Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why We Should All Hate Sebastian Coe

"I hate Sebastian Coe"
The 1980s were all about class struggle. Thatcher, the miners, Wapping, yuppies; the lines were drawn and it was time to choose a side. And that also applied to sport.

In the world of snooker, Steve Davis was a Tory. Not only that, he was openly Tory, and this at a time when even people who voted Conservative would have the decency to deny it in polite company. The trouble with Davis was that he even played snooker like a Tory. He was cold, calculating, ruthless and robotic – and, everyone agreed, the best at safety play. How conservative could you get?! No child in their right mind grew up wanting to be the best at playing safe. And despite all the guff about being ‘Romford Slim’ he was never, ever, one of us.

Jimmy White on the other hand was working class through and through. As a kid he skipped school to practice at his local snooker hall and when he wore a shirt and tie it looked as though it was choking the life out of him, When Jimmy played it looked like he was genuinely playing. He would attempt outrageous long pots, audacious doubles, and shots most professionals wouldn’t dare try in exhibition matches. Barely a frame went by without him having the cue ball careering around the baize, and more often than not it seemed that he would hit the final black with such fury as to send it flying off the table. He was the natural heir to Alex Higgins, but unfortunately combined the Irishman’s genius with an unerring inability to win the World Championship. As Mark Steel says in Reasons to be Cheerful, the Tories weren’t happy with winning the class war, “They wouldn’t even let us win the bloody snooker.”

But this wasn’t the only sporting proxy for the class war. In athletics there was a rivalry so intense, so fierce, that it captured the imagination. It was, of course, the rivalry between the middle-distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.

It was the clash of personalities and styles that made the rivalry so captivating. Ovett could be spikey and abrasive but in a manner that always felt real. Coe in comparison was renowned for his charm and courteousness but always came across as though feeling effortlessly superior. Although their backgrounds were not as different as one might expect, Ovett appeared as the worker, all guts and determination; Coe just oozed the entitlement of a self-satisfied Conservative. If the two had ever competed in a trolley dash, Coe would have sent a boy round Harrods, whereas Ovett would have trundled round the aisles of his local Lidl with a look of mildly ironic disdain.

On the track, Coe’s running style was as neat and efficient as his coiffured side-parting, metronomic and compact. As Andrew Anthony quite beautifully put it, “he had always seemed a sort of Tory pinup, aloof and smoothly superior, like Nigel Havers in spikes.” Ovett was a fantastic runner but his rough-and-ready, elbows out approach won him few friends in the world of athletic aesthetics. The contrast between the two could not have been much greater, and, better still, it was clear they couldn’t stand each other.

Anyone with half a shred of decent politics knew that Ovett was their man. This was confirmed in 1992 when Coe became a Conservative MP, before the country saw sense and kicked him and the rest of Major’s misfits out of office in 1997. By 2000 he was back in politics as Lord Coe, the unelected Baron of self-aggrandisement through sport. It seemed to many that, given his sporting past, he was the ideal choice to head up the British Olympic bid. Yet given that the bidding for the games is so obviously corrupt, and seemingly has more to do with money than sport, one can only surmise that Coe also demonstrated a skill-set including smarminess, politcal chicanery and a filofax full of business contacts.

Of course he also found time to become part-time judo instructor and bodyguard to William Hague. I remember one time when the two of them turned up in Portsmouth to announce some non-policy or other. Upset that the Mighty Dome should be heckled by a bunch of Trots, Coe made a beeline for the comrade carrying a megaphone and booted him in the shin. And you thought he had a kick on him when he ran the 1500m… Additionally he found time in his busy schedule to write a book. Part positive thinking claptrap, part management speak, The Winning Mind: My Inside Track on Great Leadership: Developing Inspirational Leadership and Delivering Winning Results, has a title that makes you want to vomit. I wouldn’t normally link to Amazon but the video of Coe on the page is horribly cringe worthy. I defy anybody who watches it not to want to give the man a slap.

Twenty-five years after the height of these rivalries Steve Davis is now an affable BBC commentator, who at least had the wherewithal to play up to the “boring” tag. And it’s astonishing how much can be forgiven just for being part of the (frankly brilliant) song Snooker Loopy. In contrast, Coe has set out to prove the old adage that people move to the right as they get older. His smug condescension rings out with every official Olympics announcement, reinforcing the feeling that these are the games of the rich and privileged. When London 2012 is over, and the razzmatazz gives way to a thick layer of dust settling on a half-baked legacy, expect his Lordship to become a mover and shaker in the International Olympic Committee. Given his arrogance and ego it seems unlikely that he would settle for anything less than a seat at the big boys’ table. In a world of corporate sports, the words Olympics & Coe have an appropriate ring about them.

If it looks like a Tory, sounds like a Tory and even runs like a fucking Tory, then it’s a Tory. And that is as good a reason as I can think of as to why we should all hate Sebastian Coe.