From Olympic arenas to Westminster politics and sports leadership, Sebastian Coe has always set a brisk pace. Now, as chair of the London 2012 organising committee, he’s in the biggest race of his life. And legacy is his watchword
There are few people better placed to talk about high performance than Lord [Sebastian] Coe. “Performance should celebrate longevity rather than just a fantastic season or one great moment,” says the double Olympic champion.
Coe recently backed the inaugural Performance Awards, celebrating top achievers across a range of fields, and he is in little doubt what constitutes elite performance. “It’s about fulfilling personal potential and about making a difference,” he says.
Coe knows a thing or two about the qualities required. Having gone from a glorious middle-distance running career, during which he set 11 world records and won four Olympic medals, he switched, first to politics when he became Conservative MP for Falmouth and Camborne in Cornwall, and then later to sports administration, steering London’s bid to host the 2012 Games.
Today he heads the 2012 organising committee, Locog, and two years from the opening ceremony he says the project is on track.
The man behind the Performance Awards, Gerry Rose, believes Coe’s leadership skills set him apart. “If you ask him the question, ‘how do you lead?’ his response is, ‘I get really good people and I trust them to get on with their job’. That is easy to say but difficult to do, and I know that in business it is a conundrum people try to overcome, but he seems to do it really well,” he says.
“Where he does excel is that he inspires people and he is really good at showing what focus is like, and if you put those two together you will get performance.”
Coe’s move from the running track to front-line politics may have looked sudden to some, but it was all part of the plan. “Most people thought that one minute I was in sport and the next I was in politics, and in terms of dates that is the way it looks. I went from the world championships to, a week later, being in front of a selection committee for a constituency. Although it looked like a swift transition it was a very long process. I knew it was something I wanted to do by my mid-teens. I didn’t become an MP until I was 36.”
The theme of everything needing time to develop is one Coe returns to often, and he says business would do well to adapt this attitude from the sporting world. His athletics career was underpinned by meticulous preparation and focus; two attributes he has used to great success in his later career.
“If we are true to ourselves we know that good things don’t happen instantly, that the creation of good teams is sometimes a five, six or seven-year process,” he says. “I started out in track and field when I was 12 years old and I didn’t get to an Olympic Games until I was 23. Likewise, you don’t set up a business and expect to be a market leader overnight, these things take time.”
Looking back, Coe admits to an early fascination with politics. “It is a dreadful thing to admit but on balance politics have always interested me at least as much as sport did and by my early teens I knew that at some stage I would be involved in politics. In my mid- to late-20s I started working with the UK Sports Council and I later became chairman. During that time my political interest hardened and I suddenly thought, ‘I’d like to do this in a broader political context’, and it was then that I started to think about the possibility of becoming a member of parliament.”
Baroness [Sue] Campbell, chair of UK Sport, says Coe is a one-off. “As an athlete his elegance and poise made him stand out from the crowd and I think he has carried that into the world of politics,” she says. “He obviously always had a dual track in his head-he was going to be a great athlete and then he was going to be a great something else.”
Coe was widely credited with bringing the 2012 Games to London after giving a heartfelt and personal speech to members of the International Olympic Committee in Singapore in 2005. He used his own inspiration to present the vision of the London Games, explaining how watching John and Sheila Sherwood—athletes from Sheffield, where he was brought up—win bronze and silver medals respectively at the 1968 Mexico Games made him determined to become an Olympic champion.
The cornerstone of London’s bid was to inspire children globally to take up sport, just as Coe did himself. To demonstrate this, the delegation travelling to Singapore included 30 east London children, who lined up next to top athletes including Sir Steve Redgrave and David Beckham. Coe wanted to show who would benefit from the Games being held in an economically deprived area.
But he admits that the world has changed and inspiring youngsters today is a tall order. “A lot of young people live in this world of reality television and instant fame, which very much indicates the opposite to an athlete’s journey. Our challenge is to engage with young people in something that does not happen overnight. When a coach sees a talent in the swimming pool or on the running track he might explain to them ‘you may not see much development over the first five years, but I think you have talent, and if you apply yourself you could be really good’, but then the next time they switch on the TV they see overnight fame and success. That is counter-culture to the landscape you are trying to introduce to kids.”
