In an exclusive interview for the SJA to mark 100 days until the London Olympic Opening Ceremony, PATRICK COLLINS, of the Mail on Sunday, speaks to Lord Coe about LOCOG, the media and the Games
One summer day in 1972, a 15-year-old athlete took a telephone call from his local paper. The caller, Mr Benny Hill, did not waste words. “I’ve noticed that you’ve been in our Saturday evening edition three times now,” he said. “So I’d just like to know something about you; who you are and what you’re doing. Come and see me at the paper.”
The athlete accepted the invitation, and next day he took the bus to the newspaper offices. The meeting went well. The young man was impressed by the attention of the future sports editor of the Sheffield Morning Telegraph. As for Benny Hill, he suspected that the lad might be one to watch, so he took to dropping in at his home from time to time for a late-night whisky with his father. It is said that Benny cultivated many a contact in this fashion. Sebastian Coe was one of his more successful projects.
Seb tells the story in his Canary Wharf office on the 23rd floor. Over his shoulder sprawls the Olympic Park, the stadium soon to take its place at the centre of the universe now briefly obscured by the morning fog. Across his desk are scattered pages of literature on the latest landmark: one hundred days to go, one hundred days before the world comes to play, one hundred days before Coe presides over the most exciting, most significant chapter in the history of British sport.
Yet at this moment, his thoughts are with the late Benny Hill. “Benny was there at the start,” he says, “he was just a part of the scene. In the 1980 Olympics, my father wrote a daily diary for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph. Three days before I ran that world record mile in Brussels in 1981, I was sitting with him on the editorial floor in Sheffield, discussing the race, previewing the way it might go. I’ve never forgotten it.
“And I’ve always said this: the longest and the truest sponsors that sport ever has are journalists. It’s not television, it’s not radio, it’s the written press. And the longest relationships I’ve had with anyone in the media are those I have with print journalists. So the links, particularly at local level, are really, really strong.
“Every sport has to remember that its strongest relationships are to be found in the paragraphs that you guys, week-in week-out, fight to get into newspapers. Sometimes, I know, it’s really tough. So for me, it’s been at the epicentre, and that’s probably why I’ve been more aware than most about the importance of maintaining the interest of the press and making sure you get what you need.”
Now some will note that Coe numbers politics among his previous professions, and that flattery is the politican’s stock in trade, but those of us who covered his golden years of competitive achievement will testify to the intelligent, consistent effort he put into his dealings with newspaper journalists. He acknowledges that he and his LOCOG team have enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the British press, and that surely derives, in part, from his own efforts to understand our vaguely raffish branch of the communications industry.
“We’ve had a good press,” Coe says. “I think we’ve maintained good working relationships. I’ll be honest, I think that for some IOC members it was an inhibitor when we were bidding for the Games. But my message was always: ‘Trust us to get this right. It doesn’t have to be a bad relationship. Don’t model your expectations on the way the British media might handle other issues. If we get this thing right, then they’ll get behind us. It’ll be a national campaign. But they are going to ask questions. They’re not supine and they’re not stupid. If we’re doing well, they will say we’re doing well. But if they write that we’re doing badly, then it’s probably because we are.’
“That’s exactly how I felt. Of course there’ll be challenges. From time to time, they’ll pick up difficult things and write about them. But if we do our jobs right, then they’re going to report that, too. So we’ll try to do things right.
“And the other message for us was also very important. It’s that there is no media anywhere in the world that has the global reach of the British media.” He throws an arm across the cuttings on the desk, endless pictures and stories from his international travels of the past few months. “And every place I went to, I found British journalists,” he says. “Panama, Beijing, Australia: we were there to promote the London Games. And there with us were BBC World, Sky News, all feeding stuff back. So I said to my people: ‘if we get the message right, then the British press is better placed than any other media in the world to help us get it across’.”
In truth, Coe sets great store by “my people2, and with good reason. For all the tiffs and squabbles, all the conflicts of interest, most journalists would acknowledge that the London staffers are of extraordinary quality. “Remarkable people,” says Coe.
“I was working here at about 10 the other night and one-third of the staff was still sitting here. I laughed, and I said: ‘Haven’t you got homes to go to?’
“In a way, I see this as a kind of sporting challenge. A hundred days out, and what are we praying for from in British team? It’s that Chris Hoy doesn’t fall off his bike, or Jessica Ennis doesn’t do a hamstring, or Mo Farah isn’t damaged. We just want them to get across the line in shape. And it’s the same for my team. I want to get them over the line. It’s all–consuming.
“Because I’ve never worked with a group of people like this in anything I’ve ever done. The nearest I’ve seen to that kind of focus was many years ago; that little group who worked with me to get around two or four laps faster than the next guy. It reminds me a lot of those morning sessions I had with my Dad, when we’d be sitting there and saying ‘OK let’s look at what you did last night, let’s modify this or change that’. For me, it’s very similar. You are thinking minute by minute, the decisions are coming thick and fast, and we’re all busier than at any stage in the project. There’s not a team here that isn’t working harder today than they were yesterday. That’s the nature of it.”
