Sebastian Coe: ‘We are the envy of the world, nobody does it better’

Lord Coe steps down from BOA role with an Olympic legacy to be proud of, he insists, even as corruption allegations continue to loom large in his IAAF in-tray

For Sebastian Coe, it’s been a while since he had much good news to talk about. In his role as IAAF president, there has been nothing but a litany of corruption claims, doping cover-ups, bruising battles with Vladimir Putin and damaging allegations that threaten his own credibility.

But now, hanging up one of his many hats and enjoying the appreciation of the first gathering of British Olympic sports since their Rio success, Lord Coe is on surer ground. After the former sports minister Hugh Robertson was elected to succeed him as British Olympic Association chairman, Coe cuts a substantially more relaxed figure than he did 12 months ago at the height of the crisis that brought athletics to a new low. Standing down after four years in which the BOA has been put back on an even keel financially, cut costs and shed extraneous responsibilities to focus on its core mission and come home from Rio with a record haul of medals, Coe says it is the right time to hand the baton on to another former Tory MP.

“I’m not a great believer in hanging around interminably,” he said of his decision to leave the BOA after four years as chair. “I also recognised that what we did in those four years would probably define the organisation for a long time to come.”When he agreed to chair the BOA, Coe was still basking in the glory of his role as London 2012 chairman and pondering a run at the presidency of the International Association of Athletics Federations. “I probably would not have done this under normal circumstances. It’s just that this was an organisation I pretty much owed everything to,” he says of his decision to take on the role.

He credits the BOA with enabling his gold medal in Moscow in 1980 in the face of a boycott and opposition from Margaret Thatcher to the British team going. “A large part of my life was defined by Moscow. I owed them something, I really did,” he says.

Following the expansionist tenure of his predecessor, Lord Moynihan, Coe says that there was “chronic fragility” in the balance sheet when he arrived.

“We also had to break the feast to famine type cycle. I’m delighted that this is the first quad we’ve come out of where we’ve actually got some money in the bank,” he says. “It was a combination of cutting costs but also, I like to think, if I have any skill it’s hiring the right people.”

Coe pared back the BOA’s role, returning it to a focused mission as the organisation responsible for delivering British athletes to the Games in peak condition. He also hired Bill Sweeney, a former Puma executive, as chief executive, who signed a string of sponsors that have eased its financial woes. Relations with UK Sport, the funding agency that dispenses national lottery and exchequer cash to Olympic sports and helped fuel Team GB’s best haul in more than a century in Rio, were also restored to harmony after a spate of turf wars. On the debate that has bubbled away since Rio on whether the no compromise principles that underpinned that Olympic success have somehow gone too far, Coe is unequivocal.

“The elite legacy is powerful. I was in Doha to pick up the national Olympic committee of the year award and everyone wanted 30 seconds of our time to ask how on earth we do this,” he says.

If the legacy for elite sport secured by London 2012 is clear, the picture at the grassroots is much more mixed. Coe, like many great former athletes, falls back on his instinctive belief that there is a link between top-level success and grassroots growth. “It’s not a straightforward linear equation but I will always instinctively feel that Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton are responsible for one million more cyclists from 2008 to 2012.

“It won’t work in every sport. But how many more girls are now joining hockey clubs? I don’t need the numbers to know that is what is happening. I just speak to people in my own local.”

He accepts that inactivity and childhood obesity remain one of the country’s biggest failing but continues to maintain that the £9bn investment in the London Olympics did help. “The worst you can probably say about it is that we stemmed the flow. We were haemorrhaging.” Which is quite a long way from inspire a generation but perhaps more realistic.

Coe also wants to set the record straight on another topical legacy issue – the unhappy story of the Olympic Stadium, with its spiralling costs and hitherto problematic marriage of football and athletics.

“There is a little bit of retrofitting history here. You could not get in the door of the clubs because no one thought we were going to win this. We went to the clubs. West Ham were in receivership, Tottenham just didn’t want to open the door,” he says. “The commitment we made was a commitment we made across four organisations when we took that bid to Singapore and it needed to be honoured.”

Despite the bonhomie around the BOA’s offices, it is impossible to avoid returning to Coe’s other role as IAAF president. Ask about continuing investigations into payments made by the son of now disgraced former president Lamine Diack to Coe’s former right-hand man Nick Davies and he says he just does not know, arguing the IAAF’s independent ethics committee is operating as exactly that.

Likewise, the recent French reports that appeared to confirm a 2014 Guardian story that Diack’s son, Papa Massata, requested millions of dollars in payments from a Qatar investment company. “We have a French prosecution that is still underway. We’re still awaiting the outcome of the CAS [court of arbitration for sport] discussions of last week and we’ve still got an ethics board review,” Coe says.

“I have always been very clear about this. If any evidence comes to light that shows that any of these bids have in any way been manipulated then the answer is that of course we will look at them.”

But whatever pain there may yet be to come in the shark-infested waters of international sports politics, at home Coe can reflect on a discreet four-year turnaround job. The proof, he says, was in the Rio medal haul.

“I just hope that going forward, when the public expenditure rounds are settled and the decisions are made, that we just ponder on one thing: we are the best in the world at this,” he says. “There is nobody that does it better, there is nobody that does it with more meticulous planning. We are the envy of the world and you don’t cede that ground easily.”

Contributor

Owen Gibson

The GuardianTramp

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