Sebastian Coe

Portrait of Sebastian Coe in a blue shirt

Who remembers Sebastian Coe? When I was a child growing up in England, he was a household name, synonymous with speed. This was back in the 1980s, a golden era of British athletics, when shorts were shorter and mullets were de rigeur. Middle distance runner Seb Coe brought home 4 Olympic gold medals for Britain and set the kind of solid world record that wasn’t to be broken for 16 years. I hadn’t thought much about him since he eventually got outrun, but when commissioned to make his portrait Monaco last winter, I learned that he hadn’t simply faded into early retirement.

Portrait of Sebastian Coe in a blue shirt, holding a relay baton

Right Honorable Lord Coe

It turns out that Seb Coe is as at ease in an elegant suit as he ever was in polyester running shorts. Front-running may be as good a preparation as any for politics, and the Right Honorable Lord Sebastian Coe (as he may be called today) not only did a stint as Member of Parliament after his on-track career finished, he was also made a Life Peer (a baron, who can vote in the House of Lords for the rest of his life). However, Seb also remains an important figure in athletics, now in his third term as the president of World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations). Der Spiegel sent two journalists to Monte Carlo to interview him in the run-up to the biennial World Athletics Championships last summer, to get the word on the state of athletics today, and I was commissioned as photographer to make his portrait for the feature.

Screenshot of the Der Spiegel website showing a portrait of Sebastian Coe and overlaid text

“Testosterone is the most important factor”

While this was to be the portrait of a figure of authority in business, rather than the portrait of an athlete, Der Spiegel’s photo editor felt that a prop should be incorporated in the photograph, to situate the subject in the world of sport – specifically, that of athletics. A relay baton was suggested on our briefing call, but we decided that it would be neither a quickly recognisable object when seen out of context, nor an easy prop to work seamlessly into this editorial portrait, so we decided that a spike (a track running shoe) would be the best option. Nicole, Head of Communications for World Athletics, assured me that she would get hold of a pair for the shoot (Seb lives between Monaco and London, so surely had running shoes that could be brought along).

The interview and portrait took place at the same Monte Carlo hotel where I’d made portraits of Formula One driver Nico Rosberg for the same magazine a few years before. Unfortunately, on arrival, my assistant Lou and I learned that spikes would not be joining us after all (due to a sponsorship issue: World Athletics had only ‘wrong brands’ to hand; all the ‘right shoes’ had gone to Budapest ahead of the Championships a few weeks later). Instead, Nicole proffered… a relay baton.

Seb arrived promptly and the interview began. Lou demonstrated her own lack of aptitude for track athletics by dropping the relay baton with a loud clang twice as we set up lighting around the corner, and we valiantly took up the challenge of finding baton-holding poses for a man in a suit to hold which wouldn’t look clichéd, or plain odd. When I quietly returned to the conference area to see how the interview was going, I sensed boredom in the air (“this is the longest interview ever!” wailed Seb) and thorny subjects being dug into. Seb had recently announced that “gender cannot trump biology” during a landmark restructure of participation rules in World Athletics, which now prevent transgender women from competing in the female category, and all Lord Sebastian Coe’s political prowess wasn’t going to draw Der Spiegel’s efficient reporters off topic. I saw that the vibe would need to change, if I was have an amenable, relaxed man to photograph… holding a baton.

Four, small, square, backstage photos of photographer shooting Sebastian Coe

Bossy photographer caught on camera (thanks Lou)

I didn’t give Seb much time to think once the journalists passed him over to me. I immediately demanded a mini lesson in relay baton passing – to get active, as much as to inform me of the correct way to hold the pesky rod when giving him portrait directions. Once we’d run around the corridor a bit, any lingering post-interview ice was broken, and the photography began. The lighting I had chosen was dramatic, requiring precise positioning and so more bossiness on my part than usual, as captured by Lou’s ‘backstage’ snapshots. Yet Seb took his instructions good-naturedly (especially considering he dislikes working with photographers -I’d been warned-). Nicole, who from behind my shoulder was keeping a close eye on the back of my camera, declared that the photos reminded her of Caravaggio portraits she’d seen at a museum recently, much to Seb’s amusement.

Portrait of Sebastian Coe in a blue shirt, leaning his chin on a relay baton

Centre stage

It was a sweltering day in the South of France, and as we talked about the exceptional summer temperatures, I learned from Seb that over 70% of the World Athletics member athletes have already had their training or race performances affected by climate change. When we finished the portraits, Lou and I explained we were going down to cool off in the sea briefly (a bikini and a towel being an essential item of photographer gear during a French Riviera summer); the Spiegel journalists looked genuinely sorry they hadn’t thought to bring trunks from Hamburg; and Seb headed off to take his helicopter to Saint Tropez for dinner. Warm goodbyes exchanged, we got into the lift and I realised I had forgotten something. Lou held the lift as I sprinted back, and with my newfound technique, barely pausing, handed back to Nicole… the relay baton.

> See Portrait portfolio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Posts