Sebastian Coe on Olympic crises, integrity and a sense of the absurd
July 20, 2021. Series 4. Episode 28
Today’s guest is Lord Sebastian Coe. Double Olympic Gold Medal winner, politician and driving force of the brilliant 2012 London Olympics. Seb’s career has largely been one of triumph. But as President of World Athletics he has also known what it is to be at the centre of crisis … and to have your own integrity questioned. Seb talks about the ups and downs of his life in compelling and frank detail. And he explains how his resilience – both in times of success and difficulty – came from his Yorkshire upbringing and his father and trainer Peter, a man who survived a truly dramatic war time experience. As Seb says: “The human condition is landscape, it’s geography, it’s family, it’s friendships, it’s influences – with mine I was very lucky. I’m forever indebted.” This is an episode packed with sound, practical crisis advice from a man who has led a remarkable life in the public eye.
Sebastian’s Crisis Cures:
1 – Friends. If you can count the number of true friends on the fingers of one hand throughout a lifetime then you’re doing remarkably well.
2 – Music. I’m a passionate Jazz aficionado – I’ve got thousands of recordings. I find jazz the most mood alerting music. I walked from the warmup track in Moscow to the final of the 1500 in the stadium listening to Sidney Bechet – Just a closer walk with thee’
3 – Recognise the absurdity of life. Sometimes you just have to sit back and say, “this is beyond comedic and accept it for what it is.”
The Sebastian Coe Foundation – http://www.sebcoe.co.uk/
Seb and I talked just days before the start of the Tokyo Olympics … an event that has been beset by crisis for the last 18months. As a member of the Olympics organising committee, Seb gives a pretty sharp view on that challenge and not unreasonably raises the issue of consistency of policy … something that’s front of mind for us all right now. But it’s Seb’s personal crisis story that I think is the really fascinating and valuable aspect of this podcast. Seb’s amazing career has been a tale largely of triumph. But more recently as President of World Athletics though he has known controversy and personal crisis. In our conversation, he describes the two years of legal drama over the Russian Doping scandal as the most difficult of his life. And, as is so often the case in this podcast, when it comes to explaining how he got through it, the conversation turns to the past, to his upbringing and specifically to his father Peter, who was also, of course, his trainer. There is, I think, a straight line to be drawn from his father’s dramatic war time experiences – survivor of a torpedoed Merchant Navy ship and a prison camp – and the resilience Seb demonstrated so many years later as his own integrity was questioned. But I was also really taken with Seb’s formula for crisis management – both organisational and personal. At the core is remembering who you really are and where you want to be when the crisis is over. But also to maintain a sense of the absurd, as he puts it. That ability when in crisis to say to yourself “Ok, what’s happening here is beyond comedic, but it is happening so get on with it and get through it. That really resonated with me. So, another episode packed with useful guidance but also just a great story of a remarkable life. My thanks to Seb and I hope you enjoy it.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
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Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last six years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And it got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:00:51.22 Andy Coulson:
So, on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled and stoic, the shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. All talking in the hope that they might serve as a useful guide to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. Just search for Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify and you’ll find some great playlists.
00:01:25.22 Andy Coulson:
I’m delighted that my guest today is Sebastian Coe. We talked just days before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, an event of course, that’s been beset by crisis for the last eighteen months. As a member of the Olympics Organising Committee, Seb gives a pretty sharp view on that challenge and not unreasonably I think, raises the issues of consistency of policy, something that’s front of mind for us all right now. But it’s Seb’s personal crisis story that I think is the really fascinating and valuable aspect of this podcast. Double Olympic gold medallist, politician, campaigner and driving force of the 2012 Olympics, Seb’s amazing career has been a tale largely of triumph. But more recently as president of World Athletics he’s known controversy and personal crisis and in this conversation he describes the two years of legal drama over the Russian doping scandal as the most difficult of his life.
00:02:23.00 Andy Coulson:
And as is so often the case on this podcast, when it comes to explaining how he got through it the conversation turns to the past, to his upbringing and specifically to his father, Peter, who was also, of course, his trainer. There is, I think, a straight line to be drawn from his father’s dramatic war time experiences and the resilience Seb demonstrated so many years later as his own integrity was being questioned. But I was also really taken with Seb’s formula for crisis management, both organisational as well as the personal and at the core is remembering who you really are and where you want to be when the crisis is over. But also to maintain a sense of the absurd, as Seb puts it, an ability, when in crisis, to say to yourself, okay, what is happening here is beyond comedic but it is happening so get on with it and get through it. That really resonated with me. So another episode packed with useful guidance but also just a great story of a remarkable life. My thanks to Seb and I hope you enjoy it.
00:03:33.11 Sebastian Coe:
Hi Seb, thanks so much for joining me today, how are you?
00:03:36.18 Sebastian Coe:
I’m good, Andy, great pleasure, looking forward to it.
00:03:39.23 Andy Coulson:
And it’s great to have you here, thanks for giving us the time. I say that because of course, we’re in the midst of a brewing crisis with the Tokyo Olympics right now. Less than a month away froth start. The rise of Delta variant cases causing real concerns about crowds, about attendance. And aside from your role as President of the…
00:04:00.14 Sebastian Coe:
It doesn’t seem to have affected it too badly in the European Football Championships.
00:04:05.15 Andy Coulson:
00:04:06.07 Sebastian Coe:
It does appear that we’re being held to a slightly different set of standards here.
00:04:09.02 Andy Coulson:
Well this is the point. I should explain that aside from your role as President of World Athletics, you’re also an IOC committee member. So you’re at the heart of this live crisis. I mean this is the point really. It seems that we are in a world of contradictions right now. What’s right in one country is not necessarily right in another. I mean, how are those, and you’re among them, are those that are trying to make sense of this and make the plan work, if you like? How are you approaching it?
00:04:41.07 Sebastian Coe:
Well, it’s complicated Andy, and I’m not going to pretend it isn’t. You know, the challenge we’ve really got is to deliver a games that are fundamentally safe for the athletes and also fundamentally safe for those communities that are going to host this. And you of all people, would get the communications challenge around that. And look, I was in Tokyo relatively recently, we went there for the test events, both in the stadium and then we have our road events, marathon race walk up in Sapporo. And the reason they moved to there was that it was genuinely thought that it might be cooler up there in the height of the Japanese summer and just be a little bit safer for the athletes.
00:05:34.03 Sebastian Coe:
But the real challenge is making sure that you have got those two horses, you know, stabled away and the real challenge, of course, is you’re not communicating the thousands of hours that have gone into the forethought that is being utilised around these, it’s very easy to assume that this is a games like normal; it’s not. I often listen to people saying, well you know, you’ve got ten and a half thousand athletes, just descending on Tokyo, actually they’re not. They’re going to arrive at the airport, they’re going to be bubbled, they’re going to be taken from the airport direct to the village. Their day in the village is going to be literally the village, unless they’re competing and then they’ll go to the venues. There are no karaoke bars here, there’s no wandering around the imperial gardens or eating after the event. They can only be in up to no more than five days before their event.
