Category Archives: Book

Lives; Running reviewed

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Book review in Track Statistics magazine, summer 2015

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We must all have met people who are such concentrations of energy that the question that comes to mind is ‘How do they find more than 24 hours in each day?’ When I met David Renton recently, that was exactly where my thoughts travelled.

But to begin at the beginning. Sports writing is a difficult pursuit and is not generally noted for its outstanding literary merit. There are, fortunately, a few exceptions in the athletics sphere. To begin a book with the words ‘The first man I saw run, really run, was Jack London’ is the mark of a skilled and imaginative writer and W. R. Loader did just that in Testament of a Runner. Another who displayed impressive command of descriptive language was the prodigious F.A.M.Webster whose pen-pictures of past athletes are arresting and vivid. Then one who doesn’t seem to have received due praise, in my view, was Sam Ferris whose long series of articles on road running events for Athletics Weekly in the decades after World War 2 were so compelling that one can almost hear the patter of the plimsoll soles on the tarmac.

Let us now add the name of Renton which will almost certainly be unfamiliar to readers of this journal. David Renton is an Eton College-educated, London-based Barrister with political views which place him on the Left. But, in his book Lives;Running the reader will get little of powdered wigs or manifestos for change. What you will get is a fine read by a man who loves his running and communicates its joys and pains in a way which will stimulate even those whose interest in sport is limited. But he is more than that. He has published around a dozen books on a range of topics, he has consuming interests in sports, social and family history, he is a family man with two small children and he holds down a demanding job.

The first words in this book I have a short stilted stride. I do not stretch, rather I scuttle like a clubfooted beetle tell us that here is a man who accepts his limitations but is not discouraged from the challenges of seeking physical and mental fitness through running. In fact, Renton’s family background shows a strong sporting tradition. His grandfather competed for his college at Oxford University at cricket, cross-country, football and rugby. His father was accomplished at rowing. Renton himself was to achieve 1:59.7 for 800 metres whilst still a schoolboy. Then, after a break from running which lasted for 8 years, he returned to the sport and combined it with cycling. Eventually he entered the London Marathon where he battled to even finish but recorded 4 hours 24 minutes.

Renton devotes a great deal of space in the book to recalling the rivalry between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. This section is wonderfully evocative of a time when British middle-distance runners dominated the world. Renton reminds us that the rivalry was so intense that even athletics supporters (and indeed many people outside the sport) were either for the majestic Coe or cheered for the down-to-earth Ovett. The author makes no secret of his partiality when he writes after the 1500 metres in Moscow [the 1980 Olympic race] Coe asked his rival ‘Where did you finish’. It was only with Ovett’s reply that he had finished 3rd did Coe relax. Yet on the occasions when both athletes lost, Ovett could be seen comforting the younger man. He continues It was that capacity for warmth, sympathy and human solidarity which represented for me Ovett’s victory. I find it difficult to argue with that personal judgement. Whether that made Ovett the better athlete is another question. David Renton’s own view is that there was little to choose between them in innate athletic ability. What he concludes is that their personal backgrounds indelibly shaped the athletes they became. As is well known, Coe was guided closely by his father who made no secret of his determination to mould his son into a high achiever after the boy had failed his 11+. Coe senior believed that hard work paid dividends. But then so did Ovett’s family, successful market traders in Brighton. But is was certainly always my impression that the atmosphere in the Ovett household may have been more relaxed that that at the Coe’s. Whatever, their sons grew into very different human beings.

Renton goes on to describe how he again stopped running after he became a father, only returning to the activity in recent times when past his 40th birthday. Good for him. He writes of what running means for him With just a few other pleasures, running is part of my nature. It is something I could barely exist without. I run to feel the air cool and my body warm. Running has repeatedly surprised me, it has shaken me out of the torpor of daily living. Besides the London Marathon, Renton has tackled a whole series of half-marathons including in Hackney and Oxford and has no intention of cutting back on his efforts.

