The Perfect Distance
Ovett & Coe: the record-breaking rivalry
By Pat Butcher
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The delivery of a speech by Lord Sebastian Coe, addressed to billions around the globe to close the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games, served as part of a celebration of his tireless efforts to bring the Games back to this country.
Meanwhile, somewhere in East Sussex, a man named Steve Ovett writes brief opinion pieces for a national newspaper on the opening ceremony, Paula Radcliffe’s chances in the marathon and the controversy of Oscar Pistorius.
To the uninitiated there is a world of difference between Ovett and Coe. But back in the early 1980s you couldn’t place the proverbial cigarette paper between them, and while Coe’s role as figurehead of LOCOG has earned him acclaim of a different kind, 30 years ago both were heroes in equal measure.
Except the intriguing thing was, to many they weren’t. Spoiled with the two finest middle-distance runners of their generation, Britain split into Ovett and Coe camps; ‘The Tough (Ovett) vs The Toff (Coe)’. While there was little animosity between the pair, their predicament and their dominance of both 800m and 1500m disciplines meant athletics fans supported one or the other.
That culminated in one of the most memorable showdowns in Olympic history at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, or the Coe-Ovett Olympics as they were dubbed. As everyone of a certain age knows, Coe’s champion event was the 800m while Ovett excelled at the 1500m. But sport is at its finest when at its most unpredictable and when Ovett won the 800m, Coe promptly responded by winning in the 1500m.
Those two races could stand alone as a gripping tale but they merely act as the centrepiece of Pat Butcher’s excellent book, which takes in the pair’s rise to prominence, Ovett’s spiky relationship with the media and the deferential treatment given by middle distance runners to ‘The Perfect Distance’; the mile.
While Coe is known the world over, it is Ovett whose enigmatic personality that makes him the more beguiling character of the two (typical quote: ‘the decathlon is nine Mickey Mouse events and a slow 1500m’), although Coe’s alliance with overbearing father and coach Peter also makes for fascinating reading.
Regardless of what has followed, for athletics fans it was Pat Butcher himself who put it best back in 1982: ‘whether in opposition or adversity, the names of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett seem destined to be linked.’
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How many Olympic gold medals did Sebastian Coe win?