One of the greatest middle-distance runners in Olympic history, Sebastian Coe won four medals for Great Britain, including gold in the 1,500 meters in the 1980 and '84 Games, before turning in his cleats for a turn in Parliament. This week, he returns to Los Angeles — the site of those '84 Games — as a knight commander and chairman of the London Organizing Committee. Shortly after his Friday morning presentation at the fifth IOC World Conference on Women and Sport, Lord Coe — please, call him Seb — sat down with espnW to talk about the influence of women on his life and the importance he places on evening the playing field for women around the world.
espnW: Gender equality has been a focus of your tenure as chairman of the London Organizing Committee. Who are the women who inspired your passion?
Sebastian Coe: I was brought up with three sisters in a family where the ambition by the women was as acute as it was for the boys. I was also in a political landscape that, for 20 years, was dominated by a woman. Women in leadership roles has never been an alien concept for me. I have been surrounded by smart and challenging women, so I've never seen the world any other way.
espnW: Where do you see the greatest deficiencies in women's equality in sports?
SC: I have encountered frustrations in many aspects of sports. I know there are great women coaches and women administrators out there. I felt that I was in a position as chairman of an organizing committee to put my allegiance out there. Having an organization that in essence is 50-50, not just for women, was important to me. We have challenged orthodoxies around disability, as well. We also recruited people into the Games from boroughs in London we are looking to regenerate. I have always felt most comfortable working in organizations I feel reflect the world I live in. And I'm old enough to know these things don't happen simply because you make a wish list and wait for change.
espnW: How has being a father to both girls and boys [two each] impacted your views on equality and sports?
SC: I have two daughters. My eldest is a football fan — an English soccer fan — and from the age of 4 or 5, she has been coming with me to football games. Our team got to the Cup final, which is like your Super Bowl. She was at school on that Saturday, and I asked permission for her to come out of school to watch the game. And the attitude of her teacher toward her was, "You're a woman. Why would you want to watch soccer?" Sometimes there are attitudes you recognize when you have two daughters. You come across people who think that is not the sort of thing a woman would do. And I thought this was an opportunity for me to break some of that down.
espnW: What actions did you take to create an organization that reflects your community?
SC: If I get a short list of people that does not have women on it, it's not that I am saying, "Go back and find a woman," I'm saying, "Go back and identify the women I know are out there and quite able and probably better suited to do this job." I have as many women in senior positions as I have men. Through our Talent ID program, we have identified people with talent in the local communities. We say, "We don't have a job for you right now, but we know your skills, so when that job becomes available, we will come and find you." You have to be active. Change doesn't happen simply because you think you are an enlightened chairman of an organizing committee.
espnW: What is the current state of women's athletics in your country?
SC: In U.K. sport, we have a better story than most to tell. When I look across the landscape, the chair of U.K. sports is a woman. The chief executive is a woman, the director of sport in the organizing committee in London is a woman and the chief executive of sport England is a woman. So this is not a desert. And sports is not the only transgressor here. I just came back from Davos [the World Economic Forum in Switzerland], and only 17 percent of the delegates there were female. On the boards of major companies, Fortune 500 companies in my country and around the world, women are underrepresented. Sports is right to want to challenge ourselves. But sport is by no means the only sphere of activity where women are underrepresented.
espnW: The Olympics is traditionally one of the most highly viewed sporting events by women. How important is female viewership this summer?
SC: Very important. There are things we have done specifically through our approach to the media and social networking that has targeted interest among women and girls around the Olympic Games. And we are so lucky because some of our biggest role models in British sports are women, like Paula Radcliffe, Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon and Tanni Grey-Thompson, who is the most famous and successful Paralympian of any era. In my own sport of track and field, we have Kelly Holmes, a double Olympic gold medalist in Athens in the 800 and 1,500 meters. The greatest driver of participation in sport is a well-stocked shop window, and we are lucky that we have great female role models.
espnW: Should quotas be imposed on competing countries, requiring them to include a certain percentage of women on their teams?
SC: My instinct is that, at the moment, it is still more about educating and moving toward social change and using sport in the ways we know it can work, rather than forcing a tightly restrictive template around different cultural backgrounds and historic perspectives. I would counsel caution on suddenly creating a one-size-fits-all solution because, in reality, that is going to create as many problems as it solves. We have some way to go yet to produce that level of attitude and change across the global sporting landscape.
espnW: What will be your legacy once the Games have ended?
SC: Our bid vision was to get more young people to be inspired and take part in sport. Through International Inspiration, we set a goal to reach 12 million children in 20 countries by 2012, and we reached that last year. I am pleased with that, but the challenge will be to keep that going once London isn't an organizing committee any longer. And I am committed to do that. Domestically, if you look at how our sponsors have chosen to activate, three-quarters of a million kids are involved in some sort of sport that hadn't been before those sponsors came to the table. Across our 44 partners and their activations, probably 6 million people have been integrated into what I would describe as a health-and-fitness agenda. Our legacy programs were driven and helped by smart, creative businesses.