A few hours with David Renton is unlikely to leave you feeling bored as I discovered on a recent Sunday afternoon in north London. His conversation ranges over topics so far and wide that one cannot avoid being mentally stimulated. On the sport of track and field athletics I put to him my feeling that, whilst professionalism is to be welcomed because it has broken down barriers of class and wealth which featured heavily in the early years of the sport, that a negative effect had been a concentration on elite athletes to the detriment of the everyday club athletes. Renton doesn’t necessarily go along with that view and points out the enormous numbers of people of a wide-age range who have taken up road running in recent times and have found their lives transformed. He also points to the large numbers of runners in the National Cross-country Championships. He has written that competing in road races with runners of both great abilities but also those of more limited accomplishments, as measured by results on paper, gives him a feeling of being part of a social movement. As someone who has participated in a few road runs in his time (rising to the level of spectacular mediocrity) I certainly concur that the overriding emotion is of camaraderie. His view of competition is that it is as much about competing against oneself as against other people. The targets for many runners and joggers are personal. Although, as Renton, admits with a smile, it is a pleasant feeling to beat the bloke who finished in front of you on the last occasion.

David Renton’s views on track and field today are largely positive and formed by his enthusiasm for running. In response to my question about the decline of the influence of clubs in the sport, he stressed that he was more concerned about the serious decline of green spaces and playing fields associated with schools. ‘After all’, he comments, ‘that is where the culture of fitness and challenge is first nurtured’. Likewise he does not see the overwhelming superiority of African athletes in distance events at international level as a problem but prefers to view it as an incentive to other runners to re-double their own strivings.

It was no surprise to learn that he has a special interest in (and has written about), the ‘Workers Olympics’ which flourished in the years before World War 2 and saw celebrations between 1925 and 1937 in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Germany. He has also written a book about C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian radical whose own cricketing book Beyond a Boundary regularly appears in lists of ‘The Greatest Sports Books Ever’. A different sport, but similar human sentiments apply. Naturally, I was delighted when David Renton mentioned the name of the great Alf Tupper and obviously knew all about the welder from Greystone. The ‘tough of the track’ remains one of the greatest athletes of all time and, if you’re looking for one of John Lennon’s ‘working-class heroes’, is up there with Jack Holden, Ethel Johnson and Arthur Rowe. Had Tupper tangled with Coe and Ovett we may have witnessed a 3 minutes 20 seconds one mile!

You won’t get many stats in this book. But if you value a stimulating and uplifting read, then it’s for you.

Michael Sheridan

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Lives; running – A Hack Review

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By Gareth Edwards
David Renton’s book lives; running, released in the summer of last year, received little coverage in the Party’s publications. We should have paid closer attention. While a book about running may seem an unlikely allegory for factionalising, lives; running is quite clearly, to use a lamentable term, a prefiguration. As the immortal David Frost once opined on Through The Keyhole, “Look closely, comrades. The clues are there.” Carefully read, the book reveals how plans to establish permanent factions have been festering away far longer than anyone expected. For those of us who have lived through the last year, watching as the “opposition” embarked upon its wilful destruction of our party, reading lives; running is like discovering the road-map to ruination. You will wish you had read it much earlier.

