitch plucked at the IOC's heartstrings—a gambler's strategy in its assumption that IOC members have hearts with strings to pluck. Coe screened a film that traced the imagined trajectories of children around the world touched by a London Olympics, including a Mexican girl belly-flopping into the water and morphing into a competitive swimmer, and an African boy on a rickety bike who's suddenly contesting a sprint. It didn't hurt London's case that, where Chirac swanned through one reception in 20 minutes, Blair spent 20 minutes each with dozens of IOC members, virtually all of whom could see his or her own nationality somewhere in the crazy quilt of East London. Nor did it hurt that the IOC frets over the graying of its TV audience. Coe had taken heat at home for sending 30 young people to Singapore, but when Amber Charles, by then 16, stood up on stage, the other 29, out in the audience, rose with her. "Afterward one of the IOC members touched me on the shoulder and said, 'Fantastic,'" Redgrave recalls. "Seb sold passion and youth and what our bid stood for."
One other factor loomed large in London's victory. With their rivalry, Coe and Ovett had essentially saved the Moscow Olympics, the target of a U.S.-led boycott, and Samaranch, no longer the IOC president but still influential, had never forgotten. The elimination of Madrid on the third ballot left him with no reason not to work on London's behalf. Even if he succeeded in steering only a few votes Coe's way, every one mattered in London's 54--50 final-round defeat of Paris.
There's a telling photo of IOC president Jacques Rogge announcing the results. In it Samaranch sits literally at his successor's elbow, poker-faced, trying in vain not to look the part of éminence grise. Samaranch may have failed to crowbar Coe into the 1988 Games, but 17 years later he delivered on a grand scale.
With London organizers prepared to spend nearly $900 million on security, one particular incident pops curiously out from Coe's past: The LOCOG chairman once hijacked a bus.
At the 1986 European track and field championships, a bus driver charged with taking athletes to a training session became lost in the suburbs of Stuttgart. When the driver pulled up and disembarked in front of what was clearly the wrong venue, Coe saw the keys in the ignition and seized his chance. Upon reaching the correct track, Coe parked the bus, strode past a pale British national team coach, handed the keys to a German policeman and got on with his workout.
The incident reveals several things about Coe, including a reluctance to suffer fools and an occasionally headstrong go-it-aloneness. It also hints at how Coe came to feel so much pressure to live up to his public image as a Tory poster boy that he'd hunt for opportunities to let his hair down in private. During college he stole down to London to watch Chelsea soccer on the terraces; in 1983, as a drunk press aide drove him around Oslo after he had won the 800 meters at the Bislett Games, Coe stuck his head and arms out of the car window and screamed wildly. In 1979, after finishing an interview with Coe, a BBC reporter said, "What an attractive young man." Coe bristled at the weeks' worth of nudge-nudge, wink-wink stick he got for it.
The caricatured image of Coe as posh owes as much to the contrast with his great rival as to reality. Steve Ovett, the son of market-stall vendors, was a barrel-chested working-class hero who would wave to the crowd before hitting the tape and then give the press a miss. Lighter and slighter, not 5' 10" and barely 130 pounds, Coe seemed to float to the finish before declaiming thoughtfully for the journos. Of the two runners, Ovett cut the more dashingly romantic figure, while Coe seemed to be the one a girl could safely take home to mum and dad. (Coe and his first wife, equestrian Nicola McIrvine, had four children; they were divorced in 2002. Last summer, with his son Harry serving as best man, Coe married magazine editor Carole Annett.) A constituent in Cornwall, assuming his MP had been knighted, once addressed him as Sir Bastian Coe.
In fact, Coe's pedigree is half colonial on one side and full commoner on the other. His Punjabi maternal grandfather was a hotelier in Delhi; the parents of Coe's father and coach, Peter, were natives of Stepney and Bow, the Cockney heart of the East End. The world of oak paneling and brandy snifters is neither the one Coe comes from nor the one he cares to inhabit. If Ali G were to materialize today in the LOCOG chairman's office, hacked off about the imminent closure of his beloved leisure center, Coe would both feel his pain and get the joke.
