Seb Coe’s new autobiography is a cracking tale full of entertaining and sometimes shocking stories
As someone who devoured Seb Coe’s first autobiography, Running Free, as a teenager, and has since followed his career with more than a passing interest, I thought his new book would hold very few surprises. How wrong I was.
Right from the opening pages there are startling stories of how he learned to sprint at an early age after shoplifting apples from a market, was caned at school and skipped religious education lessons in order to go training.
Later, there are tales involving dodgy payments, details of his private life, personality clashes galore and even occasional f-words (and worse) as Coe paints a blunt and detailed picture of his colourful and extraordinary life.
Running My Life is split into definitive sections – first there is his childhood and family background, which is fascinating in itself; second there is his heyday as an athlete with its considerable ups and downs; afterwards follows his foray into politics as Conservative MP and chief-of-staﬀ to William Hague; and finally there is the London 2012 triumph where he earned the right to stage the Games in Britain and then delivered the event in stunning style.
One of the best stories is in the initial pages as Coe explains his first running experiences (that’s if you don’t include legging it away from angry market traders). More than a decade before his first Olympic appearances, he says some of his early memories of running were travelling into the countryside with his family and jumping out of the car at every cattle crossing, opening the gate and then sprinting to catch the car up. “It was classic interval training,” he realised years later.
The opening chapters also include some mild surprises which I am not sure have been publicised too widely in the past. We learn, for example, that Coe’s first coach was a man called Hubert Scheiber – a Czech discus coach in Sheffield – before his father, Peter, eventually took over the role.
Peter is mentioned perhaps more than any other characters in the book, too. With good reason, as Coe says the influence on his career was extraordinary and indeed Peter’s fascinating background is chronicled in fair detail, together with Coe’s Indian heritage which came from his mother Angela’s side of the family.
Like most good books, it contains a number of life lessons, too, and one of those is the value of strong and supportive parents. Cynics who wonder whether coaches are over-rated might also consider whether Coe would have “made it” alone or whether his father was an essential part of the jigsaw.
The book really begins to gather pace, though, in the chapter entitled Dodgy Business. Here, Coe explains the awkward period where the sport staggered from ‘shamateurism” and into more professional and aboveboard sport we see today.
At one point, Coe tells the story of standing in a queue of athletes to be paid their “expenses” after a meeting and getting into a row with the organiser over the amount he’d been promised. At this point Coe was helped by Roger Moens, the 1960 Olympic 800m silver medallist and head of Interpol in Europe!
“Here he (Moens) was,” Coe writes, “handing out under-the-counter dosh, which I would have to smuggle back into England, putting me in double jeopardy thanks to the currency restrictions then in operation.
“I wasn’t the only one collecting a share of the gate money,” he continues, “as I queued up in the hotel corridor. From what I saw everyone was doing it, from athletes at the beginning of their career, to star names, the bulk of the envelope being the only visible diﬀerence. At the top end, substantial sums were involved. In the mid-Seventies, in the infancy of my career, I might pocket £100, but for big names it could run into many thousands.
“In Italy, lire was the usual currency on oﬀer, and thanks to galloping inflation, my father and I would spend as much time figuring out how to bring back carrier-bags full of notes as thinking about the race. The pair of us would end up stuffing wads of cash inside linings, up sleeves, down underpants until we’d find ourselves going through customs giving a passable impersonation of Errol Flynn.”
In addition to Interpol, the Met Police was also involved, mainly through the most dominant and influential character at the time in British athletics, Andy Norman. Coe describes Norman as “a rogue”, but adds that he got on with him very well and there is no doubting the massive impact he made on the sport.
At the time, the media portrayed Coe as the nice boy-next-door, so this image of stuffing dodgy payments down his pants before going through customs might surprise a few people. Similarly, Coe was perhaps seen as the establishment figure who played ball, whereas Steve Ovett was the bad guy and rebel. But, again, the truth is somewhat diﬀerent.
Coe says he often had brushes with officialdom, mainly due to his father’s blunt and uncompromising attitude. On one occasion, this nearly caused him to miss the race that saw his first-ever world record – an 800m in Oslo – when British officials tried to stop him travelling to Norway as he did not have “a permit”. Yet later that summer the same bullish officials eﬀectively saved his life when, much to his annoyance, they prevented him travelling to Italy on a small flight with athletics journalist James Coote and the plane crashed, killing Coote and a fellow passenger.
By now, we are into the guts of the book and the core of Coe’s superb career as a middle-distance runner. Yet still, the book hardly trundles through the performances in a dull fashion. Instead, Coe plucks out the most fascinating elements to focus on. For example, in the run-up to the Moscow Olympics he talks at length about the frustration involved in the boycott and how his garage was daubed with a Swastika one night by hooligan activists.
