Coe was primed for action the following day, while Ovett was paying for his ‘ILY’ in the sky. The press had found Rachel Waller, snapped her on her parents’ doorstep and splashed the pics all over the papers, which arrived in Moscow just before the final. Ovett’s training partner Matt Paterson was staying with Ovett’s parents, Gay and Mick, in Moscow. He recalls, “Gay came in with this newspaper, slapped it on the table and said, ‘What the f**k is this all about?’ Then all hell broke loose, shouting and screaming, and it must have affected Steve big-time. It was very humid in Moscow, and I think Steve was suffering from the heat. I still thought he would win both golds, I knew what shape he was in, but what I didn’t know was the effect the family upheaval would have on him.”
Neither Ovett’s family problems nor Coe’s renewed confidence were known to the public. Everyone expected Ovett to win again, but when the gun went this time, Coe signalled his intent by falling in right behind the leader, East Germany’s Jürgen Straub. There was none of the nonsense of the 800m – running wide, diffidently, out of touch. Here was a man ready for action. But there wasn’t much for the first 800m, run in a funereal 2:05.05. Straub was content to lead and the others, led by Coe, were content to follow. Ovett, ominously, stayed just a stride behind Coe.
Going for gold
Then it all happened. Jürgen Straub lengthened his stride and suddenly had two to three metres on Coe, with Ovett still tucked right behind. Within 50m, the pack sprung open, Straub had switched from 2:05 800m pace to 1:46 and only Coe and Ovett could live with that burst. The trio were well clear of the rest, even before the bell.
Up in the stands, Peter Coe was already celebrating. “I just whooped for joy,” he recalled. “Straub was winding it up, and it was very good. I thought no one [but Seb] could stand the extended pace like that.” Having run the lap from 800m to 1200m in 54 seconds, Straub then accelerated again. Down the back straight for the last time, into the final 200m, the East German was four metres clear. And Ovett was still a stride behind Coe.
But then it was Coe’s turn to kick. It was subtle but effective. He gradually closed on Straub while easing away from Ovett. Suddenly he was on Straub’s shoulder, then a stride ahead, and the gap to Ovett was widening. All three were at their limit. Coe had often talked of the 800m as being won by the man who slowed down the least at the end, but now that was happening in the 1500m final. It was as if the final 100m was being played out in slow motion, until finally the relief spread across Coe’s face. His ecstasy was captured in one of the most famous photos in Olympic history (and which opens this feature). When all had seemed lost, Coe had turned the tables in the most exhilarating fashion.
“It was complete relief,” recalls Coe. “I don’t think I ever thought I’d won until I crossed the line. It was the days before the diamond screen, so you didn’t have the luxury of looking up and thinking, ‘God, I’m clear here.’ I was just driving as hard as I could, thinking, ‘At some stage...’ But it didn’t happen.”
We all know what, or rather who he was thinking of. But Ovett hadn’t even managed silver. Straub’s drive had kept him clear, and Ovett had to settle for bronze. The irony was delicious, the significance huge. This was far better than if the British pair had won the races they were supposed to win. It was now obvious that they were good enough to win both. And they would keep on being too good for everyone else for years to come.
Pat Butcher is the author of The Perfect Distance: Ovett & Coe, The Record Breaking Rivalry (£8.99, Orion Books)