00:06:40.00 Sebastian Coe:
If they get bombed out in the heat after the first day they don’t share the Olympic experience of being there throughout the competition they’re back home. So it is going to be a challenge. And then, of course, we’ve only just heard that the Japanese are saying we can have fans in the stadium, again, that’s still to be determined in what proportion. The only thing I would say is the athletes have got rather used to this environment. They have, in the last year or so, certainly in my sport, been competing in large part, in front of empty stadiums. There’s obviously been, there hasn’t been an obvious diminution in their performance. And again, if I’m being a bit blunt here, the athletes that are going there with real medal pretensions are actually, under any circumstance, not really worrying about they’re able to buy souvenirs or sending postcards. They’re really just focused, it’s their job. I mean, they’re focusing on that.
00:07:46.17 Sebastian Coe:
And I think if anything in the last few years, people sort of say well, it must be a real challenge for athletes. Actually, athletes are far better positioned than most people to work remotely because they’ve always done that and they’ve relied very heavily on technology. Most athletes are working with coaches that are not actually based, often, on their own shores.
00:08:07.17 Andy Coulson:
00:08:08.08 Sebastian Coe:
And the second a training session is done, you know, you might be sending the video eight time zones and you’re sitting there sort of comparing notes and building for the next day. And actually look at athletes at trackside at technical events, the first thing they do when they’ve done a high jump or thrown a shot put is to literally walk across to the perimeter, where their coaches are, and the coaches have already got it on video and they’re looking at the technical issues and seeing what they can do. So in a way, this is not as strange for the athletes as you would think. But yeah, none the less this is not going to be a games as usual, frankly it’s going to be very unusual.
00:08:56.23 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, and pretty complicated for the politicians. This idea of trying to perform in the midst of a crisis, an Olympian crisis, is something that you’ve got rich experience of. I want to talk about that in a moment if I may? First of all I’d like to talk about resilience, Seb. And that means going right back to your upbringing, to your dad, Peter, a remarkable man. An engineer by trade but he was also your coach of course, self-taught.
00:09:25.21 Sebastian Coe:
00:09:26.08 Andy Coulson:
Using innovative methods that hadn’t been used, controversial methods I think, that hadn’t been used in Britain before. But he also, it seems, installed a resilience in you as a result of his own experiences during the war. Am I right about that?
00:09:43.18 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, you are although interestingly it was only sort of relatively recently, I say relatively recently, twenty-odd years ago, that we properly understood what his war involved. I mean, just in simple terms he was in the Merchant Navy. My dad was quite belligerent about all sorts of things. He joined the merchant navy because all his life, Andy, he was an unreconstructed Socialist. The morning that I announced around the kitchen table in Sheffield that I was throwing my hat in the ring as a Conservative member of parliament, I don’t know who was more shocked, the mayor of Sheffield or him.
00:10:26.09 Andy Coulson:
Do you remember the words?
00:10:27.19 Sebastian Coe:
No, I do remember on the, literally on the eve of the 1992 election, which was my first election, he rang me up in Cornwall, I was the candidate down there, and he said, ‘Look, I’ve thought long and hard about what I’m going to say’ and he said, ‘look, as your father I suppose I wish you the best of luck’ and then there was a slightly pregnant pause and he went, ‘…and I hope you’re the only one in there at the end of the evening’. So it was, he was funny. I mean, he did have a very quirky sense of humour but he was also tough.
00:11:12.00 Andy Coulson:
Tell us the story because it’s an incredible one.
00:11:13.19 Sebastian Coe:
Well I mean, he was in the Merchant Navy and in simple terms he got torpedoed in the Atlantic on a food run out of the US. And he survived an improbable length of time in the water. There were two hundred and something, you know, two hundred people, sadly, on the boat that didn’t make it. He made it with about four or five including the ship’s chaplain, there may be something to be said for spiritual underpinning on those moments. And he was picked up by a German battle ship, a well-known boat, The Gneisenau, and he was taken to La Rochelle which was then German occupied France. And became very friendly with a guy on the boat, a guy called Eddie, Eddie Shackleton who was actually a Canadian a few years older than him. And they spent, he always said actually the best part of his war was on the boat because he was of that generation that was taught German in school. So he did speak German and he went into the kitchens.
00:12:17.10 Sebastian Coe:
But then he came ashore and word got out that they were being sent off to a pretty draconian prisoner of war camp near Hamburg. And in simple, just being simple about it, he jumped off a train and he walked by night, slept during the day, both of them. And then they separated because they felt that it was too obvious, after months of walking, I mean literally living off the land and anywhere they could sleep at night.
00:12:50.08 Andy Coulson:
And so he was what, nineteen, twenty years old?
00:12:52.10 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, he’s nineteen or twenty. So he decided to go and Eddie decided that he wanted to try and make it to Marseille. My father wasn’t really sure whether at that point it was occupied or not. So he took the tortuous route of climbing his way, clambering his way through the Pyrenees. And then got promptly arrested, I shouldn’t laugh, but he then got promptly arrested in Franco-Spain without the right papers and then that was a pretty unpleasant six months. And my grandmother, I mean talk about resilience, they sort of had a funeral at the Port of London for the people who were sailing Blue Funnel Line and my relatives pretty much all went. My grandmother refused to go, she said he’s going to turn up. And I have the letter at home from the War Office basically saying that we have to conclude after six weeks or whatever it is, you know, lost at sea that sadly he’s been claimed. She would not accept it, Andy, she just would not accept it and she said, ’No, he’s coming back, he’s absolutely coming back.’
00:14:01.07 Andy Coulson:
Wow, and how long was it before the… he came through…
00:14:04.15 Sebastian Coe:
It was about a year.
00:14:05.04 Andy Coulson:
Right, a year.
00:14:06.08 Sebastian Coe:
It was about a year. And he then, he was eventually released from Spain and reunited and sent home. And he was, you know, his health was absolutely shot to pieces. So that was pretty much the end. So you know, whenever I’ve been a tight corner with him and he was, you know, he would, when we were having arguments, inevitably with the Athletics Authorities which he loathed authority at the best of times. And I remember him absolutely cutting loose on my behalf on some occasion. And I looked at him, I mean we were all shell-shocked, and I said, ‘You don’t scare easily’ and he laughed and looked at me and he said, ‘The last forty-five, fifty years have been a bonus. What have I got to lose?’ So everything he did was imbued with that view that he was actually lucky to be where he was. He was lucky to have four kids all doing different things. He was lucky to be…
00:15:02.19 Andy Coulson:
Wow, but the strength of… That generation of…
00:15:08.18 Sebastian Coe:
He never talked about it interestingly. It actually came out quite circuitously. My grandmother said something and we all sort of sat there going, ‘sorry, what are you on about?’ And then she brought out a couple of newspaper clips that sort of talked about it. There was a front page of the Daily Express. And I’ve always sensed that generation that really did go through the mire tended not to want to talk about it. It’s always in life, isn’t it, the ones that are slightly embroidering the story that are the ones that want to become the raconteurs. He never discussed it and he was deeply shocked. I remember when the Belgrano was sunk in 1982, 83 whenever the Falkland War was and there was an element of euphoria. And he was, I remember him being deeply depressed at the thought…
00:16:07.00 Andy Coulson:
00:16:07.24 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, not… I think he probably understood the reasons behind it but being deeply depressed for having been in that situation and having watched so many people he knew lose their life at sea.
