Monday, September 7, 2009

Race is getting tighter for 2016 Olympics


LONDON — Take it from a man who should know: The race for the 2016 Olympics is as close as can be.

Sebastian Coe, who engineered London's narrow victory for the 2012 Summer Games, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday that next month's 2016 vote is even more wide open.

Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo are the candidates. The International Olympic Committee will select the winner by secret ballot in Copenhagen on Oct. 2.

"I think this is probably even closer and tighter than the 2012 round," Coe said during a visit to AP's London offices. "I think we probably recognized at this stage in the 2012 round that London and Paris probably had the momentum, and you could probably at that point have looked at the other cities and said at least two of them are beginning to tread water. It's very difficult to say that about any of these cities."

Paris was widely considered the front-runner in the 2012 race, but London beat the French capital 54-50 in the fourth round of the voting in Singapore in 2005. Moscow, New York and Madrid were eliminated in the first three rounds.

The 2016 bid cities, representing four different continents, have been campaigning furiously going into the final weeks of the race with no obvious favorite or also-ran. Just getting through the first round in Copenhagen could be crucial.

"They are all cities quite capable of staging extraordinary games," said Coe, who heads London's Olympic organizing committee. "All have very smart, very clear visions. This one (race) is probably posing many IOC members bigger questions than for some of the other rounds."

Tony Blair, then British prime minister, traveled to Singapore and was instrumental in lobbying IOC members to vote for London. Vladimir Putin, as Russian president, helped secure the 2014 Winter Games for Sochi when he attended the IOC vote in Guatemala City in 2007.

Still unclear is whether President Barack Obama will go to Copenhagen to push Chicago's bid to bring the Summer Olympics back to the U.S. for the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Games.

"Clearly a city needs to show that it has seamless political support," Coe said. "All cities will decide how they demonstrate that. Some will demonstrate it by bringing their political heads of state along, others will demonstrate that by showing local commitment."

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will be in Copenhagen to try to persuade the IOC to send the Olympics to South America for the first time. King Juan Carlos of Spain will be there for Madrid's bid. Japan has invited incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Crown Prince Naruhito to attend.

But Coe said there is no magic winning formula.

"The one thing I do know from the bid we were involved in and having become a little bit of a student of these bids, there isn't a set template," he said. "No city should be sitting there saying, 'London did this, Sochi did that, or Paris did this.' You have to do what you absolutely genuinely think is intrinsically a part of your narrative. Trying to do something simply because another city did it is a dangerous route."

On other issues, Coe reiterated that London's 2012 preparations are on time or even ahead of schedule despite the global recession. He said London has raised more than $820 million in sponsorship revenue.

"That's a great story — on balance more than any other host city raised to this point, and probably over the whole cycle of the project," Coe said. "We still have some very competitive and very vibrant conversations going on with other (sponsorship) categories."

Yet, with just under three years to go, Coe isn't complacent about the financial pressures.

"We wake up every morning making sure that we land this project on time and to budget," he said. "We have to forever make sure that our cost base is under control. ... We know that there are always going to be challenges on organizing committees. Landing the plane — we will land it, but we still have three years of hard work to do."

Coe said the post-games use of the Olympic Stadium will be up to a new government legacy company, but the venue will be downsized and used mainly for track and field.

The 80,000-seat stadium, which is under construction, is to be reduced to a 25,000-capacity venue after 2012. Some officials have said it should be kept at full capacity as part of England's bid for the 2018 World Cup.

"It's a stadium that is not going to remain at that size," Coe said. "It wouldn't be good legacy usage. ... As long as we have track and field as the primary purpose, but not uniquely, as long as we are creative about what we do and how we use and don't create white elephants, it is an issue for the legacy board."

Coe declined to talk about his future after the games, including speculation he could become president of the International Association of Athletics Federations. The two-time 1,500-meter Olympic gold medalist is an IAAF vice president.

"I'm focused on just one thing: that is being part of a team that delivers a spectacular Olympic and Paralympic Games in this city," Coe said. "Beyond that the world will have to sort itself out — 2012 for me is the only thing I think about."

As a track and field great, Coe has watched with amazement as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt rewrites the record books, including his 9.58 seconds in the 100 meters and 19.19 seconds in the 200 at last month's world championships in Berlin.

Coe believes Bolt has the most room for improvement in the 200 and could possibly break the 19-second barrier. And how low can Bolt go in the 100?

"I'm not sure he can get under 9.4, but there is probably scope to start tickling around the 9.5 bit," Coe said. "I'm also fascinated by what this guy could do over 400 meters as well. That may be something he and his team are thinking about in 2012."