Hell’s fury may be nothing compared to a woman’s scorn, but angering the wrong female could lose you the biggest prize in sport. According to the head of the London Olympic Organizing Committee, Sebastian Coe, that’s precisely what happened when Britain won its bid to host the 2012 Summer Games over rival Paris, after an infuriated Cherie Blair chased French President Jacques Chirac out of a crucial pre-selection event in anger over the Frenchman’s insult to British cuisine.
Deprived of its schmoozer-in-chief, Coe says, backers of the Paris proposal were no match for the lobbying of the London contingent, which wound up overcoming heavy odds to beat the French. Never has a snub of one nation’s food by another had such Olympian consequences.
(MORE: TIME’s complete 2012 Olympic Website)
The tale of the culinary clash that forever changed Olympic history was recounted in Coe’s new autobiography, Running My Life — excerpts of which were published Oct. 29 by the Times of London. It centers on a July, 2005 reception in Singapore that provided cities seeking to host the 2012 Olympics their last opportunity to flatter, cajole, entice and brow-beat International Olympic Committee delegates to back their submissions. Just days earlier at a G8 summit in Scotland, however, Chirac was heard dissing Britons to then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that,” he reportedly said, adding “After Finland, [the UK is] the country with the worst food.”
But Chirac wasn’t laughing when, three days later, he found himself confronted at an IOC reception by Cherie Blair—wife of former British premier Tony Blair, one of Britain’s most accomplished lawyers in her own right and, it turns out, a real patriot when it comes to British food. Blair went after Chirac in a manner Coe likened to both “a heat-seeking missile” and “a banshee”.
“Above the hubbub her voice rang loud and clear. ‘I gather you’ve been saying rude things about our food’, she said, at a volume that would have done justice to a packed courtroom,” Coe says of the encounter. “Her husband, who could hear as well as I could, had assiduously turned away.”
Chirac lamely assured Blair that she shouldn’t believe everything attributed to him, but the barrister fired back: “I didn’t read it. I saw it on television”. At that point, Coe reports, Chirac “couldn’t get out of that building fast enough” — and was in such a hurry he left gathering of IOC gods without meeting anyone “who really mattered.”
Coe suggests the loss of their biggest VIP heavyweight left the heavily-favored Paris contingent unequipped to counter a formidable and ultimately successful last-gasp charm offensive by London backers to win the rights to host the 2012 Games. Indeed, the French were so shocked and dismayed at the result that some officials—notably Paris Mayor Betrand Delanoë—actually accused the London representatives of having used underhanded tactics to pull off their coup. Regardless, the torch, so to speak, was ultimately passed to the British, resulting in this summer’s wildly successful London Games. Parisians are left to console themselves with the prospect of a trampoline bridge across the Seine — and, of course, their infinitely superior food.