In September 1984, Sebastian Coe became “sizzling Seb” for two days.
The Sun had an exclusive kiss-and-tell story from one of his former girlfriends, who told readers of their passionate affair and focused on a night when “sizzling Seb” had allegedly drunk far too much at the Athletics Writers’ Association’s annual dinner. “She’d claimed that I was drunk and disorderly and throwing food around like some yob,” Coe recalled.
Only a month earlier, Coe had become a national hero, winning the Olympic 1500m gold medal. His easy victory in the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles made Coe the first and, to date, only runner to defend the Olympic title at that distance. His fall from the podium to the gutter press infuriated him. The story was full of lies.
As soon as he read the report, he jumped in a taxi and headed straight for the Sun’s offices in Bouverie Street, London, where he demanded to see the editor, Kelvin MacKenzie. Two receptionists on different floors tried to stop him but he found his way to MacKenzie’s office and berated him for publishing “this load of bollocks”.
Less than three hours later, Coe, 27 at the time, was in a solicitor’s office. His agent was not keen on the idea, Coe explained in his 2012 autobiography, Running My Life, but he sued the Sun. He won an out-of-court settlement. Many years later, by which time he had become Lord Coe, he won a case against the Daily Mail, which had published an untrue story about an affair.
Coe has himself been a part of the British press for 10 years, as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He has also worked as a television analyst for an Australian channel and has been media savvy since he first gained fame on the track in the late 1970s.
In the years leading up to the London Olympics, of which he was figurehead, Coe was an engaging and charming host for dozens of lunches and dinners with editors and senior writers, whose support he sought. Clearly, though, he is not afraid to take on the toughest opponents in the press. He is doing it again now. This time it will not end up in court, but it could be messy. Or perhaps there is an ulterior motive.
Last week, Coe told Radio 4 listeners that reports, in the Sunday Times and in Germany, of a large-scale cover-up of cheating by the governing body of athletics, the IAAF, amounted to “a declaration of war on my sport”. He frequently calls athletics “my sport”, not because he feels he owns or runs it (though he may do so soon), but because it means so much to him.
Coe is an economics and social history graduate, a former politician and has become a multimillionaire through his work in public relations. He knows that anybody who makes such a statement in Britain – blaming the messenger rather than the cheats or those who fail to stop them – is unlikely to survive unscathed. He was immediately accused of being “deeply unimpressive” by the Mail’s Martin Samuel. The German journalist who led the investigation for ARD said Coe was guilty of a “cheap election manoeuvre” in his attempt to become the next president of the IAAF.
So why did he say it? Those who have worked with and competed against Coe are unanimous in their view. He loves a challenge, he loves campaigning, but above all he believes utterly in the sport of athletics. He still runs, he barely weighs any more than he did when he was 30, and some of what he says about athletics – “we’re not a failing sport” – might give the impression, wrongly, that he is stuck in the past.
Two of his colleagues said exactly the same thing, word for word: “If you cut him, he bleeds athletics.”
Coe loves jazz, especially Lester Young and Billie Holiday, and owns a collection of 3,000 recordings. He is a very keen cricket fan and has been a follower of Chelsea, where he is a season-ticket holder, since the 1960s. But his greatest love, apart from his family, is the sport of athletics.
In setting out his plans to revamp athletics and make it attractive to the younger generation, Coe said recently: “As a young boy, running was the thing I loved beyond anything else and I have been hugely fortunate that athletics has been at the centre of my life ever since. For as long as I can remember, I have woken knowing that athletics, in some way, would shape my day.
“My sport is calling me. My passion is my sport, I owe everything to my sport. If I’m in a position to shape its future, why would I not want to do that? That is my number one priority.”
Coe is in a head-to-head contest for the throne of the athletics world. His opponent is the Ukrainian Sergey Bubka, a pole vault champion who, like Coe, was at his best in the 1980s, when athletics had far more status and media exposure than it has now, despite a high level of cheating by athletes from the Soviet bloc, the US and elsewhere. The votes from more than 200 member nations will be cast on 19 August, three days before the World Championships start in Beijing.