This part of the Olympic legacy, he concedes, is the hardest. “Legacy by some distance has always been the biggest challenge; it is not about the project management because smart people work these things out, it is not raising money because we are doing that very well, and it is not the challenge of building great teams,” he says. “I think we all understand that a large part of the assessment of this is going to be what we leave behind. The softer legacies are always harder to achieve.”
He insists that the prospect of a UK Olympics is engaging young people across the country. “I am lucky. I spend a lot of time outside the office and I know there is massive excitement and creativity. There are many organisations doing things to a different timeframe and with a thirst for achievement. When I go to Stoke I see young people rowing and canoeing on Trentham Lake who wouldn’t even have known two years ago that the lake existed.”
But Coe is concerned that not enough people are aware. “I know it is happening because I get out there, but I am not sure that anybody at this moment is in a position to capture that story post-2012, and unless we do that I don’t think we are going to do justice to what it is we have set out to do,” he says. “At the end of this I think we’ll be able to say what we did and what we brought to the table, and the government will be able to say that off the back of some of their initiatives this is what happened, but I don’t see anyone compiling this in a narrative and that is so important.”
He believes this is a task for central government. But surely it is busy firefighting in other areas? “That may be the case but governments are always busy; sometimes busier than they should be. The reality is that if we want to tell the full 2012 story we can only tell it in a compelling manner if we start doing it now,” he argues, clearly annoyed at a lack of progress in documenting the impact of staging the Games here.
Coe has often cited as his greatest source of inspiration, his father and coach, Peter, whom he calls “the best middle distance coach in the world”. With such an intimate knowledge of what works for athletes and how to achieve success, why did he not go down the coaching route? “I am a product of world-class coaching, but I know that top athletes don’t necessarily make the best coaches,” he says. “I just don’t think it was a burning passion in me to coach although I take a lot of pleasure occasionally from taking a group of athletes round the running track.”
If one word describes the way Coe has tackled his career it is focus; typical of a performance athlete, says Campbell. “You don’t achieve what he has without being incredibly single-minded about it, and it was the same when we went for the bid; he demonstrated the ability to apply what he had learnt through sport-the focus, persistence and real clarity of purpose that he had when he wanted to become the best runner in the world,” she asserts. “He has carried that into politics and business.”
Coe maintains that he is not nervous about 2012. “I am not cavalier or complacent about it and I know we have a lot to do in order to deliver against what we said we would deliver, and we have a lot to do to get people engaged and excited throughout the country,” he says. “But I am excited.”
He has even found time to be on the board of England’s bid for the 2018 football World Cup, which was damaged when the former chairman, Lord Triesman, was forced to resign after a controversial newspaper story. The press must be frustrating. No, he says. “I don’t get frustrated.
Complaining about the press is a bit like complaining about the weather. Every morning you wake up and it is still there,” he says. “I am in my fifties and I have been exposed to the press from a really early age.”
When it comes to the Olympics the media has been helpful. “Everybody thinks the Games is a good idea. People will invariably have views about how it is delivered, what the impact should be and those sorts of things, and I like that because I think a good forensic press—and I say this occasionally through gritted teeth—makes you a better organisation,” he says.
His hope for the Olympics, he adds, is that people will challenge themselves to do things they might never have done before, such as volunteering, and says the people who have motivated him are the unpaid workers up and down the country. “People inspired me in my sport when I was running cross country; the people who were prepared to stand out on a course for six hours in sub-zero temperatures marshalling kids. Looking back, I would never have been able to do anything I have done without the volunteers. You never read about them but they are an extraordinary group of people.”
As for his own plans, Coe refuses to look beyond 2012. Campbell says, with his experience, he could now turn his hand to anything. Rumours abound that he plans to run for the presidency of the International Association of Athletic Federations next year; regardless, he is unlikely to lack offers and may yet cross into another area. As Gerry Rose says: “There is a lot to the guy.”
By Tina Neilsen