Tory though he is, Coe's ideological profile conforms more to the Liberal Democrats, the U.K.'s centrist third party. One of his briefs as an M.P. was Britain's National Health Service. He supported the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa. And in going to Moscow in 1980, he defied the wishes of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to call the Soviets to account for their invasion of Afghanistan by supporting the U.S.-led boycott; when 10 Downing Street sent pictures of dead Afghan children to British athletes, Coe denounced the tactic as "grotesque." Pat Butcher, the longtime British track correspondent, recalls once walking with Coe past an airport newsstand festooned with copies of the Daily Mail, the doctrinaire Conservative newspaper, that blared salacious headlines about Coe's private life. "I asked him why the Mail had it in for him," Butcher says, "and he said, 'Because they don't think I'm a real Tory.'"
But Coe's nontribal political standing has helped him deal with a range of domestic players, from Laborite "Red Ken" Livingstone, mayor when London landed the Games, to the incumbent Conservative mayor, Johnson, as well as two prime ministers, Blair and Cameron, from opposite ends of the spectrum. The middle-of-the-road pol in Coe emerges when he speaks of London's Olympic legacy. Build a hospital, he says, and no one thinks of its cost; they call it "an investment in community health." He laments that this kind of argument for sport hasn't been fully mounted, much less won. Alas, if there's any count on which London's Olympic legacy is falling short, it's in delivering people like the red-haired woman in Dagenham onto exercycles around the country. Between scaled-back funding for school sports and the shuttering of leisure centers in the name of austerity, the Olympic effort will generate only a fraction of its goal of a million new participants.
But the London Games are more likely to be judged as a spectacle, and Coe long ago demonstrated an impresario's instincts. In the early 1980s, when track athletes suddenly had a chance to cash in under relaxed rules on amateurism, Brad Hunt of IMG drew up a proposed racing calendar for Coe. The runner looked over the list of events, picked up a pen and struck out roughly half of them. "If I do my job well," Coe told Hunt, "we can make more money doing [fewer] events." In that moment Hunt realized a truth about his client: He didn't race in races so much as deliver command performances. Even in describing the feeling of moving to the front of a race, Coe sounds like a stage performer: "[It's] the exhilaration of knowing, like an actor or a comedian, that you have your audience on your own, exclusively, all the way to the tape."
In a position as thankless as chairman of LOCOG, having an audience doesn't necessarily mean winning all of it over. Last year Coe appeared at Woolwich town hall to mollify people angry that equestrian events would attract hundreds of thousands of outsiders to Greenwich Park. "I'd made my case and avoided all the usual pitfalls," Coe says, "and at the end a woman rather huffily came up to me and said, 'I have to tell you, Mr. Coe, that I always preferred Steve Ovett anyway.'"
Peter Coe, a trained engineer, brought to coaching what he knew from his day job as production manager at a Sheffield cutlery factory: analysis, planning and a respect for schedules. He turned his son into a champion by training Seb as a sprinter, then gradually unleashing that sprinter's speed over longer and longer distances. Mastering the micro, then applying that mastery on a macro scale, is also how you turn a bid committee into an organizing one—how you go from 60 employees focused on landing a Games to nearly 4,000 tasked with staging them.
The elder Coe, who died just before the Beijing Olympics, liked to tell a story of an age-group mile that Seb, then barely into his teens, ran against older boys. His father told him to go out at a pace he could hold. "What will that get me?" the boy wanted to know.
"That's not for me. I'm running with the leaders."
For two laps Seb held his own before being dropped. He came up to his father afterward, apologetic. "No, it was good," Peter replied. "You've learned how fast you have to run for two laps. Now you've got to put together four."
On July 27 the pistol will fire in the form of an opening ceremony that draws on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the play about merriment on a magical isle that inspired Sebastian's parents to name him after one of its characters. At that moment Seb Coe will not hear the news on his car radio. He will not be on a boat off the coast of Sicily. He will not be wrestling a clown in a shop doorway. Thanks to eight years of work—and a lifetime of knife-sharpening struggles to match his successes—he will lead us into sports' great quadrennial festival. He will put together four.