NEIL WILSON: One year later Lord Coe looking back on London 2012
THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications
(SFC) Lord Sebastian Coe, former chairman of LOCOG and of the London bid committee talked to a select gathering of the British media in the offices of the British Olympic Association (BOA) where he is now chairman on the eve of the Anniversary Games in London’s Olympic Stadium. SportsFeatures.com was on the scene and here we present the conversation in two parts in all its fascinating detail.
Abiding memory of 2012?
Lord Coe: “People. Just extraordinary people. Just unbelievable people, both in our teams, the millions of people who came together. People. Events – too many to remember. I can give you a smattering of them. The first morning of the Torch Relay, watching a coach and some police motorcycle outriders, trying to make their way through Cornish villages that were very familiar for me because that were in my (parliamentary) constituency, with people standing 12-15 deep on the road; actually knowing that would happen but then seeing it from the aerial shots. That was 70 days out (from the Games), it was almost like the gun going off really.
“So, the torch was powerful and I followed that around. Not to every venue. But I saw it round most regions. Watching it make its way round Dublin was exciting, that was a fantastic moment, too. Quite a profound moment for me, profound and slightly comic, was when having politicians from the north and south.... with the flames either side of some line on a road in some housing estate at 5.30am, trying to work out whether technically they were north or south of the border. It was nice to see the normality of it all. I know it’s not all plain sailing in Ireland now, but showed how much progress had been made in last 20 years.”
It (the Torch Relay) got forgotten in a sense. One of the great books was the one about the torch relay.
Lord Coe: “Exactly. One moment when everyone in the organising had the same emotion; there was bloke who watched his wife run. He started to well up, and there’s nobody who watches that in any of our teams that didn’t go ‘Oh my God, do you remember?’ Even Jackie (Brock-Doyle, director of communications) cried!
“There was a nice moment in the Athletes village when the British team arrived and the flag was raised. That was a pretty big moment. Some members of the team were relishing it and some were thinking: ‘Oh my God’.”
You have said that ‘some of us were so deep in the boiler room that you couldn’t look beyond the next phone call’. But were you able to look beyond it?
Lord Coe: “You would have had to be hermetically sealed not to have absorbed Chris Hoy’s millimetre win in the 500metre Sprint. There were great moments. The thing about being in the organising committee, you do get brought back to earth every 10 minutes with quite a thump really when the next phone call comes through…and the wrong flag went up. ‘Sorry?’ I always remember sitting with Paul Deighton (LOCOG chief executive) in the stadium, watching the (Opening Ceremony) dress rehearsal. You have to know why this is so funny is that I have no technical skills at all – I mean my lack of my technological understanding is legendary. I have never used a computer. I use a phone as a phone.
“I was in a hotel overseas a few weeks ago and the absolute horror of getting to this hi-tech hotel where everything was operated by iPad – and I slept with every single light on, the television going, the air-conditioning blowing. I’m just thinking, ‘oh, please just give me a fucking light switch!’ I did. At one point, I tried to sleep in the bathroom! It was the only room that didn’t have 27 lights on.”
So this high-tech, all-singing games was organised by Mr. Coe…
Lord Coe: “Yeah. Mr Low-Tech. Anyway, Lord Low-tech was handed a BlackBerry by Hi-Tec Mr. Deighton in the middle of the first-night dress rehearsal with a picture of the South Korean flag instead of the North Korean one. I said: ‘Oh, that’s really funny.’ He said: ‘No, no, it’s serious, it’s happened – and they’ve been off the pitch for 20 minutes already.’
“The other funny moment was when the countdown clock arrived. The night before the (satirical UK) 2012 TV series had the countdown clock breaking down. I am sitting in the office, around a big table, and someone came in and said: ‘The countdown clock has stopped.’ Everyone said: ‘Oh yeah, that’s very funny.’ ‘No, no seriously, it’s broken down, there’s a private jet-load of about Swiss engineers who have taken off from Geneva to come and fix it.’ ‘What, it has lasted four hours already?’”
