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  1. Interviews
February 14, 2019

The Callum Murray Interview – Simon Clegg

The man who was Eddie the Eagle's minder is now heading up the second edition of the European Games, by way of London's successful bid for the Olympics. So what has he learned in the course of a long and varied career?

By Callum Murray

Funny where sport can take you. It’s only towards the end of my interview with Simon Clegg, the former chief executive of the British Olympic Association and a key part of London’s ultimately successful campaign to host the 2012 Olympic Games, that it emerges that, much earlier in his career, Clegg was Eddie The Eagle’s minder.

If you’ve seen the recent Eddie The Eagle movie, about Michael Edwards, the no-hope British ski jumper who, at the Calgary 1988 winter Olympics became the first competitor since 1928 to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping (he finished last), you might be surprised to hear that Clegg was, in fact, the character played by Hugh Jackman (kind of). Clegg seems wary of revealing this, convinced I must know it already (I guess that in his circle, it’s at least one of his main claims to fame). But I didn’t.

In a globetrotting career, Clegg has also been: chef de mission of Team GB at the Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympic Games; chief executive of English soccer club Ipswich Town; chief operating officer of Expo 2020, the world trade fair, in Dubai; the chief operating officer of the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2015; and the executive director (part-time) of the second edition of the games in Minsk, Belarus this year (the main subject of our interview).

This last role is part of what he describes as a ‘portfolio’ career, which also includes the recent announcement that he has been appointed non-executive chairman of Sport:80, the UK-based developer and provider of sport management software solutions.

Sport:80 was formed in 2012 to provide up-to-date technology to streamline and efficiently run professional sporting bodies’ organisations, membership and sporting events. The Sport:80 platform is used by more than 35 sports organisations.

There’s also a mysterious role with Recast, a sports and entertainment video platform start-up that will reward users with tokens for their engagement, “while enabling publishers to monetise content on a micro-transactional basis in ways that have never been possible before.” Clegg is an investor in the business, sits on the board and is its chief operating officer – but won’t say anything more about it. I think it has something to do with blockchain.

Clegg carries the torch in the relay ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games

Clegg tells me: “I decided to adopt a portfolio approach to the rest of my business career. It allows me to get involved in projects that are interesting and exciting without the 100-per-cent demand that a major c-suite position requires.”

The most high-profile of these roles is now his job with the European Games in Minsk (he resigned from Expo 2020 after two years in February last year, having decided he wanted to return to sport). The Minsk 2019 job involves him spending five days a month in the host city, plus another two days when required, working with the organising committee and the Belarus government to oversee delivery of the games on behalf of rights-holder, the European Olympic Committees.

Preparations are, he says, in a “good state. Everyone who goes to Minsk comes away very surprised at the quality of the sporting facilities. Sport is deeply ingrained into the DNA of the people. Arrive at the weekend and the number of people out participating in leisure and sporting activities is significant. During the winter, it’s more challenging. I first went in 1985 as manager of the British biathlon team [he had been an international biathlete himself], and we had to wait for the temperature to rise to minus 19 at midday [to train].”

The Baku 2015 games were criticised by some for their extravagant budget, reported to be as high as $6.5 billion overall, including games-related projects, and Janez Kocijančič, the EOC’s president, has been determined to draw distinctions between the two editions, insisting that Minsk 2019 would follow the cost-saving principles laid down in the International Olympic Committee’s Agenda 2020 reform programme.

Speaking at last November’s EOC general assembly, Kocijančič said: “The basic idea is we shouldn’t bring financial burdens to organisers, so we adapt to the infrastructure and national concept of sports [in the host city]. The second difference is that, due to the rich natural resources of Baku there was enough financing [for a games on that scale]. Belarus is a normal country, so it’s a little bit more difficult. The budget will be bigger than initially planned, but much, much smaller than for Baku.”

