London had blown it! Coe saved Olympic bid from disappearing without a trace
10:13 GMT, 27 July 2012
As the bigwigs from the International Olympic Committee knocked back expensive wine at the Hilton hotel overlooking the Acropolis, there was only one topic of conversation on everybody’s lips: London had blown it.
It was the eve of the 2004 Athens Games – with less than a year to go before the vote to decide the 2012 hosts – and a BBC Panorama sting had seemingly put an end to any hopes of a London Olympics. Not that victory had looked very likely anyway.
‘Panorama came out with a sting about how London could buy votes. It was all anybody was talking about. London was radioactive — you wouldn’t have even been seen sitting next to someone from the bid. You would have got the most outrageous odds on London winning. Nobody in their right mind gave them a chance.’
Close to disaster: Michael Payne saw first hand how disastrous London's bid was as the deadline approached
The man talking is Michael Payne. As the IOC’s director of marketing and global broadcast rights, he was in the room that night in Athens. Transforming the Olympics from a debt-ridden organisation on the brink of extinction to a sporting festival the best cities in the world fight over every four years earned him that. Years later, it also put him in the position of advising Lord Coe, his friend of more than 20 years, about how to rescue London’s dying bid. Not even he expected it would end so happily.
‘There was not high expectation outside Britain about the bid, says Payne when we meet on one of his trips to London. Born and raised in north London, he moved to Lausanne in Switzerland when he joined the IOC in 1980.
‘The first problem they had was that they couldn’t find a Brit to lead the bid and went with an American Barbara Cassani. It doesn’t matter how good she was, it looked bad to the international community. And so much of it to begin with is about optics. London was up against Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow — A-list cities. If you were kind, London were third on the technical reviews behind Madrid and Paris. Then people realised they weren’t going to win with an American in charge and Lord Coe was persuaded to take the job.
‘One of the other biggest challenges the bid team had was getting the Treasury to sign off the financial guarantees that needed to be made to the IOC. Gordon Brown was the Chancellor at the time and was finally persuaded to sign them on the basis of “don’t worry, London is never going to win”. Apparently there was a minor meltdown when they did.
‘Coe in charge gave the bid impetus but then came Panorama and London were written off. Paris had the experience of bidding in 1992 and 2008, they hadn’t had the Games since 1924 and there is a tremendous French loyalty at the IOC because the founder Pierre de Coubertin was French. They also had most of the venues built already. They had a reputation of being far more at ease in the corridors of power than the British, of how to lobby and collect votes. The British image was of people who were well-meaning but stuffy, insular and of getting bogged down in committee rooms.’
And the winner is… London is announced as the host city for the 2012 Olympics
Done deal: Lord Sebastian Coe (right) exchanges documents with IOC President Jacques Rogge
After 20 years of service, Payne left the IOC after Athens – ‘Mr Ecclestone asked me if I’d like to come play with him in Formula One’ – but soon found himself immersed in the race to host the 2012 Games after a conversation with his old friend Coe.
‘I said to him “you’re not going to win this if you treat it as a straight beauty contest. The French have it nailed on.” He needed to have a very different kind of debate with the IOC members. Everyone is going to build similar venues so what made London special So I invited him to my home in Switzerland for a few days over New Year and we kicked around some ideas. He needed to give people a reason to vote for London.
‘That’s when he came up with the idea of focusing on youth, playing to IOC fears about a lack of interest in sport by the next generation. The response was really positive.
‘The last two months was exactly how Seb would run his races. He’d sit at the back and then make a late dash to win. These campaigns are about pacing yourself. People started so see London as credible.
‘Coe turned everything on its head: Britain became the agile vote-getters and the French got locked in committee rooms with politicians getting nowhere. It was a complete role reversal. They all stood there in grey suits and completely lost the plot. Tony Blair came to the Athens Games and started to see the power of the Olympics and then became full engaged, a key player in the lobbying. Contrast how he performed with how Jacques Chirac performed. It was black and white.
‘Seb’s final speech at the voting in Singapore focused on how you needed young people to be interested in sport to create the next generation of champions and that London engaged best with the youth.’
