Sebastian Coe lays down blueprint for future of sport

A man of many talents, the former Olympic champion is passionate about engaging youth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 4:56am

Sebastian Coe sits down for an early-morning coffee at the Mandarin Oriental, having arrived from Britain just 12 hours earlier.

How's the jet lag, asks the Sunday Morning Post, to which he replies he does not even notice it any more, having spent large parts of the past decade and more than 9,000 metres in the air, darting from one continent to the next, first to woo voters as London bid to win the Olympic Games, then to promote the event once it was in the bag.

The Games are over, but Coe does not seem to be winding down. He is just back from Brazil, observing Rio's preparations for the 2016 Olympics. Ask him what brings him to Hong Kong and his answer lasts minutes rather than seconds.

Briefly, he is travelling under what he calls his "three hats" - as chairman of a global communications and sports marketing group to engage in PR opportunities with the International Rugby Board around the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens; as the British prime minister's "Olympics legacy ambassador", to speak to businesses at the British Chamber of Commerce; and as chairman of the British Olympic Association, meeting local counterpart and "good friend" Timothy Fok Tsun-ting.

Not the typical schedule of British visitors to Hong Kong for Sevens weekend.

He found time to attend the Sevens, although the stadium announcer's efforts to get him to do Gangnam Style on the big screen last Sunday were met with a polite smile at best, despite the encouragement of Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory.

That snapshot perhaps spoke to the most common criticism of Coe among the public: a certain smugness or arrogance, accusations that have dogged him since the days when he was competing against people's champion Steve Ovett.

But to be fair, and to twist around the famous put-down of Clement Attlee attributed to Winston Churchill ("a modest man, with much to be modest about"), if Coe is in fact proud, or overly so, then he has much to be proud of: a gold medallist at two Olympics, a member of parliament, a multi-millionaire businessman, a life peer in the House of Lords, one of the most successful sports administrators in the world …

Ask him where the London Games stand in the list of highlights though, and he is unequivocal. "I loved what I did individually in my sport. I was embedded in that process from about the age of 11 until I retired at 34," says Coe, now 56.

"[But] friends of mine that were brought on to the project, particularly Olympians, people like Daley Thompson, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Jonathan Edwards [multiple gold medallists in decathlon, wheelchair racing and triple jump respectively] … we would all probably quite happily admit that what we were involved in with the delivery of the Games had to be bigger than anything we did individually in our sports."

That's understandable, given the way the Games seemed, at least briefly, to lift Britain out of its usual state of grim cynicism - and given the fact Coe spent a sizeable chunk of his life "delivering the project".

The day after London won the bid, as Coe and his team celebrated in Singapore, Islamic terrorists carried out multiple suicide bombings in England's capital. Fear of another attack was never far from the minds of those in the "boiler room of the delivery of the Games" until it was over.

"We'd all tell you, they just wanted people to have a fantastic time - but to get home safely. The Metropolitan Police, the intelligence teams and our military teams did an unbelievable job, but yeah, if you're being honest that was probably sitting at the back of the minds of a few of us."

The morning after was understandably one of relief - and bewilderment, "the first day in a decade I haven't woken up either trying to win a bid or deliver a Games". "It reminded me a little bit of coming through an Olympic Games as a competitor … your first instinct is not one of elation or I'm off out to party … the first and overwhelming emotion is relief."

Now Coe's goal, under at least one of his "hats", is to get sport back at the "centre of the lives of young people". He sees this as the key challenge facing the Olympic movement and sport in general in a world where there are innumerable distractions for children and a culture where fame for fame's sake alone, rather than as a byproduct of other achievements, is seen as desirable by many.

"When I took up track and field there were two television channels in the UK," he begins, and as the politician in him warms up you feel this is a topic he will address in speeches to come. "Sport sat absolutely at the centre of the lives of young people. It doesn't necessarily sit there any more. The big challenge for sport is for its product and its experience to be authentic for young people and if they're not then we'll simply lose because they'll find something that is.

"There is a counter-culture that also encourages young people to think [success] happens overnight [but] it doesn't.

"That's not the core ideology going into sport, the core ideology is you are passionate and excited about the sport, and the rest of it tends to happen."

The second part of his manifesto, for that is what it begins to feel like, is for sport to "get into the trust vacuum" tarnished institutions, such as politics, finance and the media, have created among the public.

"If sport can present itself in the way that it truly is - with occasional mutations - as a values-driven activity, I think it can fill that space," he insists.

But surely cheating scandals such as Lance Armstrong's, and issues such as match-fixing, will not help in that regard? "Doping is one of the priorities, but we mustn't overtell this story," Coe says. "I was the first athlete to address an Olympic Congress in 1981 - I was given four minutes … for 2:45 of that I talked about drugs in sports. There are some relatively late conversions in this journey, but nor should this be portrayed as the biggest part of the sporting story. There are challenges but this is a much better environment than 20 years ago and it's a much more global approach.

"I think it's important for sport also to recognise that the concept of fair play is not solely rooted on the field of play and related only to competitors.

"The tone and style in international sport is set from the very top, it's set through presidents, through executive committees, through all those agencies out there delivering large chunks of international sport … you get it right at the top, and by and large you will create a reasonable framework."

It feels like a campaign speech, and it might well be: the next election for president of the IAAF, the body that runs track and field, is in 2015 and Coe's already admitted he is interested in adding yet another "hat" to his collection.