Clegg says: “All of the facilities are already in place. The upgraded Dinamo stadium is a fantastic old stadium used during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow; the Olympic cauldron is still there. The only facility built is a new shooting range. Compared with Baku, it’s important that it’s a flexible model. To be sustainable, it has to adapt to the environment. No two European Games will be the same. Baku had a significant budget of $1 billion which allowed it to employ a significant number of international experts.

Baku is one of the best examples I have seen of the human legacy of hosting an event

“But Baku is one of the best examples I have seen of the human legacy of hosting an event. The vast majority of the leadership team was filled by expats, but the number-two positions were filled by Azeris. For the Islamic Solidarity Games [hosted by Baku in 2017], all of the Azeris stepped up. Now 15 Azeris are being used in Minsk. When we talk about legacy, everyone thinks of facilities and white elephants, but there are lots of other ways to look at legacy in terms of the impact on the community. Very few people think about the human legacy.”

As in Azerbaijan, concerns have been raised by some observers about the human rights record of Belarus (Human Rights Watch, the pressure group, said that in 2017, “The government continued its crackdown on civil society”).

This is obviously sensitive territory for someone who spends five days a month working with government officials in the country, and initially, Clegg, formerly a soldier in the British army (where he honed his biathlon skills), attempts to side-step it, saying: “Sport is completely separate from politics. My focus is on the sport not the politics. I came on board after Minsk had been selected. My job is to work with them to deliver the best possible sporting operation.”

However, pressed further, he offers: “I believe sport can act as an accelerator for change in a country. We’ve already seen some benefits, including the visa waiver programme. Now you can get in from many countries. A lot of countries in the west have a particular view about human rights, but every country needs to be allowed to evolve at the pace that is right for that country. You don’t go from one regime to a totally different one overnight, or you get a breakdown of civil society. It’s about evolution, not revolution. Sport can be an accelerator. You don’t do these events without recognising that the international spotlight will fall on the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Returning to Minsk, Clegg says: “It’s a beautiful city during the summer months. It has great sporting facilities; sport enjoys a high place, and the president continues to play ice hockey. It resonates all the way through society. Belarus has a good track record in winning medals, with biathlon especially strong, and gymnastics in the summer sports. I think they would aspire to host nation success across a number of different sports. When you compete on home soil in front of partisan spectators, it gives you an X-factor.

“There’s very significant promotion of the event taking place across the whole of Belarus. No one in the country is not aware that the European Games are coming to Minsk. Visitors will find a beautiful country with warm, hospitable, helpful people who want to showcase their country. Ticket prices are pretty modest to reflect that the average man and woman will have access.”

Minsk’s Dinamo Stadium has been upgraded for the European Games

Since the inaugural European Games, the multi-sports European Championships, seen by many as a direct rival to the games, staged its first, well-received, edition, last year, in Glasgow and Berlin. Is there room for both events, I ask? “They can co-exist,” Clegg replies. “Our event is Olympic-sanctioned whereas theirs is not. Ours is an Olympic qualifier for 10 out of 15 sports – part of the road to Tokyo, as Baku was [part of the road to Rio].

“It’s a year before the Olympic Games. One of the great things about these multi-sports events is that they give NOCs an opportunity to work closer with sports and athletes over a four-year period that previously never existed. The Olympics are the ultimate aspiration, so being associated with an NOC allows athletes to better understand the experience they will have when they go to an Olympics. It helps break down the mystique. We are now in the process of looking for a third edition.”

Kazan in Russia has said that it wants to stage the next European Games in 2023, despite the doping scandal in Russian sport. Kazan is an experienced major events host, having staged the 2013 Summer Universiade, the university games, the 2015 FINA World Championships and matches at the 2018 Fifa World Cup.

Russia had been lined up by the EOC to stage the 2019 European Games after the Netherlands pulled out citing financial reasons, but the EOC’s hopes were dashed by the publication of the McLaren report, which uncovered a state-sponsored doping programme in Russia. Indeed, McLaren later alleged that the Universiade in Kazan had been used as a “trial run” for the vast doping cover-up when Russia hosted the winter Olympics at Sochi in 2014.