00:16:20.10 Andy Coulson:
It’s interesting, isn’t it, because these days, of course, we’re told that we must talk about these things. That when we’ve been through crisis or we’ve been through a stressful time and very few of us have been through anything that could possibly compare with what your dad went through, that the idea now is that we must share and we must open up. Which you’ve got to believe obviously is the right thing to do. And yet your dad was able, not just to kind of survive and get through the day, he was a remarkable man. Channelled his energies into so many different things, you included obviously and very successfully. I mean, where have you sort of landed on that bit of it? As one our previous guests said when we were discussing whether it’s biography or biology? Is it a bit of both, is that where you are? Where are you on it?
00:17:09.01 Sebastian Coe:
I think it’s inevitable I mean, I’m an interesting suffusion because you know, my father was sort of East End and came out of a very, very modest background. He was born on Cambridge Heath Road. Always interesting to me that that’s exactly the part of the world that I ended up being part of the team regenerating. His father was a railway labourer, my grandmother was a cleaner. And yet he marries my mum who comes from a family of writers and portrait painters.
00:17:46.20 Andy Coulson:
She was an actress, right?
00:17:47.23 Sebastian Coe:
She was an actress; she was RADA trained. So it remains an absolute mystery to all of us. And nobody has actually really ever got to the bottom and sadly my parents aren’t around any longer. But it’s always remained a mystery to all of us in the family as to how they ever actually, how or wherever they met. But they were an amazing combination, they were an amazing combination and I think I sort of got… and my mum, of course, I have Indian heritage. So my grandfather was Indian. So my mother was born in Delhi and brought up until she was ten in Delhi and then came back to the UK as an evacuee, she went up to Northampton. So she sort of came out of… she was born in Delhi, born in the hotel that my grandparents had. And then she came back to the UK and then was suddenly shunted up with her sister to Northampton. And then went through school and then ended up at RADA and did a lot of repertory theatre in Birmingham and Worcester.
00:18:55.24 Andy Coulson:
00:18:56.12 Sebastian Coe:
And there was my dad who was sort of a racing cyclist who spent most of his life on motorbikes. I mean, I’m told their first date was he took her on an Ariel Square Four down the Portsmouth Road at about a hundred miles an hour. And my sisters told me that she actually said that she didn’t speak to him for three months after it, she was so appalled at his idea of a night out. So they…
00:19:22.08 Andy Coulson:
So the resilience that you have, and we’re going to talk about that, but the resilience that you obviously have, is as you say, a combination of all those things.
00:19:30.15 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, I think it is.
00:19:31.19 Andy Coulson:
But added to that your own experience, of course.
00:19:35.11 Sebastian Coe:
Look, I think the human condition it’s landscape, it’s geography, it’s family, it’s friendships, it’s influences. And you know, mine were… I was very lucky. I had, they were both very loving parents; they were quite bohemian in their way. I mean, they introduced me to jazz clubs, my passion is jazz, they introduced me to jazz clubs at the age of eleven or twelve I was sitting, you know, I mean social services would have had a fit if they’d known some of the clubs I was sitting in on a Sunday lunchtime watching George Melly in New Merlin’s Cave in Margery Street, sadly no longer there. And to this day that is my passion, I’m forever indebted to it. But also my mother, because I lived, I was brought up in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire so The Hallé Orchestra used to come every two or three weeks to Sheffield. So my father was, you know, we were busy on Sunday nights in local clubs listening to jazz and on a Friday night I’d be listening to something like the Lindsay String Quartet or The Hallé Orchestra.
00:20:48.15 Sebastian Coe:
So I was very, very lucky to have them there and they were also… I mean, people misunderstood my father, he had a massive hinterland, I mean sport was not the only thing he ever thought about and in fact racing, cycling was his passion. Towards the end of his career, he wasn’t a great one for journalists, but towards the end of his career he rather reluctantly gave an interview, I think it was to The Times and they said to him, you know, at the end of my career, they said to him, ‘Do you have any regrets?’ He said, ‘Yeah, my son never won the Tour de France’ which sightly threw them off balance.
00:21:21.14 Andy Coulson:
00:21:24.01 Sebastian Coe:
And his interest in athletics was because my mum couldn’t figure out where on a Sunday morning and a Tuesday night and a Thursday night her son was going deep into inner city Sheffield to spend hours with a local athletics club. And I think she sent him down there to find out what on earth was going on and whether I was actually where I was supposed to be. And then being a classic engineer he just sort of sat, watched what was being… some of the coaching techniques and decided just to dismantle it. It didn’t seem to make a great deal of sense to him. And then for the next five years he just basically immersed himself in everything he possibly could to understand the nature of the event, the endurance of it he didn’t find too complicated because he was quite comfortable about riding to Brighton and back in a few hours, I mean he was a member of Herne Hill Wheelers, a pretty good south London cycling club.
00:22:29.11 Sebastian Coe:
But it always me laugh, one of his closest friends in Sheffield was head of languages at Sheffield University and when this guy was supposed to be on holiday or probably have a relaxing evening, my father would sort of trot across with the latest text in German or Russian or whatever it was so he’d end up translating all this stuff and he was just, he just was voracious about what he studied and then started to practically apply it. And it didn’t go down well. I remember him virtually being in a punch up with some parents. I won a Sheffield schools cross country race with about a minute and a half in front of the nearest kid. And they sort of came rushing over to him and said, ‘You know, this is outrageous, you shouldn’t be doing this to a young athlete’. My mother was quite unbalanced about it. She sort of stepped in there to keep them apart but that was…
00:23:26.06 Sebastian Coe:
What he was doing was so different that it was interesting it then, it spooked people. And everybody talks about doing it differently, challenging convention, the status quo, you know, leaving the herd, it’s far harder to do it in practice because you then are basically all under a lot pressure not to do that. Convention says you don’t wander off, too far off.
00:23:53.23 Andy Coulson:
Certainly then as well.
00:23:55.23 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, absolutely. In fact British Athletics threatened to, at one point British Athletics were so shocked by some of the things he was doing in training that they threatened to remove his insurance that allowed him to train on public parks.
00:24:14.17 Andy Coulson:
In simple terms his theory was that you needed to be pushed. It was sort of with a fairly scientific approach but you needed to be pushed past…
00:24:23.06 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, but not needlessly, I mean, it was careful. For instance, there was a great deal more thought that went into it because he was an engineer he also understood the load, the load on joints and pistons. So I used to train a lot in the Peak District and whenever there was a really long, unremitting downhill slog, his view was why would you want to put young joints through those types of pressure? So he’d make me get in the car, drive me to the bottom of the hill and then we’d go… so my training runs were never downhill, they were only ever uphill. But we talk about marginal gains now, I mean he was really the creator of that kind of concept.
00:25:12.15 Andy Coulson:
Let’s talk about the 1980 Olympics which was a scene of triumph for you and your dad. Gold in the 1,500 metres, silver in 800 metres but all against, and we touched on this earlier, all against a backdrop of international crisis. With sixty-six countries, including America, of course, having boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Of course the Americans are now leaving Afghanistan. But what do you remember about that, Seb? Did it feel like a backdrop of crisis? You’ve just talked about a challenge that’s going to be facing our Olympians in Tokyo. But there you were in 1980, very different circumstances but surrounded by International crisis. How did you cope at the time, do you remember?