Although the book claims to be about running, it is patently obvious that David Renton has written a book about David Renton. Claiming that it is, in part, an autobiography – a personal account of his own running experiences – is simply excuse-mongering, a convenient cover for his own egotism. One need not be surprised; this is the same exercise in self-justification that oozes from his blog (which even has the same name as the book!). Online Renton presents his writing as an attempt to “re-think” our politics when in actual fact it is nothing more than a capitulation to feminism. And, while we’re on the subject – what is his obsession with the semi-colon? It lies somewhere between the steely determination of the full stop and the half-hearted gradualism of the comma; truly the centrist of the punctuation world.
Of course Renton’s drift from Leninism has been a long term development: more of a long-distance race than a sprint, if you will. As he makes clear in the book, not only has he been running since the 1980s, he has actually liked it. To secretly enjoy watching a bit of football is one thing. It is quite another for a “comrade” who claims to be a revolutionary to openly state that he happily participated in competitive sport. There is not a word of regret or remorse on this question. Blatantly the cold winds of reformism have been blowing through Renton’s life for a good long while.
At various points in the book he ponders on the rivalry between middle-distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. Renton would have us believe that, during their clashes in the 1970s and 1980s, the two athletes came to represent something more than simply a couple of blokes running around a track. Ovett was the worker; Coe the Tory. To suggest that Ovett and Coe were some sort of proxy for the class war is, of course, a ridiculous assertion. What Renton struggles to comprehend is that no matter how many races Ovett won it had no bearing on the real world. Already at this early stage Renton was seeking someone to win victories on behalf of the working class, rather than seeing the class itself as the agent of social change.
Indeed, it is noticeable how the organised working class plays very little role in Renton’s book – in particular, public sector workers who run are conspicuous by their absence. With a major part of lives; running set in the 1980s Renton is forced to reference the miners’ strike.  It is illustrative of his general pessimism that the one time he makes mention of the working class is during a defeat, rather than choosing an example of successful industrial action. In part, one suspects that the absence of optimism in lives: running is the result of a flawed understanding about the relationship between party and class on the part of the author.
To use our own analogy: think of the class as a running race. Some workers are at the back of the pack, others nearer to the front. The Party is represented by the runner at the very front – constantly pushing the pace on, finding new gears, re-doubling their efforts to stay in the lead. Round and round we go, more and more laps of the track completed, until eventually we win. In Renton’s view, running is most fun when people are bunched together, a mass of arms and legs and rightward shifting reformist ideas.
In another attack on the concept of the revolutionary party, Renton returns to the cases of Ovett and Coe, exploring the role of their parents in fostering and nurturing their talents. Here I think Renton is, quite simply, wrong. Time and again he teases out how mothers and fathers can impact negatively on runners, without ever accentuating the great value and wisdom they can impart as teachers. It is as though he neglects completely any sort of paternal guidance. As you progress through the book you begin to wonder if he will ever end his criticisms of athletics from the past thirty years. Renton clearly believes that the 1970s were some sort of golden, democratic age for running and at times one expects him to reveal that Peter Sedgewick, Dave Widgery and Duncan Hallas were the founding members of the Socialist Democratic Jogging Society.
Towards the end of the book Renton finally comes clean. He talks of how he once gave up on running, and how it lured him back with its promises of fulfilment, activity and expression. But it has come at a price. When he now runs he tires quicker, finds he is more susceptible to injury, has to run at a slower pace than before. No doubt to a casual observer these references will seem innocent enough. But who in the Party could miss their real meaning? David no longer takes the same joy in revolutionary activity that he once did, moaning that long-standing comrades have caused him injury. His conclusion is to run (i.e. do politics) at a different pace (i.e. a reformist pace). Renton would do well to remember that in the marathon of socialism, the bottles of distilled Leninism on the pasting tables of struggle, laid out at the side of the road of revolution, give us the strength to reach the finish line.

Originally published at: http://inside-left.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/lives-running-hack-review.html

“Lives running” reviewed

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Race aware
Lives Running by David Renton
Zero books ISBN 978-1-78099-235-8
reviewed by John Hobson

After a year in which sport had been hugely prominent, most obviously through the London Olympics, Lives Running is an unusual book which provides a deeply personal narrative of the author’s experience sof running both competitively and recreationally.

The descriptions of early expectations of – and indeed realised – success in middle distance running at school bring the reader into a private world where the joys of acheivement and pain of injury impact heavily in a context where great emphasis is placed on sporting prowess, through peer and family culture.

The author however interjects interesting facts and analysis of a sport for which he remains clearly passionate, most significantly of the oft-forgotten rivalry in middle-distance running between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe that developed in the late 1970s and which reached its peak at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Fascinating detail is provided about these two individuals’ backgrounds and experiences and which in particular furthers a degree of insight into Coe’s trajectory from ungracious loser to Ovett in the 800m Olympic final, to Tory MP and then ultimately to crowned glory as the Chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympics and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and beyond.

As the currently shallow discussions about the “legacy” of the London Olympics proceed, it is refreshing to read an account of sport by someone who was active in the important critique and attendant activism surrounding the Games.

The contributions of such individuals, as people passionate about sport but also about real accessibility and participation will be essential as the memories of London 2012 fade, the corporate Olympic juggernaut moves on and cuts in public funding for leisure services translate.

In essence however Lives; Running is a memoir of one individual’s relationship to sport and the power of the same to ultimately provide straight forward entertainment, far from the madding crowd or otherwise.

This article was first published in the June 2013 edition of Socialist Lawyer magazine. The magazine is sent to all members of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Details of how to subscribe can be found here.

