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Coe drums up Olympic fever for London Games

Sebastian Coe strides onto the outdoor stage like a rock star. With music blaring, cameras clicking and flags waving, he's introduced to the cheering crowd as "the man who is making this all happen."

The Olympic torch relay has come to this cathedral city in eastern England and the locals are out in force on a muggy, drizzly evening to welcome the flame — and the former middle-distance running great who is the face of the London Games.

"Look at this turnout!" Coe says to the adoring audience. "I'm not surprised. We get Olympic sport. We have a great Olympic history. It's a dream scenario."

The fans roar, the flame burns brightly and the Olympic party goes on into the night.

For Coe, it's the end of a long, grueling round of meetings, speeches and appearances, a day spent traveling by car, Underground and train in his tireless mission to deliver a spectacular 2012 Olympics.

His drive to build up Olympic fever seems to be working.

"Everywhere I go, people say they can't wait for it to start," Coe tells The Associated Press, sipping tea from a takeaway cup as he rides the train from Peterborough through the English countryside back to London's King Cross station. "They have now grasped the complexity of it. Overwhelmingly, they want us to succeed. They're not agnostic now.

"There are not too many people who are going to sit this dance out."

No one is more closely associated with the London Games than Coe, the former two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters. He led the city's winning bid for the Olympics and has spent seven years chairing the local organizing committee for the biggest peacetime project in British history.

Everywhere Coe goes on this day, people of all ages and walks of life approach him, shake his hand, pose for photos, ask for his autograph, thank him and wish him luck. One woman tells him: "We pray for you every night."

A generation of Britons remember Coe's famous duels on the track in the 1970s and '80s with Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, but now he's a household name as the man in charge of putting on the world's biggest sporting event. Many well wishers call him "Lord Coe," the title he carries as a member of the House of Lords. Others just call him "Seb."

The 55-year-old Coe is still wiry and razor thin. Apart from a tinge of gray in his hair, he doesn't look much different from the lithe young runner who won gold in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 and broke more than a dozen world records. He still runs every other day and lifts weights twice a week.

"I did try my L.A. blazer on the other day," Coe says. "It was marginally snugger than it was in '84, but it does fit."

Coe has traveled millions of miles around the world to promote the games in London, the first city to host the event a third time after previous games in 1908 and 1948. His focus now is to rally his home country fully behind the effort. With the torch relay drawing large crowds wherever it goes, the fervor should peak when the flame reaches London on July 20.

"By nature Britain is a slow-burn country," Coe says. "It's now burning. When that torch gets to London streets it's going to be massive."

And it's that party atmosphere that Coe hopes will last throughout the games and set London apart.

"I think London's going to rock," he says. "I don't think there's going to be a lot of sleep in London."

Coe hasn't gotten much sleep himself of late. On this day, he rises at 4:50 a.m., does 45 minutes of work at home in suburban London, then rides the train into the city for a breakfast meeting with business leaders. They're encouraging workers to change their travel habits to avoid the worst of the congestion and queues during the games.

"We run the risk of people thinking this is a security or transport event," he says during the trip by car to the organizing committee's 23rd-floor offices in Canary Wharf. "It's about sport and athletes."

During the drive, the conversation turns to one of his favorite topics — his sport of track and field. Ever the proud dad, Coe notes that his 13-year-old daughter, Alice, finished fourth in the 100-meter dash in a national schools meet the previous day.

"I really liked hearing her complain that she had a bad start," Coe says. "It's not in the spirit of (modern Olympics founder Pierre) de Coubertin, but I really liked hearing her say, 'I didn't nail it over the first 20 meters.'"

It's the men's 100 meters that figures to be one of the highlights of these Olympics. The plotline revolves around superstar Usain Bolt and whether he can hold off Jamaican rival Yohan Blake, who beat him in both the 100 and 200 at the recent national trials. Jamaican veteran Asafa Powell should also be in the mix.

"I can see Jamaica taking 1-2-3 in the 100," Coe says.

Despite Bolt's losses to Blake, Coe believes the reigning 100 and 200 Olympic champion remains the man to beat.

"I wouldn't make Blake the favorite," he says. "I think Usain has the edge. He's been through the championship environment, knows how to run the rounds. I can't conceive Usain losing it, but it won't be a coronation this time. The other runners are not so intimidated. He knows he will have to run through the line."

Later, Coe bounds up the steps two at a time at London Bridge Underground station as he rushes from the Jubilee Line to the Northern Line platform for the five-stop ride to King's Cross.

Standing and holding onto the overhead hand rail like any other commuter, Coe chats about the daily rounds of phone calls and meetings he holds with key people like Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who is directing the opening ceremony on July 27.

"I'm not micromanaging," he says. "My job is shielding people. I make sure talented people are able to do what they are supposed to do."

With his seat in the House of Lords and as a former Conservative Party lawmaker in Parliament, Coe has the political connections and access that have proved invaluable in his Olympic job.

"There are times when just picking up a phone you get a quite rapid response," he says. "You say, 'Hey, we need this done.' A decision which seems straightforward may have a political dimension. Being comfortable in that environment helps a lot. I have friendships across the political divide."

Coe's political inspiration is not Churchill; it's Abraham Lincoln. He has a photo of Lincoln as the background image on his phone. One of his favorite books is the Lincoln biography "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Coe reels off some favorite quotes:

— "With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed."

— "A friend is one who has the same enemies as you have."

— "The hardest kind of death to die is that occasioned by indecisive, or lukewarm friends."

Those messages, he said, are important in picking your right team for the years of Olympic preparations. But just as crucial, he says, is laughter and keeping things in perspective. Coe is an avid watcher of — and occasional cameo performer in — the spoof BBC television documentary "Twenty Twelve" about a bumbling organizing committee.

"We're not declaring war," Coe says. "We're actually delivering a games."

On this afternoon, Coe visits Burghley House, a 16th-century Elizabethan country house near Peterborough. He meets with relatives of the late David Cecil, or Lord Burghley, who won the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1928 Olympics and silver in 1932.

Cecil was Coe's predecessor as head organizer of the 1948 London Olympics, the "Austerity Games" held in the aftermath of World War II. Cecil's 1926 model Rolls Royce is parked on the gravel drive in front of the house as Coe and the family greet another Olympic torchbearer.

"Coming here gave me an excellent feel for what Lord Burghley achieved in '48, the games which set out the tone for years to come," Coe says. "To think what he was doing puts our economic woes in the foothills."

And what about Coe's plans after the Olympics? He's a vice president of the IAAF and is often mentioned as a likely candidate to succeed Lamine Diack as president. Coe doesn't confirm he wants the top job but doesn't hide his ambitions either.

"I want to shape that organization at some point," he says. "Track and field is my sport. I've had 10 productive years at the IAAF. We've got lots of challenges. I can make a difference."

As his train pulls into King's Cross, Coe offers a message of advice to any future Olympic organizing chief.

"Be prepared to be judged to a higher standard," he says. "It's not like anything else you have ever done in your life. Anything that has the word Olympic attached to it will hold you to scrutiny like few other things will."

Before heading off into the London night, Coe sums up the last seven years of his life.

"It's a bloody long haul," he says. "You need heroic strength for this."

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Follow Stephen Wilson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/stevewilsonap