Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the men’s middle distance events
Sebastian Coe is arguably Britain’s greatest ever athlete with nine outdoor and three indoor world records plus two Olympic 1500m titles – the only man in the modern era to do so. He also picked up two Olympic silvers and several medals in the European Championships.
Coe’s build-up to the 1980 Moscow Games was perfect – fast 800m races in the UK, including a 1:44.7 in the Northern championships, as well as a world record over 1000m. He was a firm favourite for the two-lap event, nearly two seconds faster than anyone else – surely no one could beat him? That is had he “not run the most abysmal tactical race of his career”, as Athletics Weekly reported. He finished second to Steve Ovett in 1:45.85, having suffered what can only be described as ‘stage fright’.
However, he redeemed himself in the 1500m, a race he himself said “I must win.” It was a slow tactical affair when Jürgen Straub from East Germany took the race by the scruff of the neck, winding up the pace like a man possessed, desperately trying to run the kick out of Coe and Ovett. He almost did it, but it was Coe who kicked past with 80m to go. Coe covered the last 400m in 52.2 and the last 700m in 1:33.5.
In 1981 Coe set a world 800m record of 1:41.73, which clipped 0.6 seconds off his existing best and would remain the record for 16 years. 1983 saw him set more world records – this time indoors at 800m (1:44.91) and 1000m (2:18.58) – and clocked the world’s fastest time for two years with 1:43.80 outdoors. But illness took its toll and, debilitated by glandular toxoplasmosis, he withdrew from the inaugural World Championships.
In 1984 he suffered a setback in the Olympic Trials when, hampered by an injury but obliged to demonstrate his fitness to the selectors, he was beaten by Peter Elliott – his first defeat to a Briton at the distance for eight years. He was controversially picked for the Los Angeles 1500m, but he would have the last laugh over those who doubted his ability.
He was satisfied this time to take the silver in the 800m (1:43.64) behind Brazil’s Joaquim Cruz (1:43.00), acknowledging that “I was beaten by a guy who was younger and stronger. He is a supreme champion worthy of an Olympic crown.”
In becoming the only Briton to gain four individual Olympic medals and the first man ever to retain a quadrennial Olympic 1500m title, Coe ran a flawless race. His time of 3:32.53 smashed the Olympic record and was barely half a second outside his fastest. “I’ve worked very hard,” he said. “This year has been as much a mental comeback as anything, and it’s a bit of a dream come true. This time last year I had just come out of hospital and didn’t run from July to Christmas.”
Although Coe ran his fastest 1500m time (3:29.77) in 1986 in Rieti, he would not win a global 1500m title again, but that year he did finally secure the 800m title he craved when he pipped Tom McKean and Cram to the European gold.
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
The New Zealander was something of an unknown quantity at his first Games in 1960, but he upset the favourites to land a surprise 800m gold with an Olympic record. It was the start of a superb career which saw him break the world record in 1962 before going on to win an 800m and 1500m Olympic double at the 1964 Games.
Hicham El Guerrouj
Aged just 21, the Moroccan was hotly tipped to take 1500m gold at the 1996 Games, but he tripped and fell in the final, finishing last. Two years later he went on to break the world record with 3:26.00 – a mark that still stands today – and he looked to make amends at the 2000 Olympics, but was beaten by Kenya’s Noah Ngeny. 2004 was his final shot at winning an elusive gold, but he surprised everyone – himself included – when he came away from Athens with two gold medals; one in the 1500m and one in the 5000m.
The Kenyan was one of the most talented all-round middle-distance runners in history. After an remarkable Olympic debut in 1964, Keino improved significantly in 1965 and broke the world record for the 3000m and 5000m. Three years later he won the Olympic 1500m title with the biggest winning margin in history, and then picked up a silver in the 5000m. He matched that medal tally at the 1972 Games, taking gold in the steeplechase and silver in the 1500m.
The nemesis and arch-rival of Coe, Ovett beat his fellow Briton over 800m at the 1980 Games – an event that was considered to be Coe’s strongest. Coe gained his revenge in the 1500m, while Ovett picked up bronze in that event. Despite winning Olympic gold over 800m, Ovett’s best event was considered to be the 1500m. He set three world records in that distance, as well as two for the mile.
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