Reflecting on the burn

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Running: “from trouble”, “to assist”, “in fear”, “for fun”, “in a crowd”, “alone”, “to win”, “for the hell of it!”. Running is a time-honoured, universal activity. In the global marketplace, running is also a valuable commodity. The large number of “running activities” or “uses” of running have provided the incentive for companies to create a growing industry of apparel: shoes, tracksuits, sweatbands, pedometers. A burgeoning advertising industry has helped generate and extend the exchange values of such products. Usain Bolt runs fast, wears Puma shoes and requires massive appearance fees to showcase his speed and footwear. Bolt is a fast-moving human commodity.

Lives; Running offers an insider’s view of the multi-layered world of running. This compact 124-page compilation is clearly designed for an audience located somewhere between the highly formalised and conventionally controlled world of academia and the “pulped up” “just in time” world of infotainment. Lives; Running’s style of writing is pitched to readers looking for thoughtful, well-informed prose about changes in globally extended common culture.

Seventeen short chapters are built on three major themes: a long-term personal narrative about the experiences of running, the role of sport in the patrilineal side of Renton’s family and a mini-case study of the class-based politics of two elite runners from very different backgrounds. These three themes, involving very different forms of description and analysis, are crisscrossed throughout the text, providing multiple angles of scrutiny of running as a socio-cultural practice. While it is not a linear narrative in the conventional sense, the book tracks sequentially across the decades of Renton’s life of running and thus provides a solid position from which to explore the other themes.

Renton declares at the very start of his narrative: “[R]unning was part of my life, I ran whenever I could”. His engagement moves from the private to the social and recreational, to the competitive and combative and finally into the zone of the health-focused and the therapeutic. Looking outwards from this personal sphere, Renton fills his account with stories about his grandfather and father. In the detail of his father’s story is embedded a meta-analysis about the changing role of sport in identity development and the wider world of politics and social change.

Renton’s father was an average runner but quickly discovered he was a talented rower. Rowing was, and remains, an iconic team activity. To be successful, the team must be one in mind and body. During his father’s formative years, Great Britain was being shaped by Keynesian-inspired politics. The cooperative, team-based nature of rowing was in tune with those influences. On the other hand, Lives; Running also offers a parallel and emergent storyline about running as a personal and individualised physical pursuit. This narrative is set in the time of neoliberal transformation.

Renton was born in 1972. That was the year of the Munich Olympic Games, in which the US runner Frank Shorter won the marathon and reputedly sparked a national, then international, running boom. If we take this as fact, it means Renton’s entire life has occurred within the time of the global growth and transformation of running that has occurred in tandem with the rise and rise of neoliberal politics.

It is here that the book offers valuable insights into the fusion of his physical enjoyment of running with the growth in marketing, televising sport and the valorisation of the hyper-individualised pursuit of “winning”. As a seven-year-old, he watched the British athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett competing in the Moscow Olympics. Through the eyes of a child he viewed two epic contests: the final of 800 metres with Ovett first and Coe second, and then the 1500 metres with Coe first and Ovett third. With the mind of a socially critical adult, he analyses the role the media played in affirming dominant class politics, with Coe as a middle class hero and Ovett as an aloof outsider. Looking back on these events, Renton is able to see clearly what he had been seduced to normalise and accept in his youth.

In a highly ambiguous section, Renton recalls an image of Coe crossing the line as the winner of the 1500 metres in a pose akin to a crucifixion: “… his head pulled backwards … face pulled up … mouth widens in a grimace … I saw no pleasure in it then and find none today.” This account is a pivotal part of the text. Here we are offered a probing insight into one of the major contradictions built into sport in neoliberal times. Elite athletes are sometimes pushed and push themselves into the dark zone of extreme pain and deep distress. Many forces combine to produce this outcome, where even a gold medal winner becomes a puppet of extremism, in training, performance, advertising, marketing, sports administration and politics.

After one final probe into the trials and tribulations of both Coe and Ovett, the book switches register. The final chapters attempt to rescue the idea of running as a mysterious, magnetic, physical activity that has the capacity to draw Renton back, as an adult entering middle age, into a life of small-scale competition, training in all types of weather, struggling through the pain of physical discomfort and injury and living in hope that his sons will be runners. Beyond the dramas, traumas and controversies of high level athletics, “running” endures as a stripped down “free” activity.

