Lord Coe

March 29, 2012

From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 06, 2012

For the last three years Populous has been playing a major role in the architecture and design of the London Olympic venues. As well as designing the main Olympic stadium, we have also been a key part of the masterplanning team and have led the overlay design of most of the sports venues across the capital.

Throughout this entire process we have, not surprisingly, worked very closely with the chairman of the Olympic organising committee, Lord Coe. It’s inspirational to see how his leadership has enabled the preparations for the greatest show on Earth to run as smoothly as they possibly can.

In this special interview for Populous magazine, Lord Coe explains how his experience as an Olympic athlete has helped him prepare London for its biggest ever sports event. And how he hopes the main Olympic stadium will inspire athletes to perform faster, higher and stronger than ever before.

Rod Sheard, Senior principal, Populous


Lord Coe, head of the London Olympics, talks about how a career in athletics prepared him for running the biggest sports event his country has ever seen. Lord Coe is a man used to winning.

In the 1980s he ran his way to two gold and two silver medals at the Olympics. In the 1990s he was elected a member of parliament for the UK. Then in the 2000s he led London’s successful bid to stage the Olympics. His greatest race of all, though, will be this summer when he heads up the mammoth task of organising the London Games.

“This is probably the most challenging race of my career,” says the 55-year-old who enjoys his ‘Lord’ prefix thanks to his seat in the UK parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords. “The Olympics and Paralympics are the largest sporting events in the world, and this is quite complex project management.

  • Lord Coe inspects Populous’s Olympic stadium with Olympic ambassador and soccer player David Beckham.

The sheer scale of the London 2012 Games is impressive: we will be hosting 26 simultaneous world championships during the Olympics and then 20 world championships during the Paralympics. At Games time, we’ll have a team of up to 70,000 volunteers, around 100,000 contractors and a workforce of 6,000.”

Working hardest of all will be the thousands of athletes competing in the Games, all of whom are now entering the final stages of their preparation. Having enjoyed a glittering athletic career himself, as plain old Seb Coe, he knows exactly how they’re feeling.

Born in London, and brought up in Yorkshire, in the north of England, Coe quickly made a name for himself once he started competing on the international athletics scene.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s he set a string of world records in various middle distances. But it was in 1980, at the Moscow Olympics, that he first became a household name in the UK, winning gold in the 1500 metres and silver in the 800 metres, and at the same time triggering a rivalry with fellow Brit, Steve Ovett, that caught the imagination of the entire British population.

It was possibly the most intense rivalry British sport has ever known; at least in individual sport. One great example was a 10-day period in 1981, during which the duo traded the world record for the mile between them three times. Even now, three decades on, many British sports fans still can’t think of one man without the other. There’s even a BBC film about their epic duels out this summer.

But all those years of training, all those high-octane races… they’re nothing compared to the intensity of the task Lord Coe faces this summer. It’s perhaps a hackneyed comparison, but organising a major sports event is much like competing in one: the preparation, the deadlines, the discipline, the final performance.

“Populous have really designed a fantastic stadium.
As an athlete, I would have loved the opportunity to compete in it.”

Lord Coe / Chairman of the Olympic Organising Committee

“In terms of preparation, it’s remarkably similar,” Coe says. “As an athlete, you spend years preparing for one key moment, and this is what we have to do as an organising committee. When I was competing, I needed to be as prepared as I possibly could. I didn’t want to come across something in a race or on the track that I hadn’t come across before.

This is the same process that we would follow for the London 2012 Games, and why we’ve had a whole programme to test our venues.”

The Olympians coming to London must be reassured to know the chief organiser is a former Olympian himself. “Athletes andsport have always been at the heart of all our planning,” Coe insists. “We want to get everything right for them. All our venues and facilities have been built with athletes in mind.

I don’t want an athlete competing at these Games to say they weren’t given the opportunity to compete in the best conditions possible.”

Although he hasn’t sported his running spikes for well over 20 years, Coe clearly remembers what Olympic athletes need from the Games organisers in order to excel. “From my own experience, what was crucial to me when I was competing, was knowing that I could concentrate 100 per cent on my performance. So I needed to know that the transport would be reliable, that the catering would be suitable for my diet, that there would be volunteers who would be available to help, and that my training team was near me. I’m confident we will deliver all of this, this summer.”

  • In 1980 Coe beat his great rival Steve Ovett (left) to win gold in the 1500m in Moscow.

He’s also confident Olympians will be inspired by Populous’s innovative design for the main stadium. “Although it’s a big venue, it still feels quite intimate. As an athlete, I would have loved the opportunity to compete in it. It’s a brilliant venue. Populous have really designed a fantastic stadium.”

A key part of Populous’s strategy was to design venues which could be reduced in size after the Games had finished, and transformed into more manageable venues.

It’s a strategy Coe admires. “It’s definitely the way we wanted to do things here in London.”

In architectural circles there have even been suggestions that, in the future, Olympic venues might be dismantled altogether and shipped off to another Olympic host city to be used four years later. “That could potentially happen,” Coe says, “but I think it really depends on what each host city will need in terms of new venues. For London 2012, legacy was a very important part of our bid. Building temporary venues, as well as using existing venues where possible, was a key part of our planning. So if some of our temporary venues, such as the Basketball Arena, can be used at other Olympics, that would be fantastic.”

In the meantime there’s the complicated task of hosting the greatest show on Earth.

This time round, Coe isn’t eligible for a medal. But if, like in his athletics races, he completes his job successfully, he’ll surely deserve a lap of honour.


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