Sebastian Coe no longer runs for England, he runs it. As a first-year member of Parliament, representing Falmouth and Camborne, the two-time Olympic gold medalist bustles around the Palace of Westminster with the same silken stride, the same seemingly effortless burst of acceleration he showed a dozen years ago while setting the world 800-meter record in Italy. "My days as a middle-distance runner are over," Coe concedes. But he still races through life. "I would love someone to give me a ball and chain," says Elsbeth Percival, his secretary. "I just can't hold him down."
Coe, who's 36, is one of a new breed of young moderate Conservatives. He has been called the embodiment of the Thatcherite ideal of athletics: clean, straight, forthright, a bit of a Yup person. Yet in his sudden, darting smile you notice the slightest hint of subversiveness: He may be the only Tory in Parliament who can recite the dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail pretty much line for line. "I have no plans to serve in the Ministry of Silly Walks," he says stoutly.
During the four days a week the House of Commons is in session, Coe mingles with his 649 fellow MPs in an ancient rabbit warren of dusty cubbyholes posing as offices. On this particular morning he settles in behind his desk and treats a visitor to a lengthy discourse on sports and politics. "Both result in injuries," he allows. "But in sports they're very rarely inflicted by your own teammates."
His bid for public office was a three-year marathon. Shortly after Coe failed to be named to Britain's '88 Olympic team, Tory bigwigs picked him to be a candidate in the next parliamentary election. What made Sebastian run? It wasn't the salary (the $50,000 is just a fraction of what he still makes in endorsements) or the hours (up to 15 a day). "I've wanted to go into politics since I was 12," he says. "I'm arrogant enough to think I can make a difference."
When elections were finally called last March, Coe ran in a district his Tory predecessor had won by just 5,039 votes. Candidate Coe campaigned door-to-door, shaking "maybe 8,000 hands," he says. He was invited into one home to find a 24-foot python slithering around the living-room floor. "My patter left me," he recalls. "This was a giant thing as thick as my thigh!" When the owner asked if he would care to see the boa constrictor in the bedroom, Coe sputtered, "No thank you" and politely left. You don't need every vote.
Come election day, Coe proved to be the fittest of the political pack—breasting the finish line some 3,200 votes ahead of his closest competitor. "It wasn't exactly like a race," he says, "though I had a few sweaty moments." His entire campaign cost less than $12,000. "That sum might pay for two seconds of a Ross Perot infomercial," he reckons.
A keen observer of the American political scene, Coe is disheartened by the thought of another jogger president. "The White House has had joggers before, and it hasn't always worked out," he says. "It was one notable Oval Office jogger who, with a little help from his friends, tried to dismantle the Olympic movement in 1980."
But Coe paid no more heed to Jimmy Carter than he did to Margaret Thatcher, whose wishes he defied by attending the Moscow games in 1980. He further angered Tories with his outspoken criticism of British sporting contact with South Africa. Now, of course, he distances himself from those controversies. "We should accept that while there will be variations of the melody, the orchestra broadly plays the same tune," he says with a diplomacy Disraeli might have envied.
Some are touting Coe as a future health secretary. Others, like the Cornish man who addressed him as Sir Bastion Coe, assume he has already been knighted. There are even whispers that Coe may someday find a home at 10 Downing Street. If he does, don't expect to see a Churchillian Upmann clamped between his teeth. "I don't smoke," Coe explains.
So what's the biggest difference between being a front-runner and a backbencher? "When you're an athlete, most people would prefer to see you achieve than fail," offers Coe. "Now, I suppose, roughly half the population would rather see me fail."
That said, he checks his watch, rises from his desk and extends a hand. "It's been nice chatting with you," he says, "but I've really got to run."
BOB THOMAS SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY
The world-800-meter-record holder is now helping run Great Britain.