While Renton’s story begins with the arrival of mass participation following the 1972 Olympics, it is silent about the fact that this early stage of the global running boom was basically about and for males. The growth of female mass participation occurred later. There are obvious landmarks of the entry of women’s events into the Olympic program. The sprints appeared in 1928, but it was not until the ’60s and ’70s that middle distance events began. The first time women ran the marathon at the Olympics was in 1984. However, it was Oprah Winfrey’s completion of the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 that possibly provided the greatest stimulus to far greater participation rates in the type of road running that Renton describes towards the end of the book. His silence about this sudden growth in interest and involvement in running by women, from across the social and cultural spectrum, is a significant oversight.

As a former marathon “addict” myself ,I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose drew me into the seductions, trials, tribulations and triumphs of competition. I feel the book successfully fuses personal biography with longer term, generational change and with the forces of larger politics.

Lindsay Fitzclarence, Socialist Alternative

Lives; Running reviewed

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(Hazel Potter, in London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter, Autumn 2012)

In a summer where Sebastian Coe’s face has rarely been more than a few minutes from a TV screen, David Renton’s Lives; Running  is a timely reminder that the media’s love affair with the LOCOG Chairman has been a long one. Renton takes us back to the golden era of British middle distance running, interspersing childhood memories and reflections on the Coe v Ovett rivalry with a memoir of his own running career, while exploring the relationships in and around both.

Anyone who is old enough to remember the Moscow Olympics will recall the build-up to the games, not just the US (and potential UK) boycott but the media hype around Britain’s two middle distance runners: Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. Renton tracks this, exploring not only the press depiction of “toff v monster” to characterise Coe and Ovett respectively, but also the differences between the athletes in terms of style, emotion and attitude. Coe’s all-encompassing need to win, driven by his ultra-competitive father, versus the more magnanimous Ovett, for whom running is an important part of life, but not its whole, is a theme largely ignored at the time. In 1980 the press was far keener to demonise Ovett as arrogant and even unpatriotic, whereas Coe was always – and remains –the golden boy, meaning fans of the older athlete were often at odds with family and friends. Renton is one such fan but this is only one of a string of differences, social and political, that will emerge between the author and his peers and parents during the course of the book.

Coe’s upbringing – and in particular his father – helped to shape him as an athlete and the resultant craving to compete and win will undoubtedly have played a role in the development of his Thatcherite politics. His constant need to compete with Ovett and to take credit for his teammate’s performances portray a fear of failure but also a lack of compassion and understanding of the realities outside of the track. One quote from Coe reads: “I always had the feeling that when the gap began to disappear … the rivalry would become greater, and with it his need to prove himself,” and you wonder whether it was, in fact, Coe who needed to prove something not Ovett.

‘Lives; Running” is about more than Coe and Ovett though; while the themes of competition and relationships continue throughout the book it is Renton’s own development within and outside of sport that we learn about. Juxtaposed with this are portrayals of his father at an comparable age, viewed via diary extracts and memories, an Oxford Rowing Blue struggling to reconcile conflicting desires for flesh and faith. Ultimately, neither father nor son will continue competitively in his chosen sport beyond his academic years but both will eventually learn to participate at a recreational level.

Competitive sport is a bond, albeit it a fragile one, between parent and child: something that both can understand, even if it is from a different perspective. In time, sport as a bond begins to extend through to the next generation too, together with a new perception of the pride and pleasure it can bring – but it is not hard to imagine the short leap that is required to become a competitive, Peter Coe-like, parent either.

The highs and lows of winning and defeat are explored throughout “Lives; Running”, for the schoolboy, the recreational runner and the elite athletes but even this is not a simple analysis: how to compare the grimace of Coe against the clenched fist of Ovett? Or the schoolboy’s joy at destroying a field against a middle-aged runner overtaking contemporaries in a half marathon? Does it hurt more to lose the Boat Race or an Olympic Final? And would that pain be worse for, say, Coe whose father’s love was seemingly conditional on success than for Ovett, who would merely be angry at himself for defeat?

The conflicting emotions that the author has with running take years to reconcile and, even then, when the pain of defeat is no longer a concern, injuries will still hurt. The sudden, indiscriminate attack on an athlete of an injury is shown to affect both the elite, including Renton’s hero Ovett, and school runners and it is not just the discomfort that is suffered but the fact that running has been taken away. We learn about attempts at prevention but, in reality, this is often nothing more than a delay until the inevitable. Given that, the perspective that Ovett maintained will surely have helped: if running is part of life then an injury can be demoralising, if it is all that an athlete has then it will be utterly devastating.