00:25:56.20 Sebastian Coe:
Look, I’m digging deep a bit here because it’s north of forty years but interestingly I’d actually graduated that year and I did political sciences, economics. So I was following that quite closely and I do remember, I think it was Christmas Eve, I mean the Russians do tend to do things on public holidays. Anyway it was Christmas Eve when we all heard that they’d invaded Afghanistan and I remember instinctively feeling really queasy about it and thinking, you know, this could really escalate into something quite serious. And my instinct at that point was already that sport was often the cheap vehicle by which you want to make your gestures.
00:26:50.08 Sebastian Coe:
And we’d been through the 1976 boycott because the, if you remember, the All Blacks played a South African side, breaking what was effectively the Glenn Eagles Agreement. And then African nations asked the IOC to tell New Zealand they couldn’t compete in the games and the IOC did not accede to that and then a lot of the African countries boycotted, including Kenya. So we lost some pretty serious head to heads. John Walker actually won the 1,500 metres but there were other African athletes in that race that would probably have given him a very good run for his money and we missed out in the 800 metres, Mike Boit, probably one of the great 800 metres runners of all time didn’t make ’76 either.
00:27:41.15 Sebastian Coe:
So we sort of got familiar with the crisis of politics in the Olympic movement. So my instinct was this, I think most people were not looking at it from a sporting perspective, I was. And I remember sitting up in Sheffield over Christmas thinking this is going… there will be a political backlash here and if you remember it was the fledgling months of a Conservative government. Margaret Thatcher was determined to build on the US-UK special relationship and the second that Jimmy Carter called for the boycott I really sensed that we were going to be in difficulty because there was no way that a British government, at that moment, wasn’t going to probably fall in behind. And I think actually any British government of any political persuasion would probably have done that. And then it started and it became really quite unpleasant. Newspapers took sides. I remember some of the younger members of the team being sent photographs of atrocities in Afghanistan, a very young athlete, Linsey MacDonald.
00:28:55.05 Andy Coulson:
A lot of pressure, yeah.
00:28:55.21 Sebastian Coe:
There was a lot of pressure. And I sort of, because I tend to be outspoken on things I guess, and I’d broken three world records that summer, so I was obviously I think, you would recognise the fifty pound notes of journalistic currency, if they could get me on record for that, that’s quite a big thing for somebody who’d just won the BBC sports review of the year. And I did go into battle on it because I couldn’t, I just didn’t understand the… I thought it was intellectually dishonest. Historically, I had real questions about it because I don’t think boycotts actually achieve what they set out to do. And I ended up, really in large part, the target of, interestingly, you know some of the right leaning newspapers who really challenged me on it.
00:29:53.21 Sebastian Coe:
And for me the moment that I absolutely became unreconstructed on this was we were all being told we couldn’t go because by going we were implicitly supporting a soviet regime which was again just incoherent, but the same week we were being asked to not, told not to go BP signed some big pipeline deal with Russia and the Bolshoi ballet arrived in London. And I thought this just doesn’t… I think actually, Andy, in hindsight, Andy, it would have been a more difficult decision had the response been more holistic and more across the board but it just looked that sport was the easy gesture. And as my father at the time rather famously said, ‘Look, if your neighbours are burning down your house the logical response is not to stop your children playing with their children. It’s actually to do something about it. Don’t use sport as the vehicle.’ And then he got called in by Douglas Hurd, a young Foreign Office minister and asked to silence his son. And it’s all in the thirty year papers and I’m…
00:31:12.10 Andy Coulson:
Just remarkable, because you’re what age?
00:31:15.14 Sebastian Coe:
No, I’m twenty-three and interestingly I then went on to become a government whip and for a short period of time by implication a minister in a government that I was challenging. And then I sort of ran slightly foul of that again on my slightly outspoken views about apartheid as well. So I really, how I even got selected for the seat that I did off that backstory was quite interesting.
00:31:51.06 Andy Coulson:
Well, you know, in the midst of all this, you know, you’re winning a gold medal. I mean, how do you strip all that away? I didn’t appreciate just how much of it must have been swirling around your head. I knew that these things were happening but I didn’t realise so much of it was around you.
00:32:09.08 Sebastian Coe:
00:32:10.15 Andy Coulson:
How do you then strip all that away to race on that day in the way that you did?
00:32:15.03 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, it’s interesting because you know, I don’t think it’s remotely comparable because I think the athletes that have had to weather the storm in the last year and a half have had one more potent ingredient than I had to deal with back in 1980. And that is that every time I stepped out on to the streets of Sheffield to run ten miles or whatever it was, I knew that there was a chance that that training run was not going to lead to anything because I might not have been going. But I didn’t also, at the back of my mind, have the fear that I was going to get infected or worse than that, probably infect an elderly member of my family. That’s what this generation of athletes have had to deal with this crisis, have had over and above anything that I had to deal with.
00:33:07.07 Sebastian Coe:
But no, there were some days, openly, where I would sit and think, well this is my third training session of the day and I’m sitting here in January and the odds of going are looking pretty remote. We had a remarkably strong chairman of the British Olympic Association at the time who was actually, it always amused me, it was Denis Follows and he was really an old fashioned municipal conservative. And I think Margaret called him a communist which always amused us all. But he was absolutely resolute on this and said you can decide what your policy is but I’m going to leave the individual athletes and the individual sports to decide whether they go. So athletics went, some other sports didn’t. And again, it was complicated because if you were on the public purse, there were plenty of friends of mine who were civil servants or in the police service or in the military that didn’t make it to Moscow. And so I do remember some days sitting at the end of a training day thinking I’ve done three training sessions, you know, I can barely open the door to the house I’m so tired, but sort of sitting there and wondering whether or not…
00:34:33.23 Andy Coulson:
But what about the day itself, what about the race itself? How were you able to, it was such a long time ago, I appreciate, but how were you able to clear all that away, Seb, and kind of run the race you ran?
00:34:44.01 Sebastian Coe:
Moscow for me was really a tale of two races and the first the 800 was, by my standards, not a good performance. I know it’s slightly precious to say that I got a silver medal and was disappointed but I guess life is only about whether you… you know, if you know you’ve fallen so well below what you are capable of then you can only, you are the only arbiter of that. It’s not the journalists’ to write, they’ve got every right to write it but ultimately nobody needs to tell you that you’ve screwed up. You know that yourself. So for me, the Moscow games probably came one year too early, I was inexperienced in championship racing. I’d broken world records, yeah, but going, Andy, off to Oslo or Zurich and sometimes being able to pick the time of the day for the race, even pick the field. You’ve got pace makers; you remove so many different variables.
00:35:44.15 Sebastian Coe:
Championship racing is the litmus test, it is the toughest environment. And the step up from a one day event to a championship is like stepping out of non-league football and into the England football team. It is that big a chasm. And so I lost the 800 in Moscow and I take nothing away from Steve Ovett, he deserved to win the race, he was far more accomplished, he was mentally tougher and physically in better shape. So I then had three or four days to try and get the knitting together. And the only thing, looking back, I always smile at one of the exchanges and I didn’t have a lot of discussion with my father because classically as an engineer he always took the view, why use one word when none will do.
