(P122) - London's new 2012 Olympics bid leader Barbara Cassani is to enlist marquee names

she tells Hugh Muir - The Guardian, Saturday 21 June 2003 (Sport p.15)

Cherie Blair will, after all, have a part to play in securing the 2012 Olympic Games for London. Along with, almost inevitably, David and Victoria Beckham and members of the royal family. The campaign by a national newspaper to have the prime minister's wife lead the bid may have fizzled out rather miserably amid sneers from the sporting world but the high flyer who will, the American born business woman Barbara Cassani, is prepared to be magnanimous.

Yesterday she played down suggestions of a formal role for Mrs Blair but said the prospect of such high-profile support was too good to miss.

"I have a call in to her and I would love to take her energy and the fact that she is in such a privileged position to travel the world and meet people,"

Cassani said.

"I want to make sure she understands what we are doing so, as she talks about London as she travels, she understands how the bid is coming along."

Barbara Cassani established an airline in six months but will have two years to put together a creditable bid for London to host the 2012 Olympics - photograph: Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Bidding with Becks and Blair

Having the Beckhams involved is an idea Cassani has stolen from the media.

"I would love to invite him and his wife as two of the highest-profile people in the world to offer their commitment to the games in 2012. I know that they are heading to Madrid but 2012 is a long way away and I bet they will be back for the games. We are also speaking with a lot of different high-profile people about how the could help us, because this bid is not going to be won by me, it is going to be won by everyone in London, including people who travel the world who are very influential, sporting people and government people and royalty - everyone will I be part of us winning this."

Cassani, 42, who rose to fame as the founder of the low-cost airline Go, will also expect the commercial world to fly the flag.

"I haven't even really started talking to business people" she said. "So many of the top companies in Britain are active globally and they can help influence the perception of the world as to our readiness to take on the challenge of the games."

London's bid leader was the unanimous choice of the three "stakeholders": the culture secretary Tessa Jowell, London's mayor Ken Livingstone and the British Olympic Association (BOA). Having been appointed on a £200,000 salary, she will now expect them to stand back and allow her to run the bid without excessive interference. She expects Charles Allen, the Granada Television chairman who chaired Manchester's Commonwealth Games, to play a part, either as her deputy or an unofficial "sounding board".

Born in Boston, Massachusetts and educated at Princeton University, Cassani started from scratch in 1997 and had Go up and running in only six months. By 2002 the airline employed 900 people and had full-year profits of £4.2m. She quit last year after the airline was bought by Easyjet.

Her appointment and its timing have both been controversial. The fact that she is American caused muttering among traditionalists at the BOA but those responsible for her selection cite her as a symbol of London's cultural diversity.

"I am American," she says. "It has been reported that I have a British passport but I don't. My husband is British and so are my children and we live in London. I have been here for a total of 13 years and feel a great affinity for the place. Over 25% of the people who live here were not born in the UK, which is extraordinary. I have chosen to live here when I could live anywhere in the world. It was a really natural thing to say, 'Hey she is not British'. Would it have been better if I was British? Sure. But I think, through my actions of the past 13 or 14 years, I have proven a commitment and I certainly have the skills to pull it off."

There have also been complaints that Britain's competitors have had a month's head start because of the gap between the announcement of the bid and this week's appointment. But Cassani remains unruffled.

"We have two years from now to put the bid together. A lot of work has been done in the background. I haven't done an Olympics before but I started an airline in six months. If you get organised, stay very focused on what your objective is and get on with it you can do it. I am very positive about our ability to catch up and move ahead of our competitors."

She was apparently selected for her charm and tenacity, and part of her strategy will be to focus on the strengths of London's bid rather than its competitors.

"It happens in the airline business, you can become very paranoid worrying about what your competitors are doing but, if you take that energy and put it into what you need to do, that is the best way to address it. London is a world-class city and everyone knows London is a world-class city. The expectation is that we will put together a world-class proposal and that is what we will do."

She knows about business but it remains to be seen whether her sporting credentials pass muster. She owns horses and is well known on the three-day eventing circuit. She says she also understands something of the pain sportsmen endure because her husband Guy Davis - an investment banker - is also a competitive amateur swimmer. Two weeks ago in Swansea he won the over - 40s national title for the 100m individual medley. Hardly in the Ian Thorpe class but she views his effort as

"a small microcosm of what it must be like for the people going for gold"

Age 42
Born Boston, Massachusetts
Lives London, since 1985
Education Mount Holyoke College; Princeton University-BA(Hons) International Relations (magna cum laude); Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Management consultant for Coopers & Lybrand in Washington DC and London
1987-97 British Airways: 87-92 - manager, integrating acquisition, sales and marketing roles; 92-93 - part of team which acquired Dan Air; 93-97 - General manager, New York; 97 - managed feasibility study into a low-cost airline
Go Fly Ltd, chief executive

This is the second time she has made her own luck. She began her career at British Airways after she answered a newspaper job advertisement. This time when she learned that a newspaper had named her as a possible bid leader, she rang the headhunters.

"I said I loved the Olympics and was glad I was on their list. They said 'Great you have just saved us a phone call'."

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21/6/03 Last updated 21/6/03