The camaraderie – or lack of it – between Ovett and Coe is no secret but Renton shows that sport has the ability not only to provide credibility amongst peers but also to forge long-term friendships through his memoir. We find the author running in his thirties with friends he made in his teens and while other interests, such as music and politics, were key in the relationships, the role of sport is critical. But just as it helps develop friendships, running – and rowing for his father – “a life of movement” as Renton puts it offers an escape too: from school, parents, work, family and perhaps reality itself. The lone athlete will spend hours on his own, doing something he loves and, for that time, the world as he knows it does not exist.

Perhaps the whole of these sometimes conflicting attributes is that, as the author – and his father – conclude, the “life of movement…is a life fulfilled,” with the flip that “A sedentary life is a life voluntarily diminished.” And in a year when Coe’s LOCOG has drummed “inspire a generation” into the nation ad infinitum maybe this message, and the fact that a sport like running costs the participant virtually nothing in monetary terms, is one which should be heard just as much?

All You Need Is a Pair of Running Shoes

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David Renton, Lives; Running

Zero Books, 124pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781780992358

reviewed by Steve Platt

One of the defining images of the 2012 Olympics is of Mo Farah crossing the finishing line in the 10,000 metres final for his second gold medal. Arms spread wide, head pushed high and eyes popping in a mix of effort, excitement and sheer astonishment at the nature of his achievement, his face is stretched with a grin broad enough to swallow the whole stadium.

It calls to mind an earlier iconic moment for British athletics at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Sebastian, now Lord Coe and chairman of Locog, the London Games organising committee, struck a similar pose then in taking gold in the 1500 metres. Except that where Farah seems to radiate pure joy in his success, Coe’s face in the old clippings is contorted in a grimace that appears to communicate only pain. Where Farah goes on consciously to prostrate himself momentarily in gratitude on the track, Coe’s legs buckle beneath him as if he’s been cut down from a crucifixion.

David Renton doesn’t have a lot of time for Seb Coe. Within minutes of Farah’s victory, he has written on his blog and Facebook page: ‘If we are going to have a greatest British runner ever – wouldn’t you want it to be a Muslim who came here as a refugee, who was educated at a comprehensive and then an FE college, who lived with his partner for years before marrying her, and who worked in pizza restaurants before he was a professional athlete – rather than lifelong Tory Seb Coe?’

He puts Coe’s ‘death mask’ grimace at Moscow down to fear. Fear of failure; and fear, deep down, of somehow forfeiting the love of his father, ‘who made a point of chastising him publicly on his defeat’ by his great middle distance rival Steve Ovett in the 800 metres a few days earlier. ‘“You ran like an idiot,” Peter Coe told him. Peter then kept up a commentary of insults which continued until the press conference afterwards.’ Where Steve Ovett ‘saw sport as a pleasure, as a second priority in his life’, according to Renton, Coe ran as if his life was solely determined by it.

Recalling the Coe-Ovett showdown in the run up to the London Games, the BBC broadcaster Barry Davies wrote that while ‘the British media had painted Coe as the good guy and Ovett as, shall we say, the not-so-good guy … the characters that were painted were not absolutely right. Coe was the more driven, in my view; Ovett did his own thing to a great extent.’ Davies put the media bias in favour of Coe down to Ovett’s reluctance to give interviews. David Renton ascribes it to the fact that Coe was the establishment figure, Ovett the rebel. It was the rebel who attracted Renton’s sympathies when, aged just seven, his early interest in athletics was fired by and focused upon the contest between the two British runners.

Renton went on to be a good schoolboy middle distance runner himself. He broke the two-minute barrier for 800 metres, setting a new school record, at the age of 15, and beat almost everyone he raced against at distances between 400 and 1500 metres until a combination of injuries, inadequate coaching and, although he doesn’t admit it explicitly, a lack of the necessary single-mindedness led him out of the sport for eight years. By the time he returned to running in his late twenties, he was no quicker than your average fun runner; today he describes himself as running ‘slowly and without style, just like a dad dancing’.

Lives; Running intertwines an account of Renton’s running and personal history with one of the great Coe-Ovett rivalry and another drawing upon his father’s school papers and diary, written during his time at Oxford. Public school educated, like his son, Renton senior was an Oxford rowing blue. In the single sculls he beat the future Olympian Tony Fox, whose fourth-place performance at Helsinki in 1952 was the best by a British sculler from 1924 until 2012, when Northern Ireland’s Alan Campbell won bronze.

