Sebastian Coe: Sporting legend tasked with a flawless Olympics

Lord Coe, who as plain old Sebastian Coe was one of Britain's greatest all-time athletes, has delivered London's Games on time. But will he ever shake off his air of arrogance?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Britain was divided by athletic allegiance, says The Observer. "You were either with Coe or Ovett." Steve Ovett was rugged, moody and tough; Sebastian Coe "the clean-cut polite embodiment of middle-class suburbia". Sports fans were thus transfixed when Ovett snatched gold from Coe, the favourite, in the 800 metres at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

The newspapers wrote his obituaries. But when the pair met again in the 1,500 metres, he triumphed. "It was the first and most famous example of Coe's ability to pick himself up after defeat, dust himself off and come back revitalised."

It's unlikely that the British team will produce such drama this year. But Coe appears to have won gold again. "The Lord of the Rings" has delivered the Games on time and, so far, to critical acclaim (see below). "Hosting the Olympics has been Britain's biggest endeavour since mobilising for World War II," argues The New York Times and Coe is "the lightning rod" for the venture's success or failure. Get it right and "a place in Britain's sporting pantheon will be secure. But if he fails, his legacy may be permanently scarred."

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In fact, Coe is already assured his place in the pantheon of athletic greats, says The Sunday Times. Few athletes have matched his tally of 11 world records; and none have achieved the distinction of winning gold in the 1,500 metres at two successive Olympics. "He was an absolutely supreme athlete," says John Goodbody, author of A History of the Olympics. "He could walk into the British team now with the time he did in 1981."

When Coe expounds on how the Olympics inspire young people, "he has himself in mind", says The Independent. In 1968, as a 12-year-old in a Sheffield secondary modern, he was so "utterly transfixed" by the Mexico City Games that he joined an athletics club. But it was the influence of his "idiosyncratic" and "formidable" father, Peter Coe a World War II veteran turned cutlery design engineer that counted most.

The rigorous training regime he designed for his son was legendary, perhaps even brutal. But when Coe made his emotional speech at the Opening Ceremony ("There is a truth to sport... a purity, a drama, an intensity") he was probably thinking of Peter, who died four years ago. As he observed last year: "not a day goes by without me missing him intensely". "Coe is one of life's great overachievers," says The Observer.

But he flopped as a politician. Elected a Conservative MP in 1992, with the dream of becoming Minister for Sport, he was unseated in 1997 and widely lampooned during a subsequent stint as chief of staff to Tory leader William Hague. Commentators hinted that their intensive judo sessions were homoerotic. Thanks to the Games, no one's sniggering at Seb Coe now.

Can Britain learn to love this slick operator?

With less than a week to go before the opening of the Games, "the portents were finely balanced", says John F Burns in The New York Times. Would these be remembered as the "siege Games", the "damp squib Games" or, perhaps, the "gridlock Games"?

As he made his final tour of the Olympic Park, Coe still "track-trim" at 55 was tending to last-minute glitches and assuring everyone that all would be well. "I'm not going to vouch for your management, but you personally have not let the country down," he told a group of G4S guards. "I'm really happy you are here."

It was pure Coe. The attention to detail is striking, but so too is the slightly arrogant assumption that he speaks for the nation. He has a sanctimonious side that can get up people's noses. I was loving the opening ceremony, writes Mary Beard in her TLS blog, until Coe got up and said "I have never been so proud to be British." As for his line that "in every Olympic sport there is all that matters in life" come on! "It's only a load of sport, which sorry sunshine does not encapsulate the whole of human existence and talent."

Coe's earnestness might explain why, for all his achievements, we respect him but find it hard to love him, says Brian Viner in The Independent. Even when he takes the mick, as in his cameo performances in the BBC's spoof documentary Twenty Twelve, you sense he's taking a calculated risk. His decision to endorse the satire showed he was as determined as Danny Boyle to introduce humour.

But there was a degree of arrogance in setting up such a hostage to fortune. "He is just a bit too slick and successful for our common liking. He would, in many ways, make a better American than he does a Brit." Still, the guts Coe showed in winning and staging a successful Games apparently against the odds could change all that. You can't help feeling that, in the end, he'll "make the British love him".