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Talking Heads: Alastair Campbell Meets Seb Coe

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So, who says you should never meet your heroes? Sebastian Coe, without doubt one of the most beautiful runners who ever graced a track, was one of mine. I knew him only from afar in his athletics days. But once his racing career was over, he switched to politics, became an MP, then, after losing his seat to New Labour, became an adviser to Tory leader William Hague when I was doing a similar job for Tony Blair.

Acquaintanceship morphed along the way into friendship. As you shall see, he is one of a small number of people who – Paul Simon alert – calls me Al. Having worked on different sides, we were very much on the same side when his considerable talents were judged by TB to make him the perfect choice to lead the bid to land the Olympic and Paralympic Games for London 2012. Another huge challenge, another win in a lifetime full of them, and his success in presiding over the Games led to him being made a Companion of Honour (there aren’t many of them) to add to his knighthood and peerage.

But even with all that success behind him, he wanted more, and set about becoming president of World Athletics, his current berth, from where he has banned Russia over doping and refused to boycott China over human rights. We will cover all that and more. But this series is called Talking Heads, and Coe remains the athlete I love talking to most, about mindset, about resilience, and about the remarkable relationship with his father, Peter, who was also his coach.

The night before our interview, I watched some of his greatest races: the four Olympic triumphs, the 11 world records, and some of the defeats, too; the most famous of which was his loss to Steve Ovett in the 800m final in Moscow 1980. More than 40 years ago. Truly, the stuff of legend. I have talked to him about those days between unexpected defeat in the 800m, followed by unexpected victory in the 1500m a few days later, many times. I find it endlessly fascinating. I hope you do, too.

Photo credit: Kevin Quigley
Photo credit: Kevin Quigley

Alastair Campbell: When you were at your peak, how much of your success was down to physical strength, and how much mental?

Seb Coe: I don’t have a definitive answer for that, Al. In my teens and early twenties, I would have said 80% physical to 20% mental. Towards the end of my career, I was winning races by sheer mental fortitude, and knowing more about myself.

AC: Reputation, too, maybe? Opponents being scared of you?

SC: An element of that, sure. So towards the end of my career, I would say 50-50. But at any stage of my career, I would always have said mental strength came from supreme physical condition.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

AC: How hard is it to get it?

SC: There’s no easy way. It’s all about training. I would have winters of three-hour training sessions so hard I felt too tired to drive home. I used to do weights at Hackney Weightlifting Club. I remember training so hard one night it took me half an hour to open my hands enough to grip the steering wheel. If you’ve been through that, and been unaffected by injury, you gain massive comfort from that preparation when you go into competition. I was always supremely confident based on being in supreme physical condition. For me, the mental strength followed from that.

AC: How big was the fear of illness or injury?

SC: You’re always nervous. I tried to be sociable, but if someone was sitting there struggling with a cold, you’d think, ‘That could be me in two days.’

AC: Would you leave?

SC: Sometimes, yes. The problem with being at the top in competitive sport is that you’re either 100% fit, or you’re not. Even half a percent off can take you out of training or out of contention in a race.

AC: Did you have sports psychologists as we know them today?

SC: My dad was my head coach, a really smart guy, and smart enough to have people around him who could do the things he didn’t. He was an engineer, not an expert in physiology, so he recruited the best physiologists. So I worked with a multi-disciplinary team, and though there wasn’t a specific sports psych, they all played part of that role. They knew when to say something, or when not to.

Photo credit: Manchester Daily Express
Photo credit: Manchester Daily Express

AC: But no sports psychologist can get everything right, no matter how well they know the athlete.

SC: No, and my dad, if he were with us now, and you asked him if he had any regrets in his coaching career, he would say that on the eve of the 800m final at the Moscow Olympics, he sensed that I was not in the right space. To his grave, he would say it was the one thing that gnawed away at him. Should he have said something? Should he have tried to talk it through?

AC: Was the issue mental or physical?

SC: Mental. He instinctively knew – he was my dad as well as my coach, don’t forget – that something was wrong. He had a dilemma: do I say something, then risk getting it wrong, and thereby introduce a seed of doubt into his head? Do I risk making him more agitated? He decided to say nothing, but the doubt never left him. For years, he would sit and think: could I have said something? Might we have worked it through?

AC: What do you think?

SC: It might have helped. I don’t think it would have been the difference between winning and losing. The truth is I ran a really bad race. It was more about my lack of experience at major championships. My dad had talked to me since I was 14 about how I needed to see everything I did as steps towards – preparations for – the Olympics. But no one appreciates the enormity until you get there. It’s almost impossible for a coach to explain that.

AC: You were favourite to win the 800m race.

