Lord Sebastian Coe’s career as a sports administrator has been so successful it’s sometimes easy to forget he was a brilliant athlete too, winning gold in the 1500 metres at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics and silver in the 800 metres in both of those years.
The former chairman of the organising committee of the 2012 London Olympic Games and the current chair of the British Olympic Association (BOA) and one of three vice presidents of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has quite the CV.
When he talks about a major sporting event, people listen, which is why his views on the Rio Olympics, Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the future of the Paralympics mean something. Fortunately for Rio, he is bound by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to share his wisdom and experiences of organising an Olympic Games, something he is more than happy to do.
Helping future events
“The transfer of knowledge is really important ,” he says. “I think there was a recognition after Atlanta that there needed to be an approach that allowed cities to take the key learnings from previous games.”
Atlanta of course was dogged by problems, and Coe says it’s the only Olympics in his lifetime ever to “fall short”. London 2012 benefited from the experiences of the Beijing 2008 team, but Coe adds it probably learnt more from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 – not just because they were more recent, but because organisers could share more issues regarding security and city management for “obvious reasons.”
Two to three months after the closing ceremony of London 2012, Coe travelled to Rio to explain what worked for LOCOG and what didn’t. But given the problems leading up to the World Cup earlier this year and the reported issues with plans for the Olympics, is he confident that Rio 2016 will be a success?
Rio ‘Will Make It’
“I am, yes,” he replies. “My instinct, having been there regularly, is they’ve made a lot of progress over the past six months.”
Coe is adamant that the World Cup was delivered successfully but also warns that the Olympics is a huge undertaking for Rio, which hosted just 12 hours of live sport during Brazil 2014, but will host 5,500 hours when the Olympics comes to town.
“These are the most difficult things a city ever undertakes. The delivery of a World Cup is in the foothills of the complexity of delivering 30 or 40 Olympic championships in a city. Nobody should underestimate the challenge.”
The cost might be astronomical, but Coe separates these into operational and infrastructure expenditures as some cities need things like transport improvements anyway and the Olympics act as a catalyst: “You’re effectively doing in seven years what would take several years by politicians.”
The benefits of holding such an event are obvious in the East End of London and it is hoped the legacy of the twentieth Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will become apparent in the years and decades to come. Coe is speaking in the centre of Glasgow on Day 9 of the Commonwealth Games and notes it’s a “completely different city.”
“No city is ever the same after it has staged a major championships,” he declares, explaining that sporting events allows a host to display confidence, competence and diversity. “Glasgow reminds me a lot of the city I grew up in, Sheffield, two cities coming to terms with their industrial past and suing sport to regenerate.”
One of the novel aspects of the Commonwealth Games is that parasports and able-bodied sports take place at the same time, whereas the Olympics and Paralympics are two separate events with distinct identities.
London 2012 was the first time that the two movements were united by a single organising committee, but Coe says he thinks full integration is a long way off, not least because it would multiply the number of events that must be held during the two weeks of competition, and because some Paralympic sports require special equipment.
“I don’t think the Paralympic movement would want it,” he explains. “They feel they are distinctive and want their own space.”
The Commonwealths are an easy target for criticism given that many of the world’s leading track and field nations aren’t taking part, but Coe says the athletics have been to a “very high standard.”
He is particularly pleased by the athletics track at Hampden Park, which he thinks is “fantastic” and adds that the stadium offers great sightlines for the sport.
“Hashtag keep the track,” he cries. “What else did you expect the senior vice president of the IAAF to say?”