Peterborough, England: Sebastian Coe strides onto the outdoor stage like a rock star. With music blaring, cameras clicking and flags waving, he’s introduced to the cheering crowd as “the man who is making this all happen.”
The Olympic torch relay has come to this cathedral city in eastern England and the locals are out in force on a muggy, drizzly evening to welcome the flame — and the former middle-distance running great who is the face of the London Games.
“Look at this turnout!” Coe says to the adoring audience. “I’m not surprised. We get Olympic sport. We have a great Olympic history. It’s a dream scenario.”
For Coe, it’s the end of a long, grueling round of meetings, speeches and appearances, a day spent traveling by car, Underground and train in his tireless mission to deliver a spectacular 2012 Olympics.
His drive to build up Olympic fever seems to be working. “Everywhere I go, people say they can’t wait for it to start,” Coe tells The Associated Press, sipping tea from a takeaway cup as he rides the train from Peterborough through the English countryside back to London’s King Cross station.
“They have now grasped the complexity of it. Overwhelmingly, they want us to succeed. They’re not agnostic now. “There are not too many people who are going to sit this dance out.”
|Sebastian Coe (right) leads Steve Cram (centre) and Steve Ovett (left) on his way to winning a gold in the final of the 1500 m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The trio was involved in a legendary rivalry through the 1970s and ‘80s
|Coe celebrates setting a new world record in the 800m in Oslo, Norway, in 1979. Coe broke more than a dozen world records
|Coe with his MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) outside Buckingham Palace in
No one is more closely associated with the London Games than Coe, the former two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters.
He led the city’s winning bid for the Olympics and has spent seven years chairing the local organizing committee for the biggest peacetime project in British history.
Everywhere Coe goes on this day, people of all ages and walks of life approach him, shake his hand, pose for photos, ask for his autograph, thank him and wish him luck. One woman tells him: “We pray for you every night.”
A generation of Britons remember Coe’s famous duels on the track in the 1970s and ‘80s with Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. The 55-year-old Coe is still wiry and razor thin.
Apart from a tinge of gray in his hair, he doesn’t look much different from the lithe young runner who won gold in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 and broke more than a dozen world records.
He still runs every other day and lifts weights twice a week. “I did try my L.A. blazer on the other day,” Coe says. “It was marginally snugger than it was in ‘84, but it does fit.”
With the torch relay drawing large crowds wherever it goes, the fervor should peak when the flame reaches London on July 20. “I think London’s going to rock,” he says. “I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of sleep in London.”
With his seat in the House of Lords and as a former Conservative Party lawmaker in Parliament, Coe has the political connections and access that have proved invaluable in his Olympic job.
“There are times when just picking up a phone you get a quite rapid response,” he says. “You say, ‘Hey, we need this done.’ A decision which seems straightforward may have a political dimension.
Being comfortable in that environment helps a lot. I have friendships across the political divide.” Coe hasn’t gotten much sleep himself of late.
On this day, he rises at 4:50 a.m., does 45 minutes of work at home in suburban London, then rides the train into the city for a breakfast meeting with business leaders.
They’re encouraging workers to change their travel habits to avoid the worst of the congestion and queues during the games. “We run the risk of people thinking this is a security or transport event,” he says. “It’s about sport and athletes.”
Bolt has the edge
It’s the men’s 100 meters that figures to be one of the highlights of these Olympics. The plotline revolves around superstar Usain Bolt and whether he can hold off Jamaican rival Yohan Blake. Jamaican veteran Asafa Powell should also be in the mix. “I can see Jamaica taking 1-2-3 in the 100,” Coe says. “I wouldn’t make Blake the favorite. I think Usain has the edge.
He’s been through the championship environment.” And what about Coe’s plans after the Olympics? He’s a vice president of the IAAF and is often mentioned as a likely candidate to succeed Lamine Diack as president. “I want to shape that organization at some point,” he says. “Track and field is my sport. I’ve had 10 productive years at the IAAF.
We’ve got lots of challenges. I can make a difference.” As his train pulls into King’s Cross, before heading off into the London night, Coe sums up the last seven years of his life. “It’s a bloody long haul,” he says. “You need heroic strength for this.”
► Everywhere I go, people say they can’t wait for it to start. They want us to succeed. They’re not agnostic now
- Sebastian Coe , London Organizing Committee Chairman