SC: I know. I had broken three world records in 41 days. I had gone from European bronze at the end of 1978, BBC Sports Personality of the Year 1979, and I was world record holder for 800m, 1500m and the mile. Never been done before. People were hanging the medals round my neck before we even got there. But I was short on major championship experience. It is so different from those one-off races in Oslo, Brussels, Zurich.

Photo credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

AC: I watched the Zurich 1500m record race again last night. It was mind-blowing. The crowd, the noise, you out front alone for the last 500m…

SC: Yeah, it was quite a night. But Moscow was so different. Back then, there was the complication of the politics, and the question of the boycott. [The US boycotted the Moscow Games in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.] The country was divided. None of us knew until April if we would even be going. We had all that, and then there was the question of how I was going to deal with Steve Ovett, the most naturally talented athlete I ever raced. He was undefeated all year, he had beaten me in the European Championships a year earlier, and it seemed unassailable.

AC: People expected you to win the 800m and him to win the 1500m. Did losing the first one help you win the second?

SC: Yes, I think it did.

AC: How did you cope in those days between the two races?

SC: They were tough days. The morning after, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I’d had the race, the press conference – that was rough – and I was just lying there with the blankets over my head. Daley Thompson is a close mate. He comes in, doesn’t even knock, and I said something lame like, ‘What’s the weather like?’ And he goes and rips open the curtains
says, ‘It all looks a bit silver to me.’

AC: Kicking you up the backside?

SC: Yes. We had a laugh, I got up, and then my old man said, ‘Just go for a run, go and clear your head.’ So I did that. I hadn’t spotted some of the photographers in a car, I was so wrapped up in myself I just didn’t see them. The following day one of the papers had a picture of me running and the headline was ‘COE’S TRAIL OF SHAME’ [laughs].

AC: No wonder your Dad didn’t like the media much.

SC: The next day, I’m talking to the journalists, and they’re all giving me their views of what I should do in the 1500m. I was watching my old man out of the corner of my eye as I’m getting all these race strategies from journalists [laughs]. He was a mathematician and an engineer. Everything was numbers. He always went around with an old envelope and an old propelling pencil. He was just sitting there, writing down numbers, and then he says, very politely, ‘Okay, I need some time with my athlete.’ He never said ‘my son’ when we were in a training or racing setting. So the journos left and my dad said: ‘Listen, this is really simple, not complicated at all. Given the number of mistakes you made in the 800m, over the distance you made them, and the frequency with which you made them, it is statistically impossible for you to fuck up that badly again in the next decade.’

AC: [laughs] Thanks, Dad.

SC: I swear to God that was the team talk! Then, in the 1500m semi-final, I was beginning to get back into my stride, but I made a silly error. I went on the inside, got boxed in, had to work my way out the back, round the side, then back into it, and eventually I won. So despite the mistake, I felt I was coming back from the abyss. I could remind myself of the grind and the hard work paying off.

But when I got to the warm-down track, my dad and I had the most ferocious conversation we would ever have. He just unloaded on me because of that mistake. He said, ‘If you do that tomorrow you are toast. You know what you have to do. You can win this, and you are the only thing that can prevent you from doing that. I don’t care where that guy [Ovett] is, you follow him, you do not let him out of your fucking sight. If he decides halfway round to go to the khazi, you get in the fucking shitter with him. You do not let him out of your sight, do you understand?’

AC: Wow. I’ve always been fascinated by that relationship – how you strike the right balance between father and son, coach and athlete.

SC: A lot of people misunderstood it. After the 800m, I went to the press conference, and I was on a trestle table with [long-jumper] Lyn Davies and [pentathlete] Mary Peters. Mary was being very maternalistic, looking after me. She adored my dad, they were close friends. Dad walked behind me to take his place at the edge of the press conference, and as he walked past he leaned over and whispered, ‘You do know you ran like a cunt, don’t you?’ I’m sure there are some athletes who would explode at something like that. But he was right, and I knew he was right, and only he could say it. It wasn’t just anger. That was him: an unvarnished, no-nonsense east Londoner. But then later he said to me: ‘I cannot absolve myself of this either. My athlete is over a second faster than anyone else on paper. He’s the world record holder. I have to ask what I got wrong, too.’ He went into the same personal scrutiny that I did.

AC: How often do you think about that 800m race now?

SC: It’s not that I think about it often. But I draw strength from those few days between the two finals. I wince a bit when people in sport talk about pressure and sacrifice. Pressure is working flat out to feed your family. I saw it as a privilege to be able to take part in events like that and here we are still talking about them. And I have been under pressure in all sorts of situations, like when it came to London 2012, but nothing compares with those 45 minutes sitting in a call-up room with nine other people, everyone wondering who is going to win the lottery. You learn a lot about yourself. So yeah, I draw strength from those days, even now.

