Series12 Nov 1998

A day in the Life of... Steve Ovett


Steve Ovett after winning the 800m at the 1980 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)

Steve Ovett, the 1980 Olympic 800 metres champion and former world record-holder at 1,500 metres, mile and two miles, now lives on the Scottish borders with his wife, Rachel, and four children - Alexandra, aged eight, Georgie, six, Freddy, who's nearly five, and Lois, who is nearly two.

His working life is divided between running the country house that is the family home, and providing television commentaries on international athletics for the IAAF and international marketing agency ISL....

"We have four young children, so my day usually begins quite early, around 6.00 or 6.30, because once the kids are up, there's no chance of staying in bed or staying asleep. I'll usually have breakfast, help to get the kids ready for school and get them off to school, then I'll come back to the house and get started on some work. Usually, there's some correspondence and paperwork to relating to the house, a few phone calls to make, and then look into whether there's any work needed on the house or grounds.

We moved here, to Kinmount House, near Annan, by the Solway Firth on the west coast of Scotland, ten years ago, and much of my time since then has been spent working hard. When we moved in, the place was a bit neglected, and needed a lot of renovation work. It's taken all of this time to get things as we want them, and it takes a lot of work to keep things that way, but now Kinmount House is recognised as one of the leading, prestige holiday venues in Scotland. We have several self-catering cottages in the grounds, and people staying there have use of a gym and swimming pool, and outside there's some good golf courses, and on the estate there's salmon fishing, miles of hills for some fabulous walking and climbing, or cycling, even running.

Once my morning work on the house is finished, there is no "usual" format to my day. During the summer months, obviously, I do a lot of travelling, following the athletics circuit in order to do television work for the IAAF. At other times during the year, I might have to drive to the airport - about an hour to Glasgow or Newcastle - and fly off to, say, London for a children's charity function, or to record some commentary for ISL. And then sometimes, I might just take a fishing rod and go to the river.

Today, for instance, I couldn't go fishing because we've had so much rain lately that the rivers are in full spate, and anyway, I'm having to take a lot of calls and visits relating to the presidency of Athletics UK.

I'm not running for president. My name has been put forward. Someone phoned me up and said the post was about to be contested. They said that they felt the sport needed something different this time around - fresh blood, new ideas, someone who hasn't got a hidden agenda or old alliances. Someone to get the sport back on line, to start to produce talented athletes again, because we're not producing enough talented youngsters at the moment, particularly in my old events, the middle distances.

I argued against standing for the presidency, long and hard. But I could not come up with a reason not to. It's a two-year term, and we're past the situation where the presidency is just a gesture of thanks for all the good work done in the past, without any expectancy attached to the job. I think this time, the president's got an opportunity to change the sport, and do things that will benefit the sport for another decade.

I'm not the sort of person who's so enveloped in the sport that I lose track of reality. I also happen to think that it's just a damn sport, and that there are other things outside athletics, which I think a lot of people within our sport don't realise.

For them, the sport is their life, and they can make it hard work. I think someone needs to cut through it all, to say that it is just a sport. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we'll be able to put our house in order.

We in Britain should be going abroad to see what the Spanish and the Portuguese are doing, we should go to Teddington to see how the British-based Kenyans are training, learn from the people who have done it.

When I started out, you could get a GB vest with a four-minute mile. There was no reason for me to improve beyond that, but the world record was about 3:51. I thought ‘If I'm going to be in the sport, I want to get the best out of myself, get as close to the world level as possible, and train accordingly’. I went through the whole system, from nothing to learning as much as I could. I experimented and failed; I experimented and succeeded.

I've gone through the lot, Olympics, Europeans, Commonwealths, I've done track, cross-country, road running, I was a star at school, at junior level at senior level, I won national cross-country titles, at road relays I ran the fastest stages, I won everything that was to be won on the track. Yet in the decade since I retired, I've been asked for advice just twice, and one of those athletes was told not to speak to me.

I want to contribute something that will help the whole structure, not just one or two top individuals, something that can be applied from the base and work its way through so that we have star athletes in 10 years' time. I can't wave a magic wand to turn today's top athletes into world beaters, it's the 15- and 16-year-olds we need to look at and try to help.

I'm not a magician, I can't perform miracles. But I do have some ideas about how we can try to turn things around. I've just spoken to a friend who is coaching in Australia, and he says the situation is just the same out there - the number of kids coming into the sport is just falling away. Obviously, when you have fewer people coming into the sport, you're less likely to get the real talents taking up athletics.

But the world has changed since the days when I was a boy, when in Brighton where I grew up, there was football in the winter and cricket in the summer, and little else to do.

Now, in Britain, in Australia, in America and probably most of the western world, teenagers have so many opportunities opening up to them, so many choices. We, the sport of athletics, have got to get out there and compete with other sports, to make our sport appeal to teenagers, to make them want to take up our sport. We need to go into the schools, find the talent, find out what they need, give them help.

It's the biggest question facing our sport today: how do you get athletically talented people to take up the sport, and how do you then get the best out of them? I don't know all the answers, but I know there are better ways of doing it.

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