Tag Archives: Steve Ovett

The Toff and the Monster

Standard

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).

Coe and Ovett at the Moscow Olympics

Standard

For my parents, the 1966 World Cup was the moment when black and white television was replaced by colour. For me, the 1980 Olympics was the point at which a hand-tuned TV set finally gave way to pre-set channels and a remote control. I was seven years old and fed up of watching Grange Hill on the upstairs set, a black and white set with a 16-inch screen that required retuning at 45 second intervals. I knew from my father that Seb Coe and Steve Ovett would dominate the 800 and 1500 metres and for the first time since I was very young I would be allowed to watch the finals on my parents’ room-sized colour Sony downstairs.

The news had been building up to the Olympics over the previous seven months. Multiple British victories were, as ever, confidently expected. Yet the mood of the coverage was far from upbeat.

In April, dragged into line by President Carter, the US Olympic Committee had voted to boycott the Moscow Olympics. For several weeks afterwards, it seemed possible that the British Olympic Association might follow their lead. Our Prime Minister wrote to all British athletes urging them to boycott the games too.

Others joined the American effort: loyal Israel, Kenya, Morocco, West Germany, Canada and even Red China. Where there is discord, the Prime Minister had said, may we bring harmony. But these were the last days of amateur athletics, our competitors were pressing hard against the limits of the convention that they should not be paid, and success at the Olympics was the way to get invited to the better-remunerated European events. By a large majority, the British Olympic Association voted to leave the choice to individual athletes. The athletes in turn voted to compete, and who would blame them?

The sprinter Alan Wells ran the 100 metres in the white of Great Britain rather than his usual Scottish blue. Would he have won gold had the Americans been there? He would not have won had the Cuban athlete who came second merely better timed his dip for the line.

Even in the press there were voices calling for British participation. Three weeks before the Olympic finals, Ovett was in Oslo where he broke the world record for the mile. The Express dubbed his and Coe’s performances a “tonic” which could not “be bad for a country suffering the economic blues”.

My father allowed me to watch the 800 metre final, the showdown between Coe and Ovett. Coe was the media’s champion and my father’s clear favourite. He was lithe, where Ovett was muscular. He had the veneer of a public school boy. His coach and father Peter was a former amateur cyclist who had dedicated his own life to developing his son’s athletic career.

In the 800 metres, Coe ran greyhound-swift, he was happiest in the very fastest of races. Pulled through the first lap by a pace-setter, the field would thin out, leaving him in the perfect position to sprint for a record. The summer before the Olympics, his world records over 800, 1500 metres and the mile had all been shown live on TV.

Ovett’s home distance was 1500 metres. Biding his time to the last 150 metres, he would remain on the shoulder of the race leader. Poised to strike, he would kick for the line. Whether the race was slow or fast, he seemed able to pull out this finish whenever it was needed.

As we waited for the 800 metre heats and then the final, highlights of past races were replayed including Coe and Ovett’s five world records over the past 12 months, Ovett’s triumph at the World Cup in 1977, and Coe’s victory at the European Cup in 1979. Yet alongside these victories, other footage was also shown.

One clip showed Ovett’s defeat at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Placed in the eighth lane, he had struggled as a result of the authorities’ decision to run the first 300 metres of the race in lanes. He did not want to go out too fast for fear of diminishing his best weapon, his finishing kick. In the fifth lane was Alberto Juantorena, 6’2” and 185lbs of 400 metre sprinter experimenting with a distance at which he had barely previously raced. After 300 metres, Ovett was well down on Juantorena. Out in lane eight, he had no idea of the gap. The sprinter reeled off laps of 51 and 52 seconds, not merely winning but breaking the world record. Ovett finished fifth.

“I dedicate this gold medal to Fidel Castro and the revolution”, Juantorena told the press afterwards, the journalists laughing at his commitment.

Coe’s moment came a year later, when he broke the UK 800 metres record coming second at Crystal Palace to Kenya’s Mike Boit. Coe and Ovett then clashed over 800 metres at the 1978 European championships in Prague. It was the first meeting between the two runners since they had been schoolboys.

The race began with Coe, the younger athlete and still in awe of Ovett, seeking to recreate Juantorena’s dash at Montreal. He ran the first lap of the Prague 800 metres in 49.3 seconds. Had he been capable of running the second lap at the same pace he would have broken the world record by five seconds. But, of course, he tired. With 300 metres to go Ovett eased past Olaf Beyer in third, and made his way to Coe’s shoulder. “Beyer is finished”, the commentator said. Ovett then passed Coe 150 metres from the line. I was astonished at how relaxed Ovett seemed. But he could not pull away, instead Beyer came back into the race and caught Ovett at the line.

