Defiant Sebastian Coe flies flag for London Olympics with a murky legacy

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the London Olympics, Sebastian Coe is reminiscing about the one that got away. “We got so close to giving Sir Alex Ferguson the job to coach the football team,” he says, sighing, and his mind is catapulted back to the time he asked Sir Bobby Charlton to discreetly sound out the Manchester United manager.

“I came up with the idea because we were having a bit of fragility around our Celtic cousins,” says Lord Coe, the London 2012 organising committee chairman. “It was ostensibly an English team, although there was a smattering of Welsh players. But it suddenly occurred to me that the one unifying influence would be having a not necessarily English coach. And I couldn’t imagine any club having a problem with their Under-23 players having a four, five or six-week tutelage – a masterclass – from Alex Ferguson on the training ground.

“Weeks went by. I was in a Tesco in Cobham on a Friday night, filling baskets full of food for my kids, and I got a call. It was a ‘No ID’ and I was at the butter and fats counter and he said: ‘Seb, it’s Alex here’. I threw a load of cash at one of my daughters to keep filling the trolley and I said: ‘This is the stuff for a long conversation, I’m in the supermarket’.

“I explained my theory because Bob hadn’t actually told him; he’d just asked him to give me a call. So Alex rang and said: ‘Oh, I thought you were looking for tickets’. I put him through the idea and he said: ‘Well, I don’t know.’ Then there was a gap and then he went: ‘Oh Jesus, I’m already picking the team in my head.’”

Coe says he didn’t mention it to a living soul, but when he saw Ferguson at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards, Ferguson looked at him and said “the answer’s yes”.

It wasn’t to be. To this day Coe is at a loss to explain how it got away. But then Ferguson said he didn’t have the time, while the British Olympic Association told Coe it wasn’t his job to choose a coach. “The BOA decided that Stuart Pearce probably had better credentials,” says Coe. “That was a slight disappointment.”

When the Games finally began on 27 July 2012, with the Queen apparently parachuting into the Olympic Stadium with Daniel Craig as James Bond by her side, Britain soon revelled in a 16-day sporting bender. The action was staggering, with Team GB winning 65 medals to soar to third in the medal table. Such was the mood in London it was if serotonin was being pumped into the water supply.

In the days after Super Saturday, when 12 million tuned in to watch the homemade joy of Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Mo Farah winning gold over 47 eardrum-shattering minutes, Britain felt like a different country. There was no immediate hangover, either. A poll in December 2012 found 78% of voters believed the Olympics “did a valuable job in cheering up a country in hard times”, even after being reminded of the £9bn price tag, while only 20% reckoned they were “a costly and dangerous distraction”.

Now, though, the legacy of the London Games feels murky in places, and desperately tainted in others. As we have learned, the high levels of cash pumped into the Olympic system – and the subsequent pressure for medals – have led to hideous consequences in sports including cycling, gymnastics and canoeing. For all UK Sports promises to change the culture, last month the Whyte review found that between 2008 and 2020 British Gymnastics enabled an environment where young girls were starved, body shamed, and abused in a system that ruthlessly put the pursuit of medals over safeguarding.

That alone should be enough for the Games’ biggest cheerleaders to lower their pom-poms and Britain can no longer claim its success on the sporting field was totally unvarnished either. Last year, the former British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman was struck off because of a delivery of banned testosterone to the National Cycling Centre, which a medical tribunal found was ordered for an unnamed rider. In 2017, a digital, culture, media and sport committee select committee was told how some of Britain’s Paralympic stars had intentionally misrepresented their disability to gain an advantage on the field of play and the promise the Olympics would be the cleanest in history has sounded more hollow with every positive drugs test since.

Coe argues, with some justification, that legacy is not just the job of an organising committee. It is for national and local governments as well as sporting bodies. However, he accepts the promises made to inspire more kids to do sport never materialised. “What am I disappointed about?” he asks. “That school sport became a political football. We could have done more off the back of the Games.”

Coe insists he and David Cameron were trying, until Theresa May came in after the Brexit vote and scrapped their unit in the Cabinet Office.

The evidence an Olympics can inspire a nation to become more active has always been shallow. One big study after Sydney 2000, for instance, suggested there was no evidence the euphoria of the Games turned into increased activity, despite the silky rhetoric and promises. No wonder then that when Londoners were asked in March 2022 whether the 2012 Games had made a long-term difference, the results were cloudy: 43% said they hadn’t compared to 31% who were fairly positive and 8% who were very positive.

A decade on, Sir Craig Reedie, a member of the London organising committee and the International Olympic Committee, points to the regeneration of east London and Westfield, and what he claims have been 135,000 new jobs since the Games, as some of the major benefits. “In my book, that’s a legacy,” he says. “And there’s a lot more still to come.

“When I saw the old broken down, forlorn greyhound stadium in Hackney, on a wet day in November, I looked around and thought: ‘Bloody hell’. You needed some imagination to work out how it was going to work, but it got pulled off.”

That message is shared by Coe. “The legacy of the Olympic Park is still delivering venues that London didn’t have,” he says, pointing out a city of roughly nine million people didn’t have a 50m swimming pool until recently. “And if you look at the economics and the politics of it, the ability to have built a new city inside an old city in the space of seven years – given that under a normal economic cycle that might have taken 50 or 60 years – is significant too.”

Coe pauses and then recants a familiar message. “I’m forever grateful to the millions of people across the UK who made it the greatest Games ever. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think they were on pretty much every metric.”

Not everyone agrees. A decade on, the fight for London’s legacy is nearly as closely fought over as the medals in the stadium once were.