After Oxford’s defeat in consecutive boat races, though, he gave up the sport. He tells the teenage David later, ‘You do know that you are better at schoolwork than you are at running?’ and declares that he was happy to have quit rowing when he did. ‘If I hadn’t, I would never have passed my degree.’ It’s not what David wanted to hear, given that he ran in part ‘to maintain a bond with my father. I knew that he had wanted a son who would follow him [in business and in conducting the family affairs] … He complained to his friends that I wanted to level down people … By running, and at a high standard, I hoped to gain at least a temporary forgiveness from my father for my many other failings.’

Those ‘failings’ included an ever-increasing disenchantment with the separation and privilege of public school: ‘Endlessly expressing the narrowness of our existence and our isolation from what 99 per cent of people considered life, I bored my contemporaries by pointing out their isolation until they had no more desire to speak to me than I had to them. My hero was another boy, Gobber, who took to a tall building and spat on his fellow pupils repeatedly.’

Where David Renton’s father converted to Catholicism as a student to provide meaning to his life, David turns to radical politics, particularly anti-racism. He sees a continuity between the two, writing that: ‘My father in his youth raged against the “bowler hat”, by which he meant a life predictable from day to day, a life structured always around the same few relationships, a life overwhelmed by the routine of work. He saw that possibility and he rebelled equivocally against it. I share with him that restlessness.’

Renton regards his running as both an expression of that restlessness and a remedy for it. ‘I run because life is short,’ he writes, ‘and there are no moral imperatives save only these: to the weak you owe solidarity, to yourself you owe change.’ Although he wanted – desperately, defiantly – to win in his youth, ultimately he had no time for what he sees as the neoliberal vision of permanent competition. So you win one race, what then? Are you expected to go on to win the next, and the next, and the next, until eventually even the best, like Mo Farah or Steve Ovett or Sebastian Coe, must finally face up to the inevitability of defeat?

There is no doubt in Renton’s mind who got the most from their athletic achievements out of Coe and Ovett and who dealt best with their failures. He even suggests that Ovett was content with defeat in the 1500 metres in 1980, having already won the 800. At any rate, Ovett was the more magnanimous, both in victory and defeat. His response to getting a bronze medal in the 1500 metres behind Coe and the second-placed Jürgen Straub of East Germany was that he ‘ran the best race I could but was beaten by two better guys’, while Coe subsequently wrote of Ovett’s success in the 800 metres that his physical manner had ‘contributed to the tattiness of the race. It lowered the standing of athletics.’

Renton saw in Ovett – and now in Mo Farah – a ‘capacity for warmth, sympathy and human solidarity’ that he has never seen in Coe. It’s an instinctive judgement that others have shared but one that we should be wary of nonetheless. Coe’s relationship with his father, like David Renton’s with his, was complex but not cold. Of Peter Coe’s remarks after his 800 metres defeat, Seb said that he was less annoyed with his father than with press criticism of their relationship: ‘I found that insulting. People were entitled to criticise my running or Peter’s coaching, but not our relationship.’

In an obituary of Peter Coe, following his death in 2008 (when Seb was at the Olympics in Beijing), Seb Coe’s biographer David Miller recalls leaving the Moscow stadium after the 800 metres debacle in the same taxi as the Coes: ‘In the Russian driver’s misadjusted mirror, I could see Peter in the back seat with his arm around Sebastian, the same way you comfort your infant child when it comes to your bed in the middle of the night, troubled by a bad dream. There was only shared grief and love.’

David Renton concludes with some reflections on his own experiences as a father – of two young children – and why he has taken up running again after a further enforced layoff due to injury. ‘When I run I escape the commodification of life,’ he writes. ‘I dislike the way our social existence is organised, so that merely to live requires you to constantly purchase and consume … I am fed up with sports that I watch as a spectator but in which I am not allowed to participate.’

This will be one of the real tests of the London 2012 Olympic ‘legacy’: the extent to which the huge increase in interest in all kinds of athletics and sport is turned into active participation. Here, running is already off to a flying start with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and parks, towpaths and trails, every weekend. As David Renton rightly notes, ‘To run all you need is a pair of running shoes … The activity itself comes satisfyingly free.’

This review was first published on the Review 31 website.