Asked in 2009 why British entries always did so badly in the Eurovision Song Context, former presenter Terry Wogan answered, “There has always been that general feeling [in Britain] of distrust of Johnny Foreigner, but, of course, it is mutual. Britain has attacked nearly every country in Europe, and people don’t forget.” Perhaps with this very history in mind, bookmakers made Paris not London the favourite in July 2005 to acquire the 2012 summer Olympics. The moment at which London inched past Paris is generally said to have been Sebastian Coe’s speech to the critical meeting of the International Olympic Committee.
Now, by this stage, in Britain, Coe was best known as an unsuccessful politician in his own right. He had been a Tory MP from 1992 to 1997 and William Hague’s constant companion during the latter’s unsuccessful stint as leader of the Conservatives after the 1997 election. Very much Adam Werrity to Hague’s Liam Fox, Coe was said to spend his every morning in judo bouts with his leader, and in one unfortunate incident, the former Olympic gold medallist was left unconscious by a Hague neck lock.
The members of the International Olympic Committee almost certainly knew little of Coe’s recent past. What won them over was being addressed by a man who 25 years before had been a part of one of the greatest of recent Olympic rivalries. I have recently been writing about my own life as a runner, and as part of that endeavor I have reflected on the Coe-Ovett rivalry and on the role played by Coe in particular. Running dominated my adolescence; I was a decent county-standard runner. I would never have run but for Coe and Ovett.
Seb Coe, like Steve Ovett, grew up in a family dominated by a strong central figure. In Coe’s case it was his father Peter, a factory manager. A Channel Four documentary, shown just in time for the Los Angeles Olympics, opened with Peter Coe in a silver anorak and outsized glasses telling the story of Coe’s running career: “At 14 I really thought he was good, and at 16 I was certain that if I was patient and played it right he would be a world beater.” Peter Coe pronounced the word cer-ta-in in a slow, lumbering manner, turning two syllables into three.
When Coe was still young, his family moved from London to Stratford upon-Avon. They lived on the edge of town, and he would regularly run two miles or so into town and back again on errands for his mother, never using a bicycle, always preferring the feeling of running. Ovett tells a similar story save that in his account the errands were for his father and meant purchasing fags or cans from the corner store. Mick Ovett would even pretend to time the youthful athlete, counting out loud “three, four, five” as he left the house, and starting afresh “twenty-three, twenty-four” as he heard the sounds of his son returning home.
Ovett’s mother owned and ran a café, Mrs Coe was an actress who wound down her own career to raise a family. Coe’s twin sister was a ballet dancer in her teens, and it is said that she shared his ability to walk or run as if on air. Coe’s mother told the documentary that her son was a nervous child and he flourished only in the absence of competition. Elsewhere, it is recorded that Coe finished disappointingly in his first two efforts at the England Schools championships.
In Sheffield, the Coes lived in Hallamshire, surrounded by doctors and university lecturers. The young Seb Coe was asthmatic and suffered from eczema and hay fever. Unlike Ovett, he failed his 11-plus. This would barely have caused a stir in the Ovett household, but in the Coe family it was seen as a shameful episode, a defect likely to bring down the status of the whole family. Peter Coe told the future athlete he could either accept then and there he was a failure, as the examination had suggested, or he could work to prove the test wrong. In his mother’s words, “He didn’t achieve very much. He achieved when it didn’t matter, but when it came to the tests, like the 11-plus, nerves got to him so much.” Her accent, like her husband’s or indeed her son’s, shows few signs of any Sheffield influence.
The father’s desire for the family to retain its middle class status chimed with the son’s need to retain his father’s love. He worked harder than he had thought possible. “All the top performances come”, Peter Coe believed, “when it’s hurting.” Coe addressed his father by his first name. In his book The Winning Mind, he refers at several points to the views of his “coach”. A different parent might have allowed his son to address him directly as “father”. “I drove us both hard”, Peter Coe said. “Patience was not my virtue. I expected him to be ready on the dot for training! But he was a splendid fellow, he knew better how to live with me than anyone in the family. He learned obedience, yet by the time he grew up his father wasn’t God, he knew that I had feet of clay. We worked on the programme and he never badgered me or questioned the programme.” Over the next two years, Coe would shed his early physical weakness and develop into a decent schoolboy athlete. When Coe was barely 13 his father drew up a projection of progress up to the 1980 Olympics with an optimum 1,500 metres time of 3.30, three minutes faster than the then world record.
In the build-up to Moscow, the papers would sell Coe to the British public as “the toff” in contrast to Ovett, “the monster”. As a student, Coe talked up aspects of his life which seemed to emphasise his middle-class character, such as his admiration of the American novelists Steinbeck, Hemmingway and Bellow, his love of jazz (in 1980…), and his desire to follow his father by working in industry.
