The Perfect Distance - Coe versus Ovett (© Orion)
Sebastian Coe’s status as Olympic hero is doubly assured. His unrivalled back to back gold medals in the blue riband 1500 metres always meant that he came high on any list of Olympic achievement. And when he masterminded the recent victory of the London 2012 bid, any debate was dispelled. Yet 25 years ago today, Coe was on the verge of Olympic oblivion.
Not only had the World record holder in the 800 metres been beaten at the Moscow Olympics by his great domestic rival Steve Ovett, but Coe had been made to look a novice, and on his own admission was in danger of being, “put in a box historically”. The biggest shock of his young life happened a quarter of century ago, July 26, 1980.
Coe, the darling of the media, and Ovett, who wouldn’t even talk to the press, stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the world at both 800 and 1500 metres. But Coe’s World record for the shorter race put him around 25 metres ahead of Ovett on paper.
There was just one minor doubt, magnified in the prism of the Olympic looking glass – Coe had never beaten Ovett. But having set three World records the previous year, the whole world, backed up by the bookies, had decided that Coe would win the 800 metres and Ovett would take the 1500 title.
But neither of the protagonists, it seemed had read the script. With close to 20 million people in Britain alone watching on TV, still the biggest domestic audience for an athletics event, the two men charged off into history. David Warren was the third Brit in the field, and until just before the race was equally convinced that Coe was going to win.
“I did, until we were held in the warm-up room, in the bowels of the Moscow stadium,” says Warren, who is now a F1 administrator. “There were seven of us in there, and no Ovett. It was last into the blocks, first one out, this sort of psychology. And I have to say, Seb was very, very nervous, I mean, everyone was nervous, but he was very nervous”.
Dave Moorcroft was an enthralled spectator. “As he walked out to the line, Steve Ovett was in control of that situation,” says Moorcroft, former 5000 metres World record holder, and now head of UK Athletics. “Seb looked frightened, and as they were running that first lap, Seb lost control”.
Bad-boy Ovett won unchallenged in a time that Coe could normally have done on the training track. Coe had wilted under pressure, and was then almost buried a second time, by his media pals. As Coe recalls. “The following morning, I went out for 10,12 miles and didn’t even notice all these photographers hanging out of a car, which is probably symptomatic of the way I was at the time. Of course, the Sunday papers arrived a couple of days later, there was the picture with the headline, Coe’s Trail of Shame”.
No one gave Coe the ghost of a chance of beating Ovett in the 1500 metres. Although they shared the world record, and Coe was only a fraction behind Ovett’s world mile record, Ovett had not been beaten at either distance for three years. But this time, Coe had realised it was all-or-nothing. In contrast, the pressure of the ‘golden double’ was getting to Ovett.
Steve Cram, who would eventually take over from the pair as the world’s leading miler was the ‘third man’ in the 1500 final. Cram recalls, “Once he (Ovett) won the 800, you thought, ‘Well, he’s just going to turn up and win the 1500. Bloody hell, Coe needn’t bother turning up’.”
“Then watching Steve’s demeanour in and around the warm-up, I thought, ‘Hang on, here’s a guy who isn’t exactly handling this’. He was nervous and he was getting locked into, ‘What’s Seb doing?’ In the call-up room, Seb was the one who was very, very focussed.”
Coe transferred that focus to the track, but not without a bit of help from a joker in the pack. As an East German, Jurgen Straub never competed on the circuit where the two Britons set their World records, but he had targeted his career entirely on this one race.
Straub led for the first three laps, but at a pace that would favour the fast finishers. Ovett made the mistake of following Coe, who said afterwards, “It was Christmas come early - two warm-up laps and an 800 metres. If anybody made any errors that day, they really thought that I must have been so buried, so out of form after the 800 metres, they risked it”.
Ovett was the fastest finisher in the final straight, but Coe didn’t leave it that late, he launched a long and unstoppable kick from 200 metres out. “I never thought that I’d won until I crossed the line. I was just driving as hard as I could, thinking, ‘At some stage….’. But it never happened”.
What did happen was that Coe, against all the odds had won the race of his life. Sounds familiar, eh? Like, when Coe took over leadership of the London 2012 bid 18 months ago, when it was judged to be a poor third, behind Paris and Madrid. Coe shared the honours with Ovett in Moscow, but it was Union Jacks all the way. This time, it’s still Union Jacks, but the glory is all Coe’s. The lesson was learned a long time ago.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF
*Pat Butcher’s book ‘The Perfect Distance: Ovett & Coe – The Record Breaking Rivalry’ is out in paperback (Phoenix Sport, £7.99)
** A radio documentary, presented by Pat Butcher, and celebrating the achievements of Coe and Ovett in Moscow will be aired several times on BBC World Service, beginning this Thursday, July 28, at 09.30, 14.30 and 20.30 (all times GMT). Also Friday 01.30, and Sunday 03.30 and 19.30.