Matt Long reflects on the historic Olympic final, 40 years on

Exactly 40 years ago today, two men wearing the white, red and blue of Great Britain took to their marks for the men’s Olympic 800m final.

The world stopped for the next 1:45.4. For this 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, Steve Ovett vs Sebastian Coe was a social construction cleverly engineered by the tabloid press. The 24-year-old ‘brash’ and ‘arrogant’ Ovett was typecast in the role of the ‘bad guy’, while 23-year-old ‘polite’ and ‘unassuming’ Coe was the darling of the media.

The ensuing 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 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.

July 26, 1980. Lenin Stadium, Moscow

For the millions watching live on TV, the BBC’s inimitable David Coleman meets the sound of the starter’s gun. “Tremendous roar around the stadium as they go on their way. Three Britons, two East Germans, one Russian, one Brazilian and one Frenchman.”

The full line up is as follows (PBs included):

Lane 1. Nikolay Kirov. Soviet Union (1:45.6)
Lane 2. Steve Ovett. Great Britain (1:44.1)
Lane 3. Agberto Guimares. Brazil (1:46.0)
Lane 4. Detlef Wagenknecht. East Germany (1:45.9)
Lane 5. Dave Warren. Great Britain (1:46.2)
Lane 6. Jose Marajo. France (1:43.9)
Lane 7. Andreas Busse. East Germany (1:44.8)
Lane 8. Sebastian Coe. Great Britain (1.42.4 world record)

Seconds into the race, Coleman gathers himself, noting: “Guimares of Brazil has gone storming off.” As they break after 100m, he references the man who many believe has only to stand up to win, with the observation: “Sebastian Coe right on the outside, taking it fairly easily, but he’s about seven metres back as they break.”

Back home, track and field enthusiasts seem surprised that Coe has gone off “like he was running the 10,000m”, according to his father and coach, Peter. Thirty-two years later in his autobiographic Running My Life, the odds-on favourite and world record-holder would reflect on his losses to both Ovett and race winner Olaf Beyer at the 1978 European Championships.

“In Prague I’d learnt the hard way about acting as an unpaid pacemaker and I wasn’t about to make the same error here,” he writes. He had become the first man in history to lead an opening lap in sub-50 seconds but would have only a bronze medal to show for it 400m later. Coe’s conservatism was also born of long nights training with the sprints squad at his place of study, Loughborough University. There was a rationale to his plan to, “sit in and kick”.

As the athletes jockey for positioning on the two inside lanes while negotiating the back straight for the first time, the observant Coleman senses danger. “And Steve Ovett, looking for room.” Instantaneously in bumping Wagenkneckt, the 1978 European 1500m champion sets off a chain reaction which sees both the East German and Frenchman Marajo lucky not to end up lying prostrate on the track. In The Perfect Distance, Pat Butcher offers the wonderful analogy that Ovett was guilty of “scattering them like cardboard cut-outs”.

Back in the TV studios, the beloved former British heavyweight champion, Henry Cooper, will say only half-jokingly that he has witnessed less physical boxing matches, while Coe himself would much later draw a not dissimilar comparison in referring to the events inside his wide berth as little more than “hand to hand combat”.

As they enter the home straight for the first time, Coleman notices the visibility of the slowing and bunching of an unruly pack of eight. “It’s now become tactical and the bumping and boring we expected has happened,” he says. Approaching 350m and for the second time, Ovett’s positioning is setting the alarm bells off in the head of the BBC frontman. “Ovett, rarely for him, trapped behind the bunch and he’s got to come round that lot.”

After posing the rhetorical “what will he do try and barge his way through?” once again the man wearing number 279 on his vest seems to telepathically respond with his elbows, with Coleman exclaiming: “And there he goes bursting through, getting a rough ride.” Writing in AW 40 years ago, former editor Mel Watman will euphemistically describe Ovett’s tactics as a somewhat “cheeky manoeuvre”.  On reflection, the man himself would say with candour: “If anyone was guilty of doing more than their fair share of pushing, it was probably me. People were wearing half-inch spikes and if anyone gets close to you, you fend them off because they are dangerous. It’s really a matter of safety precautions.”

A funeral procession of a first lap sees the bell being reached in 54.55, with Coleman saying it’s a “slow time – left to the sprinters”. At this point, Ovett is a man in jail with no sign of an early release date. Coe will later agree that there was “one point in the race where he’s buried, absolutely buried”. To the growing concern of his considerable fan base, Coe is, in his own words, “sleepwalking” and has not woken up to the fact that Ovett’s incarceration in the pack represents his best opportunity of taking the race by the proverbial scruff of the neck. Coe will later admit that his spilling a jug of milk over breakfast was evidence of his inability to get a good night’s sleep prior to the most important race of his life.