Has this past year been like a post-Olympic year for an athlete. In that you have done it.
Lord Coe: “In a funny sort of a way, again, it is quite analogist in one sense, because if you think about the competitor, they work in four-year cycles. And you work in four-year cycles in organising committees. Halfway round my lap of honour in Moscow, after the 1500m, I was thinking ‘I’m never doing this again, I’m out of here, I’ve paid my dues’. But, by the time you get to the end of the lap you’re thinking about Los Angeles. It’s a slightly synthetic environment, you’re in, but I came out of Moscow, thinking about LA; you come out of Beijing and then, as an organising committee, you’re thinking about London. Again, you come out of an Olympic Games, all right I didn’t go into the immediate hothouse of a 1981 or a 1985 (track season)with a mountainous programme…we didn’t have a world championships…so I could, at least, have a fallow (year). But I don’t feel this has been a fallow year. Because halfway through the Games I had accepted a legacy role (with the UK government) which takes up a good chunk of my time, and at the end of the Games, of course, my predecessor stepped down as chairman of the BOA. If you had said to me nine months ago, I would be sitting here at the British Olympic Association, I never saw that coming.
“So, in a way, I’ve just gone from being a chair of the organising committee into the legacy stuff, which I do feel quite strongly about. In this room yesterday, we were all trying to figure out airline movements (to Brazil), getting teams from A to B, what my trip to Belo Horizonte looks like for our holding camp in October. I won’t sit here and pretend that it’s the same muck and sweat I woke up in the morning, a year out from the Games but I am still very engaged in aspects of the Olympic Games. I have never felt any sense of anti-climax, I have always genuinely thought about the project being a 20-year project anyway. I won’t be doing this in another 10 years’ time. But I did see the first year when I had conversation with the Prime Minister (David Cameron) about doing the legacy role, I mean I very clearly saw that we needed to get this right structurally in the first year. To get those parts of the legacy that we were really focussing on into a safe and secure home – and I think we have done that. There’s a home and there’s an ownership. There’s the right kind of thinking behind it now. In a way, that’s a good thing. Our legacy unit should not be sitting there in perpetuity because people will look to us to deliver legacy. That is not what we have been about. We have done it to challenge ambitions and to make sure that privately I have been able to talk to the PM about the way government departments are responding. And he’s been very focussed on making sure when we publish our report in a few weeks’ time, we do talk about what we’ve done and how we’ve done it. In a way, much more a route map going of forward...it’s a report on the legacy aspects of the Games. Am I happy with it? Yes. It’s a good start, only a start, it’s 44-45 weeks into the legacy.
“But if you said to me that the four big pieces that he tasked everybody to think about: one was school sport and the primary school offer (of funding). Crucially to legacy, it came about through collective thinking across four government departments – that had never happened before. Not in my political lifetime have I sat in a room figuring out something to do with school sport that had the (government) Health Secretary, the Cabinet Secretary, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Secretary and the Education Secretary all sitting there figuring out how they could contribute thought and resource to that project.
“If you look at the volunteer programmes – the Join In foundation – that has now got ownership. That is for that group to go on driving. Sport has its own clearly defined ownership, with the same level of funding for our elite competitors going through to Rio. That is sort of in a safe place. If you look at the business side of that: the numbers that we will report in a few weeks’ time are a really good start. We set a target over the four years of £13bn off-the-back of the Games, £2bn of that being tourism. We are on track and a good way towards that target off-the-back of the first year. That’s a very good position to be in. if you look at the Olympic Park, there were eight permanent venues, and all eight have permanent tenancy, good community stories and good levels of investment into the area.
They are all now in a safe and secure home. It’s for those owners to make sure that they are in turn, reporting annual progress for next 10 years. It’s not for me any longer.”
