POSTED: November 20th 2012

NEIL WILSON: Planning for the unexpected

Sebastian Coe hands over the baton to Carlos Arthur Nuzman in Rio / Rio 2016
Sebastian Coe hands over the baton to Carlos Arthur Nuzman in Rio / Rio 2016

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

November 20 - Rio, Sochi, PyeongChang and the candidate cities for 2020 have spent the last week learning at the feet of London in the traditional de-briefing of the organisers of the last Olympic Games, a sharing of experience and knowledge that began in the build-up to the Sydney Games in 2000.

It was the original idea of the IOC to have a “knowledge transfer programme” to ensure that each organising committee did not have to re-invent the wheel. It has worked brilliantly for each city, the theory being that each city’s Games should be better than the last.

London learned less from Beijing because of the vast difference between command and control communism and a liberal democracy. In one cost was not an issue. Nor was there any need for consultation.

Lord Coe tells the marvellous story in his newly-published autobiography (Sebastian Coe: Running My Life) of explaining to a deputy mayor of Beijing the planning process in Britain which might not end before a government-imposed CPO of land.

“A CPO?” questioned the deputy mayor. Yes, said Lord Coe, a Compulsory Purchase Order. “In Beijing, we don’t have CPOs. We just have JCBs!” said the mayor, an ironic reference to a make of bulldozer.

What London took from Beijing, says Coe, was attention to detail, such as the famous pneumatic air blasted inside flag poles to get the flags to flutter on days when there was no wind.

Of more significance to London was Vancouver. Although the city’s Games in 2010 was a winter version, the parallels between London and its Canadian predecessor in the Olympic cycle were far greater – liberal democracies with elected boroughs within a city each demanding representation and a say.

What London learned most from Vancouver, according to Coe, was something for which it was hard to plan. Disaster. In Vancouver’s case, the death in a training accident of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili just hours before the Opening Ceremony. As Coe retells it: “The whole day imploded.”

Suddenly, an opening ceremony was the least of the organisers’ concerns. Should they notify family in Georgia before the world press? Are there safety issues with the track? Do you tone down the celebrations? Should Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, alter his speech?

The problems of the unexpected came home to Coe when the Icelandic ash cloud threatened the arrival in Britain of important IOC and International Paralympic Committee delegations two months after Vancouver. Volcanic eruptions are not something that Britons plan for. As Coe says in his book, it is not experts that are needed when it happens but those who think outside the box.

He quotes a British prime minister as saying that the biggest challenge to any statesman is “Events, dear boy. Events.”

The same, writes Coe, could be said about chairing an Olympic organising committee. It is a message he will no doubt have passed to all present this week in Rio.

NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

Keywords · Neil Wilson · London 2012 · Seb Coe

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