A talk with Lord Coe

Sebastian Coe, now Lord Coe, needs no introduction to even the most casual follower of sports. He was one of the top 800- and 1,500-meter runners for nearly a decade, from 1977 to 1986. He set records in both events; in fact, he was the first athlete to simultaneously hold the world record in the 800 and 1,500 meters and the mile. His 800-meter record of 1 minute 41.73 seconds, set in 1981, held for many years. Coe competed in two Olympics, at Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984, sadly both diminished by successive boycotts. He was prevented from winning the 800 meters, first by his compatriot and archrival Steve Ovett and then by Brazil’s Joachim Cruz. In contrast, he won the 1,500 meters twice, the only athlete to ever successfully defend his title in the event. Elected an MP with the Conservatives in 1992, Sebastian Coe served as minister for sports before losing his seat in the 1997 Labor landslide. Now a member of the House of Lords, Coe has remained close to the sport in another capacity, as a councilor in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Currently, he is trying to bring the Games back to London for the third time and the first since 1948. His selling point: a compact, athlete-centered Games that will leave the biggest new urban park in Europe in the last two centuries, along with several sports venues, as a lasting legacy to the city. Last Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of Coe’s earning his second gold in the 1,500 meters in a time of 3 minutes, 32.53 seconds, an Olympic record that stood until Sydney. Kathimerini English Edition caught up with Lord Coe just before that anniversary, in a nice house that serves as the local headquarters of the British Olympic Association. Of course, the five bidders for 2012 – London, Madrid, Moscow, New York, Paris – are officially barred from selling their bid to International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more…). The winning bid will be decided in early July 2005, in Singapore. How are you going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of your last Olympic medal? Actually, it was my team that pointed it out to me. There won’t be a celebration, but a nice, warm reflection. What has changed in the Olympics since then? I don’t think that an athlete could have been to two more contrasting Olympic Games. My first Games were in Moscow. These Games were an entirely state-run organization. And four years later, we had the first overtly commercial Games, with no state funding; the Games that introduced, for the very first time, the concept of serious sponsorship. They also re-energized the use of volunteers, which was a concept introduced at the 1948 London Games. This was out of necessity; we had no resources, having come out of the Second World War. Partnerships So, you asked me what has changed. Well, since 1980, everything has changed. But, with 1984 a lot, but not that much, because the 1984 model, the model that the International Olympic Committee uses for its top sponsorship program, was modeled by Los Angeles in 1984 and, specifically, Peter Ueberroth, the organizer of the Games. Also, relying not on state funding but on partnerships is now a model fully accepted by the IOC. The Games has got bigger and even more commercially viable since then, but 1984 is the model we are still using. LA was awarded the 1984 Games by the IOC in a session here in Athens in 1978. Yes, I remember that. Back then, it was the only candidate city… It was not, initially. There was also Teheran, but they had a change of management halfway through the bidding process. You have to remember that after Montreal, no city wanted to touch the Olympic Games with a barge pole. No political leadership was comfortable with the project after Montreal, but by 1986, which was the year they chose Barcelona, we were back to 13 bidding cities, for both the Winter and Summer Games. So, Los Angeles helped make that change. For the 2012 Games, it’s probably the first time there are so many heavyweight candidates… It is a big competition. I think the International Olympic Committee recognized that very early on when you have a bidding process that includes London, Madrid, Moscow, Paris, New York and cities like Rio and Leipzig that didn’t make it [to the final round]. Is there a feeling among the IOC that it will be many years before the Olympics go to a country as small as Greece? I hope not, because the most important thing the IOC can continue to do is maintain a dialogue with the smaller countries and entire continents that have not hosted the Games yet. Eventually, you cannot have a worldwide movement that narrows the field down to half a dozen places. It is important that the Games eventually goes to Africa, it is important that it goes to South America – I mean, South America is a huge Olympic continent. Deep, deep Olympic history. It has to go to South America eventually and you do not want an Olympics that is seen by billions of people but is open to only a few people to host. There has to be a better balancing and I know the Olympic movement is aware that this is a dialogue it has to have. You mentioned Los Angeles as a model of private financing. London would get some state financing, wouldn’t it? Of course, but our bid is the best example of public-private partnership. It is very important that the government underwrites the process. The government is, if you like, the lender of last resort, but it is also important that we come to the table with very healthy corporate sponsorship. It is actually not just about «here’s a corporation, here’s the Olympics, lets put some money into it.» It’s very important that those organizations are able to roll out their own Olympic programs. We are not just talking about the [duration of the Games]. If you take the large corporations, like Samsung, or Coca-Cola, or McDonalds, or whoever else is in there, this, for them, is a seven-year program. They’ve got programs for young people; they contribute to Olympic Solidarity programs (that sponsor young athletes from countries that lack resources). I think a lot of people tend to overlook this and sometimes I wonder whether the IOC fully gets the message over. Corporate support Actually, sponsorship does far more than just be visible during the three weeks of the Olympic Games. The whole nature of Olympism is underpinned by healthy corporate support. And [corporations] are a very important vehicle for getting Olympic messages out. These are organizations that employ across the world hundreds of thousands of people. Of course, the IOC is doing its part in spreading the Olympic message but when you have broad-based organizations like [the sponsors], it’s very helpful to the process.

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