00:36:34.04 Sebastian Coe:
And I remember him sitting in the village in Moscow at an old plastic trestle table and there were… and it was when the journalists could wander in and out of the village. And I remember sitting with a few like Colin Hart of The Sun David, John Rodd of The Guardian, lovely writer, David Miller who I think was writing for The Telegraph at that point, and they were all being helpful and constructive and giving all sorts of advice about what I needed to do in the 1,500 to bounce back. And my father sat there, sort of just listening to it. And then while all this was going on he pulled an old piece of paper out of his pocket; it was the back of an envelope and an old propelling pencil. And being that he started life as a mathematician so numbers for him were it. If he couldn’t measure it, don’t do it. You know, he had to be able to measure it.
00:37:30.05 Sebastian Coe:
And at the end of about the minutes of all this advice he looked at them all and he said, ’Right, thanks very much, I now need to speak to my athlete.’ He never referred to me as my son because he did actually coach other athletes. And he looked at me and he had this piece of paper, literally, and he said, ‘Look, it is so simple’ and he’d got all these numbers on the back, I mean it looked like a spreadsheet, and he said, ‘It’s so simple I just figured it out. Given the number of mistakes you made over the distance that you made them and the frequency with which you made them it is well-nigh statistically impossible for you to fuck up that badly again in the next decade.’ And that, Andy, that was the team talk. And I looked at him and I went, ‘Yeah, okay.’
00:38:17.15 Andy Coulson:
Was there a hint of a smile? Or a fatherly wink?
00:38:19.14 Sebastian Coe:
No, I mean, I laughed but he said, ‘Look, it’s here, it’s in numbers. So just go out and just run, for god’s sake, just run and free yourself from…’
00:38:34.17 Andy Coulson:
From it all, yeah.
00:38:35.08 Sebastian Coe:
‘…from it all.’ And actually it was very good because you know, he made some fairly critical remarks after the 800 metres which, not even on this podcast can I repeat. But the issue for him was, and it was really important, and I think this is one of the things that I’ve noticed in a crisis, you know, when you’re in there you’re all in it together. It wasn’t he loses, we win, or I win, he loses. You know, he took it really seriously because he said, ‘Look, I’m coaching somebody who on paper is two and a half seconds faster than anybody else in the field and I can’t absolve myself of the responsibility of the way you perform.’
00:39:16.12 Sebastian Coe:
And to his dying day he sensed the night before the race, that I wasn’t in absolutely the right frame of mind. And again, he said it’s the toughest coaching decision. And I talk to Eddie Jones about this and he said, ‘Your father had classically the worst coaching decision to have to make.’ And that is do you risk actually saying to your athlete that you sense that they may not be in the right frame of mind and have a discussion. And if they think they are then you’ve introduced something that they probably haven’t even thought about? Or do you know instinctively it’s not quite right but say nothing at all?
00:40:02.04 Sebastian Coe:
And to his dying day that was the one thing that he regretted, joking apart other than the Tour de France, was that he didn’t actually tackle it that night. And he said, ‘I think had we sat down and discussed it and talked about it, I think the result might have been different the following day.’ So really after that I had four days before the final. Two or three days before I got back into competition and I just kept sitting there reminding myself of the three principles, I think, around any crisis, which is, how did you get there? Once you’ve sort of figured that out don’t dwell on it, there’s nothing you can do to alter that. That is history, it’s done, you can get into a loop but you have to concede and then you move on. And then you’ve got to decide, frankly, where you want to be. Where do you want to be at the end of the week? And I didn’t want to go home empty handed, I really didn’t want to go home empty handed. I’d been doing that for twelve years, that wasn’t my idea of a successful campaign. And once you’ve figured that out, well, then figure out what is it you’re going to have to do in the next few days to make sure you don’t screw up again.
00:41:25.18 Sebastian Coe:
And in large part, I think, it was just coming to terms and sitting there just reminding myself about the thousands of hours and the thousands of miles on the roads of Sheffield and the Peak District. And the weight training room to the point where you’ve lifted so much that you can’t even grip the steering wheel in the car because your hands are so clawed with cramp, you can’t even drive. And just remembering that actually all that is in the bank, that’s what you’ve done. And it sounds a bit of a Coleman, David Colemanism but you don’t become a bad athlete overnight. And that’s what I just kept reminding myself. That I’d gone too far to allow this moment to dribble through my fingers.
00:42:18.11 Andy Coulson:
You won, of course, gold and silver again in the Los Angeles Olympics in ’84, set twelve world records during your career, many of which stayed for a very, very long time. You stopped competing in 1990, I think, after a run of injuries and illness also. Did that decision, that day, did that feel like a crisis to you?
00:42:42.23 Sebastian Coe:
No, actually, funnily enough it felt like the most normal thing. And I’ll tell you how that happened. I’d had, I’d got dropped from the team in 1988 because I probably had another argument with the Federation. I remember foolishly, you would not have advised me had you been my communications director at the time, you would not have advised me to go on to the BBC to argue toe to toe with the chairman of selectors at the side of a track in athletics. And he famously said to me, ‘This is not about… there’s a much broader picture here. This is about who runs the sport.’ And I said, ‘Well when you find out could you tell us because the athletes have been asking that question for at least the last twenty years.’ Well he did actually have the last laugh.
00:43:30.21 Andy Coulson:
All on television?
00:43:32.03 Sebastian Coe:
On television, live on the BBC and he was the casting vote. He was the casting vote. I lost out on selection that year twelve, thirteen, it couldn’t have been tighter and his was the casting vote. I had a good season in ’89 and just into… I remember it was October, November, towards the end of the coming year and I was running along the tow path, I had a house Twickenham and I was running along the tow path at the end of a training run and it was always that stage of the season, it was October, November where you could… I can always picture doing something different in training to be better this time next year than I was now. And I can remember it like it was yesterday, it’s the one thing I do remember. Because there was mist on the river and all you could see were the heads of the rowers, you couldn’t actually see the boats. And I don’t know why I started thinking about it but about three miles from home suddenly I just realised that in previous years I could change some of the training, I could change the balance between endurance and speed and weight training. I could even change the training venues, I could even… I was lucky I could even go and train overseas and do something completely different.
00:44:56.06 Sebastian Coe:
And suddenly it dawned on me that there was nothing I was going to be able to do that meant I was ever going to run faster. And I knew at the time, I probably knew enough to still win races but something went out at that moment. And I literally got back to my kitchen, picked up the phone to my old man and said, ‘That’s it.’
00:45:17.17 Andy Coulson:
00:45:18.13 Sebastian Coe:
I think I’m cooked. And I always remember him saying, he said, ‘Oh god, yeah, I think that’s the right decision, I was surprised you went on after 1984’ which slightly came out of left field.
00:45:34.01 Andy Coulson:
That’s a disappointing thing to hear.
00:45:36.14 Sebastian Coe:
I know. It’s a big, big crossroads in your life and he was sort of quite relieved that he wasn’t going to have to do the seven o’clock mornings either.
00:45:46.01 Andy Coulson:
You painted a bit of a picture for us, you know, obviously your dad heavily involved in this but I’m just wondering what kind of walking, you know, once you got the seat, what walking into Westminster, walking into the tea room with all those other Tories, I just wondered how did you kind of deal with that from the get-go?
