'A Creative, Enterprising, Multicultural City': Olympics Organizer Races Toward London Summer Games

In a SPIEGEL interview, Lord Sebastian Coe, the organizer of the 2012 Olympics, explains why his city is well prepared to deal with terror or security threats and how London plans to host an "exciting sports carnival and a festival in the most exciting and versatile city in the world."

Photo Gallery: 'Games Under Greater Threat than Any Before' Photos
AP

SPIEGEL: Lord Coe, this year, London will become the first city in the world to have hosted the Summer Games three times. If you had the choice, which of the games would have most appealed to you as a young athlete: 1908, 1948 or 2012?

Coe: Hmm ... Difficult to say. Ideally I'd like to attend all of them.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Coe: The historian in me is curious. 1908 was the first time that a stadium was specifically built for the Olympics. The participants marched in by nations, another novelty. In 1948, everything was colored by the war and destruction. Everything was modest; many existing facilities had to be used. Back then, the volunteers helped for the first time, without whom the Olympic Games would long have ceased to be manageable.

SPIEGEL: What do you want the world to remember about London 2012?

Coe: I still see many things through the eyes of an athlete. We want games that provide the athletes with everything they need. I would like every one of them to at least be able to say afterwards: "I may not have achieved what I wanted, but it wasn't because Coe and his team prevented it." The athlete is at the end of the chain. If something doesn't work as it should, he's always the one who suffers. If we, the organizers, don't get something right, he's the victim.

SPIEGEL: Is this of such value to you because you yourself were a victim? You took part in the games in Moscow and Los Angeles, in 1980 and 1984, which were marked by politically motivated boycotts.

Coe: No, I mean that in very practical terms. We have reached a stage where virtually all the buildings have been completed. Now we are thoroughly testing whether everything works -- the facilities, the transport system, all sorts of things. After all, we know which Games suffered because many of the functions were not adequately tested. If you sit down with former British Olympic participants, they can tell you about a lot of slip-ups in Atlanta. We will either be compared to Games like those -- or with Barcelona, for example.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it about more than just ensuring that everything runs smoothly? The previous Games in Beijing were perfectly organized but lifeless. There was no party zone, no lightness.

Coe: We are a creative, enterprising, multicultural city. We want visitors to enjoy that. I don't need to tell the Londoners themselves how to have a good time; they know all about that. You don't have to force people to have fun here.

SPIEGEL: Half a year ago, you said you wanted to offer an "exciting sports carnival and a festival in the most exciting and versatile city in the world." How?

Coe: By letting the athletes shape the atmosphere. After all, the spectators don't go to the Olympic Games to experience pure magic. They come because they want to see the best 1,500 meter runner, for example, to experience the athletes entering the home straight running shoulder to shoulder. Everything else will follow naturally, including the great moments. The first thing you need if you want to create a surrounding atmosphere of high spirits is the right mood in the stadium. If people don't know why they are actually in the stadium, we'll have lost.

SPIEGEL: During the Olympics, 24,000 security officers will be protecting London. Is it possible for high spirits to arise under such conditions?

Coe: Our games will be under greater threat than any before in Olympic history. It is a question of how concentrated the security presence is, whether it looks massive. We want to avoid that. No one should have the feeling they have landed in a high-security zone.

SPIEGEL: How are you going to prevent that?

Coe: Security is the top priority; we have no choice there. The security issue affects everything we do in the organizing committee. However, there is the question of appropriateness. As a Londoner, I can tell you: The police force here knows what it's doing. They have to deal with the problem of terrorism every day. And they have been doing this for a very long time.

SPIEGEL: I presume you are referring to the horrors of the Irish Republican Army attacks.

Coe: Things like that. I was born in 1956. Ever since my childhood, I have never lived in anything but a threatened city. But even during the worst days, we Londoners never felt we were living in a city under siege.

SPIEGEL: Did you underestimate the counterterror measures? Up until last summer, the plans were for 10,000 security officers. Now, more than twice that number will be deployed.

Coe: No, up to then we had merely stated the number who would be needed for the immediate security of the Olympic events. It is only since we have been able to calculate in detail how the facilities are to be guarded while competitions are not taking place, which training facilities need to be protected for how long and how elaborately, that we have been working with the higher figure.

SPIEGEL: It seems the Americans intend to bring along thousands of their own security personnel, half of them from the FBI alone. Does that mistrust bother you?

Coe: That's for the government to settle. I can only say: When the Guardian reported this, the American ambassador wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper clearly stating that they were completely happy with the safety precautions planned by Her Majesty's government.

SPIEGEL: When you applied to host the Games, your rivals were other metropolises: Moscow, Madrid, New York and Paris. In four years, the Summer Games are to be held in Rio de Janeiro. Is Olympic gigantism only something for the megacities of the world these days?

Coe: It is not just a matter of size. The crucial question is what a city can offer in terms of infrastructure, transport facilities, security precautions and all those things. However, as a result of this, a city inevitably needs to be of a certain size. In London, we are holding 26 parallel world championships, so to speak. If the events all took place one after another, the Games would last 460 days -- but we squeeze everything into 16 days.

SPIEGEL: After that there are still the Paralympics.

Coe: My people smiled and said we'd have a whole 10 days between the Olympics and the Paralympics. I replied: "And on every one of those days, we'll be working 24 hours in order to accomplish the changeover."

SPIEGEL: You have a reputation to defend. According to historical sources, the London Games in 1908 and 1948 were very well organized.

Coe: I know.

SPIEGEL: There was one serious flaw in 1948 though.

Coe: I have no idea. What was that?

SPIEGEL: The weather. It rained almost nonstop.

Coe: Statistically speaking, our games are taking place during the two driest weeks of the year. So we have done what we could.

Interview conducted by Detlef Hacke

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About Sebastian Coe
  • REUTERS
    Sebastian Coe, 55, is chairman of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. As a runner, he won the gold medal for Britain in 1980 and 1984 in the 1,500-meter run. In 1981, he was named the global Athlete of the Year. He later entered into politics, serving for five years in Britain's House of Commons as a member of the Conservative Party. Queen Elizabeth bestowed Coe with a peerage in 2000.
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