David Owen

It is a measure of Mike Lee's stature in the small, rather esoteric world that we and many of you inhabit that his recent death at the woefully early age of 61 serves to underline with sombre finality what we have known for a year now: that the golden age of Olympic bidding is over. 

The day before his passing, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in effect confirmed that Senegal would host the 2022 Youth Olympics. 

I have detected little by way of a campaign since February when the field was to all intents and purposes restricted to Africa, and any vote appears a formality, some might say a waste of time, with only one candidate.

What a contrast with the manner in which Buenos Aires won the right to stage next month's 2018 Youth Olympics five years ago, after a campaign, in its final days at least, almost as animated as a race for the Olympics themselves.

In a genuine three-cornered contest, the Argentinian capital, advised by Lee, edged out South American rival Medellín, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and all, by 49 votes to 39 after Glasgow had finished third.

The subsequent bear hug/embrace between Lee and Argentinian IOC member Gerardo Werthein had a force more readily associated with the front row of the Pumas rugby team.

This was just one among many sports election victories for Lee and colleagues at Vero Communications after the company was founded in 2006, in the wake of London 2012's surprise come-from-behind Olympic and Paralympic triumph.

Not that victory became inevitable once Lee got involved: not even he could persuade the IOC to stage the Olympics in Doha, though he was part of the team on Qatar's winning 2022 FIFA World Cup bid.

Vero also worked for Morocco 2026 in its recent David-against-Goliath clash with the joint United States/Canada/Mexico bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Mike Lee, left, and Sebastian Coe, key players in the London 2012 bid ©Getty Images
Mike Lee, left, and Sebastian Coe, key players in the London 2012 bid ©Getty Images

That two-horse-race was only ever going to end one way, as a consultant with Lee’s breadth of experience must have realised.

But, like a good barrister, he and his colleagues invariably enabled clients to make the best possible case for their particular bid, not shrinking from aggressive or potentially controversial tactics if he judged that they could be advantageous.

Comprehensive knowledge of the rules governing any particular contest, and hence how far they could be pushed, was a given.

I have had dealings with Lee on and off since the early 1990s, when I was a member of the Financial Times' UK politics team and he was working for the future Labour Cabinet Minister David Blunkett.

We even once lined up on opposing football teams; I seem to remember we more or less marked one another out of the match.

According to PR Week, Lee once described the period after the 1992 UK general election, won surprisingly by the Conservatives under John Major, as something of a "career crisis".

It is worth remembering, however, that this was the Government that set up the National Lottery and hence put a rocket under Great Britain's sports performance, particularly at the Olympics.

In any event, Lee's grounding in the rough and tumble of mainstream British politics was vital to the conduct of the campaign for which he will always be best remembered - the London 2012 Olympic bid.

It is no coincidence, I think, that both he and Sebastian Coe - a Conservative MP at exactly this time, from 1992 to 1997 - had first-hand experience of the nitty-gritty of front-line politics.

With Lee in the communications director's hot seat, the bid set out to apply some of the lessons learnt in the Westminster hot house to an Olympic campaign, targeting floating voters as if they were marginal constituencies.

Look again at the groundbreaking filmed sequences of the London 2012 final presentation and you notice they focus on young athletes in unspecified African, Asian and South/Central American communities.

Some of the flags in crowd scenes were selected specifically with certain IOC voters in mind.

London's chief rival Paris, by contrast, stuck with a more traditional tourist film-type approach, played safe and paid the penalty.

For all that, the biggest stroke of authentic genius in a bid campaign that Lee had a hand in came four years later in the Rio 2016 final presentation in Copenhagen.

There we were lined up in the Danish capital, all expecting the Cidade Maravilhosa to take on the might of Barack Obama’s Chicago and the other bidders with girls from Ipanema, the beautiful game, Copacabana and the rest.

What we got was the solemn, sober-suited figure of Henrique Meirelles, the central bank governor, on the booming Brazilian economy and its reliability as a business partner.

Of course, times can change, and the IOC top brass may later have had cause to regret that the voting system delivered Rio not Chicago or Madrid, and later Pyeongchang not Munich, in another winning campaign, for the 2018 Winter Games, Lee was involved with.

This, along with other factors such as protracted economic stagnation in the West and concerns over scope for corruption, may have motivated the shift away from out-and-out reliance on voting by rank-and-file IOC members for host city selection that we have witnessed under Thomas Bach's Presidency.

In that sense, bid strategists such as Lee might be viewed to a degree as victims of their own success.

Like other journalist colleagues, I sometimes felt the rough side of Lee's tongue.

But it was never personal, and I noticed how, between campaigns, he would often go out of his way to cement good relations.

This charming side of his character helps to explain how, having driven Paris to despair in the 2012 race, he was promptly hired by them for 2024.

Mike Lee was a master of sporting communications ©Getty Images
Mike Lee was a master of sporting communications ©Getty Images

I presume his path to this role was smoothed by his relationship with former rugby union head honcho Bernard Lapasset, forged initially during the successful campaign to get rugby sevens onto the Olympic programme.

Lapasset went on, of course, to assume a leading role in the Paris 2024 bid.

Paris duly secured its third Summer Games with Lee on board, though not I think in the manner they would have envisaged when taking the South Shields-born PR guru and his colleagues on.

Some days Lee would be the most entertaining of companions; on others he could drive you around the twist with the tenacity with which he tried to bring you around to his way of thinking.

But the sports business was rarely dull when he was on the scene.

What we must now I suppose accept as his final Tweet, dated July 30, concerned another underdog bid - that of Turkey for the 2024 European football championships.

I frankly still find it hard to believe that he will not be onto me later over the use of "underdog" in that last sentence.

It is harder still to think that little more than six years after the Olympic Cauldron was put out in the east end of London, both Lee and Tessa Jowell are gone.

Respect, Mike, and farewell; nobody did what you did better.