Today I look at another great running rivalry.
MOSCOW 1980: TWO BRILLIANT CAREERS
Long before Sebastian, Lord Coe, hit the giddy heights of presiding over London 2012 and then taking over as grand pooh-bah of the IAAF from Lamine Diack, he was a middle distance runner. A very good one too. I mentioned it here, particularly his 1500m run at the Los Angeles Olympics.
But as happens – although relatively rarely – there was someone else of his generation, from the same country, who was every bit as good as him. Steve Ovett.
Just as Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson were chalk and cheese in personality and background, so were Coe and Ovett.
Coe was from a privileged background, Ovett was from a more modest one. Coe was short and assured, Ovett was tall and gangly. Coe was from the north, Ovett from the south. Coe was comfortable and relaxed talking with media, Ovett was uncomfortable and prickly. And because they were compatriots, the people of Britain tended to fall into either being a Coe supporter or an Ovett supporter.
The two first raced as teenagers in a schoolboys’ cross-country championship in 1972. The 16-year-old Ovett came second with the 15-year-old Coe third. (The schoolboy who won that day didn’t pursue an athletic career; he became a teacher).
That teenage rivalry turned into what appeared to be an aversion to racing against each other. In fact, it took until 1989 before they raced each other again in Britain. By that time, Ovett was 33 and was on his last legs as a runner and on the verge of retirement. Such was their aversion to racing one another that Sebastian Coe even went to the lengths of having an ‘Ovett avoidance’ clause in his race appearance contracts.
In all, they raced each other only six times in the 800m in their entire careers: four of those races came in Olympic finals.
Nowhere was the rivalry more intense than the Moscow Olympics. While much of the track-and-field competition was depleted by the absence of the Americans, Kenyans, the West Germans and 62 other countries* the middle distance races were not. The presence of Coe and Ovett was the reason why.
The Moscow Olympics was known for many things – including an unofficial billing as the ‘Coe v Ovett Olympics’.
Ovett won the 800m, which was seen as Coe’s natural distance. It wasn’t straightforward, as he had to manouevre around some East Germans who were trying to box him in. Coe ran wide and relied on his trademark late kick to see him awarded the Silver Medal. By all accounts, Ovett was relaxed heading into the race; Coe has since said he ran the worst 800m of his life – and was, embarrassingly, chastised in public by his father by the track.
Unbeaten over the distance for three years and 45 races, Ovett was favourite for the 1500m. But the race was slow. This favoured Coe who effectively ran the final two laps as an 800m race – all the time looking around for his rival – and kicked-on around the final bend to easily take the Gold Medal. Ovett was outpaced for third by East German Jurgen Straube.
What it meant was that the score between the two rivals from Great Britain was 1-1 from the Moscow Olympics.
In the following year, they each continued to break one another’s world record over the 1500m. Coe also set an 800m world record that took 16 years to fall.
By the time 1984 rolled around for the Los Angeles Olympics, the rivalry wasn’t the same.
For a start, other, younger runners had come on the scene. Ovett suffered a bronchitial attack before the games that was exacerbated by the Los Angeles smog. He struggled through to the final of the 800m, ran the race, came last, and then collapsed in the tunnel afterwards and was hospitalised. Coe won the Silver behind Brazilian Joaquim Cruz.
Remarkably, Ovett discharged himself from hospital to run in the 1500m final but dropped-out with 350m to go. Coe kicked for home and became the first man to defend a 1500m track and field title.
Today, Ovett says the two are not rivals – and that the rivalry between the two was largely exaggerated. Ovett also credits Coe as one of the “all-time greats” of middle distance running.
In total, Coe won two Olympic Golds, two Olympic Silvers and 11 world records. Ovett won an Olympic Gold, an Olympic Bronze, two World Championship Golds and six world records including the two-mile world record for nine years.
Whether you’re a Coe or Ovett supporter, they were both brilliant careers.