London 2012: A media Olympics like no other
Increasingly, there is a sense that London will be an Olympics like no other. Certainly, the media operation will mirror the philosophy of the LOCOG chairman. “We haven’t consciously modelled it on previous Games, because I wasn’t close enough to other Games in terms of media,” he says.
“I suppose we’re closest to Sydney in press terms. They had some really challenging times, but they also did a lot of good things. And that was a tough press. In fact, we probably learned some of the tricks of the trade at their knees. Others were quite different. I mean, Moscow: who knows? And Los Angeles. People were genuinely excited about going there because it was such a huge departure from where we were four years earlier. We went from the Ukraina Hotel to Beverley Hills Boulevard. There’re all different, all difficult. But it’s what London does that counts.”
On a personal level, the weeks of the Games will be punishing for Coe. “Every day will start at 5.45, with our team meetings in east London,” he says. “Then I’ll have to go back to central London to meet with the co–ordination commission. We’ll have meetings throughout the morning, dealing with real granular detail. The Canadian basketball team returned to the Village at a late hour because the game went into so many time–outs. But the food wasn’t warm enough when they got back. Why? That sort of thing.
“Then, from lunchtime onwards, I’ll be getting around all the sports. I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to manage it. I want to cover most of our football venues, plus Weymouth, Eton Dorney, everything. I’ll work out a way. We’ll see.”
And press conferences? He is making no trite promises. “We’re discussing that,” he says. “There’ll be a slot most days, not necessarily involving me every time. I may not even be in London, you know. I mean, Chelsea will be having their pre–season tour around then.” It is his stand-by joke. I’m almost sure of it.
But he has travelled a rocky road since the IOC made its decision to award the 2012 Games to London back in 2005. He has made hundreds, possibly thousands, of decisions, many of them deeply contentious.
Which was the most difficult? He winces at the memory: “It was when I threw back, three or four times, the projected route of the marathon,” he says. “I was surrounded by transport experts and I said: ‘No, go away and figure out how we can get that race into east London.’ They were almost apologetic. ‘You can’t take it beyond Tower Bridge, because if you close Tower Bridge you bring London to a standstill on days when you’ve got eight or nine different sports to stage.’
“I won’t go into details, but the upshot was that it was physically impossible. And I had to go back to Tower Hamlets and say ‘Sorry, we just can’t do this.’ I was the only one who could make the decisions, and I thought well, if I’ve made the decision I’ll have to go back and explain it to east London. I hated having to make that decision. It wasn’t what I wanted, and it impacted on the community. That was very tough.”
The benefits are easier to convey, and he is implacably convinced of their merits. The issue of sporting legacy has been difficult, the statistics contradictory. He concedes that task has been difficult, but insists that the trend is hopeful. “Other Games have found it hard to maintain an increased level of participation,” he says. “I think it’s happening out there, but I believe we need to capture that story and tell it properly.”
As for physical regeneration, he is more assured: “You couldn’t simply put world-class venues into a lunar landscape,” he says. “Look at the way that sport has changed that landscape for the housing, the hospitals and the schools that will be attracted into it.” A glance at that area of east London tells a persuasive tale.
In one area, he feels that the battles are won. “There’s no argument about the importance of sport any longer,” he says. “The great thing that’s come out of the Games already is that there is now a political consensus about the nature and the importance of sport in the lives of people in this country. When he was Minister for Sport, Denis Howell used to say that you never see ministers or senior civil servants at sporting events, but you couldn’t step outside the Royal Opera House without falling over them. I’m not a Philistine, I want people to go and see the arts. But there’s now a recognition that sport matters across the political spectrum. And that’s something the Olympics have helped to bring about.”
Coe may be London’s chosen leader, but he is also the biggest fan, and an anxious anticipation infiltrates his public posture. “It’s all very well to speak of a hundred days to go,” he says, “but that’s mainly for public consumption. The Village opens 14 days before that, and you take another month off for the Broadcasting Centre opening, and there’s still 180 studios to build. Then there’s the torch teams. Really, there’s no time at all. I think people will really, really notice it on the first morning of the torch relay. That’s when it will start to come home.
“We’re only three weeks away from the flame being lit in Greece.” He repeats the words with a small wince: “Three weeks. Makes you think, doesn’t it?” And he smiles, slightly fearfully. “It’s been a journey for all of us,” he says. “I don’t think any of us knew where it would take us seven years ago.”
And as you marvel at his progress and shudder at the nature of the challenge, you reflect that the Games of London are wondrously blessed by his talents. Benny Hill had it right: Sebastian Coe was one to watch.
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