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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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There's a telling photo of IOC president Jacques Rogge announcing the results. In it Samaranch sits literally at his successor's elbow, poker-faced, trying in vain not to look the part of éminence grise. Samaranch may have failed to crowbar Coe into the 1988 Games, but 17 years later he delivered on a grand scale.

With London organizers prepared to spend nearly $900 million on security, one particular incident pops curiously out from Coe's past: The LOCOG chairman once hijacked a bus.

At the 1986 European track and field championships, a bus driver charged with taking athletes to a training session became lost in the suburbs of Stuttgart. When the driver pulled up and disembarked in front of what was clearly the wrong venue, Coe saw the keys in the ignition and seized his chance. Upon reaching the correct track, Coe parked the bus, strode past a pale British national team coach, handed the keys to a German policeman and got on with his workout.

The incident reveals several things about Coe, including a reluctance to suffer fools and an occasionally headstrong go-it-aloneness. It also hints at how Coe came to feel so much pressure to live up to his public image as a Tory poster boy that he'd hunt for opportunities to let his hair down in private. During college he stole down to London to watch Chelsea soccer on the terraces; in 1983, as a drunk press aide drove him around Oslo after he had won the 800 meters at the Bislett Games, Coe stuck his head and arms out of the car window and screamed wildly. In 1979, after finishing an interview with Coe, a BBC reporter said, "What an attractive young man." Coe bristled at the weeks' worth of nudge-nudge, wink-wink stick he got for it.

The caricatured image of Coe as posh owes as much to the contrast with his great rival as to reality. Steve Ovett, the son of market-stall vendors, was a barrel-chested working-class hero who would wave to the crowd before hitting the tape and then give the press a miss. Lighter and slighter, not 5' 10" and barely 130 pounds, Coe seemed to float to the finish before declaiming thoughtfully for the journos. Of the two runners, Ovett cut the more dashingly romantic figure, while Coe seemed to be the one a girl could safely take home to mum and dad. (Coe and his first wife, equestrian Nicola McIrvine, had four children; they were divorced in 2002. Last summer, with his son Harry serving as best man, Coe married magazine editor Carole Annett.) A constituent in Cornwall, assuming his MP had been knighted, once addressed him as Sir Bastian Coe.

In fact, Coe's pedigree is half colonial on one side and full commoner on the other. His Punjabi maternal grandfather was a hotelier in Delhi; the parents of Coe's father and coach, Peter, were natives of Stepney and Bow, the Cockney heart of the East End. The world of oak paneling and brandy snifters is neither the one Coe comes from nor the one he cares to inhabit. If Ali G were to materialize today in the LOCOG chairman's office, hacked off about the imminent closure of his beloved leisure center, Coe would both feel his pain and get the joke.

Tory though he is, Coe's ideological profile conforms more to the Liberal Democrats, the U.K.'s centrist third party. One of his briefs as an M.P. was Britain's National Health Service. He supported the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa. And in going to Moscow in 1980, he defied the wishes of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to call the Soviets to account for their invasion of Afghanistan by supporting the U.S.-led boycott; when 10 Downing Street sent pictures of dead Afghan children to British athletes, Coe denounced the tactic as "grotesque." Pat Butcher, the longtime British track correspondent, recalls once walking with Coe past an airport newsstand festooned with copies of the Daily Mail, the doctrinaire Conservative newspaper, that blared salacious headlines about Coe's private life. "I asked him why the Mail had it in for him," Butcher says, "and he said, 'Because they don't think I'm a real Tory.'"

But Coe's nontribal political standing has helped him deal with a range of domestic players, from Laborite "Red Ken" Livingstone, mayor when London landed the Games, to the incumbent Conservative mayor, Johnson, as well as two prime ministers, Blair and Cameron, from opposite ends of the spectrum. The middle-of-the-road pol in Coe emerges when he speaks of London's Olympic legacy. Build a hospital, he says, and no one thinks of its cost; they call it "an investment in community health." He laments that this kind of argument for sport hasn't been fully mounted, much less won. Alas, if there's any count on which London's Olympic legacy is falling short, it's in delivering people like the red-haired woman in Dagenham onto exercycles around the country. Between scaled-back funding for school sports and the shuttering of leisure centers in the name of austerity, the Olympic effort will generate only a fraction of its goal of a million new participants.

But the London Games are more likely to be judged as a spectacle, and Coe long ago demonstrated an impresario's instincts. In the early 1980s, when track athletes suddenly had a chance to cash in under relaxed rules on amateurism, Brad Hunt of IMG drew up a proposed racing calendar for Coe. The runner looked over the list of events, picked up a pen and struck out roughly half of them. "If I do my job well," Coe told Hunt, "we can make more money doing [fewer] events." In that moment Hunt realized a truth about his client: He didn't race in races so much as deliver command performances. Even in describing the feeling of moving to the front of a race, Coe sounds like a stage performer: "[It's] the exhilaration of knowing, like an actor or a comedian, that you have your audience on your own, exclusively, all the way to the tape."

In a position as thankless as chairman of LOCOG, having an audience doesn't necessarily mean winning all of it over. Last year Coe appeared at Woolwich town hall to mollify people angry that equestrian events would attract hundreds of thousands of outsiders to Greenwich Park. "I'd made my case and avoided all the usual pitfalls," Coe says, "and at the end a woman rather huffily came up to me and said, 'I have to tell you, Mr. Coe, that I always preferred Steve Ovett anyway.'"

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