00:46:10.01 Sebastian Coe:
Well, it was funny because…
00:46:12.22 Andy Coulson:
I mean, you’ve been around a few blazers, hadn’t you, by that stage?
00:46:15.22 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah I had but I hadn’t, I wasn’t inside the Westminster bubble like a lot of people that were standing. I hadn’t been a special advisor; I hadn’t been a policy wonk at central office. I hadn’t served on local councils. I hadn’t come through that route. I’d obviously come through an entirely different direction. And I do remember arriving there and sitting in the tea room with, you know, sort of good friends of mine that are still very good friends of mine, people like Alan Duncan, Charlie Hendry, that were in that intake. And they all sat there saying, ‘Oh god, it’s very like being back at school’ and I’m thinking I went to Tapton Secondary Modern in Sheffield. This is nothing like it…
00:47:01.16 Andy Coulson:
Not like my school!
00:47:04.19 Sebastian Coe:
This is nothing like my school. And then we all got shunted into committee room 14 when the chief whip came in and gave us a sort of career development conversation about attending votes and all that sort of stuff. And everybody walked out I think looking the colour of the pale wallpaper. And I thought, well you know, you’ve been in a call up room forty minutes before an Olympic final I’m not going to walk out of here feeling too worried about it.
00:47:36.23 Andy Coulson:
We’re going to very rudely rattle through those years and go to ’97 then. Just quickly, when it happened, when the moment came and you weren’t alone of course, there was a seismic change. How did that feel? Because obviously you’d been thinking, right, well politics is my future. Did that have an element of crisis for you?
00:47:59.00 Sebastian Coe:
Well, yes and no. I mean, interesting somebody said to me, when did you think you were going to lose the election? And I said, ‘Well actually the night I won it’ because I only had 36.8% of the vote in a very tight three-way split. So I was 3,000 and little bits ahead of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party were only 700 behind them. And I thought over five years at what could easily be a very challenging five years as they turned out, that I just sensed that I probably wasn’t going to hold the seat. I mean I worked very hard to try and hold it but it wasn’t going to happen. And then it was a weird election because I had Peter de Savary who stood as the embryo referendum party. So he stood, I had old Labour, I had new Labour, I had old Liberal, I had new Liberal. I had, you know, Freddie, Zac, Miss Whiplash, I had Natural Law party. I mean, there must have been fifteen candidates. And then Tony Blair very helpfully created Emily’s List so they then put in… So Falmouth-Camborne was the seat they road tested Emily’s List. So in the county of Arthurian legend I thought that sooner or later my time would come I just didn’t think I’d be taken out by a lady called Candy from Islington but that’s another story.
00:49:29.16 Andy Coulson:
There you go. I mean, you stayed in politics you worked with William as his Chief of Staff again in some, I imagine, fairly choppy waters.
00:49:40.04 Sebastian Coe:
00:49:40.05 Andy Coulson:
Not the easiest of time or most gloriest of times for the Conservative party. Every day a drama, I imagine in that job. What was your approach then? How was your, having given us a flavour of the approach you took as an athlete, what sort of approach are you taking now, in politics, towards crisis?
00:50:04.18 Sebastian Coe:
Not to be overwhelmed by it and that’s more easily said than done. If I look to just sort of cast the view forward a little bit the one thing that I think helped us in world athletics is from the very outset I said to our teams we’ve got to be a two speed organisation. Yes, we are being engulfed by something that is quite different, we’ve never experienced this. You know, we’ve lost events, the athletes are not training, we’ve lost the games. You know, we’ve got some really serious financial issues to deal with. So let’s deal with them, let’s secure the tent pegs, let’s make sure we do everything that we can to secure the sport. But let’s not also forget that we don’t want to be so consumed and subsumed by it that we’re not doing all the things that we need to do to create some sustainability in the sport.
00:51:05.16 Sebastian Coe:
So even through that crisis we still delivered in the last year or so, we still delivered a four year strategic plan, a ten year sustainability programme. We created a welfare fund for the athletes. I’m still dealing and we were still dealing with the Russian doping crisis, we’re the only federation that’s been really very tough about that. We’ve created a new racing format continental tour. So the one thing I would say, and look, I’m not a NBA, I’m not a Harvard grad, I’m not a management guru here, but it does strike me that organisations that maintain a really clear view on what they still need to do in that crisis to, not just navigate their way through, but go on creating those opportunities that make you a better organisation, this time, next week, than you are now. And it’s very, very easy to get so tied into the immediacy of everything.
00:52:08.18 Sebastian Coe:
And so in a way that time with William was, I found, very, very energising because that was always my approach. And you know William, I mean, William is one of the calmest people and emotionally even-keeled of almost anybody I’ve ever worked with or known. I mean there was a lovely cartoon that he still has in his house, I think it’s a Times cartoon in the early days of his leadership, where there are about ten absolutely similar pencil sketches of him in little boxes. And it’s got the same face and it’s William irritated, William angry, William happy, William calm and he is remarkably good in those situations. And you know, just creates an air of calm around him and that actually suited me. I think had I had to work with somebody that was forever flying off to the margins of a problem and not being able to see the bigger picture, that would have been… I don’t think that would have worked.
00:53:21.11 Andy Coulson:
We talk about that a lot on this podcast that crisis invariably, it’s a human process obviously right? And in politics in particular, certainly in business as well, perhaps we’ll get onto this when we talk in a bit more depth about sport, but in the end it’s a bunch of people in a room trying to solve a problem, right?
00:53:40.06 Sebastian Coe:
00:53:40.15 Andy Coulson:
So how all those people behave and indeed who’s in the room in the first place, which can be a very difficult thing because there can be people who believe they’ve got the right to be there and are of no use or of any help whatsoever. Equally there are people who are often excluded who should be involved. I mean, that element of if you obviously take very seriously, the kind of team element of crisis is critical.
00:54:08.08 Sebastian Coe:
Absolutely and I’ve been in situations where I’ve sensed that I’ve got people in the room who are not trying to find the navigable route through but are, frankly, trying to find the nearest lifebelt. And I always remember, it’s probably not pristine HR, but I remember when I was chairing the London Bid which I came to relatively late, we weren’t doing that well, there were five global runners and riders, it started out with nine, we snuck across the line as an initial evaluation as fourth, possibly even fifth out of the Parises and the New Yorks and the Madrids. And then I got asked by Tony Blair to take over on the bid from my predecessor, who did actually a very good job in creating start-up which is what a bid is, but we recognised, I think he recognised there needed to be a slightly different emphasis.
00:55:13.03 Sebastian Coe:
And I do actually remember going around the sixty or seventy people when I first joined and asking them what they wanted to do after the bid. And all those that said to me they wanted to go back to Deloittes or Goldman Sachs or Transport for London I said, ‘Go now because you clearly cannot, you don’t, you’re not imagining us winning this, are you?’ And all those that said to me ‘I’d love to be a director of transport’ or ‘I’d love to be involved in bringing communities together in East London’. They’re the ones I said, ‘That’s fine, that’s great, you can see a win here, you can see the future.’
00:55:58.08 Andy Coulson:
So you started with a clean out?
