Fifty-five years after the last Olympic Games held in London, when the heroic Czech runner Emil Zatopek and the Dutch "mother of two" (as she was inevitably called) Fanny Blankers-Koen wowed the capital's crowds, the city is bidding to host the world's greatest sporting event again, this time in 2012. And once more, a spunky mother of two holds the fate of the games in her hands. This mother is no sportswoman, though. She is the former chief executive of the cut-price airline Go, Barbara Cassani.
Her CV is impressive. In 1998, after 11 successful years at British Airways, Cassani launched Go with only £25m of BA seed capital in the bank. Two years later, she led a management buyout of the company, backed by the venture capital group 3i, which valued the firm at £110m. Cassani herself invested £1m, almost her family's entire savings, to hold a 4 per cent stake.
By last summer, Go was employing 900 people, and making profits of £4.2m, ahead of forecasts. At which point the orange beast, easyJet, dealt with the increasing problem of this troubling competitor by making 3i an offer it couldn't refuse - £374m to take over its rival.
Cassani, still aged only 41, walked away £15m richer. But Go had gone.
It was a painful (if financially cushioned) fall from grace. "I'll never again allow a company I have built up to be sold from underneath me," she declared. Surely the indomitable Cassani would be back, sooner rather than later, in some corporate role, possibly leading another start-up or fast-growing business?
For ten months she has been uncharacteristically quiet. According to Simon Calder, author of No Frills: the truth behind the low-cost revolution in the skies (Virgin Books), Cassani has been writing her own account of the rise and fall of Go, as well as maintaining an interest in a "gastropub" in Barnes, south-west London, where she lives with her two children and husband, an investment banker.
And now, almost coinciding with the publication of her compelling story of City intrigue, comes the news that Cassani has been chosen to lead the bidding committee which will spend the next two years trying to persuade the 126 members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that London is a better place to stage the 30th Olympiad than its main rivals, Paris, Moscow, New York City and Madrid. London has been left in the starting blocks by some of its savvier competitors. Cassani's £200,000-a-year task is to catch up with the other runners-up, and overtake.
She seems to possess the guile, drive and charm that are needed when dealing with the unpredictable IOC. "She is a very, very, very determined person," says Calder. "I would certainly not want to be on the wrong side of her. But she is a consummate 'people person', too. She did very well inside BA for a long time, an organisation which . . . doesn't necessarily allow individuality to flourish."
Employees were quite taken with Cassani as well. A union official who dealt with her declares himself "very impressed". "She knew exactly where she was going, but was prepared to do business with us in a humane way," he says. "She was by no means the worst boss I've ever met. And her table manners were excellent."
Better-known candidates for the Olympic job, Sir Christopher Meyer and Gerry Robinson, ruled themselves out. But to get to this stage, Cassani had to beat off further competition, and impress a troika of judges: Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, and officials from the British Olympic Association (BOA), which is the organisation that formally makes the bid. Jowell and Livingstone are said to have been taken with Cassani's fluency, business acumen and effortless schmoozing skills.
Yes, but why choose yet another foreigner to lead what ought to be a Great British Enterprise? Has the crisis in home-grown management become so intense that there is no suitable Brit ready to fly the Olympic and Union flags? Marks & Spencer, British Telecom, British Airways, Pearson, Vodafone, Safeway (not to mention the English cricket team, the Welsh rugby team and the English and Scottish football teams) are all being run (or have recently been run) by non-Brits. And now we are calling upon a sassy American to tell the world why London is the place to be.
A spokeswoman for the mayor thinks this is to miss the point completely. "London is a cosmopolitan city - it is the world in one city," she says. "Cassani is married to a Brit; she's been living here for years. And of course Britain gains from the bid. This whole business of her not being British is just not a goer."
The BOA is pretty supportive, too. "The bid leader has to be someone with an understanding of international business, someone who is comfortable with languages, understands the two-way relationship between government and London, and knows a bit about sport," says a spokesman.
Simon Calder is also persuaded of the wisdom in having Cassani lead the bid. "It is difficult to overstate the scale of her achievement at Go," he says. "She was nominally part of BA, yet she was working against so much of what BA stood for. It was a fantastically well-created brand, a nice middle-class brand in fact, which she put together in a very short space of time. That bodes well for an Olympic bid. There is nothing less sexy than a no-frills airline, but she made it happen."
Calder spent a day at Go when he was researching his book. "She was the only one of the no-frills bosses who agreed to let me in," he says, "and the day was absolutely exhausting. She was running around non-stop through a very long day. It must have taken vast amounts of stamina to maintain that and a family life.
"She aroused envy because she had the temerity to be young, a woman and American," he adds.
In April 2002 Cassani's achievement was recognised when she was crowned "Businesswoman of the Year" in the awards sponsored by the champagne house Veuve Clicquot. Only weeks later she suffered the famous Veuve Clicquot curse when Go was snatched from her. Anita Roddick, Dianne Thompson (of the Lottery business Camelot) and Marjorie Scardino are all former Veuve Clicquot women whose fortunes subsequently turned.
Everything Cassani has achieved in life she has done for herself, without nepotism or inherited advantage. Born in 1960 to an Irish-American mother and Italian-American salesman father in Boston, she paid her way through Princeton by cleaning and waitressing. She also learnt to think for herself and, studying the Soviet Union in the 1980s, found herself underwhelmed by her professors, who failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet system. After a short time with Coopers & Lybrand, she joined the newly privatised BA in 1987.
Today, financially secure, Cassani is about to throw herself into her next great endeavour. She faces an enormous challenge. "The Olympics will bring the biggest single transformation of the city since the Victorian age," Ken Livingstone has said. The new stadium complex would rise up from 160 hectares of brownfield site in the lower Lea Valley. Livingstone hopes that the London boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney could see up to 40,000 jobs (5,000 of them permanent) and 15,000 new homes.
Other questions arise. What about security, and London's wobbly transport system? Would Crossrail be ready in time? Or the high-speed link to the Channel? Will London's council tax payers be prepared to cough up £800m to support the games? Will the London Development Agency find another £500m, and will the Lottery deliver £1bn of the total £2.3bn potential cost?
Emil Zatopek remembered the 1948 games as a time of great hope and inspiration. "After all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out," he said. "I went into the Olympic village and suddenly there were no more frontiers, no more barriers . . . Men and women who had just lost five years of life were back again."
The ethos of the games has changed since then. When the American sprinter Marion Jones won three gold medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Nike gave her a £10m sponsorship contract. Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals in London in 1948. The city of Amsterdam presented her with a new bicycle.
London's bid will not be as well-founded as that of Paris, nor as cool and politically symbolic as New York's. It will be a huge surprise and personal triumph for Cassani if, in two years' time, she lands the London bid safely.