LONDON: Grace and grit in the face of adversity were the defining features of a memorable running career which took Sebastian Coe to Olympic 1,500 meters titles in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles four years later.
Now, after twice summoning the perfect blend of speed, stamina and strategy in the classic Olympic track race, Coe has another finishing line in sight.
On Wednesday the chairman of the London Olympics organizing committee embarks on the final lap to the Games opening on July 27 with celebrations to mark the 100-day countdown. It has been a long journey from his days as a competitor during the height of the Cold War to his present role of ensuring London hosts a successful Games for the third time.
In an interview in the organizing committee’s headquarters in Canary Wharf on an April spring day of sunshine and showers, Coe said his experiences as an Olympic athlete had been a definite help in his current job.
“You want to get across the line in one piece, you want to get to the line in one piece,” he said. “I think the one thing that I have always realized as an athlete is that a lot of the stuff you do that ultimately defines the quality of how you get across the line is done away from the public gaze.
“I think it is also very helpful, not the only aspect, but very helpful to come to the project and see it through the eyes of a competitor.
“It does make me, I guess, redouble my efforts so that I don’t ever have a competitor coming to me at the end of these Games and saying, look, because of something you didn’t do, we’ve overlooked, you reduced my chances of competing at the highest level.”
Watching Coe in his present role, a polished and assured executive with a place in Olympic history already secure, it would be easy to imagine a gilded, serene progression to his current eminence.
The reality is very different. In Moscow, Coe lost the 800 to his great British rival Steve Ovett, who immediately became installed as favorite to win the double. Instead, Coe after nearly a week on the brink of despair, rallied to win the 1,500.
In the period before the Los Angeles Games, Coe struggled with injury and a serious viral infection. Steve Cram, a third Briton who had announced his presence by winning the first world 1,500 title in 1983, was thought by many to be the coming man.
In the suffocating heat of the Coliseum, Coe, Ovett and Cram all started the final. Ovett dropped out due to the respiratory problems which ruined his Games, and it was Coe who again prevailed ahead of a fading Cram in the finishing straight. He is still the only man to have won the title twice.
Now aged 55, and still lithe and athletic, Coe recalled his emotions before his two Olympic experiences a generation ago.
“They were very different,” he said. “They were very different because Moscow was my first Games and you’re going there without a full appreciation of the enormity and the size of the Games.
“I wish I had just sneaked into the team for 1976 in Montreal because, although I might not have survived the first round, the opening day of the 1,500 or the 800 I would have understood the enormity of the Games.
“I would have understood what it is like to be in a village, I would have understood some of the pressures that go with it, I would have understood the level of expectation that is heaped on everybody that becomes an Olympian.
“If I had had that in Moscow there are things probably I would have understood that would have allowed me, maybe, in the 800 to have done things differently.
“By the time I got to Los Angeles, of course, I was slightly long in the tooth, 27 or 28. I had had four years of international competition behind and so, although I was as excited by going to Los Angeles I could probably have put it into a better context.
“I knew what it was that I [was] about to experience and I thought I was more relaxed. I understood more about me as a competitor in Los Angeles than I did in Moscow.”
The problems facing Coe and his team are well documented. The fickle English weather is one, as Coe acknowledges with a gesture to the window and the rain lashing down on east London from a darkened sky. Security, as always in a big global sporting event, is another and so too is London’s overcrowded transport system which periodically threatens to implode.
“At Games time things will be different,” Coe promised.
“This is the first time a Games will have been on these shores for 64 years and there’s nobody in this room, there’s probably nobody sitting out there, now that is going to witness them again in their lifetime.
“So it’s very important that we remember this is a celebration. The city will look different. It will be different, getting about it will be different. We will do everything we can to make sure that it works for those that are involved in the Games and those who aren’t involved in the Games.
“London will be different because London is different. We are hosting and celebrating 200 nations. Most of them have very vibrant, very healthy communities here and it makes London a very different city.”