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.’