In January, the Polish city of Katowice sent a delegation to the EOC headquarters in Rome to learn more about the 2023 European Games, after the EOC sent out a bid document to all 50 European NOCs on 26 September, giving them a deadline of 28 February to submit bids.

Wouldn’t the games benefit from a western European host, after two successive editions in eastern Europe, I ask? “A western European host is desirable, but certainly not essential,” Clegg replies carefully. “The great strength with existing facilities and an adaptable model is we can talk about which sports can be in the programme. We are a continent of 50 countries, and we want to see the event spread throughout the continent.”

With the addition to the international calendar of the European Games and the European Championships, among others, are there now just too many international sports events? “That’s a very important question,” Clegg replies. “I’ve been surprised by speaking with old colleagues from national Olympic committees who are having to work incredibly hard because the events programme is now relentless. The Olympics, the European Youth Olympic Festival, the European Games, Urban Games, Beach Games: I do think we need to be careful that we do not ask too much of the same people – most importantly, the athletes.

“If there is to be rationalisation, it has to come from the IOC for all sports and all continental organisations. We are getting to the stage where the calendar is incredibly congested, and the demands placed on athletes and NOCs are becoming greater than the resources they have.”

At the same time as events have multiplied, we’ve seen the IOC, in particular, struggle to find hosts for the Olympics, so what’s in it for cities and countries? Why should they be expected to compete to host the growing number of major events? Drawing on his own experience of London’s motives for bidding to host the 2012 Olympics (he was with the BOA for 20 years from 1989 to 2009, first as deputy secretary general, then as chief executive), Clegg replies: “I spent six years leading a political campaign to persuade the cabinet to bid. We argued that, on the back of failed bids by Manchester and Birmingham [to host the 2000 and 1996, and 1992 Olympics, respectively], nothing would move sport higher or more quickly up both the political and social agenda than hosting an Olympics.

Generally, the man and woman in the street was going to judge if the games were a success not by transport or stadia but by how many British athletes stood on the podium  

“It’s unusual for a bid to be conceived by an NOC. Normally, it’s governments and cities. We ended with a minister for the Olympics. And after we announced our aspiration to finish fourth in the medal table, there was a drive that added £300 million ($387 million) of funding into high-performance sport. Only by setting the bar as high as it could go would we drive finances. Generally, the man and woman in the street was going to judge if the games were a success not by transport or stadia but by how many British athletes stood on the podium.”

In the event, as is well-known in UK sporting circles, Team GB surpassed its apparently impossible target of coming fourth in the medals table, with a third-place finish, including 29 gold medals. As recently as the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Great Britain had finished a lowly 36th in the table, with a solitary gold medal.

But success brings its own dilemmas. The subsequent overwhelming concentration of funding on only those sports that are likely to yield medals is “very dangerous,” Clegg adds. “For the last Olympiad I was chair of British Badminton. We delivered an Olympic medal for the first time for 12 years in Rio, and still found all our funding completely cut. It’s not the right policy. One needs to look forwards, not backwards. Previous results should not be the sole measurement of future potential.

“One of the great benefits of hosting is automatic entry to all team sports. Therefore, all of a sudden, the size of the host team expands, with the expectation that it will perform to a reasonable level, especially in team sports. There’s always a challenge after you’ve hosted an Olympic Games as to where to place limited resources, and what potential those sports which have secured automatic right of entry will have to qualify in their own right four years later. If there’s an unrealistic chance, it’s right and proper that elite funding should focus on those athletes and teams that are going to qualify.”

Clegg was born in 1959 in London, and was educated at Stowe, the well-known British boarding school, where he “played football and rugby and had a good golf handicap, but very poor academic results,” before going on to join the army. Within a few months of joining a regiment with “a track record of taking skiing seriously,” he was identified as “quite fit” and chosen to learn to cross-country ski.