AC: I watched the documentary Born To Run last night, and your mum said you were quite nervy, quite panicky, as a child.

SC: She was probably right.

Photo credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

AC: And she said you failing your eleven-plus was a big thing.

SC: Not for them, I don’t think. But for me, definitely – though, looking back, it was the best thing that happened to me. I remember kids from leafy shires who failed the eleven-plus and got shipped off to second- and third-rate private schools. Dad was an unreconstructed socialist, so that was never going to happen. I’m probably the only person you will ever interview who went to a secondary-modern, a comprehensive and a grammar school, which is where I did my A-levels. We were in Sheffield then – good schools.

AC: Have you ever had what would be defined as mental health problems?

SC: I don’t know the answer to that. Have there been moments when I have been under intense pressure? Yes. Ups and downs? Yes. I’ve got friends, including you, Al, who have had to deal with mental health issues. One of my closest, closest friends went through a very dark period, so I am pleased mental health is now a big part of public discourse. But I am a little nervous saying the normal rhythms of life are all about mental health.

AC: You don’t feel you have ever had what I would define as depression or anxiety?

SC: I’ve had anxiety. I don’t think I’ve had depression. I’ve had moments when I have been withdrawn and reflective and asking searching questions. But that is not on a par with what I saw my friend go through.

AC: How hard was it to know when to give up being an athlete?

SC: In a way, the decision was made for me. I can tell you exactly where and when I was. It was November 1989. I was running along the towpath from Richmond to Twickenham and I suddenly just stopped. And for the first time in my life, I had this realisation that I would not be able to run faster than I had run before. I competed for a bit, but I knew from that moment it was time to move on.

Photo credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

AC: You’ve been an athlete, a businessman, an MP, a sports politician, and you’ve had a whole series of pretty amazing careers. But you admitted nothing can beat elite competitive sport. Have you always been chasing the feeling of winning?

SC: Maybe, maybe. I have been lucky because I have always done what I wanted to. I knew I wanted to get involved in politics from my teens. I just wasn’t sure if it would be as a frontline politician.

AC: Was your dad not really upset that you became a Tory?

SC: He was proper old Labour, my mum was an old-fashioned liberal, but they were both supportive in that they knew I was serious about it. So they were not as mad with me as the rest of Sheffield was!

AC: If you had to grade your various careers with marks out of 10…

SC: That is a great question, Al. Athletics is part of my life, so important to me. Then sport politics, I was involved in that pretty young. I enjoyed being an MP, but I won my seat [Falmouth and Camborne] in 1992 and I was pretty sure I would lose it in 1997. I did have the smallest swing against any Conservative candidate, but you guys were unassailable. Also, it was the right decision. The electorate knows when it is time for change.

AC: So then you worked for William Hague.

SC: Which was interesting – but ultimately four barren years because you lot were Mother Teresa on steroids, you were untouchable. But if you look at all the things I’ve done, everything came together with the bid for the [Olympic and Paralympic] Games in 2012. It wasn’t planned like that. I was a sportsman, but by then knew the international circuit in sports politics, plus I had my own direct experience of politics. Crucially, I was never one
of those tribal politicians. I was never, ‘Our side, right or wrong.’ So I always had great support from Tony [Blair] and Tessa [Jowell].

AC: And a grudging acceptance from Gordon Brown and John Prescott?

SC: Tessa told me she sent [sports minister] Dick Caborn to tell John, because they were good mates. Dick said, ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is the American woman [Barbara Cassani, original leader of London bid] is going. The bad news is Tony wants to put Seb Coe in charge.’ ‘Seb Coe! He’s a fucking Tory.’

AC: That’s JP.

SC: But he was brilliant. And very effective on driving through a lot of the planning changes that had to be done.

AC: So, a decade on from 2012, how do you see the legacy of the Games?

SC: In large areas, very good. East London is an enduring positive story. I think in some ways the London boroughs did a better job on legacy than the government. So for London, good. Elite performance was good, there were huge successes in 2012, and that has been followed through in subsequent Games. But where we lost ground was in school sport. Participation has been difficult. I just never understood why school sport became such a political football.

AC: Because Michael Gove made a terrible decision to cut it.

SC: Yeah. I don’t want to go back into the history of it. I spent two years after the Games in the Cabinet Office, and we did get money, and we put the school sports premium in place. But we had lost ground and they knew they had fucked up badly.

AC: Why do we have such a problem with obesity?

