Coe gets it all together

The IAAF vice-presidents attempts to revive track and field events have been successful

Coe gets it all together

If not for a late surge and a perfectly pitched speech in Singapore seven years ago, Sebastian Coe would never have been sitting where he was on Tuesday night, perched in a new Olympic Stadium, next to one of his role models, Roger Bannister, with the movable feast of a 1,500-metre final unfolding below.

The Olympics -- for all the warts and growing pains -- remain inspirational on many levels, but what was most striking as the distance-running legends Coe and Bannister took in the spectacle was to consider how much change, how much energy can be unleashed from a process that begins with the decisions and maneuvers of so few.

“I always go back to that moment in Singapore, because it gave us the platform,” said Coe, the head of the London Organizing Committee, referring to the vote that awarded London the 2012 Games. “Everything we’ve witnessed in the last few weeks is on that platform.”

London beat Paris in that final round of International Olympic Committee voting, by the very slim margin of 54 to 50. It was an upset considering the innate allure of Paris and the contacts the French capital had acquired from previous bids.

But Coe & Co had the better kick, as the British prime minister then, Tony Blair, lobbied hard in Singapore and Coe delivered a speech under great pressure that focused on the critical need for the IOC to reach the younger generation, which has so many other diversions -- sporting and otherwise -- to choose from in an age when virtual games often trump the appeal of the real ones.

Coe knew this better than most because his own sport had lost its buzz. Track and field remains the most universal and accessible of athletic pursuits -- ready, set, run! -- but it has struggled to hold its ground through the years. For all the roars and camera flashes in the stands this week, Coe knows full well that this is not a reflection of full houses and intense interest the rest of the season.

He remains optimistic and, more important, committed. If he wanted these Games in London, it was for his country but also for his sport. Coe remains a vice-president of the International Association of Athletics Federations. He would like to be president and has repeatedly emphasized that when the 2012 Olympics are over, he intends to focus on track and field rather than return to British politics, where he was once a member of Parliament. The first step has been successful with London set to stage the world track and field championships in 2017 in the same stadium where Coe sat last week.

But globally, there is much to be done to claw back some market share.  “This area of the event I took personally,” he said of the Olympic track meet. “Because I’ve always believed that if you present track and field properly, if you deliver it so that it’s understandable and exciting to young people, it’s the best sport in the world. And I think what we’ve shown in London is that when you get the fundamentals right, and you fill a stadium, then track and field can stand tall against any other sport in the world.”

Having Usain Bolt stand tall and run fast certainly does not hurt the cause, but it is the middle distances that matter most to Coe, who was the first man to hold the world records in the 800, 1,500 and the mile. He broke all three records in a 41-day span in 1979 and later won the Olympic gold in the 1,500 in 1980 and 1984. He also won silver medals in the 800 in 1980 and 1984.

For nearly a decade he was one of the biggest sports stars in Britain. The irony is that in an Olympics when Britain has set a modern-day national record with 22 gold medals (entering Thursday), there was not one British runner in the final of the men’s 1,500.

“That’s a shame,” he said. “I will always see the 1,500 meters as the blue-ribbon event of the track. The sprinters will probably curl their lip at that thought. It is and historically always has been for me.”

Britain’s slump is not a new phenomenon. The middle-distance dominance that Coe helped launch here has long since faded. But this week, Britain will have its first representative in the men’s Olympic 800-meter final since 1992. Andrew Osagie has qualified.

But the 1,500 was his focus on Tuesday, and Coe and Bannister, 83, the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, were both perplexed that in a field of 1,500-meter veterans, nobody tried to take the kick out of the legs of the eventual champion Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria. The winning time was nothing extraordinary – three minutes, 34.08 seconds – but the final lap was a swift 52.76 seconds.

“When you are sitting next to Roger, Roger tends to be very analytical, and he picked it absolutely,” Coe said. “He’d been watching the earlier rounds on television, and when we both sat and chatted about the race beforehand, we both agreed that the guy in the field who looked to have the pace was Makhloufi and that they would have to run that out of his legs a little bit.

“Instead, they rolled the red carpet for the guy. And I’m really amazed that they didn’t deduce from the earlier rounds that you just don’t leave a guy like that with a lot of breathing space, and Roger agreed with me.

“They got what was coming to them.” That was only because Makhloufi was reinstated on Monday after being banned from the Olympics after stopping on the first lap of his 800-meter heat and not giving, according to on-site officials, a “bona fide effort.”

Makhloufi was reinstated by the IAAF after Algerian officials claimed he was protecting a knee injury and after Makhloufi said he had not intended to run the 800 and that officials had neglected to withdraw him.

“Clearly the guy shouldn’t have been entered for the double,” Coe said. “I understand it was a clerical error, and actually I suppose it broadens the argument. I would like to see more athletes being able to double up, to see that narrative developed. Not all 800-meter runners can run 1,500. Not all 1,500-meter runners can run 800, but I think where there is a possibility of doing that, I think the crowds do like athletes who double up.”

They also like rivalries. Coe’s records and victories made him an icon, but his appeal was also deeply rooted in his yin-and-yang battle with Steve Ovett, Britain’s other major middle-distance star of the era whose public image was as prickly as Coe’s was polished.

“Ovett and Coe. The Tough and the Toff,” wrote Pat Butcher in his 2004 book, “The Perfect Distance,” “Coe, slight, elegant, intense, fear of failure investing his every move.
Ovett, the barrel-chested bruiser, strolling around the track like the very incarnation of Kipling’s dictum to accept victory and defeat with equal panache. Hollywood could not have conceived it better .”

The reality, as Butcher points out, was surely more nuanced, but Coe’s ‘fear of failure’ clearly could come in handy in a role as complex and exposed as heading an Olympic organizing committee.

“From the very moment you step foot on a track at the age of 11 or 12, your coach says to you, ‘Run through the line’,” Coe said. “What all our teams have to do in the next few days, we have to run through the line.”

If Coe wants, truly wants, a track and field renaissance, he will have to run even farther than that.

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