Coe & Ovett
This week’s Running Heroes instalment was a lot of fun to research and produce, bringing back some great memories. Two iconic middle distance runners from my youth, a rivalry made all the more interesting because of their backgrounds & characters – as you’ll read in this post.
I was glued to the Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984) games as a young sport enthusiast, watching these two battle over 800 and 1500m in finals at the very highest level of their sport.
But the rivalry goes back a long way between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, so I’ll try to distill it down here for you in a quick post.
Born in 1955, the son of a working class family of market traders in Brighton, England, Steve was a natural athlete.
A talented footballer in his teens, he was also a natural middle distance runner, with a deadly kick, making him almost unbeatable at 1500m and the mile. He was a street kid, a tough runner, who battled for everything – no college degree for Steve, he left school and became a full time athlete at 18. After showboating to victory in the 1500m European Championships, Ovett’s reputation as a cocky talent grew and grew. Famously uncooperative with the media, Steve was the ‘bad boy’ of UK Athletics through the 70’s and 80’s.
Born in 1956, Coe came from a comfortable middle class family, his father coached him as a middle distance runner from an early age and the family was soon orientated around ensuring his long term success.
As a schoolboy his results (unlike Ovett) were unexceptional, Coe went to University in Loughborough, the UK’s leading University for potential Olympians and worked, and worked, grinding out hundredth’s of a second, inching towards his goal.
Almost the exact opposite of Ovett, Coe is a product of effort, discipline and hard work. Coe always gave good press to the media, was well spoken and a great ambassador for his sport.
Between 1978 and 1984, Coe and Ovett were unquestionably the worlds finest middle distance runners, setting 12 world records and winning 5 Olympic medals between them.
But it was much more than a rivalry of stars. If you are a British runner in your forties or fifties, you are either a Coe person, or an Ovett person. Coe for the purists (think Roger Federer), Ovett for the rebels (think Usain Bolt). It was a rivalry steeped in the class system and culture of the country through the 1980’s. I was 11 when I watched the Moscow Olympics – hit hard by the US boycott, 15 when I saw the guy with the jetpack at the opening ceremony in LA, watched Daley Thompson win Gold and saw Coe and Ovett battle again – images and events etched in my memory.
From a pure records point of view, 1981 is the standout season, where both men exchanged world records over an electrifying summer, but the Moscow Olympics is probably more famous. Watch the 800m final now;
Going in, Coe is the favourite, unbeaten over two laps of the track for the previous year.
A complete turn around, Ovett wins Coe’s event. Coe is absolutely gutted. This pic of the two me on the podium says a lot to me, about honour, teamwork and just how much that result hurt Coe.
Fast forward a couple of days and it’s the 1500m, Ovett’s distance. Will he do the double? How will Coe respond after that crushing defeat?
Coe wins! Ovett actually runs one of the poorest 1500’s he’s done in about 5 years, but it’s Coe’s night. Honours Even.
After this Coe goes from strength to strength, but Ovett starts to fade. Come 1984, Ovett is ill, but doesn’t really feature in either 800 or 1500 finals as Coe holds his 1500m again and wins Silver in the 800m.
From here Steve Ovett steps away from the UK limelight, moves to Australia and takes up a career as an Athletics commentator on Aussie TV. I can only find this one pic of Steve and Seb in later life, reunited at the London Olympic opening ceremony in 2012.
Coe on the other hand has gone from strength to strength. A Member of the UK Parliament (MP) in 1992 and appointed Lord Coe in 2000, he was the driving force behind the successful London 2012 campaign as head of LOCOG (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) and is currently chairman of the British Olympic Committee.
This article from The Guardian, an imaginary diary of the London Olympic preparations if Steve Ovett had been in charge, gives you a good insight into the way the British Press (and public) viewed Steve and Seb.
Me? I was always an Ovett kid.
His attitude, the kick for home, the attitude towards authority and the swagger won me over as a kid and I’ve never looked back. Coe I can admire for his determination and discipline, but I just don’t like the guy, I’m not shouting his name at the TV in the final straight and I just can’t empathise with him.
How about you? Steve or Seb?
In summary, this was a rivalry up there with the greatest individual rivalries in sport;
Watson & Nicklaus, Hunt and Lauda, McEnroe and Borg. Elite sports people, different backgrounds, different characters.
This is what makes sport so bloody amazing!
Next week we’ll head to East Africa, and to Iten, home of champions.