Ovett jogged to a halt, looked for his parents in the crowd, smiled, and shrugged. He comforted Coe as they walked together from the track.

My father told me that Coe was the better runner. Loyal, I followed him in rooting for Coe. But through the 800 metre heats I saw something which shook my resolve. It was not that Coe ran badly, his winning time in the first 800 metre heat (1.48.5) was a second faster than Ovett’s. Coe seemed to me to run lightly on the track and with grace. His legs did not tire, he wasted no energy as he ran.

At the end of the race I saw Ovett, his face broken into a smile, looking for the camera as the camera searched for him. He looked deeply into it, and I saw him mouth the words “I love you”. If there was any doubt, he traced the letters “ILY” with the fingers of his left hand as he spoke. The recipient of the message, although I could not know this at the time, since even the commentators were confused and trying to make sense of the words, was his girlfriend left behind in England.

I grasped only this, that Ovett saw sport as pleasure, as a second priority in his life. Ovett overtook Coe as my hero at that moment.

I knew that Ovett was seen as arrogant. To my father’s mind, it was a simple matter of heredity. Ovett meant to break apart the amateur cabal and promised to do so in the name of the self-employed worker. Amateurism my father considered indefensible, it would in time have to be pulled apart (as a businessman he saw the whole issue as a simple restraint of trade). Ovett was however the wrong person to carry out the task. Go, amateurism must, but on Coe’s and not on Ovett’s terms.

Ovett was undoubtedly the villain of the piece. The papers said so, the commentators on television alluded to some vague and unspecified flaws in his character. But what his real crimes were, no-one seemed to be able to say. It was suggested at times that he was unpatriotic, hinted that he had been given opportunities to run for Great Britain and had turned them down. But from the crowd, I seemed to hear an extra enthusiasm when he ran. You could hear the crowd, even in Moscow, shouting “O-vett, O-vett”. I could hear no similar chants for Coe.

Ovett’s face was still, his eyes cool. He made winning look so easy.

“The two Britons have all the options”, the commentator David Coleman told his viewers, “so long as they don’t become hypnotised with the obsession of beating each other.” Coe was in a blue sweatshirt to warm up, his jaw was wobbling with the anxiety of it all.

There was no Juantorena this time. Coe too was determined not to repeat his mistake of 1978 and made his way into the race only slowly from the back. Ovett spent the first 300 metres being jostled in sixth and seventh. With 420 metres to go, he ran up to the two East Germans in front of him, and attempted to prise them apart, his arms parting them like a swimmer doing the breast-stroke. Ovett made his way into fourth, the runners in front leaving space on their inside as they failed to overtake on the outside other competitors ahead of them. Coe was still in eighth, running wide into the third lane. Eighty metres from the line, Ovett made his way to the front. Coe’s late sprint took him to within five metres of his rival but no closer.

Ovett looked to his parents and waved both his fists in their direction.

Coe had to make do with the burden of his father and coach, Peter, who made a point of chastising him publicly on his defeat. “You ran like an idiot,” Peter Coe told him. Peter then kept up a commentary of insults which continued until the press conference afterwards. “You ran like a cunt”, Peter told his son, the journalists listening. The British press mourned Ovett’s victory, the common sentiment was that the “Bad Guy” had won. At the awards ceremony, when Ovett turned to him and held out his hand, Coe’s eyes, already focussed far beyond Ovett’s shoulder, did not move. Coe accepted his silver medal gracelessly. There were rumours that he was now considering quitting the sport altogether.

The sole hope for the younger runner was in the heats of the 1500 metres, due to start in just four days’ time. It would be the same format, two heats and a final. “Get your finger our Coe, I’ve got money on you,” read a cable from home.

But Coe had just come second at his favourite distance. Ovett had won 45 consecutive races at 1500 metres or the mile since he had last been beaten, three years before.

The first lap of the 1500 metres was run in 61.6 seconds. If that was slow, the second lap, at 63.3 seconds, was slower still. Six hundred metres from home an East German athlete Jürgen Straub determined to make a race of it. He ran the next 600 metres in bursts of 26 seconds, a speed that would have come close to winning the 800 metres final. At the bell, Coe was three metres behind Straub, and Ovett a further two metres behind. I was certain that Ovett would win. In the final straight, Ovett pulled wide to Coe’s outside, and his stride lengthened, but without making up any ground.

By the time Coe caught up with Straub, 120 metres from the line, Ovett was so close that he could almost touch his rival. It would surely be a moment’s work for him to pass. With 90 metres to go, Coe had increased his lead over Ovett to a further metre, but still Ovett’s victory seemed certain. He was sprinting now, and yet the gap did not narrow. Coe duly won, Ovett finishing eight metres behind in third.

Coe, victorious, contorted in agony.