Back at the sharp end of the race and it is the third Britain, Dave Warren, who issues resuscitation to a race in risk of cardiac arrest, by breathing life into proceedings in overtaking the early leader and going past Guimares at the 450m point. The one-time pacemaker to Ovett, who has exceeded all expectations in merely reaching the final, has given the Brighton man his get out of jail card as the pack unfolds for the first time. Ovett has displayed the biblical patience of Job and Warren’s divine intervention has offered him the chance of redemption. Coe fans know he must now follow in hot pursuit but inexplicably, he doesn’t. If he has woken up from his sleepwalk he is at best yawning and stretching.

The man wearing number 254 will admit: “When they broke I didn’t have the speed of thought or movement necessary.” When pressed, he would reflect: “To this day my insouciance at that point remains a mystery … by the time I’d merged from my somnolence and pulled the rip cord, it was too late.” Coe has morphed into the metaphoric tennis player who when offered three championship points proceeds to serve up a catalogue of unforced errors. This prompts Watman to write just hours after the event that this is, without doubt, “the most abysmal tactical race of his career”.

With 250m to go, 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.” The aforementioned Pat Butcher will observe: “Call it Zen, call it the zone … Ovett had become the race.” Ovett has taken centre stage in a performance which has seen him mix it on the opening lap with the supporting cast, while all the time he has failed to acknowledge the presence of the leading actor.

With 200m to go, the gallant Warren has run his race and will fade fast to an eventual eighth placing and at this point the home town favourite Kirov takes the lead, much to the pleasure of watching officialdom. Ovett remains unfazed, recalling in his autobiography: “I suspected that Kirov would somewhere early in the second lap go to the front so that he was clearly seen on television and do what I would call a ‘Hallo Mum’ sketch, even though he knew he could not last.” He has the break covered and is perched parrot-like on the right shoulder of Kirov.

As they round the top bend and are winding up their sprints, Coleman senses that Coe is drinking in the last chance saloon as he has “got an awful lot to do. He’s coming from a long way back.” Coe will later say: “I compounded more middle-distance sins in the space of one and a half minutes than I had done in the whole of my career.” And at this point he has just 15 seconds to try and make desperate amends. As they enter the home straight, Coleman passes moral judgement of the untidiness of what he has witnessed like a disgruntled customer in a restaurant who has found it hard to digest the lack of taste that has been served up. “They’ve been all over the place in this race, it’s been a running battle.”

If three-quarters of the race have been a mere test drive, at this point Ovett is now full throttle and very firmly into fifth gear. With 70m to go Coe is now wide awake, shockingly bearing the look of a rabbit caught in the headlights and Coleman believes he “is beaten, surely”. Just 60m to go, “Ovett hits the front and Coe can’t get through.” Coe is closing like a steam train but his contorted facial features betray the look of a man who knows he is running out of track and he will later acknowledge: “Ovett closed the door and the race.”

With 40m to go, Coleman begins to coronate Ovett as the man to replace the giant Cuban Alberto Juantorena as the new Olympic 800m champion. “Steve Ovett, coming home to take the gold medal for Great Britain.” There is an orgasm of relief etched on his face as he crosses the line in contrast to the gritted teeth agony of Coe, who somehow has hauled himself past both Guimares (fourth) and Kirov (third) to take the silver.

Ovett will allude not so much to the surprise of his win but to the unexpected nature of it, the sheer “simplicity of my victory”. Moments later, the enormity of what has been achieved hits the Brighton man and his arms are raised aloft in triumph with Coleman’s post-race analysis confirming, “that was a race about experience”. With the benefit of more than three decades in which to conduct his post mortem on the capitulation of Coe, Butcher will say: “Ovett’s whole demeanour, the bustle, the braggadocio, the hand-off, the panache, the wave, the handshake, even the ‘ILY’ – all staged as they may have been … conspired to convince Sebastian Coe that he could not beat Steve Ovett on that day and at that time.” Coe would say more simply, “the truth is, I froze.”

Coe appears 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 will lead Clive James of  ‘The Observer’ to hilariously state that Ovett’s outstretched hand was greeted by Coe, “as if he’d just been handed a turd”. The victor will disappear into the night to celebrate with copious amounts of champagne and a traveling Irish contingent but while abstaining from alcohol, ironically it will be Coe who wakes up on the morning of Sunday July 27 in a state he will describe as “worse than any hangover”.

» Matt Long was editor of BMC News magazine between 2014-18 and has authored more than 250 coach education articles. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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