Then of course there is Ovett. No story about Coe could be complete without reference to his greatest rival, but the book doesn’t dwell on him hugely and also, somewhat surprisingly, does not say a massive amount about Steve Cram, Said Aouita, Joaquim Cruz and Peter Elliott either. All of the comments, however, are full of respect for his rivals and on Ovett he says: “The public wanted a rivalry of Homeric proportions, gladiatorial combat minus the gore.”
Despite the threat of a British boycott, the public got what they wanted in Moscow with Coe and Ovett sharing the spoils. Interestingly, though, Coe adds that he believes the entire landscape of the era might have been altered if Ivo van Damme, the talented Belgian who had won silver in the 800m and 1500m at the 1976 Olympics, had not been killed soon after the Montreal Games.
In my favourite part of the book, Coe also tells some terrific tales, such as the occasion when the BBC made the unprecedented decision to interrupt its news at 9pm in order to show one of Coe’s record attempts in Zurich and a key figure from the BBC told Coe, “Don’t screw up, as my job’s on the line!”
Such anecdotes pepper the pages of the autobiography. Coe tells the detailed story, for example, of the punch-up he had with a Swiss wind surfing instructor over a misunderstanding in 1982 – an incident that landed him in a local police station! There is also the time Linford Christie called BBC Five Live while Coe was in air and the radio host, Simon Mayo, suddenly said “Linford from London” was on the line and sat back while Coe squirmed his way through an embarrassing war of words with the ex-sprinter.
There is also plenty of humour. Coe (or ‘Newbold’, as he says some friends call him) tells the story about how he once ran so fast and hard on a treadmill that he caused it to start smoking. “F*** it’s on fire!” exclaimed his dad.
Jokes and anecdotes are always nicely written as well. At one point, for example, Coe is talking about Juantorena’s brilliance and mentions that his middle name was “Danger”. He adds at the end of the paragraph, simply: “I kid you not.”
As we reach the mid-Eighties, Coe’s career on the track was beginning to reach its climax. He talks about the decision to train alone away from his father in the run-up to the 1984 Olympics as the “toughest decision of his life” and how he ended up under the guidance of US track coach Joe Newton. This does not devalue the importance of his father during his career, though, as he names Peter Coe and Juan Antonio Samaranch as having the biggest single influences on his athletics and political careers.
As Coe’s political life begins, however, the book starts to slow down for breath. This was not a period of stunning success for Coe. He eventually lost his position as MP in Falmouth and Camborne as the Conservatives were defeated by Labour in the 1997 General Election. Coe also talks candidly about the break-up of his first marriage and how the strains of travelling to his constituency in Cornwall were hardly a formula for a stable family life.
The level of detail Coe goes into with his family life is also a surprise for a man who has always kept his private life separate from his public life. The many excellent photographs in the book, for example, include pictures of his children and also his second wife, Carole. Entwined in this, are strong suspicions that his – or Carole’s – phones have been hacked in the past by unscrupulous media.
On a more touching note, there is a picture of a painting that his father did of him when he was eight years old. Coe describes it as “one of my most treasured possessions” – further evidence of the degree that Coe has opened up when penning this book.
Finally, Coe regales the story behind London 2012. First there is a gripping behind-the-scenes account of how the votes were won at the IOC meeting in July 2005. Then he talks in detail about the organisation of this mammoth event.
Again, colourful stories abound. He talks, for example, about how hugely important Tony Blair’s appearance was in Singapore on the eve of the votes to pick the 2012 host city and also how Cherie Blair went for Jacques Chirac “like a heat-seeking missile” in Singapore after the French president had slated British cuisine.
After the slight lull during the section of the book that talks about his early forays into politics, the book soon gathers pace again as it reaches the crescendo of London 2012. Here, among other things, Coe paints the scene of the Singapore success of 2005 and how his strategy was to tell the IOC “what London could do for it, rather than what the IOC could do for London”. Later, we hear Coe describe himself as feeling like “a timeshare salesman on the Costa del Sol” when he first showed the IOC the disused land that would later stage the greatest show on earth.
Not surprisingly, in the rush to publish this book after the Olympics, not a huge amount is written about the Games itself. But there is enough to sate the reader’s appetite and, as Coe says, it will take some time for the spectacular events of the summer of 2012 to sink in.
More than anything, I was left with two conclusions after reading Running My Life. First, that this is not so much about Coe, but Coe’s story of the many fascinating characters who have lit up athletics and the Olympic scene during the past 30-40 years. Secondly, whether you like him or not, he is one of life’s undoubted winners and this book can be considered a success manual, with advice on far more than simply how to run fast.
»Running My Life by Sebastian Coe is published by Hodder & Stoughton and costs £20
» See the January 2 issue of AW for an in-depth interview with Seb Coe