“Dead and buried” was pretty much the consensus on Sebastian Coe’s career following the 1980 Olympic 800m final. He’d been widely expected to win but although he’d taken silver, he’d run dismally. His chances of winning the 1500m later that week were broadly considered as zero.
The magnitude of Coe’s task was immense. Even now, with the benefit of 32 years’ hindsight, a Coe victory in the 1500m looks as unlikely as his defeat in the 800m – a defeat that meant he had raced his great rival Steve Ovett three times, and lost all three. This particular defeat had been different, though. Coe hadn’t simply been beaten by Ovett, he’d been humiliated. He himself admitted it had been an abject performance. So bad that Brendan Foster, who was sharing a room with him in Moscow, said, “It was almost like he didn’t want to be doing this anymore.” Ahead of him was the prospect of facing Ovett again – this time at Ovett’s best distance, over which he hadn’t been beaten for three years.
Raising the stakes
It seemed a lost cause, but somehow Coe would produce a performance that would defy all predictions. It was the moment of redemption that set him on the path to another Olympic silver and gold four years later, with the latter making him the first man in history to successfully defend an Olympic 1500m title. A path that would see him become a MP, a Lord of the Realm and the man who brought the Games back to London.
Yet, as he recently admitted, it all hinged on that most unlikely victory in Moscow. Last year, revisiting the scene, near the finish line of the Lenin (now Luzhniki) Stadium, Coe told BBC Radio, “This is the spot which probably defines everything else I’ve done in my life.” If the ebullient Ovett had won, as widely expected, Coe admitted, “He would have put me in a box, historically.” The stakes were huge, and Ovett’s failure to nail down that lid is shorthand for one of the greatest comebacks in athletics history. To understand just how great, we need to step back and take a closer look at those three defeats to Ovett.
On the beaten track
It’s a shame that these two intense rivals raced each other just seven times in 17 years. Initially, this was down to geography: Ovett lived in Brighton and Coe 250 miles away in Sheffield. Later, after the transition to the professional era, the suspicion was that they avoided each other because too many victories for one would diminish interest (and income) when they were the leading attractions on the increasingly well-paid circuit. Whatever the reasons, the rarity of their meetings gave them added weight, and by Moscow it was sitting heavily on Coe.
Coe’s first loss to Ovett, at the English Schools’ Cross-Country Championships in 1972, was understandable. Ovett was a strapping 16-year-old, already a proven track talent who would become almost as good at cross country. Coe was an underdeveloped 15-year-old who would never be even a good cross-country runner. Ovett didn’t win the race – he finished second to Kirk Dumpleton, who has the accolade of being the only Briton to beat Coe and Ovett in the same race. Coe came 10th.
Their second meeting came six years later, two years before Moscow, in the 800m at the European Championships in Prague. Again, Ovett didn’t win, but beat Coe. Since their first meeting, Ovett had rapidly developed into a world-class talent. He’d won the European junior 800m in 1973, and finished second in the European senior race two years later. Great things were predicted for the 1976 Montreal Games but, like Coe in his first Olympics, Ovett succumbed to the pressure, finishing fifth in the 800m and exiting in the 1500m heats.
Coe’s climb to the top took a more gentle trajectory. He’d taken 3000m bronze in the European juniors in 1975, because at that stage both he and his father/coach Peter thought he was destined to be a 5000m runner. Then in mid 1976, Coe had a major breakthrough at a minor athletics outpost, taking three seconds off his 800m best to run 1:47.7 in a British Milers’ Club race in Manchester.
Such was the shock to both father and son that Coe recalls driving back to Sheffield in silence, broken by Peter’s masterly understatement, “I think we might have found your best distance, old son.” And so the Coe-Ovett rivalry was really born.
The European Championships were by far Coe’s biggest meeting at that point. Nonetheless, such had been his two-lap development in parallel to Ovett’s, that the pair were clear favourites for gold and silver. Already recognising Moscow as the objective, though, Peter told Seb to go out fast “and see what the bastards are made of”. Coe’s opening lap of close to 49 seconds drew astonished gasps. The consensus was he’d gone far too fast.
A new UK record
Prior to Prague, Ovett had concentrated on the 1500m and surprised even himself by staying close to Coe at that electrifying pace. “I realised I was in terrific shape,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, I don’t feel tired. It was disconcerting. I was clicking my heels behind him, thinking, ‘When is he going to go?’ It took me 200m to realise he was flat out.” Coe still led on the crown of the final bend, then, as he tells it, “He came alongside, he was taller, and he had a white vest. I thought, there’s nothing I can do, I’ve shot my bolt. He was away. The next thing I know, this blue vest came from absolutely nowhere.” The blue vest belonged to East Germany’s Olaf Beyer, having the race of his life. His victory in 1:43.8 shaved a full two seconds off his previous best. Ovett, in second, ran his fastest-ever 800m, 1:44.1, breaking Coe’s UK record. Coe, despite the suicidal first lap, ran 1:44.8.
Coe put that painful experience to good use the following year. In an annus mirabilis, he reduced the 800m world record to 1:42.33. He then broke the mile world record with a 3:48.95, and then became the only man in history to hold all three middle-distance records simultaneously by reducing the 1500m mark to 3:32.03. It was with those magnificent accomplishments behind him that he went to Moscow. The 800m record was particularly significant, as it was almost two seconds faster than Ovett had – or would – ever run. And it made Coe the outstanding favourite over two laps in Moscow. The only caveat Ovett could cling to was that Coe’s records had all been set with pacemakers.
On the next page: Find out how Ovett took 800m gold in the event Coe was expected to win.