Party time: Londoners celebrate being awarded the Olympic Games
, with the greatest cities in the world bidding against each other. If you look back to the 1980s, the Olympics was bankrupt and you couldn’t give the Games away. For 1984, you had two candidates. One was Tehran, where they had a management change at the top which ended their bid, and the other was Los Angeles. And people in LA were looking at how Montreal were going to be repaying their debt for the next 30 or 40 years and saying ‘fine, but we’re not using any taxpayer money’.
‘There was no business model and if you could persuade someone to take on the responsibility of hosting it, half the world wouldn’t turn up anyone because of the problem of boycotts. Most of the commentators at the time were writing the obituary of the Olympic movement. When Juan Antonio Samaranch became president in 1980, he took a look at the books, saw what a mess it was and asked how he could give the presidency back. That’s why it is one of the greatest turnarounds of all time.
‘The Olympics had to stand on its own two
feet, by creating a business model which wasn’t dependent on
politicians without compromising some of the elements that made the
Games special. When you have no money, it is tempting to sign a big TV
deal with Berlusconi when he’s offering 20 times more than the state TV
network or have advertising hoardings in the stadium. Potential sponsors
were asking us ‘where are our hoardings’ so we had to get them
understanding the potential of being associated with a brand rather than
just being lazy, sitting back and waiting for your name to appear on
Back in London: Michael Payne
But it wasn’t so easy. When Seoul was selected as the 1988 host, it was still at war with North Korea, was not recognised by the Communist countries and people thought the IOC had no chance of pulling off a successful Games or ever fully recovering.
‘It wasn’t until Barcelona in 1992 that we really turned the corner and people started to say “the Olympics are back”,’ says Payne. ‘That was because Seoul delivered a fundamentally boycott-free Games and then the Catalunyan government realised that they could be a catalyst from transformation. Barcelona had been deprived of all capital investment for 30 or 40 years under Franco — it had all gone to Madrid — and the politicians realised what a great excuse it was to transform the place in six years. It has become a poster child for what the Olympics can do to a city. Other cities woke up to that and sponsors started to see the benefit of being associated with it too. VISA used them to move ahead of American Express in the credit card market.’
The millions of pounds sponsors have poured in to Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and now London show that companies again want to be associated with the Olympics. Not that the progress came without any problems.
‘There were a couple of blips in the 1990s,’ admits Payne. ‘The local politicians in Atlanta took the sponsorship too far and it compromised the Olympic ideal. I’m not sure official toilet seat covers were particularly credible. Then, at the very end of 1998 when we were feeling quite pleased with ourselves, we had the Salt Lake City scandal. People thought it was the big one, with millions of dollars going astray. In the end it was more like 300,000-400,000 dollars. For six months, you went to the office every day not sure if the IOC would survive the night. US Congress were eyeing up a takeover. But we recovered.’
The have indeed, largely thanks to former ski racer Payne, who now works as an advisor to the sports and marketing community, including Ecclestone. So what does he think are the main challenges for London with the Games just weeks away
‘Seb and his team have done a phenomenal job. It’s not the easiest party to pull off. The venues are done, which has surprised people. There has been a fair amount of debate about the ticketing process but, looking at it from an international viewpoint, there has never been demand anywhere close to this. Normally the worry is how to fill the first round of handball or fencing. Maybe they could have managed expectations slightly differently but they wanted to make sure they sold everything.
‘The two biggest challenges at every Games are transport and security. But it works out. Everyone was worried about traffic jams in Greece and people using the Olympic lanes when they shouldn’t but it didn’t happen. Security is a bigger risk than ever these days because you don’t know where the threat is coming from. In 1988, the Russians told the North Koreans to back off. But now there is more of a risk of a lone wolf causing a problem.
‘The word ‘legacy’ is thrown around all over the place. But you have to look at the tangible – ie the bricks and mortar — and the intangible — ie people getting involved in sport, volunteering. People tend to concentrate too much on the buildings. The other thing that annoys me is when people add the costs for roads and airports and such things to the total costs for the Games. You should strip out those kind of things. They’re not Olympic costs. No-one is going to build a new railway or road for a 16-day event. It’s just a catalyst so it is all built quicker.’
It’s pretty hard to argue with him on that.