Olympic Moment: Coe and Ovett's Moscow Battle

The story behind the famous 1980 Moscow Olympics showdown

by Pat Butcher

Ovett high res
Ovett signals "I love you" to his girlfriend back in the UK (credit: Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

Love in the air

Both Britons won their 800m heats and semis easily enough. The only intrigue of the march to the final was the mysterious messages Ovett wrote in the air following his victories. Unknown to anyone but a few friends, Ovett had been seeing a girlfriend, Rachel Waller, for over a year. Knowing his close-knit family – especially his volatile mother, to whom he was very close – would react badly, he’d kept it secret. But someone deciphered the letters ‘ILY’, and suggested Ovett was semaphoring ‘I Love You’. Back home, the press went into overdrive to discover Ovett’s secret love, and when the news got out, shortly before the 1500m final, the effect may have contributed to the result. First, though, there was the 800m final.

The pressure of his Olympic debut was getting to Coe. He admits, “This was the first time I couldn’t sleep. The following morning in the cafeteria, I dropped a jug of milk. I felt uncoordinated. By the time I got to the stadium, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, let’s just get through this’. It wasn’t ‘Let’s go out there and kick some arse.’”

Cool customer

Ovett, in contrast, was using his extra experience. Dave Warren, the third Briton in the final, recalls Ovett turning up late to the pre-final call-room. “I think he was applying this sort of psychology. He did trot in about 10 minutes after the rest of us, and I have to say, Seb was very, very nervous. Everyone was nervous, but he was very nervous.”

Neither wanted to contest the lead. Being the smallest man in the field, and having experienced trouble with barging before, Coe was trying to steer clear of trouble out in lane three. The burly Ovett was in the thick of it, and got himself boxed in behind the East Germans, but even then Coe couldn’t capitalise. He sees it now: “There’s one point in the race where he’s absolutely buried. Down the finishing straight for the first time, there is a wall of East Germans, and they weren’t small those guys, they were bigger than him.”

In the literal sense they were, but when it came to bruising tactics, Ovett was in a different league. Down the back straight of the second lap he simply burst through them and struck for home. When Coe reacted it was far too late. He ran the last 100m faster than anyone – Ovett included – but that was only good enough for silver as Ovett took gold. His nemesis had beaten him again.

Making mistakes

Coe’s take is damning: “Every mistake you can make at 800m, I made: too far off the back, too wide, too diffident; exit routes available, which I didn’t take; not covering the breaks, then coming too slow, coming too fast at the end. The whole thing was just completely wrong.”

From the ashes of that devastating experience, Coe needed a miracle. It seemed inconceivable that he could beat Ovett at Ovett’s distance. But prior to that came the recriminations, led by his father (who swore openly at him in the post-800m press conference) and the British media. Coe particularly recalled a headline over a photo taken of him running the following day: ‘Coe’s Trail Of Shame’.

Getting back on track

When Peter Coe’s temper subsided, Seb recalls a sober discussion about 1500m tactics: “We had a long chat, but we didn’t agonise, there was no long post-mortem, there wasn’t the time. We had to get the wheels back on as quickly as possible.” Coe still gave his father and fans a scare by getting badly boxed with 100m to go in his semi. Multi-record breaker Ron Clarke and 1956 3000m steeplechase Olympic champion Chris Brasher had written to  Coe after the 800m, telling him all was not lost. But even they despaired after the semi-final error, agreeing, “He just doesn’t have a racing brain.”

Coe saw it differently. “I ran a good race in the semi, and just got boxed on the bend. Two things came out of that: one was I got the mother and father of all bollockings. It was the Somme without the mud. He [his father] came at me big-time and said, ‘Do that in a race with Ovett, and you are history.’ But the interesting thing was that  I got into a tangle, and I came out of it, and I knew the speed was back.”

On the next page: Discover how Coe cruised to unlikely victory in the 1500m final.

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Discuss this article

Ah the memories.
Posted: 20/06/2012 at 22:04

Ah the memories.
Posted: 20/06/2012 at 22:04

Fantastic build up back in 1980 with these two. You were either a Coe fan or an Ovett fan.

Posted: 21/06/2012 at 05:52

20,000,000 Watched that race in UK

Posted: 21/06/2012 at 06:34

Ric: From memory the 800m Final was on the Saturday and 1500m Final the following Friday afternoon ( I'm sure ). Some viewing figures for a Friday a'noon !

Posted: 21/06/2012 at 06:43

I remember being shocked at Ovetts 800m victory. He ran well to win it though.

 I thought it would be Coe in 800m and Ovett in 1500m.

Coe was given 'a bad press' after the 800m, This was possibly his first taste of  'a bad press' after his records in summer 1979.

Posted: 22/06/2012 at 06:56

Amazing period for UK Athletics; if only we could get that back.

They use to get viewing figures of over 10 million for the Dream Mile at Bislett Games!

Posted: 22/06/2012 at 18:00

piers: Thats very true I avidly watched Oslo and Zurich back then.

 I remember 'Ovett' ( Steve Ovetts autobiography) being serialised over 3 issues in the old Running magazine back in autumn 1984 .

Posted: 23/06/2012 at 08:35

Hopefully the Olympics will bring similar memories that will enthuse the young.
Posted: 23/06/2012 at 08:48

Piers: I agree 100%

Posted: 23/06/2012 at 08:57

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