(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?