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With two years to run, Coe says London in 'killing zone' of its Olympic preparations race

The London 2012 Olympic Stadium as it looked earlier this month. (Associated Press / Kirsty Wigglesworth)

By Philip Hersh

Tuesday marks two years to go to the July 27, 2012 opening of the London Summer Olympics.

To the man running the 2012 organizing committee, it is like being in the back straightaway of an 800 meters you are expected to win.

``It's the killing zone in the 800,'' Seb Coe said Friday.  ``Everything you do in the back straight determines the platform you create in the finishing straight.''

And who knows that feeling better than Coe, one of the greatest middle-distance runners in history, who won two Olympic silver medals in the metric half mile and held the world record for the distance from 1981 through 1997?

``I broke 13 world records, and I don't intend to break the 14th by being the first president of an organizing committee not to have it ready on the day we're supposed to,''  Coe said during a conference call with international media.

And the biggest danger at this point in a race that began when the International Olympic Committee awarded London the Games in July, 2005?

``That you're not in the right position to get it across the line,'' Coe said.  ``This is the business end of the race now.  You don't want to make errors, you don't want to be off the pace.''

Coe84 As boss of the London 2012 organizing committee, the two-time Olympic champion at 1,500 meters has run an operation that flew on the fast track of the world economic boom and now must deal with the consequences of the world economic bust.

While London 2012 is responsible only for the operation of the Olympics and Paralympics,  it inevitably is seen as sharing guilt for the tremendous cost increases involved in the government's massive urban redevelopment project that is part of London's Olympic Park.

The government's Olympic budget has more than doubled from the $6.1 billion projected in 2005, and the Olympic Park costs continue to be the flash point for critics of the London Olympics. 

The head of Britain's treasury this week announced an austerity budget that will include higher taxes and across-the-board government spending cuts of 25 percent over the next four years.  Coe said that situation will not affect London 2012 planning, although the government said in May it was cutting some $42 million from the Olympics budget.

``I don't think we're doing anything today we wouldn't have been doing any way,''  Coe said.  ``We won the bid in the high water mark of the world economy, but at the time it was central to the bid that we deliver the Games in a responsible, sustainable way.

``Of course, you wake up each morning wanting to do it in a more cost effective way but one that doesn't impact the client groups you're out to deliver a memorable Games for.   I recognize we are in an economic climate where we have to make a very strong argument that this is a project of national interest.''

Coe insisted the jobs being created and maintained by Olympic venue construction and Olympic Park rehabilitation are a boon to the British economy, particularly during the current economic crisis.

Asked whether London 2012 felt any discomfort with having BP as a principal sponsor, given its image as the villain in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Coe simply reaffirmed his support for a company that has been London's Olympic partner since the bid phase.

``We have a world-class business that shares our vision and are a fabulous partner and will be our partner right the way through,'' Coe said of BP.

On a more mundane matter, Coe said there have been no ongoing discussions with NBC, the U.S. television rights-holder, about moving event times to accommodate a U.S. audience.  That would be very difficult, given that London is only five hours ahead of New York -- but some have speculated about midnight events for NBC's benefit.

NBC got Beijing organizers to switch swimming and gymnastics finals to the morning in China so, with a 12-hour time difference to New York,  they aired during U.S. prime time.

``In one of the first conversations I had with Dick (NBC sports chief Dick Ebersol), he raised the subject, and he was very clear he was working in a very benign time zone with us and was very happy to allow us to set the time schedule as we felt it most benefited the Olympic movement.  There has been no pressure at all (for time changes).''

Coe knows time, in the general sense, no longer is his ally in preparing for July 27, 2012.  For a man who spent decades racing not only rivals but the clock, that pressure is welcome.

``I get more excited every day the Games gets closer,'' he said.  ``I'm a competitor.  Bring it on.''

Lower photo: Sebastian Coe beats teammate Steve Cram for the 1,500-meter gold at the 1984 Olympics, when Coe became the only man to win two golds in the metric miler.  (Associated Press / Dave Tenenbaum.)

Philip Hersh: Can USOC avoid stain from new deal with BP?

The U.S. Olympic Committee is caught between a oil-covered rock and a dried tar hard place in its relationship with BP.

In an economic climate where sponsorships are hard to find, the Olympic committee can't afford to thumb its nose at the British company that signed on as a major USOC sponsor in February.

In an emotional climate where BP looks more and more villainous to the U.S. public, the USOC may find that its relationship with BP is toxic, a four-year deal worth an estimated $10 million to $15 million notwithstanding.

Fortunately for the USOC, the sponsorship has not been activated in any visible way, so you don't see the athletes likely to be stars of the 2012 Olympic team pitching for BP.  And it's unlikely any U.S. athlete would want to be publicly associated with the company for the foreseeable future.

I mean, can't you see the cartoons and fake videos of swimmer Michael Phelps losing a gold medal because he is trapped in an oil slick?

A month ago, USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun told the Associated Press he did not believe the deal with BP was in jeopardy.

Since then, BP's reputation has looked more and more like the tar balls hitting beaches as the oil reaches them.

The USOC clearly has chosen to await the outcome of the crisis before deciding how best to proceed in its relationship with BP.

"BP is in the middle of a crisis that everyone is interested in resolving as soon as possible,'' USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in an e-mail Thursday.

"Based on our discussions with them, it appears that they are doing everything they can to stop the spill and to mitigate its effects. They have agreed to take full responsibility for all of the cleanup costs.

"This is a terrible accident that has affected an untold number of people as well as our environment, and we trust that BP will continue to act aggressively to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, to address the damage that has been done and to ensure that this tragedy is not repeated.''

Should BP do what the USOC -- not to mention the U.S. government and public -- expects of it by making good on all promises and properly compensating victims, there may be a way for both parties to benefit.

Many U.S. Olympic athletes and Olympic hopefuls need part-time jobs.  BP undoubtedly will have to hire hundreds (thousands?) of people to clean up the mess its mishandling of the drilling platform disaster is leaving.  While priority for such jobs should go to anyone whose livelihood has been and will be affected by the oil pollution, maybe BP could also hire some athletes who are training for the 2012 and 2014 Games.

In the meantime, as Sports Business Journal first reported this week, the USOC has landed another foreign sponsor, BMW, to replace General Motors, which did not renew its USOC deal when it expired in 2007.

While the USOC will not confirm the deal, sources have indicated the particulars of the SBJ report ($24 million, six years) are accurate.   It's all cash, so don't expect Blackmun to be tooling around Colorado Springs in a new Z4.

Of course, the way things are going for the USOC, he would be getting a BMW recall notice any day.

-- Philip Hersh


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