NS Profile - Sebastian Coe

By force of personal effort, and by transforming himself, he has revived an Olympic bid that seemed

When Sebastian Coe failed his 11-plus, his father, Peter, took him aside and warned him: "You can either be a secondary-modern drop-out or get down to it and get your O-levels." The young Coe suffered from both eczema and asthma - causes or symptoms, depending on your perspective, of a nervous and sensitive disposition. Peter Coe had no doubt decided it was time to instil purpose and determination in the boy. The young Coe duly got his O-levels.

The story is instructive because it belies the aura of confidence that surrounds the man, as well as the perception that life comes easily to him - as if the grace with which he ran was merely the expression of an innate talent; as if his progress outside athletics flowed effortlessly from that combination of patrician good looks and gold medals in the drawer.

That view of Coe is as old as his fame. When he and Steve Ovett were first thrilling the world with their record-breaking rivalry in the late 1970s, they were inevitably cast by the press in contrasting moulds: Ovett, the rough-edged, working-class lad, was a street fighter, while the handsome, polished Coe was a gilded youth out of Chariots of Fire. They came from different backgrounds all right, but it was Ovett who was the naturally gifted athlete and Coe the self-made runner. Coe was also just as abrasive as his rival, sometimes more so. And as for fighting instinct, Coe is the man who twice failed to take Olympic gold at the distance, 800 metres, that many felt he "owned", and who then twice returned to the track within days to triumph in the 1,500 metres.

In the moment of victory at Los Angeles in 1984, with his eyes wild and his finger raised in reproach to the doubting media, he showed the inner man - a rare glimpse. Now, in 2005, his fierce combativeness and defiance - the same qualities that refused to let him be a secondary-modern drop-out - are being deployed again.

When he took over from Barbara Cassani as chair of the London 2012 Olympic bid, many saw it as another of his supposedly easy transitions. Here was the famous Olympian, already involved in the campaign and familiar with the key players at the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Who better to be London's figurehead? But a figurehead is what he has not been. By force of personal effort, some of which has entailed transforming himself, Sebastian Coe has dramatically revived a bid that only a year ago seemed to be breathing its last.

Born in 1956, Coe grew up in a Tory household - in south Yorkshire, where voting Labour came almost as naturally as drinking tea - and was strongly imbued with a self-help ethic that Margaret Thatcher would have liked. Yet he would never be a Thatcher pin-up. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, the Conservative government placed huge pressure on him, in particular, to follow the lead of the Americans and boycott the Moscow Olympics, but he would not think of it.

Toughness and stubbornness both surfaced in his second career, as Tory MP for Falmouth and Camborne, when he found himself in the grim, unglamorous job of party enforcer, or whip. Like a loyal whip, he refused to speak out against the hugely unpopular Common Fisheries Policy and so, Falmouth being a fishing town, forfeited the goodwill that might have saved him in the Conservative meltdown of 1997. Coe's response to that setback was the same as it had been after his news-making defeats on the track: he threw himself straight back into the fray, with added vigour. Joining William Hague's party leadership campaign as an energetic volunteer, he soon replaced Charles Hendry as chief of staff, and by the time Hague won had pulled off a comeback almost as swift and unlikely as his Moscow 1,500-metres gold.

Opinion is divided on his performance at Hague's side. One official who worked at Conservative Central Office recalls bafflement about Coe's role: "I remember the party chairman, Cecil Parkinson, once querying exactly what he brought to the party, and Hague turned round and said, 'What you've got to understand about Seb is that he is my mate.' Well, he might have been the leader's mate, but Seb's stock both in Central Office and among the parliamentary party clearly wasn't very high. If that worried him, he never let it show. He was incredibly headstrong."

A surreal period followed. As his private secretary, Coe organised not only Hague's diary but also his fitness programme, and the revelation that the pair began each day with a judo bout prompted widespread hilarity. This was also the time of Hague's baseball cap photo-ops at Alton Towers and the Notting Hill Carnival. The Conservative leader never recovered.

Daniel Finkelstein, once Hague's chief policy wonk and now at the Times, insists Coe can't be blamed: "It amazed me when the press depicted Seb as this rather hapless, lazy figure who didn't really know what he was doing. Within that group of people working for William at the time, it would be hard to find somebody more focused and disciplined than Seb."

This is the man who last year was entrusted with the Olympic bid, and it was far from a natural match. British athletics has a cloying cosiness. It can be seen in the blazered types who comprise officialdom and in the camaraderie of the Olympic village, and it permeates the BBC commentary box, where any athlete from these shores is apparently above reproach. Coe has never sat comfortably in this world. In his days as a runner he often ruffled official feathers, for example by becoming one of the first British athletes to employ an agent to ensure that his box-office appeal went properly rewarded. In 2001 he was at it again, publicly criticising his fellow Olympian Linford Christie, still a hero to many. Coe wrote of a man who "made himself deliberately unintelligible to all but those who had a passing knowledge of jive" and added that he considered Christie "lucky" to have escaped a ban in 1988 when a urine sample showed up traces of the banned substance ephedrine. Christie has always denied any wrongdoing.

Now, as the IOC approaches its decision, it is clear Coe has marshalled his best qualities and suppressed his worst. "As a leader, he has been inspirational. Barbara was very good at what she did, but she didn't have the Olympic understanding and background that Seb has," says one insider. "He often recalls when he and Daley Thompson came back from the 1984 Olympics, after having both won gold, to train at their local club. About 400 kids had turned up to get a taste for athletics, but there were no facilities, no coaches to help them. It drives him mad that that could happen again if we don't get the Games."

Although he excluded Christie from the bid, he has embraced some unlikely partners, notably Ken Livingstone. Perhaps his greatest achievement has been to win over the press, whose cynicism many view as the greatest obstacle to London's chances. And he has done this in spite of his own understandable wariness - there was glee in the tabloids last year when it emerged that he had been unfaithful to his now ex-wife. The Observer's Denis Campbell, who has followed the bid closely, has seen him change: "Various IOC members have told me that they have been amazed by the character transformation that Coe has undergone. Before, he would talk to you as if he was doing you a favour. It's quite the reverse now. I don't know if someone has grabbed him by the lapels and told him that he has got to do this, but his ability to work the room, particularly the press, is hugely improved."

In the early days of his son's career, Peter Coe delivered another of his blunt rebukes: "I don't care if you finish sixth, seventh or eighth, but one of these days you have to learn. You've got to understand what it's like to commit and really hurt." When Coe reaches the finishing line on 6 July, the day the IOC finally awards the 2012 Games, he may not be in first place, but he will certainly have done better than anyone had a right to expect a year ago. And no one will be able to say he has not committed.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Latin America rises up