Clegg’s team went on to win the army championships (which in those days also served as the national championships) and he began to take part in international cross-country ski competitions. To his lasting chagrin, however, he never competed in an Olympics. Despite being chosen for the Great Britain team for the Sarajevo games in 1984, he was unable to take part because he was called up for a tour of duty in Northern Ireland at the height of the so-called ‘Troubles’ there.

“I was very upset,” he says. “When I came back I was given a whole year off on full pay, and became the manager of the British biathlon team.” Perhaps naively, I ask him if he saw action in Northern Ireland, but like many caught up in that bitter, undeclared civil war he’s not keen to open up, saying: “I don’t talk too much about my time over the water. I did serve all over the world: Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kenya, Australia, Brunei. When you are in an operational environment, it focuses the mind. But I wouldn’t describe it as seeing action.”

From the army, he says, he learnt leadership and organisational skills which were “the greatest assets I took into the BOA, and used to put in place systems and structures that would allow the BOA to develop from a glorified clothing supplier and travel agency employing six or seven people to an organisation employing 50.”

Clegg (l) with the irrepressible Eddie the Eagle at the Calgary 1988 winter Olympics

Those leadership and organisational skills were tested to the maximum, Clegg says, when he was selected to go to Calgary as team manager in 1988 and asked to take under his wing the unpredictable maverick who became known as Eddie the Eagle (although, unlike the character portrayed by Jackman, Clegg was never Edwards’ coach).

“It was fascinating, quite phenomenal,” he says. “Here was an eccentric English skier who was on the verge of the Alpine team but was never going to make it, so decided to become the best ski jumper in the UK. In fact, the only ski jumper in the UK. I shared a room with Eddie, and trying to manage him was…” Here he tails off, as if words can’t do justice to the experience of managing Eddie the Eagle.

Like many involved in real events that are then fictionalised, Clegg is indignant at the liberties taken by the film makers with the truth – especially as he claims that the truth was actually much weirder and more extreme, and would have made a much better story than the one in the film. In particular, Clegg is keen to point out that the freewheeling rogue portrayed by Jackman is nothing like him.

“I offered some of my stories to the film makers, but they were not interested,” he continues. “Their story was totally fictionalised – except all the uniforms you see in the film are replicas of mine.” I ask him for an example of what made Edwards such a phenomenon, and he responds with a tale of Edwards arriving at the airport on an internal flight: “His skis had gone to LA, and the carousel was going round, and just Eddie and I were left. Then his bag came down the carousel, but it was open and empty. Then came each bit of clothing after each bit of clothing, piecemeal.”

I don’t know. Maybe you had to be there. In any case, I’ve seen the film and I must say I would thoroughly recommend it – even if Clegg wouldn’t.

People will still watch live events, but the way they consume content will be very different. The way content is consumed is changing. Sport has to be aware of that  

With his varied experience, and in his existing ‘portfolio’ capacity of working with two sports technology companies, I’m interested to hear how Clegg thinks the sports industry is set to change in the next 10 years or so. “The sports broadcasting model is broken,” he replies. “The kids of today don’t watch TV. It’s snackable content: short-form, interactive, the mobile phone generation. People will still watch live events, but the way they consume content will be very different. The way content is consumed is changing. Sport has to be aware of that.

“The other great phenomenon is eSports. Is this just short term, or is it significant? I don’t know the answer. But the way that augmented and virtual reality are developing means that in the not-too-distant future we could see a boxing match in a virtual ring where there is no physical contact. [Conversely], we are not too far away from people being able to compete [in virtual reality] where there is an element of physical activity. The difference between driving an F1 car [in reality and in virtual reality] is pretty sophisticated.”

And the biggest threat to sport in the next 10 years? “The biggest threat to sport is if it fails to resonate and connect with the kids of today, even if it will not be sport as we know it,” Clegg replies. “Society is changing, and organisations that do not recognise and adapt will get lost in time. Look at 3×3 basketball. You no longer need a court. You can do it in the street. Out of challenges also come opportunities.”

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