00:56:01.09 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah I did. You had to because some just you know… I wanted to know that people were there for a bigger, bolder purpose.
00:56:09.16 Andy Coulson:
After the Olympics of course you move on to other senior roles in sport, including of course, as President of World Athletics. Sport seems to be a in a sort of continual cycle of crisis. Often those in charge are accused of being the last to accept or to see that there’s a problem or a crisis. You know perhaps the sort of brainless European super league is the latest example.
00:56:40.02 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, I mean that’s up there isn’t it?
00:56:42.11 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean is it fair to be so critical about leaders in sport and crisis? Or is there a kind of inevitability about it for all the reasons that we’ve discussed, you know, earlier in this conversation, the overlap with politics, the overlap with so much in our lives, you know, we look to sport. I mean, is it fair to be so critical?
00:57:05.01 Sebastian Coe:
No, I don’t think it’s unfair. And I think criticality it is important. I live in a country that I’m actually quite proud that people question, it doesn’t bother me. You know I think that it’s the last vestige of normalcy and democracy. I think people should, in positions of influence, be held to account. And if you can’t, you know, I always smile when I hear politicians saying I’m not going on the Today Programme, you know, I’m not doing that, I’m not doing that. They’re normally the ones that are not masters of their brief. You know if you go on and you know what you have to say and you’re confident about it then you should actually be under pressure. I don’t also think there is in most cases, an inevitability about crisis. You know, everybody says ‘Oh it came out of left field’, rarely does it come out of left field. You’ve got, you know there are traces that if you sit and you’re honest about it.
00:58:00.19 Sebastian Coe:
And look, my Presidency in World Athletics couldn’t have started in a more inauspicious way. I got elected in Beijing at the World Championships, I took a week or two’s holiday because it was a two year long campaign. I came to this office I’m sitting in today and literally two mornings after I arrived here my receptionist came in and he said, ‘Look there’s a delegation to see you’ I thought, well that’s nice, I’m in Monaco, it’s the headquarters, it’s probably a slice of cake and a glass of champagne. I had seventeen policemen in the lobby. I was then introduced to a guy called Judge Van Riebeeck who was the senior prosecuting judge for cross-border corruption in France and in simple terms, you know, the crisis started to unfold.
00:58:57.11 Sebastian Coe:
I then sat down with them for a few hours and over the course of that it was explained that my predecessor had been arrested in Paris that morning, his son was on the run. My Head Attesting was also arrested, the legal counsel was arrested and my CEO had decided to go backpacking in Australia. So it wasn’t the opening paragraph of an obviously happy ending. Out of that did come…
00:59:24.03 Andy Coulson:
Can we stop there just for a second? That day, in that moment, how were you organising your mind? What was your approach?
00:59:37.12 Sebastian Coe:
My first instinct was to be very protective about the people in the organisation. Because I knew that this was not a bad organisation from top to bottom. What was clearly obvious and has subsequently emerged from world anti-doping agency enquiries and our own internal investigation and a French court case was that… and again it drove the reforms that I pushed through… But what clearly had happened is there were two circles of governance and too much power was residing in the hands of too few where decisions, at best, opaque and at worst just made within a very small circle of people. And there were not enough safeguards or protections in the organisation. So I then had…
01:00:30.12 Sebastian Coe:
I mean, in once sense yes, it was a crisis, it was a crisis of a full-blown nature, I mean, it was absolutely front page. I was, you know, famously had a very big exchange with Jon Snow on Channel 4 one night that this was really serious. But my instinct was to protect the most crucial asset we had which were the people in the organisation because they weren’t criminals. And to make sure that… and actually never let a good crisis go to waste. I knew that this was the moment I could probably, frankly, take a flame thrower to everything and get everything I wanted through in change.
01:01:17.14 Sebastian Coe:
So we created the Athletic Integrity Unit, we collapsed one constitution, or two constitutions into one. We drove it in the course, we drove it absolutely unflinchingly, for nine or ten months. We got all the reforms through and it meant everything from checking the power that I now have as a President to make decisions. We now have audit…. You know these are not revolutionary thoughts, this was just a sport that didn’t have any of this. I remember the person who I asked to come in and look at this independently, after a few weeks came into my office and said, ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’ And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to hear and he said, ‘They’re the same, you could do anything you want in this organisation because there are no systems in place.’
01:02:11.00 Sebastian Coe:
So you know, that was when we started to change and we’re… look, we came through it, we’re stronger than we were. We, in large part, gained our reputation back, that doesn’t, as the Dutch fondly say, ‘trust comes on foot and leaves in a taxi’. And there were things that I was able to do because I seized the crisis and got people to accept things, if I’m being honest, Andy, that they probably wouldn’t have done. And I couldn’t leave it too long between problem and solution because human nature tends to be, ‘oh well, it’ll be okay, you know, another new cycle’. And no, it wasn’t going to be enough. Not because we couldn’t have probably got out of the livid nature of it but we would still be vulnerable to that type of ailment.
01:03:06.18 Sebastian Coe:
So it was probably, if I’m being honest, it was probably personally, personally it was probably the toughest two years I’ve ever been through.
01:03:16.04 Andy Coulson:
Well there were moments, Seb, when your position, your integrity’s being questioned, you know on the front page of newspapers. And for a fairly sustained period. How did that, first of all the obvious question, how did that feel for you having had such an amazing career? Suddenly you’re being criticised perhaps in a way that I don’t think you’ve ever been criticised before. You’re dealing with that on a day to day basis, how did that feel first of all? How did you deal with it?
01:03:47.24 Sebastian Coe:
I’ll be honest about it there were days when you felt very vulnerable. And I don’t think, I think people in leadership positions should never disguise vulnerability. I think it’s really important in an organisation. Because I wasn’t the only one that was feeling vulnerable but you know, the buck did stop with me. You know, alright, I’d been a Vice President of the organisation but one of five, I’d never been a Senior Vice President. But it didn’t really matter, that’s not where… I was the one that got the job and you know, famously the question was, are you corrupt or are you asleep at the wheel? And actually neither is the case but that’s quite a hard allegation when you’re in the middle of, I think it was Obama who once said, ‘This shit would be interesting if I wasn’t in the middle of it.’
01:04:42.18 Sebastian Coe:
And you know, it was select committee hearings and you know it was pretty non-stop. I did a three hour fifty minute select committee hearing which I have to say I didn’t find it partially illuminating but I was spending most of my time…
01:05:00.04 Andy Coulson:
How did you manage that sort of physical impact of that crisis? The easy trite answer would be, well of course, having had so much success as an athlete, you had the capacity to dig deep and find your way through it. But it’s of a different order, right? It’s a totally different type of pressure.
01:05:28.01 Sebastian Coe:
No, you’re right and I did dig deep and I did have the advantage of having been through, you know big moments. But if I’m being honest they were very different. This felt very different to me. And you know, you just woke up every day feeling that you were in the trenches and you really were. And my communications team here were sensational. I mean, they were absolutely were in the trenches with me. And the whole organisation sort of rallied round. But no, there were moments where you would, I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking is this sustainable? And you do, you know, and you have to ask yourself the tough questions.
