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May 21, 2012
A lord and a legend, an Olympic hero who once tussled with a clown, Sebastian Coe is the upbeat face and driving force of this summer's Games
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May 21, 2012

Ready, Set, Coe!

A lord and a legend, an Olympic hero who once tussled with a clown, Sebastian Coe is the upbeat face and driving force of this summer's Games

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Coe's upper lip isn't stiff. It quivers. He wouldn't rattle off past slights if they didn't still lurk close to the surface: "At 14, I was told I'd never be fast enough to be an 800-meter runner. [He would set a world record at that distance that stood for 16 years.] Then, that I'd never be tall enough to be a miler. [Coe remains the only man to have successfully defended a 1,500 Olympic title in a four-year cycle.] There's always been a motivation, an enjoyment, in proving people wrong. I've always enjoyed taking on, not insuperable odds, but the challenge. At the beginning of the bid process I was told it was between Paris and Madrid. That was the challenge. As a racer I always did like coming from behind."

At first, as he would later confess to The Guardian, Coe felt "like a slightly dodgy timeshare salesman." Yet before he could really lobby the IOC, he had work to do at home, where cynicism ruled after Britain's melodramatic struggles to bring two major sports venues off the drawing board: first the financially troubled Millennium Dome (now The O2), and then a stadium envisioned for Picketts Lock, where London was to have staged the 2005 track and field world championships. In 2001 the city had to give the event back to the IAAF because organizers couldn't come up with the $150 million to build the stadium. Coe, who had put his reputation on the line to help secure the gemstone event in the sport he once ruled, questioned whether the government was capable of "operating a whelk store."

Once at LOCOG, Coe delegated Steven Redgrave, the rower who won gold medals at five consecutive Olympics, to bring the prime minister on board. (Paris was seen as such a prohibitive favorite that Blair at first balked at throwing himself into a contest in which he'd simply get punked by French president Jacques Chirac.) Then Coe had to persuade the IOC that public skepticism in Britain wouldn't translate into open opposition. The IOC conducts polls to determine domestic support, and if a prospective host falls short of 70%, it can imperil a bid as much as geographic ungainliness or an aged transit system—London's two most glaring liabilities.

But by coming so late to the table, the city reaped certain advantages. The bid committee didn't have time to indulge in the kind of bureaucratic temporizing at the heart of so many Monty Python sketches. New rail lines and a huge shopping mall were under construction already around the projected Olympic Park site. Most critically, the short schedule gave Coe the freedom to build a bid of his own choosing. London's were to be a Games as seen through the eyes of a child—specifically, the young Seb Coe, whose early Olympic memories changed his life.

In 1968, Coe was trundled into an assembly with his classmates at their school in Sheffield. On a black-and-white TV flickering on the stage, the kids watched highlights of a local couple, John and Sheila Sherwood, winning Olympic medals in the 400-meter hurdles and the long jump, respectively, in Mexico City. Seb, then 12, would later stand for more than two hours at a welcome-home event to catch a glimpse of the Sherwoods; in 1970, after he had joined the local track club, he accepted a new pair of shoes from Sheila herself to wear in his first English schools championship.

That seed would grow into the 2012 Games' slogan: Inspire a Generation. As London built its case, it would fold in a calculated extra, an "international inspiration" program that pledged $67.5 million to help UNICEF deliver sport-for-development programs to more than 12 million children around the world. Essentially Coe proposed staging an Olympics that would do for kids globally what 1968 had done for him. "It's amazing," he says, "how you can set people on a course in a moment." When the bid book detailing London's vision was finally ready, Coe sent Amber Charles, a 14-year-old basketball, cricket and track athlete from East Ham who claims English, Brazilian, Chinese, Caribbean and even Native American ancestry, to deliver it to IOC headquarters in Lausanne.

Before the final presentation and vote in Singapore in July 2005, Coe tested out phrases on audiences for months, in a kind of rhetorical interval training. Scratching out one last draft in Singapore while jet-lagged at 4 a.m., he discarded anything he could even remotely imagine another city saying in its presentation. He was not to be boxed in: Coe would run London's race in the Olympic final.

On the final day Redgrave was struck by the formal quality of the Parisians' pitch, with its focus on hotel beds and its parade of speakers in gray suits. "I thought perhaps we'd gone down the wrong avenue," he says.

London's pitch plucked at the IOC's heartstrings—a gambler's strategy in its assumption that IOC members have hearts with strings to pluck. Coe screened a film that traced the imagined trajectories of children around the world touched by a London Olympics, including a Mexican girl belly-flopping into the water and morphing into a competitive swimmer, and an African boy on a rickety bike who's suddenly contesting a sprint. It didn't hurt London's case that, where Chirac swanned through one reception in 20 minutes, Blair spent 20 minutes each with dozens of IOC members, virtually all of whom could see his or her own nationality somewhere in the crazy quilt of East London. Nor did it hurt that the IOC frets over the graying of its TV audience. Coe had taken heat at home for sending 30 young people to Singapore, but when Amber Charles, by then 16, stood up on stage, the other 29, out in the audience, rose with her. "Afterward one of the IOC members touched me on the shoulder and said, 'Fantastic,'" Redgrave recalls. "Seb sold passion and youth and what our bid stood for."

One other factor loomed large in London's victory. With their rivalry, Coe and Ovett had essentially saved the Moscow Olympics, the target of a U.S.-led boycott, and Samaranch, no longer the IOC president but still influential, had never forgotten. The elimination of Madrid on the third ballot left him with no reason not to work on London's behalf. Even if he succeeded in steering only a few votes Coe's way, every one mattered in London's 54--50 final-round defeat of Paris.

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