Athletic god still leading from front

 

INTERVIEW/SEBASTIAN COE: WHILE WAITING for Sebastian Coe in the lobby of the swanky new Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry someone asks: "So what should we call him? Lord? Sebastian? Or just Seb?" "Just call him God," someone else (Me!) suggests, and 25 years ago that would definitely have been true. Although he is officially a Lord, for anyone who watched Coe run at the height of his career he was unquestionably a God, or at least a hero.

(Unless of course they worshipped Steve Ovett.) They say you should never meet your heroes, and that might have been a worry had Coe not started out by saying that he had just met one of his heroes - Ronnie Delany - when attending an Olympic Council of Ireland dinner the evening before.

That was the main purpose of his visit to Dublin, yet he seemed happy to stick around another day to officially open the Santry clinic - one of the most impressive facilities of its type in the world.

Costing €75 million and covering a massive 130,000 sq ft, the clinic, located in the new Northwood Business Park in Santry, is the brainchild of Dr Ray Moran, one of the country's leading sports-related surgeons (and brother of former soccer international Kevin). But with 160 staff in total, and plans for the 37 in-patient beds to be increased to 70 to meet demand, the clinic is catering for every possible aspect of sports-related injury and rehab.

Coe was shown around and was visibly impressed, despite being a very busy man these days. As chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee, every day, every hour even, has to count, yet if he is feeling stressed out about it then it's not yet showing. At 52 Coe still looks impossibly young and fit and if it weren't for the faint traces of grey hairs he's a mirror image of the man that once adorned my bedroom wall.

"In a way, this is almost the last lap for me," he says of his role in London 2012. "Because I was lucky enough, privileged enough, to compete at an Olympic Games. Lucky enough to have come home with medals.

"I was then a member of the IOC athletes commission. The first athlete to speak at an IOC Congress. I was an IOC commission member for 21 years. I've broadcast Olympic sports and written about Olympic sports. Then I got to bid for a Games, and we were lucky enough, and proud enough, to have got that. Now I'm part of the team bringing the Olympics to my own backyard, so it doesn't get any better."

In ways Coe epitomises all that is worthy about the Olympic ideal - his steely determined and courageous pursuit of glory, sometimes in the face of adversity. It's often forgotten that he remains the only athlete in Olympic history to win back-to-back 1,500-metre titles and that didn't happen by accident. That is what he's bringing to London 2012 and why the whole project is accepted as being in the perfect hands.

"Of course I still believe in the intrinsic values of the Olympic movement. I wouldn't be involved for over half my life if I didn't. The values of respect, friendship, camaraderie, determination, fortitude, tolerance. All those things."

Given his six years as a Conservative MP it's no surprise Coe says all the right things. Beijing was "absolutely spectacular" but London have their ideas and no harm in that. "I believe that we will pick up on the very best of Beijing. We also recognise that it's unlikely that any country is ever going to witness a Games of the size and scale of Beijing. But the beauty of the Olympics is every Games is different, and we would want London to be different. Uniquely distinctive," says Coe.

Yet in distance running talk, Coe does have some concerns. No British athlete came close to a medal in Beijing in any event over 400 metres, and that does worry him, only because it doesn't have to be that way.

"Of course the sport has moved on from my time. But nothing is permanent. I don't for one minute accept that it is an impossibility, either physiologically or psychologically, for a British or an even Irish athlete to be winning gold in 2012, or beyond. What we accept is that the African continent has had a profound effect on distance running, particularly in the strength of depth. But when I was breaking world records I was still having to beat people like Mike Boit. Steve Ovett was taking on the best, Eamonn Coghlan too, and Steve Cram.

"So what I do not accept is that it's impossible for a European athlete, nor should anybody get into that mindset, to go toe-to-toe with a Gebrselassie or a Bekele. But if I'm being honest about it, I don't think our coaching in endurance events has moved on as much as it could have. And I don't accept that we can't produce a 3:30 1,500-metre runner anymore. Because the blood line just doesn't suddenly dry up.

"So we have to look at many things, like motivation. Track and field is not an easy sport, but it is easy to sit there and say we should be getting medals here or there.

"I recognise too there are countries that did not exist when I was competing. And it is the toughest sport in the world to get a medal. It is of a different order than most other sports."