In the past few months, Coe has flown many thousands of miles on his mission, trying to persuade national federations in scores of countries that he is the man to lead athletics to a better future. “My family are all very excited about the potential for air miles over the next 30 years,” he said.
He trod the campaign trail in his political career. He enjoyed success when elected as Tory MP for Falmouth and Camborne in 1992, but was well beaten by New Labour in 1997. He returned to politics as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition, his great friend William Hague, who resigned as the Tories’ leader after the 2001 election.
“One reason I was never going to go far in politics is that I’m not instinctively tribal,” Coe once said, pointing out that one of the politicians he most respected was Tony Benn. His non-tribal attitude showed through when he befriended Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone in leading London to victory in the bidding contest for the 2012 Olympics. That was, by some distance, the most successful campaign of his career.
“He is involved in two campaigns now, one for the IAAF presidency and the other to bring athletics into the 21st century, though one depends very much on the other,” said a former team-mate of Coe. “He is in his element. He loves campaigning, he is very good at it and he likes it when the odds are against him.”
Coe said as much when he looked back to his school days at a secondary modern in Sheffield. “There were certain challenges. If you’ve got a name like Sebastian you either learn to fight or to run.”
A professional colleague in the communications world spoke of Coe’s ability to make things happen, and his “I can do anything” attitude. “He is an egotist, very, very conscious of his image, and he will never rule himself out of anything if it is suggested in the media, however unlikely it may seem. He was supposedly in the running for chairman of the BBC Trust, for a mayor of London candidature, and there was even talk of a role in motor racing. In some respects, given what he already has, you might think he’s a bit greedy.
“He has a great gift for opening doors, for bringing people onside and making things happen. He is an outstanding front man – I couldn’t think of anyone better – and he has been desperately keen to run athletics for a long, long time.
“If he thinks his comments about the media, in this latest row, will help him win the votes he needs to become IAAF president, why wouldn’t he say it? He is a very clever campaigner.
“It could be that he is at a bit of a crossroads. He can step away from his day-to-day work in the communications business. He is going to make so much money from Chime, he can just concentrate 100% on athletics.”
That windfall is well timed. Coe sold his Complete Leisure Group, of which he was 93% owner, to Chime Communications three years ago, in a deal reported to be worth £10.2m. He holds two executive roles at Chime, which has just agreed to a takeover, for £374m, by an American equity company. Coe is expected to take several of those millions.
If he wins the IAAF election, one of Coe’s first tasks will be to consider his position as a “special adviser” to Nike, a key stakeholder in the sport. Then there is the problem of doping, of alleged cover-ups, and much more besides, all of which Coe intends to address. The problems include poor media coverage on the air and in print, lack of sponsorship, outdated presentation, the fractured nature of the global circuit, poor exposure of top athletes, and lack of appeal to youngsters.
Never mind a war, there are plenty of battles to be won there.
Born Sebastian Newbold Coe, 29 September 1956, Hammersmith. Educated at Tapton secondary modern school, Sheffield, and Loughborough University (BA economics and social history). Made his track debut in 1977, coached by his father, Peter. Married to Carole Annett; two daughters and two sons with first wife, Nicky McIrvine.
Best of times There have been so many: 1979, set three world records in 800m, mile and 1500m; 1980, won Olympic gold in Moscow 1500m, and repeated same feat in 1984; 1992, elected Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth; 2000, life peerage; 2012, oversaw spectacularly successful Olympics and Paralympics in London, the same year he sold his PR company to Chime Communications for £10.2m.
Worst of times Losing the Olympic 800m to great rival Steve Ovett in 1980; being falsely accused in the tabloid press of drunken behaviour in 1984 (he went on to win an out-of-court settlement).
What he says “[At school] If you’ve got a name like Sebastian you either learn to fight or to run.”
What others say “He is an outstanding front man – I couldn’t think of anyone better – and he has been desperately keen to run athletics for a long, long time.” An anonymous colleague.