Putting the whole five-ring circus in perspective

One year on, Sebastian Coe reflects on London's glory and looks ahead to legacies and new horizons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 5:43am


A year ago, Sebastian Coe was engrossed in the final, frenzied preparations for the London Olympics. Myriad worrying issues hung over the games: Would the transportation system hold up? Would the opening ceremony go off without a glitch? Would security plans keep the games safe? Would the weather cooperate?

As the anniversary of the Olympics approaches, Coe is taking a much more laid-back approach. Looking tanned and relaxed, he can now look back with a different perspective on the highly successful games that seemed to unite Britain in one big flag-waving party for two weeks.

"Just massive relief," Coe said.

With a two-day international track and field meet - dubbed the "Anniversary Games" - taking place at the Olympic Stadium next weekend, the former middle-distance great will enjoy just being a spectator. It's a lot easier than being there as the high-profile head of the Olympic organising committee, known as Locog.

"I can sit in a stadium watching track and field and not waiting for [Locog chief executive] Paul Deighton sitting next to me to hand me a BlackBerry with 'We pressed the wrong button and the flags are the wrong way around in Hampden Park and they've now been 40 minutes off the pitch'," Coe said.

He was referring to the embarrassing mix-up at an Olympic women's soccer match in Glasgow, Scotland - two days before the opening ceremony — when organisers mistakenly displayed the South Korean flag on the stadium screen instead of North Korea's. The North Korean players refused to take the field for nearly an hour.

"The overwhelming sentiment is still, 'Thank god, we got through and we didn't let people down'," he said. "What is it I would do differently? The honest answer is, 'I don't know, I really don't know.' I don't think there is anything."

The track meet - featuring the return of Jamaican sprint superstar Usain Bolt and British gold medallists Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis - will be the first competition at the stadium since the Olympics. "I hope it does take people back a few months to what London was like, how they were enjoying themselves, how their kids all wanted to join clubs," Coe said. "I think it's a massive moment."

With a year's distance, Coe views the whole experience through different eyes. As an organiser, he felt like a competitor preparing for the Games, something he knows well from his days as a two-time Olympic champion in the 1,500 metes.

You'd be amazed at the conversations that still take place, with people talking about their time at the games
Sebastian Coe

"You're so close to it," he said. "You're not cocooned, but you're in the boiler room all the time. Now, if you walk down the street with me, five paces behind, you'd be amazed at the conversations that still take place, with people talking about their time at the games, their experience at the games."

A big talking point in Britain remains the "legacy" factor - in particular, whether the Olympics have spurred increased participation among Britons in sports and other physical activity.

So far, according to various studies, the results are mixed, though Coe believes the situation has improved.

"I think we are a seismic distance down the road from where we were a year ago," he said. "The real challenge is to maintain that mindset."

Coe was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron last year to head a commission overseeing all legacy issues.

Coe says he's accomplished enough in one year and now it's time to turn the task over to someone else.

"It needed to be done in the first year," he said. "I shouldn't be sitting there in perpetuity. I'm not a one-man band."

Coe has a new Olympic job now as head of the British Olympic Association. He also remains a vice-president of the International Association of Athletics Federations and is a top contender to replace IAAF President Lamine Diack when he steps down in 2015.

Coe has an insider's view on the next two Olympics - the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Both face significant challenges, with Sochi dealing with security threats posed by an Islamist insurgency in the region and Rio coping with various delays.

"I think they'll be fine," Coe said.

Rio, the first South American city to host the Olympics, will inevitably face comparisons with London. While London's buildup was relatively smooth and crisis-free, Rio is struggling to keep preparations on track.

"I still instinctively believe Rio will be a really good games," said Coe, who will travel to Brazil in October to speak to the organising committee about what to expect over the next two years. "They will be different. There's a different level of expectation. With every Olympics, they always get there. Some are probably a little bit harder. The IOC will privately tell you some of those journeys are a little bit tougher."

With Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo vying for the 2020 Games at a time of global economic and political uncertainty, Coe said the Olympics are strong enough to adapt to any global challenges.

"I'm not sitting here Canute-like and saying sport can be hermetically sealed from the realities of the world," he said. "It's always been a complicated landscape, whether it's been political, whether it's been boycotts. You just get on with it. That's what the Olympic Games has to confront. They just need to recognise that's the world we live in."

Associated Press