SC: A combination of things, though we are not too far out of sync with other developed countries. We eat more processed food than most of Europe. The most sobering stat is that, between the ages of nine and 10 to 12 and 13, the average child loses around half of physical activity. Extrapolate that and it becomes a massive drag anchor, both physically and mentally. Physically inactive means people struggling to climb up a flight of stairs, which is a huge problem. I got stuck into the issue of physical inactivity, and it’s the usual thing in government where they think: ‘Ah, obesity equals a problem for the NHS to solve.’ No,
that is where it ends.

It is about planning, it is about how you use space and it is about tax. We zero-rate food and books because we want a nation of healthy readers. But why don’t you zero-rate gym membership and exercise equipment? No one looks at this in a holistic way. The government had a discussion about this a few months ago. Some of them called me and I said we did this after 2012. We had a multi-disciplinary team across treasury, health, schools, transport, planning… but it just stopped. There was no joining the dots.

Photo credit: STAFF
Photo credit: STAFF

AC: So how goes the current job after a pretty rough start?

SC: It’s going well. I mean, when your office is raided by 17 police officers shortly after you’ve started, you’re told your predecessor has been arrested in Paris, his son is on the run and on the red list, your legal counsel and head of doping have been arrested, and your CEO has gone backpacking in Australia… it’s not easy. If you remember, Al, I did ring you and your advice was that you’re just going to have to weather the storm and deal with the problems. We got through it. I took a flame thrower to the organisation. We brought in
new reforms which mean that even if we were minded to do some of the things others who were here had done before, we couldn’t.

AC: How difficult was the decision to kick out Russia?

SC: We were the only federation to take the decision. We stood alone and there was a lot
of challenge to what we did, but we made the right decision. It had to be addressed, it could not just be swept under the carpet. They had 149 positive tests in four years. This was out of control – it was endemic, doping on an industrial scale. When we provisionally suspended the Russian Federation, the world went ‘you can’t do this’ – well, we have, and slowly but surely we have got change, more independence in the process, a sensible dialogue with Russian sport. It has taken longer than I wanted because it is not good to have a country like Russia outside, but it is a cultural shift, and not just in Russia, because there are still coaches who think a bottle or a syringe is where you go to improve performance.

AC: You’ve been vociferously against a sporting boycott of China.

SC: Absolutely, I am philosophically opposed to boycotts. I’ve been through them. They just damage the athletes. We cannot be oblivious to human rights, and I’m not. I have had many uncompromising conversations about venues, about construction, about labour rights and human rights. But I don’t believe that pulling up the drawbridge bears fruit.

AC: But that means there is no limit to what the Chinese think they can do. You saw a limit when it came to South Africa, you didn’t race there during apartheid, and you must accept that the sporting boycott played a role in ending apartheid.

SC: Yes, but I see Moscow and South Africa differently. I went to Moscow because even though the Americans boycotted, there was never a question of me not competing against the best. If I went to South Africa, I would have been competing against white South African athletes – not the best. I did take the first UK Sports Council delegation to South Africa, we met [former state president] de Klerk and others, and we made a strong case. But governments should be doing the heavy lifting, not throwing it all on to sport. Sport does flick the cultural and political and social dial, but if you start picking relations in sport based on transient or even entrenched political systems, that is difficult to maintain. Plenty of countries came to London holding their noses over our Middle East policy, as you know, and some of them used that to vent their concerns. I think the diplomatic boycott [of China] risks being a meaningless gesture that doesn’t understand the impact sport can have.

Photo credit: Colorsport / Andrew Cowie
Photo credit: Colorsport / Andrew Cowie

AC: You’ve taken a fair bit of criticism over your stance. Are you sure you’ve got it right?

SC: I saw a journalist somewhere saying it showed I didn’t understand the Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos are close friends of mine. I have a picture of the Black Power salute behind my desk at work. I was told off for that and then told I shouldn’t be talking about Jesse Owens. Okay, he didn’t stop the war, he didn’t stop the concentration camps, but you talk to people like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and a whole generation of athletes who came in his wake, and he was hugely inspirational for what he did in Berlin. Had he not been in Berlin, he would not have had that platform to be that inspiration.

AC: Let’s finish with domestic politics. What do you make of the current government?

SC: I am going to be charitable. No one would have wanted this deck of cards. It’s easy to say elements could have been done better.

AC: Like turning up to meetings, and not lying the whole time.

SC: I will leave you to say that. People accept tough decisions, but they want to know the decisions follow a pattern, they want some continuity, and there has to be trust.

AC: And we have none of that.

SC: I’ll leave you to say that, too. Politics has been through difficult periods before, whether it’s the MPs’ expenses scandal, or you guys with what happened in the Gulf. But what worries me most at the moment is how many people are switched off from the whole thing. I’m not sure politicians understand how ordinary folk see things. Most think PMQs is just lots of posh people shouting at each other. I cannot remember a time when people have been less interested in engagement. That worries me.

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