As King of Middle Distance, Sebastian Coe won two Olympic gold medals and set 11 world records during the 1980s. Then he became a politician, a Lord even. But everyone refers to Lord Coe as “Seb”, and the energetic chairman of the London Olympics is indeed an approachable man, as he showed when he invited Metro to keep him company while he ate a takeout salad for lunch.
What constitutes success for him in the 2012 Games: lots of world records? No terrorist attacks? Top-rate sustainability?
Everybody from different parts of the project will inevitably rate success from their own perspective. The things you mentioned are not a question of success or failure: we have to do them; they’re non-negotiable. You need Games that work in all those ways – sustainable, safe and secure. As chairman of the organizing committee, I’m responsible for delivering on all those platforms. But, look: I’ll always see the Games through the eyes of the competitor, and for me it’s absolutely vital that I deliver something for the athletes that allows them to compete at the highest level at THE defining moment in their life. We have to make sure that we leave no stone unturned. We have to provide them with venues that work, transportation that works, an Olympic village that gives them the right environment. So, for me it will always be about the athletes, but I know there’s lot more that I have to get right.
How are you doing it better than previous Olympic Games?
I don’t compare London to previous Games. But I think I would say is that I want to enshrine as many of the good aspects of the previous games as we can. There’s never a day in this job where I don’t learn something. One thing I’ve learned from is the way the athletes were treated at the Games in Beijing—the organizers had a forensic eye for detail and an extremely high level of service. That’s a very good template for us.
Terrorists have become much sophisticated since 1972, when a terrorist group killed 11 athletes. Can you tell me how you’re going to outsmart them?
No. I’ll never get into anything as detailed as that. And we don’t have the lead role in the security of the Games; the government does. But we work as an integrated team. Our responsibility, as the Organizing Committee, is to deliver venues that are safe and secure for workers and athletes.
Another source of concern for potential Olympic spectators is overcrowding. Should they watch the Games from the comfort of their homes instead?
No, London is open for business! We have very good hotels and lots of activities for people who may not be coming simply to watch the Games: some of the world’s best art galleries and museums, a vibrant club scene. And London knows how to deal with crowds. We have big global events all the time, often simultaneously. The Olympics will have a great atmosphere, and we’ll create a transport plan that allows us to deal with the influx of people. Remember the Games are a celebration. Personally I think people will come in bigger numbers than is currently being imagined. And that’s what an Olympic city should strive for. London will keep benefitting from the Games for the next 50 years.
What will be your contribution to London during the next 50 years?
It’s the contribution the whole organization [LOCOG] has made. One thing I’m proud of is getting more young people involved in sports. We said we wanted to transform an economically challenged part of East London, and anyone who has been there recently can see all the new sports venues we’ve built. Young people in East London now have access to sports venues they’ve never had before, jobs they’ve never had before. 20% of our own organization are people from East London, and 13% of those people were long-term unemployed. And we have an international legacy, which has already involved 12 million in 20 countries young people in sport.
If a 10-year-old child asked you why he or she should do sports, what would you answer?
Because you’ll find out more about yourself through sports than through anything else. Sports is a bridgehead to so many other things. You learn to win and lose with dignity and magnanimity. You’ll make friendships that last a lifetime, and it’s friendships based on true values. Sports will give you an insight into life that you’d otherwise not get for 10-15 years. And sports isn’t over when you stop competing. You can coach or work in local sports clubs, inspiring more young people.
Beach volleyball next to Buckingham Palace: do such new sports really have athletic value, not just an aesthetic one?
They certainly have athletic value. Anyone who has played beach volleyball will tell you that you need extraordinary levels of agility, stamina, flexibility and speed. There’s no doubting the athletic values of beach volleyball. But what is actually does is attract a wider audience, particularly among younger people. So, it’s very good that new sports like beach volleyball bring young people into the sport movement.
So are new, untraditional sports what the Olympic movement needs?
The Olympic movement has always moved with the time. It was only in 1984 that women first ran the marathon, in the Los Angeles Olympics. Recently we’ve introduced new sports. Triathlon is a relatively new sport, and organizers recognized that it was very popular and growing in size. BMX-cycling is now an Olympic sport.
The king of any Summer Olympics is the men’s 100 meter…
Well, I’d tell you it’s the 1500 meter! (laughs)
…and the 100 sprinters keep running faster and faster. How much faster can they go?
Much, much faster! It’s not within your imagination or mine that if we sit here in 40 years’ time discussing this, we’ll look back at what Usain Bolt is now doing and smile. The world moves on. I’ve broken world records, my world records have been broken. The current world records can easily be broken. Usain Bolt can easily break the world 100 m world record, and so can Yohan Blake and Tyson Gay. The 100 meter race will be very competitive this year.
Another one of your responsibilities is keeping the Games clean from doping. How are you going to do it?
We obviously work with the International Olympic Committee on it. We have the very best testing technology, and zero tolerance for doping. We’ll provide the testing facilities, and we have a great partner in GlaxoSmithKline, which is developing the technology for the testing. Kings College here in London will evaluate all the tests in its laboratory.
Will it ever possible to keep sports clean?
The honest answer is no, but we’re in better shape than we’ve ever been. We’re winning the testing battles, and crucially, we’re winning the battle for hearts and minds. It’s vitally important to explain to young people to explain that doping is completely unnecessary! I competed at the highest level, broke world records and won Olympic Games without taking performance-enhancing drugs. Secondly, doping is dangerous. There are long-term health effects. Thirdly, it’s cheating. It’s very important to get that message across. Sports federations, manufacturers and sponsors understand that. We’re winning the battle, but it will always be a battle. We'll never be in a position where we can “ease off”. And I know that from my own sport.
But you see a change in attitude since your own competing days?
Yes, I do. When I was competing the world was divided. It was East and West, so in the West people could say, “oh, in the East athletes use drugs”. And people in the East said, “we’re just doing the same thing that’s going on on American campuses”. But now we’ve got a proper international view and shared vision that it’s important that sport at every level is clean. When people go in to watch a sport event, they have to know that they’re watching something that’s legitimate. What determines a winner is hard work, great coaching and natural talent – not that one team or athlete has a better chemist.
London won the Olympics, but England lost the bid for the football [soccer] World Cup. What’s your advice to the British football association next time they try?
Well, they won’t try again for a long time. England won’t make a bid for another decade or so. The problem is that there’s often confusion between the global reach of the Premier League and the influence that we have in the world of football, outside that handful of football clubs. Financially, the Premier League is probably the world’s biggest league in any sport, but I don’t believe that England has enough people of influence at an international level within the world of football. That’s what they should focus on. They should focus on getting more people at high levels in the international game. That then allows them to be there when the decisions are made. They need to be more a part of the international scene.
Do you ever watch the 1500 race and get the urge to jump in and be part of the action once again?
No! Every time I think it might be palatable or attractive to participate as a competitor again – which is obviously highly unlikely given my age – I just open a day in any of my training diaries. Then I know exactly why I’m here, not out in a running track.
When you attend games, where do you prefer being: in the VIP box or in the locker room?
I’m always happier among the athletes and the coaches – particularly the coaches. Coaches are so important in this. And most sports administrators are the same. They sit with the athletes.
What keeps you up at night?
Nothing. It’s an extraordinarily challenging project, but I’ve never worked with a more focused, passionate group of people in anything I’ve done. They’re matched, maybe, by the small team I had working with me when we conquered middle distance.