The Big Interview: Sebastian Coe

Sebastian Coe
Sebastian Coe
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SEBASTIAN Coe is adamant. Yorkshire is home, the place that made him one of this country’s most graceful ever middle distance runners – and then the cherished sports hero who has just presided over the most acclaimed Olympic Games in history.

Even though Sheffield was the third stop for a transient Coe family, the 56-year-old was too young to remember his London upbringing and he had no affinity for his school in Shakespeare country where “the guy who took us for football had a wooden leg.”

“My formative years from 10 onwards were Marlborough Road, Broomhill,” says Lord Coe as he speaks with palpable pride about the road from Sheffield to Olympic immortality. “My running, the training, the athletic club, school, I competed for Yorkshire on and off for the best part of 20 years. That’s my county. That’s my home.”

Coe is too modest to admit that any link can be made between his family’s move to leafy Broomhill and the successful staging of the London Olympics; the latter, he attributes, to a “monumental team effort” that followed decades of work building up British sport.

Yet, Coe would not have become a supreme athlete – which then earned him the right to successfully charm, amongst others, the International Olympic Committee – without putting the miles in, literally, after his family chose to settle in Sheffield.

And, unlike today’s generation, the beneficiaries of world-class training facilities and talent-spotting programmes, Coe’s road to success was a rudimentary one: hard graft and trial by error.

Though Tapton Secondary Modern, just an “eight minute jog” from home for its new scholar who continued to eschew his father Peter’s urgings to ride a bicycle, still embraced corporal punishment, it did – at least – embrace sport.

“We had PE every other day, good facilities and I played football and rugby that first winter. Our teacher, Mr O’Keefe, was pleased to have someone in the class who didn’t need cajoling into the team – any team!” recalled Coe. “Historically, good athletes are not good ball players, but I still like to think I was a rare exception. I even played cricket for the school and tennis.”

This formative experience explains why Coe is passionate, in his new role as David Cameron’s Olympic legacy ambassador, to enhance PE’s position on the school curriculum. It is why he now implores today’s Olympians to be positive role models.

Fortuitously, the young Coe’s first sports day at Tapton came shortly after John Sherwood, later a widely respected PE teacher in Sheffield, won a bronze medal in the 400 metres at the Mexico Olympics behind David Hemery.

Though the time difference meant the aspiring athlete could not stay up to the small hours to watch the race, or Sherwood’s wife Sheila winning a silver in the long jump, the hurdler asked the BBC to send a video to Yorkshire schools.

It was inspirational. Coe put his name down for every race at sports day and recalls: “I was still a puny little thing, despite being one of the oldest in class, albeit with the legs of a man.

“To the incredulity of my parents and teachers, I won everything I went in for. And if I can pinpoint a moment when my father, later my coach, began to sit up and take notice, it was then.

“It was if he had been plotting my success on a sheet of graph paper and the trajectory had taken a sharp upward turn. My mother, on the other hand, was deeply embarrassed. ‘Don’t you think you could just lose something, darling?’ she would plead. The answer was ‘No’.”

Serendipity also played a part in Coe’s early career. He recalled John and Sheila Sherwood saying they were members of Sheffield Harriers AC and the club was looking for new blood.

Yet, in this pre-internet and pre-mobile phone era, the young runner and his friends stumbled across Hallamshire Harriers – the names, says Coe, had become lost in translation.

Coincidentally the Hallamshire coach, Hubert Scheiber, who had fled to Britain from his native Czechoslovakia following the Soviet invasion, was working in the cutlery factory run by Coe’s father.

“When my father told me that he knew someone who had a connection there, the die was cast.

“Hubert was a gentle guy who had coached the discus back home. I did long jump and hurdling as well as running, and even turned out for the high jump when the club needed competition points.

“Harriers are cross-country runners. Starting from the club, we’d head up into the hills and onto the moor. A convoy of cars would follow, and pick up the juniors after four or six miles while the rest ploughed on. By the time I was 14, wherever they led, I followed. I could run all day with those guys. I was like the Duracell Bunny.”

An interested observer was Coe’s father. With an engineer’s instinct, he taught himself to coach athletics by recording his son’s times – and then working out the level of progression required to peak in time for the Moscow Olympics of 1980.

“Ours was never a conventional coach-athlete relationship; it clearly couldn’t be,” admits Coe, still bereft by his father’s passing four years ago. “But it was something far greater: a partnership.

“At home he was Dad. At the track Peter. While he called me ‘Seb’, it was never ‘my son’ in public – it was ‘my athlete’. Did I respect him? Yes, because I instinctively knew that he knew what he was talking about because he had had 50 years applying his practical mind to everyday situations – like when he was a prisoner of the German navy.

“The engineer in my father saw the human body as a machine with strengths and weaknesses that would need to be addressed before performance could improve.”

Though Coe’s career would be plagued by injury and illness, his feats on the athletics track were phenomenal – just the three world records for the much-travelled runner in 1979, back-to-back Olympic gold in the 1,500 metres at Moscow and then Los Angeles and countless other international successes.

In addition to his father, he was fortunate to have a great rival in Steve Ovett. “Every time I trained in Sheffield, refusing to let the moors beat me in the snow, I was conscious that he was doing something similar in a very different landscape in Brighton where it would have been much warmer. I’d like to think we were good for each other.”

Coe has many highlights of the 2012 Olympics. “The Queen and James Bond was a fairly unique combination,” he says of the opening ceremony.

From a personal perspective? The young Kenyan David Rudisha effortlessly breaking the 800 metres world record, Coe’s signature race and which twice eluded him on sport’s greatest stage. “The most definitive piece of front running I have seen.” Coe only presented one gold medal – to Sheffield heptathlete Jess Ennis. “She is going to be such an enormous magnet for young girls to take up the sport.”

From Yorkshire’s standpoint? Coe says it is testament to the phenomenal Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonny, that more than half a million people should line Hyde Park to watch the triathlon.

He is also prepared to acknowledge one unlikely hero – William Hague, Richmond MP and Foreign Secretary. It was Coe’s four-year stint working with Hague when he was Opposition leader from 1997-2001 – “the toughest job in politics” – that taught Coe about the importance of the smallest details when choreographing events. The runner was a Tory MP before losing his Cornish seat in Tony Blair’s first landslide. “My time with William helped enormously with a view of what was to happen in the next phase of my career.”

“Take the party conference of 1997. It’s William’s first as leader. He needed a good start and I went up to Fleetwood, just up from Blackpool, to recce the once prosperous fishing port. I forgot to ask one question that I should have. For, when William did arrive, the tide was out. It was a PR disaster.”

Still insistent that policy can still be formulated without a dedicated Sports Secretary of State sitting in the Cabinet, Sebastian Coe has just emerged, when we speak, from a Downing Street meeting about how to embrace the enthusiasm of the volunteers who were such an integral part of the Olympics.

“People ask me if I’m sad that the Games are over. No because, for me, the most exciting part is still to come – because we should be judged by the number of opportunities that are created on the back of the Games.

“As a Yorkshireman, I’m very excited that Sheffield will be at the centre of this because of its extraordinary facilities and the expertise of the English Institute of Sport. Believe me, this is not the end. It’s just the beginning – that is why the future matters so much.”

Running My Life: The Autobiography by Seb Coe is published by Hodder &|Stoughton, price £20. He will be signing copies at Waterstones in Sheffield on November 13 from 5pm to 7pm. Signed copies can be reserved by calling 0114 272 8971. In Monday’s Yorkshire Post, read an exclusive extract from the book as Seb Coe looks back on his turbulent political life.