01:06:14.12 Sebastian Coe:
And it’s very easy to say well, don’t dwell on it but actually it’s quite hard when you are in that. It’s attritional. It is day by day by day. And Andy, you know it, you’ve witnessed that, you’ve been at the heart of government, you know what it’s like when you are firefighting. And it is mentally and physically, it is bruising. But I did always fall back on saying, ‘Look, it doesn’t really matter, in a way, whether I survive but I’ve got to survive long enough to put systems in place so that this can never ever happen again.’ And that’s what drove me.
01:07:00.10 Andy Coulson:
I’m sure that that is absolutely right Seb, but you are also fighting for you own integrity as well, right? And as we’ve discussed, you know, on this podcast, you’ve been generous enough to spend a lot of time with us talking about what has been an amazing career and then suddenly you’re sat in your office dealing with a moment like this thinking hang on, hang on a second this… it can’t end here. This isn’t right. Is that part of the thought process for you? A kind of sort of you know what, I’m not having it. A kind of…?
01:07:34.05 Sebastian Coe:
Well, yeah, but there were moments when I thought it might actually end. And you know, you’ve been a Commons Director, you have to also give really strong unvarnished views and I’ve been lucky here, I have a terrific Communications Director, you know her, Jackie Brock-Doyle, who never varnished the difficulty that we were in. I mean, I always knew that she had the street smarts and the comms expertise not to sort of spin your way out, you can’t spin your way out of those things, but just to go toe to toe and slowly start redressing the balance. But no, I’m open about it, for some months it was really touch and go.
01:08:22.02 Andy Coulson:
In those moments you kind of draw on perspective, I suppose, is very, it becomes very important. How were you finding perspective at that moment?
01:08:30.14 Sebastian Coe:
Not easy, not easy. I mean, you know, you’re sitting there knowing that you have haven’t been… well, you’re part of it in so far as you were in the organisation but I always remember taking some comfort from a forensic accountant that we used Deloittes to really go through everything. And he saw me in a lower moment in the office and he knocked on the door and he said, ‘Do you mind if I come in?’ And I said, ‘No, come in.’ And he sat down and he said, ‘Look, this is going to be an entirely appropriate conversation but I just have to tell you one thing.’ He said, ‘I have unearthed a lot of things in organisations, some of them have ended up on the front page in really high profile cases and I’ve been doing it for thirty-eight years but on not one single occasion have I ever known corruption to be shared with co-workers.’
01:09:24.20 Sebastian Coe:
And he said, ‘So I know you’re sitting there beating yourself up but believe me, the most important thing you can do is to put all those things in place that will prevent this ever happening in your sport.’ And he was nice and he said ‘I think you’ve got the resilience to do that from everything I’ve witnessed in the last few weeks in the office.’ But no, it was tough. And I was also responsible, in a way, for the emotional balance of everybody else in the organisation because you know, we had people in that organisation that had worked there for thirty-five, forty years, who had never sensed that any of the things that were suddenly being spewed out in the media had been taking place. And again, with full anonymity for them, some of them ended up having counselling about this. You know it really hit the organisation very hard.
01:10:23.17 Andy Coulson:
Was your dad’s voice one of the voices in your head when you were wading through those waters?
01:10:32.09 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, actually it’s interesting, one of my treasured possessions is his stop-watch that recorded all my track performances and a few world records. And what people don’t realise is for about two years throughout that, including appearances in select committees, I had that watch on the table in front of me. And the great thing about a stopwatch is that it doesn’t lie. Time, you can’t fudge anything. And I thought if I’ve got that watch in front of me, just keep going due north, just keep going due north. And actually it was one of those, it was just one of those things, it was, it’s an old fashioned stop-watch it was the old manual one. But that, in a way, that was a bit like having my old man and my coach there and the stop watch never lies. Just you know, just keep soldiering on.
01:11:29.20 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful. Look, from such a sort of rich career, Seb, how then do we distil down the sort of Seb Coe kind of crisis approach? Just try and strip it back and summarise it for me, from all of those experiences.
01:11:52.23 Sebastian Coe:
That’s a really tough one. I think for me I’ve always come to three things. One is… when it does strike be nimble. Act really quickly. Because problems are rarely, they’re rarely incremental. They really do hit you exponentially. And so procrastination and pretending that one more new cycle or it’s not… it doesn’t work like that. So I think that’s really critical for me, is being nimble. And being the two-paced organisation that is dealing with the crisis but not losing sight of what you are as an organisation.
01:12:40.11 Sebastian Coe:
Secondly, it’s early action, you’ve really got to tackle this quickly and hard. And also just don’t be wedded to responses that you have started off with because the circumstances will alter and you do need to be adaptable. And finally, I think you know, just act wisely. And create systems and structures that are going to allow you to do that. And don’t… and occasionally yeah, you just have to concede and move on. You know what it’s like you can go on arguing, you can go on fighting with your face because you think you’re right but that’s not where public sentiment is. My political hero is Abraham Lincoln and you know the quote that I have up in my office, you can see it, it’s behind the screen but it’s ‘With public sentiment nothing can fail without it nothing will succeed’. So you’ve got to be able to communicate and communicate more during a crisis. People tend to communicate less but you’ve got to be really nimble.
01:13:57.01 Andy Coulson:
Yes, that’s exactly right.
01:13:59.02 Sebastian Coe:
And everything you communicate has got to be accurate. So I think for me it’s having that vision that allows you just never to deviate from due north. However painful that is and sometimes you just have to take it on the chin and concede and move on.
01:14:17.11 Andy Coulson:
Brilliant, Seb, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a fascinating conversation and I hope useful for anyone who’s listening and is interested in how you navigate a crisis, whatever its cause. Good luck with the Olympics.
01:14:33.02 Sebastian Coe:
Yeah, thank you.
01:14:34.03 Andy Coulson:
But before you go can I ask you for your three crisis cures please? These are three things, as we always say, can’t be another human being, but three things that you kind of rely on in the tough times, in the dark days.
01:14:50.08 Sebastian Coe:
I think for me it’s friends. You know we all commonly say ‘Oh we’ve got, he’s a great friends, she’s a great friend’ actually if you can count the number of friends, true friends on the finger of one hand you’re doing, throughout a lifetime, you are doing remarkably well. So I’ve got really close friends who have always been really supportive and you know will drop anything for you.
01:15:20.07 Sebastian Coe:
The second one for me is music. You may or may not know but I’m an absolute passionate jazz aficionado, I’ve got thousands of recordings and write and occasionally broadcast about it. So actually I always find jazz the most mood altering. I walked from the warm-up track in Moscow to the final of the 1,500 in the stadium. And I had an old Walkman and I was listening to a mix of stuff and fortuitously on that walk which is arctic loneliness between a warm-up track and a main stadium of 100,000 people and on to my Walkman came, I think it was Sidney Bechet, a recording of Just a Closer Walk With Thee. So I lean really heavily on music.
01:16:14.20 Sebastian Coe:
And the final one is just recognise the absurdity sometimes of life. That you just have to sit back and go, ‘yeah, okay, this is just beyond comedic’ and accept it for what it is.
01:16:30.09 Andy Coulson:
Yes, excellent. Seb, fantastic, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
01:16:36.22 Sebastian Coe:
01:17:01.02 End of transcription