To be British has long meant to be born into a certain station and—Mustn't grumble, carry on—muddle through there to the end of your days. Coe has traced a strikingly up-and-down path for a Brit. For all the highs he has hit, there have been spectacular lows—busts to fuel the next boom.
As a preteen he failed his 11-plus, the exam that in 1970s Britain sorted the academic wheat from the chaff, and he wound up at a "secondary modern," at the time a kind of glorified vocational school. But he rallied to make his way to Loughborough University, in Leicestershire in the East Midlands, where he earned a degree in economics and history.
He entered his first Olympics, in Moscow in 1980, with a personal best in the 800 meters more than two seconds faster than anyone else's in the field, only to run an uncharacteristically thick-headed final and lose the gold to his archrival and countryman Steve Ovett. Six days later Coe won the 1,500 meters that everyone assumed to be Ovett's, then dropped to his knees and touched his forehead to the track. "When I watched that display on the replay it was a bit embarrassing," he would later put it in his 1992 autobiography, Born to Run. "But it was such a bloody, marvelous relief.
"I didn't have any alternative [but to win]. I was driven by fear of [Ovett], by fear of repeating my own failure.... What determines the limit of an athlete's performance is the inner conflict, the doubt about your abilities. This can be either limiting or lifting."
Two years of injury and illness, including a bout of toxoplasmosis in 1983, led London's Daily Mirror to start a campaign to exclude Coe from the British team for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But there he defended his 1,500 gold, and moments after he crossed the line, his face darkened and, turning to the press tribune, he screamed, "Who says I'm finished now?!" Years later Coe would wonder how he could have been seized by such emotion, "anger bordering on hatred."
With his eye on a third 1,500-meter gold in 1988, Coe failed to earn one of two qualifying spots at the British trials and was passed over for a discretionary third spot. He learned of the track board's 11--10 decision on his car radio. Two other countries, India (Coe has Indian ancestry on his mother's side) and Belize, offered him spots on their teams, and IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch explored ways in which Coe might compete under a special dispensation. Even the Mirror rallied to his side, launching a COE MUST GO campaign. All those intercessions were unavailing, and Coe spent the day of the Olympic final with a girlfriend on a boat off the coast of Sicily. But by the end of the following season, back on the British team, he once again sat atop the national rankings in the 800, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the mile.
Over the years Coe had mulled over a variety of occupations for his posttrack life: banker, morning-show host, even sports minister if he were to choose a career in politics. In 1992, on his first try, the former treasurer of Loughborough's Young Conservatives Club won election to Parliament from a constituency in West Cornwall. But he was turned out after one term in the anti-Tory wave of 1997—after being ranked by fellow MPs as one of the "least impressive" in his class.
In 2001, with the Tories in opposition, Coe became chief of staff to Conservative Party chief William Hague. He encouraged Hague to take up judo and joined him for workouts. The epithet Hague's judo partner (not to mention bag-carrier-in-chief, head gatekeeper and chief factotum), combined with Hague's own increasing irrelevance, sealed Political Seb's reputation: good fellow, but lightweight and feckless. As Prime Minister Tony Blair and New Labour consolidated their rule, the Mirror began to send a clown to Hague's public appearances, and it fell to Coe to keep the interloper out of the picture. One day, in the doorway of a shop in Welwyn Garden City, things went horribly wrong. "Daddy," four-year-old Harry Coe asked upon his father's arrival home that evening, "why were you on television punching a clown?"
Then, in May 2004, only 14 months before the IOC would make its decision on the host city for 2012, Barbara Cassani stepped down as head of London's bid effort. With London sitting no better than third, Cassani was ready to yield to a candidate better equipped for the schmoozing and selling now required. The vacancy seemed perfect for a man who had come from the cinders.
Coe's multiple reinventions and resurrections seem not only un-British but also downright American. Suggest to Coe that he's a kind of English Peter Ueberroth, and he doesn't dispute it. "I admire America immensely," says Coe, who during his racing days relied on an orthopedist in Chicago and a sports-medicine specialist in Atlanta. "Americans are some of the cleverest people I know. Maybe something's rubbed off. I've always taken the view that life is fundamentally what you make of it."