Politics and IAAF presidency aside, let’s not forget what a fantastic athlete Seb Coe was
Every athlete usually remembers a moment where they were drawn into the sport. For me, I was hooked after watching the Seb Coe and Steve Ovett showdown at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Aged 11, I watched their first clash over 800m at a friend’s house and then challenged him and his brother to a race around the block. Two laps, of course.
I was an Ovett fan to start with. Yet before long I converted to Coe. I always loved an underdog and after being beaten by Ovett in the 800m Coe was definitely the outsider in the Moscow 1500m as he took on a runner who had been undefeated at the distance for three years and 45 races.
Coe’s comeback victory in Moscow captured my imagination. I was fascinated that such a frail physique could conceal so much speed and strength. Then there was his famed ‘double kick’, which he used to see off Ovett and Jurgen Straub.
Four years later, I rose in the early hours of the morning to watch the BBC broadcast of Coe firstly finishing a gallant second to the great Brazilian Joaquim Cruz over 800m in the Los Angeles Olympics before making another terrific comeback to win the 1500m ahead of Steve Cram.
I didn’t realise at the time, but I was unwittingly studying for my future job at Athletics Weekly and Coe’s autobiography, Running Free, was one of my key textbooks as I soaked up this golden age of middle-distance running.
It all led to one glorious moment which perhaps epitomised the era. At the European Championships 800m in Stuttgart in 1986 Coe was again the underdog as Cram had established himself as world No.1 in 1985 with three world records in 19 days and showed the same form to win the double at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Tom McKean, a brilliant racer in slower, tactical races, was also in the field, but Coe ran the smartest strategic race and had the strongest finish as he led a GB medal sweep which one newspaper would later memorably compare to ‘three Spitfires coming out of the sun’.
These great races have not been forgotten, but they are in danger of being overshadowed by the presidential politics of Coe’s current role at the IAAF. We have reached a stage where many of today’s athletes were not even born when Coe was in his heyday on the track and they mainly know him as the 60-year-old sports administrator charged with cleaning up a sport that has been bedevilled with doping and corruption.
For me, though, Coe will always be an athlete first and politician second. He revolutionised the art of 800m running with a time of 1:41.73 in 1981 which survived as a world record for 16 years and remains a UK record that no British athlete has got anywhere close to for years.
Ignoring the ‘more mileage’ mentality that prevailed in the late 1970s, Coe astutely emphasised quality over quantity and he took his 800m speed to the 1500m and mile with devastating, world record-breaking results. He also taught a generation of middle-distance runners that the gym was an important place to hang out and, according to legend, used to draw gasps from fellow athletes and coaches at training weekends when demonstrating his weight-lifting ability.
His bold and seemingly suicidal tactics in early races against athletes like John Walker in the Emsley Carr Mile were both audacious and experimental because he knew that one day he would have the strength to hold on to the lead until the very end. Similarly, at the European 800m in Prague in 1978 he responded the pre-race instructions of his father and coach, Peter Coe, to “see what the b*****s are made of” by unleashing an unprecedented 49.3 first lap before fading to third behind Ovett and winner Olaf Beyer.
Such willingness to push his body to the limit eventually paid off, while behind the scenes he was also ahead of his time by creating a back-up team of physiotherapists and physiologists years before it became commonplace for athletes like Mo Farah to do the same.
One of the great travesties – and mysteries – of the Coe era is that it failed to inspire a subsequent generation of world beaters. A number of fine runners emerged, such as Curtis Robb, Matt Yates, John Mayock, Anthony Whiteman, Mike East, Andrew Osagie and Mike Rimmer, but no one has been able to match the performances of the 1980s, apart from Farah of course.
Years later I actually beat Coe in a race. Although to be fair it was a media race at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria and Coe was merely jogging around for fun with Rosa Mota, the Portuguese marathon legend, while a few artificial athletes like myself took it more seriously.
Then, two years later, I had the surreal experience of running another media race, this time over 800m, in the same Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow that Coe and Ovett graced in 1980. Strangely, though, it was a bit of an anticlimax, partly because the re-laid, blue surface did not look much like the one that staged the Olympics 33 years earlier.
Or maybe it was because the events of 1980 can never be truly replicated. They belong in the past, in an amazing and unique era where Coe, Cram and Ovett ruled the middle-distance world in such a way that will never be seen again.
» The September 29 edition of AW magazine includes a 32-page special insert to mark Seb Coe’s 60th birthday, featuring an exclusive interview in which the British middle-distance great gives his thoughts on the future as president of the IAAF, further reflection on his golden years on the track and much more