Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The story of Sebastian Coe

At the end of last month, I attended the launch of a story telling service, which has been brought over from the US and is aimed at conference planners looking for inspirational keynotes. 

The master storyteller for the UK division of Mark of a Leader is Tom Griffin, a former director of events agency Sledge. 

The evening consisted of a few sample stories, including how Roger Bannister achieved his 4-minute mile and how the same 12 notes of music have been used to inspire some of the greatest musicians throughout history. 

But this is an Olympic year for London so I thought I'd re-tell Tom's tale of a fearless leader who also just happens to be Chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, and a former gold medalist himself.

He was the reason for my interest in the Olympics and his great rivalry with Steve Ovett will forever be associated with 800-metre and 1500-metre running. He is, of course, Sebastian Coe.

Seb Coe was born in London but grew up in Sheffield, where his father worked in the steel industry and his mother was an actress.

Although he had always been an active child, it was at a school assembly at the age of 12 that Sebastian first became inspired about the Olympics.

On the screen he and his schoolmates saw grainy pictures of two athletes from their home town who were competing in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He was gripped by the drama of the competition, and the possibilities it represented. By the time he got back to his classroom, Coe says, he knew what he wanted to do - and what he wanted to be.
With his father Peter acting as his dedicated trainer, over the next decade he steadily advanced into the upper echelon of the world’s runners. The intense competition for records between Coe and his greatest rival, runner Steve Ovett, gripped the British imagination… and kept the fans watching.

In 1979, in the space of only 41 days Coe set three world records (800m, mile, and 1500m) – the first person to hold all three records at the same time.

At the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, he took home the gold medals in two events (800 and 1500m).

Four years later in Los Angeles, he won silver in the 800m, and a second gold in the 1500m… making him the first athlete to win gold medals for the same event in two successive Olympics.

My father, who was perhaps the most inspiring figure in my life, gave all of his children (and all four of us have done very well) the best advice at every stage of our lives and our development that any parent can give.

Basically, his message was this: “… You don’t really have to do it any way other than the way you want to do it; but just do it — and do it with passion.” - Sebastian Coe

But despite his many successes, during his athletic career Coe had been plagued by a number of health issues, such as back problems and toxoplasmosis – a chest infection he had picked up during training in Italy. On a number of occasions he was unable to compete; his health almost prevented him from going to the 1984 Olympics, and was a factor in his not being chosen for the British team at the 1988 games in South Korea.

By the late 1980’s, Coe knew that his days as a competitive athlete were behind him. His innate clarity of vision meant that he had done a lot of planning over the years, and he had no shortage of other skills to offer.

In 1992 he won election with the Conservative Party as a Member of Parliament…a post he held until the 1997 General Election. In 2000 his previous achievements and potential for future great achievements was recognised when he was invited to become a member of the House of Lords. Over the same period, he leveraged his public image to generate business success, opening a chain of health clubs, which now has 20,000 members.

By 2003 his tirelessness and tenacious ambition was preparing him for what is generally considered to be one of the most complex and demanding feats of leadership and organisation in the modern age. A challenge that has to combine the sometimes conflicting needs of the worlds greatest athletes, the worlds most successful brands, geo-political imperatives and effectively taking control of the infrastructure of one of the worlds greatest cities. With billions of viewers right across the globe it was also a challenge that, if won, would go on to be delivered in the glare of the most intense media spotlight.

At that time in 2003 the City of London was midway through the complex and expensive process of bidding to be the host city for the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. From the beginning, Seb Coe was an immediate, familiar and enthusiastic ambassador for the plan.

Then in May 2004, the person who had put together the original concept and the bid team suddenly resigned. Coe accepted the role of chairman.

Five cities had been selected as finalists by the IOC at that point. Paris was considered to be the strongest. London’s plan had been criticised in two major areas: there were too many events taking place outside Greater London, and the city’s aging, overcrowded transportation system had to be addressed.

Over the next year, the bid team worked tirelessly to find solutions to every issue. Coe himself worked in close partnership with Ken Livingstone, the then Mayor of London, despite the fact that they were from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Venues were changed, event schedules rewritten, bylaws revised, alliances forged, and budgets approved. 

With Lord Coe on board, quite literally nothing was allowed to deflect the focus, no obstacle was considered too big and no challenge too complex.

Within a year, the bid had evolved to include a high-speed shuttle service to the Olympic park, as well as substantial upgrades to London’s existing transportation systems such as the Tube.

It was also driven by a new sense of purpose that was to prove to be a pivitol point for the ambitions of the bid; using the Olympics and Paralympics to build a legacy for the future. 

This legacy focussed on the youth and included new sports facilities throughout the city… as well the Olympic Medical Institute, a sports rehabilitation centre, and the largest urban park developed in Europe for more than 150 years. 

It also reached out beyond sport in to society as whole with what has become dubbed the ‘Cultural Olympiad’ and since which has already involved over 16 million participants since it began in 2008.

“I believed that we had to answer the question: Why are we doing this? And it wasn’t until we started to articulate, internally as an organisation, that it was about using the Games to inspire young people to participate in sports that we each understood what we had to do.” - Sebastian Coe

But even with these improvements, a win was far from certain as the IOC met for the final judging on July 5, 2005, in Singapore.

What turned the tide, according to most observers, was the stirring final presentation by Sebastian Coe. 

According to a BBC correspondent: "His final speech was fantastic. It was statesmanlike. It was just a stunning performance."

He focused his remarks around youth and his own commitment to the Olympic ideal. He spoke of attending that school assembly when he was 12, and how much it had inspired him in choosing his path through life.

And his words hit home with the IOC judges. When they announced their decision later that evening, the winning city was London.

As with the greatest of achievements, winning the opportunity is just the beginning, the hardest part is turning the vision into a reality and it requires a whole new set of leadership skills.

In the seven years since then, as Chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG), Coe has been instrumental in turning London’s dream into a reality.

New venues and infrastructure have been built…a legacy for the future. The transportation system has been upgraded. Tickets have been sold around the world, and the Olympic torch has begun to wend its way around the country, heading for the opening ceremonies at the end of July.

The race is on. Through it all, Sebastian Coe continues to be what he has always been: a man in motion. And clearly, a leader of great purpose, tenacity and vision.


tom said...

Through stories and story telling we are not only inspired by others like Lord Coe, but also by what we discover about ourselves if we listen carefully enough. Thanks Mike

Yang Jiang said...

Very well written!

Anonymous said...

Αsking queѕtionѕ are genuіnely
nіcе thing if yоu are not undеrѕtаnding anything totally, however thіs
pieсe of writіng prеѕents good understanding evеn.

Feel frеe to visit my webpage
Here is my homepage :: paleo cereal

Anonymous said...

My cоԁeг is trуing to реrsuade
mе to moνe to .net from PHP. I have аlωays diѕlіked the idеа
becausе оf thе cοsts. But hе's tryiong none the less. I've been using WοrdPress on numеrous websites for аbout a
yeaг аnd аm worriеd abоut
swіtching tο аnother ρlatform.
I hаve heаrd fаntаstic things аbout blogenginе.

nеt. Ιѕ thеrе a waу I can import
аll my wordprеss posts into іt? Αnу help ωоuld bе gгeаtly арpгeciateԁ!

Also visіt my homеpage - products recommended for stretch marks
my website :: get rid of stretch marks fast on thighs