Towards the end of your autobiography, written just after the Paralympics, you said: ‘Your ultimate goal is to inspire and excite your people into healthier and happier lives.’ When do you expect those results to come through?
Lord Coe: “We are seeing some good stuff now. This is not the legacy of the last 44 weeks; look at where participation rates were in 2005 before we won the right to stage the Games – and where they are now – that’s about 11.5 million more people playing sport (according to the Sport England Active People survey). A good chunk of them 16-25. We need to do a lot more to engage young people with disability and impairment. There’s a scope for improvement there. A lot of work has been done on the broader Paralympic legacy. There’s a very, very serious piece of work, to be published, about the way that the Paralympic legacy can impinge upon the built environment, about the transportation systems, about the way we build cities.
It’s a really good start. We should be really honest about this, we shouldn’t be pretending that this will be a line that will go straight up. It isn’t. It never has and it never will. We are in a much better position now to capture the excitement of last year and clearly if you look at participation rates, you look just anecdotally travelling the country. I was in a school last week, where there were more kids doing things and more clubs are reporting higher subscriptions and membership. Some are even reporting waiting lists. So that’s fast. But we should also be realistic about this. We have seven years of waking up every morning to a media storm about the Games; a sort of feeding frenzy around this, the torch relay, the sponsorship stuff, all of this gave sport a real push. The real challenge over the next seven years is that we don’t have the marketing of a Games to keep reminding people of that. The real advantage we have is that every year for the next 10 years we’ve got extraordinary sport.
“If you look at what happened this summer. That will have had an inspirational effect on participation rates in tennis than anything has happened before.”
Can we claim Andy Murray (woinning Wimbledon) as a legacy issue as he won his gold medal at the Olympics?
Lord Coe: “Not sure we can. I am careful not to claim too much! But we can genuinely say that there is no doubt there is a greater confidence in British sport, Team GB showed other sports that Brits can be winners – not just in staple sports but across a whole range of sports. Since 2005, it was inevitable, but a good virtuous outcome, NGBs (national governing bodies) in large part really did recognise that they were going to be accountable. And that judgments would be made about their individual competitors in 2012. A lot of them did re-engineer themselves. They did bring in different coaches. I think if there’s an Olympic legacy, it was that they focussed and sharpened-up their approach – and the real skill now is to do it again. Just recognise that Rio will be tougher than London, not only because it’s an overseas Games but because the world will inevitably be more competitive in three years than it is now.”
Sponsorship. Is that an aspect has been hard?
Lord Coe: “There are two things that have happened: it is inevitable that a lot of those commercial partners – and they were fantastic through the Games – have just paused for breath to figure out what they do next. I think some of them will come back in the legacy space. I know that, for instance, if you talk to any of the companies who have re-engaged, they have come back because they want to help build on what’s happened for the next ten years. It’s not unusual after an Olympics. It’s a tough market place out there. It’s really important for elite level funding to be guaranteed through to 2016: that makes a huge difference. If you look at the four ingredients for world-class performance: you want world-class national governing bodies, because they tend to employ world-class coaches, there’s no grey area here; you either have world-class coaches or you don’t. You then want best athletes of their generation, who are hungry and motivated and obsessed with securing their place in history. But you also need predictable and high levels of funding. When you get all that, you tend to get rowing or cycling. It’s not a case of perming one or two from four, you have to have all four. So commitment to continue elite-level funding to 2016 is absolutely crucial. Absolutely crucial. If you lose that then that makes a temporary pause for breath from sponsors even more critical.”
Would you say to companies ‘come on fellows, let’s keep going and not pull out now’?
Lord Coe: “Hey, of course, I want to see as many potential sponsors out there, whether they are current or past partners or potential, to help us keep the tap running. Of course, that’s really important. We have got two new partners who will help us do that. That has been good. I do know it’s a very tough market place. It’s not just Olympic sport, it’s across the board."
Part I of II
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.
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