After his Gold at the 1980 Olympics, Coe spent many hours negotiating the first advertising contract for an amateur athlete, for which special dispensation was required from the running authorities. He earned a footballer’s salary by becoming the public face of Instant Horlicks. When Coe won Gold in the 1500 metres in the 1980 Olympics, his success and above all his victory over his compatriot Ovett was portrayed as a great triumph of the English middle classes. In the words of the Daily Mail, “He lifted the soul, he ennobled his art, he dignified his country.”
More was at stake, however, than just the surface distinction between the market trader’s boy and the manager’s son. For as Ovett said repeatedly, in terms of background there was more that they had in common than that which separated them. The early lives of each were dominated by a single strong parent. Both came originally from Southern England, Coe, the younger athlete, was just twelve months younger than Ovett. Both were students, even if the media insisted on taking Coe’s Sport Science more seriously than Ovett’s Art. Most people in Britain were waged employees, both Peter Coe and Mick Ovett were set apar (if, admittedly, in subtly different ways) from the working-class majority.
As well as class, the runners differed in their approach on the track and beyond. When they ran, Ovett was generally seen as a “kicker” who relied on his finishing pace, while Coe was a “bunny”, who depended on a very fast first half of the race to wear his opponents into submission. But neither style was innate, Coe’s self invention between 1976 and 1978 as a frontrunner came about for specific reasons. As a schoolboy athlete, Coe was seen as a 1500 and 3000 metre runner. Coe turned to the 800 metres late, in 1976, with his father’s blessing, after he reduced his best 800 metre time by three seconds in a single race. It became clear, without anyone planning it, that the distance suited him perfectly.
Coe’s difficulty in choosing the shorter distance is that while it suited him well, British athletics already provided a world-class rival, Ovett. Moreover this rival appeared to possess an unparalleled asset, his finish. Coe became a front-runner, in short, to defeat his rival’s best weapon. Coe’s adopted tactic of running the first lap of the 800 metres in under 50 seconds brought him both success and failure. It was the key to his first world record, over 800 metres at Oslo in July 1979, during which Coe’s 200-metre splits were timed as 24.0, 26.0, 24.8 and 27.0. The extraordinary period of the race was the third 200 metres, during which Coe powered away from a field which including Mike Boit, by now a World Cup silver medallist. The Oslo time was in turn the key to Coe’s two further world records in the next six weeks, in the mile and the 1500 metres.
The front-runner’s mantle, however, brought defeat in competition over 800 metres in the 1978 European Championships, and at the Olympics two years later. Determined not to repeat his Bronze from Prague, Coe knew not to run a first lap in less than 50 seconds. Having worked out how not to run, he forgot the simpler task of how best to race. He ran passively in the 800 metres at Moscow, leaving the way open for Ovett to claim the Olympic gold, before coming back in the 1500 metres.
The defining image of Coe is the expression on his face as he breaks the finishing line at the end of his Gold-winning 1500 metres at Moscow. Coe stands straight, with arms to each side, his upper body in a crucifixion pose. His head is pulled backwards, and the muscles at the front of his neck are tight. Every muscle in his face is pulled up, away from his neck. His mouth widens in a grimace. Even his brows are arched. I studied that image at the time and have looked it again many times since. I saw no pleasure in it then and can find none when I look at it today. It is not a look of ecstasy, it shares nothing with the much simpler images of Ovett after his Gold at Moscow: a clenched fist, the search for a particular face in the crowd, a smile. Indeed, in all the images of Ovett racing I can see only familiar emotions: fatigue, elation, desire, the anger of defeat, the joy of success. Coe’s grimace was one of those rare occasions when he allowed his deepest emotions to rise to the surface. What it shows is that he ran not in hope but in fear.
Despite his preference for left-field US fiction, Coe’s politics, as he told anyone who would listen, were the same ones that Mrs Thatcher was (in 1980) still cautious about testing on the country. Coe told one interviewer:
“I’m a great believer in personal liberty, and I do believe in the interplay of market forces. If anybody is good enough and in demand whatever field they are in, then you will find people are prepared to pay. And if somebody can make a living out of what they are good at, I don’t really see what grounds anybody can say no.”
On the running track, in his espousal of permanent competition, and in his strange combination of joylessness and fear, Coe’s success was a sign of the coming Thatcherite counter-revolution.
(This piece was originally published in the winter 2011 newsletter of the London Socialist Historians Group; it is in fact an extract from my book Lives; Running).