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May 21, 2012
A lord and a legend, an Olympic hero who once tussled with a clown, Sebastian Coe is the upbeat face and driving force of this summer's Games
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May 21, 2012

Ready, Set, Coe!

A lord and a legend, an Olympic hero who once tussled with a clown, Sebastian Coe is the upbeat face and driving force of this summer's Games

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A man with a blue turban and a beard works the free weights. Another man—black, bald, encased in a Derrick Rose jersey—makes tracks on a treadmill. And there astride an exercycle in the Fitness Suite of the spanking-new Becontree Heath Leisure Centre in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham sits a middle-aged woman with red hair, perhaps the least exotic figure in this pageant of 21st-century Great Britain. She's chatting with Lord Sebastian Coe, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and chairman of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), who has come here to dedicate an Olympic water polo practice venue.

The woman was moved to get off her bum and into the gym, Coe later reports proudly, "because the Olympics are coming and she wanted to feel a part of it." Score a little victory in the promotional and organizational omniathlon Coe has been running since he took over London's Olympic effort in 2004. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and former Conservative member of Parliament is trying to do nothing less than fire a nation (and the world, if you'll excuse the grandiose ambition) with Olympic dreams—and along the way help rejuvenate a long-neglected borough in the East End of this most sprawling and diverse city.

On Coe's calendar this is booked as a London Engagement Day. But he began the week in Rio de Janeiro, consulting with the 2016 Olympic organizers to whom London will be passing the torch on Aug. 12. Yesterday Coe chaired a LOCOG board meeting and met with Mayor Boris Johnson. Next week he will tour the Olympic Park, the centerpiece of that overhaul of East London, with a Moroccan delegation; meet with one cohort of volunteers to thank them for interviewing and selecting another cohort of volunteers; attend a summit with Prime Minister David Cameron (with whom he'll play badminton for the cameras in the garden behind 10 Downing Street); and brief the International Olympic Committee's Coordination Commission, which he must assure that London is on budget and on task. "It's an extraordinary parallel universe I'm in now," he says.

Those who consider Coe the greatest middle-distance runner of the 20th century—and there are many—rest their case on two pillars. One is the 11 world records he set, including three at three different distances over the summer of 1979 in races that still raise goose bumps on those who recall them. The other is his back-to-back gold medals in the 1,500 meters at the 1980 and '84 Olympics. Records and medals: exploits of the day and markers for posterity.

Such are the Games that Coe foresees for the city of his birth: a party with a legacy. The party will come easily enough after the grim, controlled efficiency of Beijing. The legacy will take a bit more effort. Job One is to ensure that what's left behind does not include an unpaid tab that the U.K. government, or the global economy, must pick up. The $18 billion London intends to spend is less than half the budget for the Beijing Games in 2008. Seventy percent of the 2012 venues existed before London won the hosting rights; among the rest there should be no white elephants, for most new buildings have already been dedicated to a post-Games purpose.

As Coe wrestles a nation of 62 million disputatious people to something close to an Olympic consensus, he uses words such as responsible and proportionate (but not austere, for austerity has become a politically charged concept in Britain as the country slips back into recession). Web servers balked as two million Britons applied for tickets to the opening ceremony and another million sought to attend the men's 100-meter final. Organizers received so many applications from people seeking to be volunteers, or Games Makers, that nearly three applicants have been turned away for every one accepted.

"We Brits tend not to look at the bright side, and that's why it's good to have someone like Seb in the lead," says 2000 triple jump gold medalist Jonathan Edwards, who heads LOCOG's athletes' committee. "He believes that if you have the right attitude, you'll succeed. If the Games go well, it's Seb. If the Games don't go well, it's Seb. No one will point the finger at the prime minister or Boris Johnson. Seb himself wouldn't say he set the world on fire as a politician, but as a sports politician he's been a real leader."

You can't expect others to be ready to party if you don't show an up-for-anything attitude yourself, and Coe has been almost indiscriminately game. He dashed the length of a hall at the Tate Britain gallery as part of a conceptual art installation that kicked off the Cultural Olympiad. (Though still trim at 55, Coe apologized for what was more "a hobble" than a sprint.) He had a small recurring role on Twenty Twelve, the BBC mockumentary that features Downton Abbey fixture Hugh Bonneville as a Coe-like "Head of Deliverance" in a LOCOG-style bureaucracy. When another BBC production, a genealogical reality show called Who Do You Think You Are?, divulged that Coe is descended from a sugar-cane mogul who during the 18th century owned slaves in Usain Bolt's home parish in Jamaica, Coe dealt gracefully with the revelation.

"He's a crossover figure," says Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. "He's a sports hero and a politician who can also live in this curious hotel-dwelling, deep-carpeted sport bureaucrat's world that gets unimaginably bad press in Britain. People see him as just having to play the game. Nobody dislikes Sebastian Coe. He endlessly talks up how it'll all go right, whereas most people in Britain assume we're all doomed, all the time, about everything."

As Coe prepares to leave the Becontree Heath Leisure Centre, the countdown clock over its pool reads 126 DAYS AND 9:32:19 ... 18 ... 17.... "Delivering an on-time and on-budget Games is the same as delivering an athlete in peak condition to the start of the 1,500 meters," he says. "The deadline is immutable and constant. You can't go to the start and say, 'Gee, can I have another couple of months because I lost time training over the winter?' The opening ceremony will go off at 9:00 on the night of July 27."

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