AW editor celebrates the 40th anniversary of one of the most famous feats in the history of middle-distance running
Forty years ago, in the summer of 1979, a 22-year-old middle-distance runner from Sheffield embarked on a world record-breaking spree that would change his life forever. During a memorable spell of 41 days, Sebastian Coe set new marks for 800m, 1500m and the mile as he became the most talked about athlete on the planet.
Coe’s main goal that year was mainly to finish his degree at Loughborough University. He had also trained through what British historians have dubbed ‘the winter of discontent’ due to the endlessly bleak weather and trade union strikes.
Yet on July 5, 1979, he took more than a second off Alberto Juantorena’s world 800m record with 1:42.33 in Oslo. Then just 12 days later he smashed John Walker’s mile record with 3:48.95, again in Oslo, followed by breaking Filbert Bayi’s 1500m mark in Zurich with 3:32.03.
As a young boy it was nothing short of inspirational. In May 1979 I watched my football team, Manchester United, lose to a last-gasp winner from Arsenal in the FA Cup final. But soon after my imagination was fired by the exploits of Coe – and subsequently Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott – and I kicked football into touch and began a lifelong obsession with athletics instead.
To crack these records, Coe managed to combine rugged stamina with blistering pace. His endurance was shown when he won the UK indoor 3000m title at Cosford in 7:59.8 at the start of 1979. When it came to speed, he spent the spring and early summer racing a series of 400m and 4x400m races with a 46.3 relay split. Long before the Diamond League was invented, he raced himself into form at events like the Yorkshire and Northern Counties championships, plus the Europa Cup semi-final and final.
“During a memorable spell of 41 days, Sebastian Coe set new marks for 800m, 1500m and the mile as he became the most talked about athlete on the planet”
Coe’s first world record came at the Bislett Games. He already had a fine reputation as an 800m runner after winning the European indoor title in 1977 and then taking the field through an unprecedented sub-50 first lap at the 1978 European Championships before fading to third behind Olaf Beyer of East Germany and Ovett. But his exploits on July 5, 1979, set shock waves through the sport as he followed pacemaker Lennie Smith of Jamaica through 200m in 24.6 and 400m in 50.6 before letting rip through the final circuit in 51.8. “My world would never be the same again,” he later reflected.
After breaking Juantorena’s record he headed to Norway to honour a promise to run in a meeting in Meisingset, where he won the 800m in a modest 1:54.8. The following weekend he dropped down to 400m again to run a 46.87 PB for silver at the AAA Championships at Crystal Palace behind Kasheef Hassan of the Sudan. Then he travelled to Oslo again for the Golden Mile on July 17.
Coe was the slowest man in the race with a 3:57.67 PB. The line-up included Americans Steve Scott and Craig Masback, Ireland’s formidable Eamonn Coghlan, Commonwealth champion Dave Moorcroft, European record-holder Thomas Wessinghage, Scottish talents Graham Williamson and John Robson and Kiwi runners Dixon and Walker – the latter being the Olympic 1500m champion and world mile record-holder with 3:49.4. In fact the only major name missing was Ovett.
As Steve Lacy set the pace through 440 yards in 57.8 and halfway in 1:55.3, Coe floated around the track behind Scott. As Lacy dropped out, Scott and Coe drew away from the rest of the field and then, just before the bell, Coe drifted effortlessly to the front before coasting clear over the final lap to clock a sensational 3:48.95 with runner-up Scott narrowly missing Jim Ryun’s US record with 3:51.11.
“The early pace did not disturb me,” Coe recalled in his autobiography Running Free. “All day I’d been worrying about how I’d feel on the third lap. I was prepared for it to hurt but it did not happen.”
“My world would never be the same again” – Coe after his 800m record in Oslo
After taking the 800m and mile records in Oslo, the media began to put him under pressure to take the 1500m at his next big race in Zurich on August 15. Organisers of the Weltklasse meeting in the Swiss capital were also billing it as a world record attempt and even kept Ovett out of the field to increase the chances of a fast time.
Unlike Coe’s mile record, this 1500m was painful. Kip Koskei of Kenya set a crazily fast early pace of 54.2 through 400m with Coe a metre or two behind. Coe then passed 800m in 1:53.2, gritted his teeth through a solo third lap in 57.6 and went through the bell in 2:35.2 and 1200m in 2:50.8 before hanging on to clock 3:32.03, breaking Bayi’s record by 13 hundredths of a second.
It brought to a close an amazing season for Coe. He was named world athlete of the year and BBC sports personality of 1979 and during the end-of-season period he received so much fan mail they blocked his door from opening.
Still, as Olympic year loomed, his feet were kept on the ground when he was being paced by a friend in a car while training in Richmond Park in London and police stopped him for going too slow.
» This is an abbreviated version of a feature on Coe’s world record-breaking spree in the July 4 issue of AW