OTHER SPORTS Sebastian Coe: Into the last lap

Eager to immortalise London in Olympic history, Sebastian Coe is also intent on giving UK taxpayers value for their money

By Robin Chatterjee, Senior Associate Editor
May 17, 2012
Image Credit: AP

As optimistic as he may seem, Lord Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), knows that though preparations for the London Olympics are in the final straight, there is no guarantee that a gold medal is yet in sight.

One of the greatest middle-distance runners in athletics history — when he competed against compatriots Steve Cram and Steve Ovett — Coe knows the meaning of the term "you don't win silver, you lose gold" only too well.

Test events at various venues are being staged and the Olympic stadium at the Olympic Park in East London has also been stress-tested with an inter-collegiate athletics event earlier this month. The feedback so far has been good, albeit not outstanding. London is on the home stretch in a race that has lasted seven years since they won the bid on July 6, 2005.

Pragmatic approach

Coe and his team are armed with pragmatism and are determined to ensure that the London Games are an experience no one will ever forget. Britain's greatest ever middle distance runner is familiar with Olympic glory and disaster, having been on the receiving end of both emotions in an athletics career which was spectacular. But the 2012 Olympics will be Coe's greatest test yet. It could catapult him into immortality, or plummet him into ignominy.

"With around ten weeks to go, we are getting ready to stage a fantastic Games," Coe said in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

"This is the largest project delivered in the UK in peace-time and we are going to show the world what we, as a nation, and as London, can deliver. Everyone from athletes, coaches, media and organisers have been working towards this date for many years and we can't wait to welcome athletes, spectators and visitors from more than 200 nations to London and the UK this summer."

One of the feathers in London's cap when they wear their hat as organisers is the progress achieved in terms of the Games' preparedness and the careful use of taxpayers money.

Accountability has been the buzz word, coupled with the term legacy, and Coe and his officials are straining to ensure that they execute their task with responsibility and professionalism. There needs to be something at the end of the Games for the British public to fall back on. With Europe in the midst of an economic crunch, Britain in the grip of a double-dip recession and with unemployment numbers rising daily, the focus this summer will definitely be on London making the cut.

"In terms of progress, we are where we should be and we are extremely proud of the progress we have made over the last six years," stated Coe.

"We are working to turn our venues on the Olympic Park into competition venues, we are continuing to build a high quality team to deliver the Games, finished our London Prepares Series which tested our venues and there are many opportunities for the public to get involved with the Games."

During the Olympics, Coe will simply be the ‘King of London', the go-to man. He lives in an environment where the difference between victory and defeat is documented, sometimes painfully, by the British media. Which is why he is taking great pains to ensure that his team and everyone involved in the organisation of the Games are not lacking in commitment and responsibility.

"Whilst we're confident, we're not complacent," he said candidly.

"Over the next few weeks, we will continue to test, practice and prepare. We know expectations are high, but we know we can make it a brilliant and unforgettable summer."

The Olympic preparations have so far been spot on, but the questions linger — will the philosophy of legacy, which LOCOG is stressing so much, pay dividends after the Games are over? A larger economic question needs to be addressed in terms of providing the taxpayers with a valid audit and how they gave benefited from this exercise.

London has also been delivered to the IOC ahead of schedule and reasonably within budget. It could, in future, be a case study for countries who bid for the Olympics and ensure there is no financial wastage.

Fantastic job

"The Olympic Delivery Authority has done a fantastic job of delivering great venues on time and on budget. From LOCOG's perspective, we knew we wanted to get the domestic sponsors on board and we are very proud that we reached the £700 million (Dh4.1 billion) target for domestic sponsorship last summer, despite the difficult economic climate we have been through.

"The Olympic and Paralympic Games have brought a generation's worth of investment and regeneration in just a few years," said Coe. "World-class sporting facilities, new housing, a new urban park, the new Westfield development and improved transport links have combined to create almost a brand new community in the area. I'm proud that the Games have been the catalyst for this.

"We strongly believe the Games will bring lasting economic benefits to London and the rest of the UK. Last year Visa, one of London 2012's worldwide partners, issued a report stating that the UK economy was set to benefit from a record-breaking spending injection during the London 2012 Games. Consumer spending is set to hit £750 million, the biggest ever consumer spend at an Olympic and Paralympic Games.

"The budget for the Olympic Delivery Authority, the organisation responsible for building the venues on the Olympic Park, is £9.3 billion. Seventy-five pence in every £1 spent in that budget is being used on the regeneration of the area of east London where the Olympic Park is based.

"We also wanted to make sure that we only built venues which would be needed in long-term legacy, which is why we are using a combination of newly-built, existing venues and temporary venues for the London 2012 Games. About four years ago, the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) was set up to help manage the venues in legacy-time.

"Our vision has always been to leave a lasting legacy and we wanted to ensure that we would only build permanent venues on the Park that would [be] used long after the Games are over, by people across London and the rest of the UK. The OPLC announced earlier this year that several venues on the Olympic Park had already found tenants in legacy-time."

Thanks to the responsible approach undertaken by the organisers, the area around east London, venue for the Olympic Park, has now been transformed. Once considered to be the ‘dumping ground' of the city, the vicinity, according to Coe, "has been completely regenerated and a whole new community has been created. The fantastic permanent venues on the Olympic Park will provide a great legacy to communities across London.

"Finally, £6.5 billion has been invested in improving and expanding transport capacity and reliability. Again, this is something which will benefit Londoners and others around the UK for generations to come."

There is a sense, however, that the people of the UK, and especially those who live in London, are yet to feel the Olympic spirit. The approach to the Olympic stadium from various quarters doesn't exactly crackle with anticipation, at least not yet. The theory offered has been that Londoners can be quite blasé about what goes on around them and the Olympics are going to be no different. Many believe that the philosophy of ‘legacy' is waiting to go horribly wrong.

"I think the British public can sometimes take their time to get involved and excited," admitted Coe.

"However, right from the start, we've had a lot of the British public behind us. For example, we've seen this in the number of people who applied to be a volunteer, in the number of applications we received for [the] Olympic Torch Relay, in how popular the ticket sales have been and in the number of schools [which] have signed up to our ‘Get Set' programme.

"So I am sure that in the next few weeks, when London really starts to turn into a host city, and the Olympic Flame travels around the UK, athletes start training at their pre-Games Training Camps or London 2012 Festival events are taking place, then we will really see the public get excited by the Games."

Adrenaline quietly pumping

In the context of all that is currently taking place in the city, it is safe to assume that Coe and his team are watchful not to peak too early. This is not difficult to fathom given that many in the organising committee are former athletes. The adrenaline, however, is quietly pumping, but Coe is shying away from making big predictions like what, according to him, is going to be the best experience of the London Games.

"Where do I start!," he says carefully. "There is really something for everyone out there — whether you're a sports fan and you'll be in one of our venues or watching the action from one of the big screens, cheering on torchbearers as they go past your local community, supporting Games Makers from your town or city who will be volunteering this summer or even just going to some of the London 2012 Festival events."

In the end it is all about re-branding London, one of the most diverse and most visited cities in the world.

"London is probably the world's greatest international city and the Olympic and Paralympic Games are the world's greatest international sporting events, so are a real draw for sports fans around the world. The diversity of London means that most athletes competing here will be doing so in front of a home crowd — which I think will lead to a great atmosphere in our venues. We really can't wait to welcome the world to London this summer."

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