Vested Interest in a Golden Era – Ovett versus Coe

Ovett and Coe, Britain's great middle-distance rivals, had raced only once on the track before the 1980 Moscow Games. Matt Long, editorial contributor to Athletics Weekly magazine, recalls the Ovett versus Coe rivalry, and takes us back to the Lenin Stadium, 41 years ago.

White vested with red and blue stripes across their chest – Two athletes wearing 279 and 254 were the living embodiment of ‘The Golden Era’. Whilst many athletics fans of a certain age reminisce with starry eyes about the early 80s, in reality two dates alone in the calendar year of 1980 would come to define an era in the collective conscience of an engrossed sporting nation – namely Saturday 26th July and Friday 1st August ­– the stage being the Moscow Olympics.

On the Saturday, as eight men lined up for the Men’s 800m final and the world stopped for the next 1m45.4s. In symbolic terms what was to ensue was more than a two-lap footrace. This was what would have been for boxing fans as monumental as Ali vs Frazier or for tennis fans, Borg vs McEnroe. From its inception back in 1978, ‘Steve Ovett vs Sebastian Coe’ was a social construction cleverly engineered and embellished by the tabloid press. The 24-year-old ‘brash’ and ‘arrogant’ Ovett being typecast in the role of the ‘bad guy’, while 23-year-old ‘polite’ and ‘unassuming’ Coe was the darling of the media. The sporting media loved the binaries of black and white, not shades of grey. 

The ensuing 800m race could not however be reduced to a mere ‘personality contest.’ It cut deeper than that, for perceptions of social class and geography were the symbolic issues presented as being at stake. Ovett was the son of a working class market trader and was thus the blue collar ‘working man’s’ pick, while 12 years before his election as Conservative MP for Falmouth and Camborne, Coe was already perceived by his critics as having an air of the ‘Tory toff’ about him. Ovett was from the South coast of Brighton, while Coe had spent much of his formative years up in Sheffield. In Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s increasingly divided Britain, which would erupt in the flames of riot just months later, the confrontation between the pair would be a class-based war on the one hand and ‘North’ and ‘South’ on the other.

After a pedestrian 54s opening flap where both Ovett and Coe sleepily ran themselves into the trouble, Ovett being hopelessly boxed and Coe running markedly wide, the race exploded into life with the third Brit in the field Dave Warren making a long run for home. With 250m to go, the BBC’s David Coleman senses the inevitable with perhaps the most oft-quoted line in history about Ovett – his observation of “those blue eyes like chips of ice” – reaffirming the stereotype of Ovett as the ‘cold’ silent assassin who is now taking aim at his target. Some would argue that there is an element of truth to every caricature. Ovett would latter affirm: “I wasn’t concentrating on Seb, I wasn’t looking for him. I ran strictly on my own tempo, my own rhythm.” In the wonderfully penned The Perfect Distance, Pat Butcher will observe: “Call it Zen, call it the zone … Ovett had become the race.” By the time Coe awoke from his slumber and began to chase his archrival like a steam train, the Brighton man had closed the door and was heading for a comfortable gold medal.

Coe would appear on the medal rostrum hours later, “numb with shock and misery” by his own account, with the words of his coach and father Peter ringing in his ears: “First is first, second is nowhere.” His half-hearted handshake with the man stood one place higher than him on that podium would lead Clive James of ‘The Observer’ to hilariously remark that Ovett’s outstretched hand was greeted by Coe, “as if he’d just been handed a turd”. The victor would disappear into the night to celebrate with copious amounts of champagne and a traveling Irish contingent but while abstaining from alcohol, ironically it would be Coe who woke up on the morning of Sunday July 27 in a state he has since described as “worse than any hangover”.

Six days later and against all odds, Coe would redeem himself over the 1500m distance which was meant to be gift wrapped for Ovett. Ecstasy’, ‘elation’, ‘euphoria’, ‘revenge’ and ‘vindication’ are all words Coe himself would later use to describe his feelings captured in one of the most iconic images of our sport which is comparable to Bob Beamon’s wide eyed amazement while mid-air over a Mexico long jump sandpit back in 1968. This being said, no one word quite captures the essence of Coe’s innermost emotions as much of that of the ‘relief’ which he has repeatedly referred to over the years. The man so nearly martyred as a ‘bottler’ by the arrows of the tabloid press would prompt the aforementioned Pat Butcher to compare him with the early Christian Saint Sebastian (AD 256 – 288) in terms of the moment of his crossing of the line being representative of his, “crucifixion scene”. Armed with a Union Jack, Coach and father Peter Coe raced on to the track to embrace his son and would further the biblical analogy by telling the arrow firing media, “you’ve seen an athlete come back from the grave”. This was clearly a profoundly spiritual moment for the man who was on his hands and knees on the track, appearing as if he was about to take Holy Communion after a confessional.

A Vested Interest in a Golden EraEcstasy’, ‘elation’, ‘euphoria’, ‘revenge’ and ‘vindication’ are all words Coe himself would later use to describe his feelings captured in one of the most iconic images of our sport.

If the Moscow Olympics finished as a score draw between Ovett and Coe, then both had won by netting away goals while in Europe. There would be constant calls for replays but the matches would be few and far between and in Los Angeles four years later, the pair were not felt to be kicking balls on a level playing field due to Ovett’s obvious and distressing succumbing to illness. ‘Always leave them wanting more’ or so the old adage goes. Track and field ‘stattos’ will point to diligently inked record books which show 4-3 in terms of career wins in favour of Coe, whereas for many fans of both men, only Moscow matters and a one-all draw is where the final whistle is blown with there being no need for extra time. Last word to Butcher, whose epic book details how they both inadvertently found their perfect distance in Moscow – “They were good enough to win both, but too good to lose both.”­ – A Golden Vested Era indeed.

Matt Long has authored more than 300 coaching articles for a range of national magazines and welcomes contact through mattlongcoach@gmail.com