Coe and Ovett & Co

Russell Davies

At the same moment, in the same events, in what is by some standards an athletically underdeveloped country, a combination of propitious circumstances has brought forth two world-beating runners. Nobody can hope to account for this, but the luck is worth glorying in. It embraces even the principals’ names: Coe and Ovett – as snappy as trademarks, and eminently saleable on the vowel-happy continent of Europe where the pair’s records have mostly been set. One thinks of them as a pair not on account of their resemblances, of course, but because they seem to have agreed so precisely and comprehensively to differ. Each action of the one, on the track or off, apparently helps the other to define, by opposites, the way he wishes to present himself. They match in the same way that a plug matches a socket. And which is which? Difficult to say until a fuse blows in one of the parties, and it hasn’t blown yet.

There is naturally a corresponding split in public support, for while most sports followers wish both men well, every punter has his private preference; and there is no doubt that pseudo-political undertones are involved in the choice. Sebastian Coe’s Christian name proclaims him a well-favoured son of the middle class, an impression sometimes reinforced by the hint of beaky arrogance in his face. It may well be the arrogance that is traditionally the soul-food of champions, but there has been dark talk of links with the Young Conservatives. Coe’s sister Miranda is an elegant model – the family is strong on legs – though she doubles (possibly a concession here to the Ovett style of things) as a ‘cabaret dancer’. Above all, Coe has been coached by his father, Peter, who has impressed himself on the public mind, rightly or wrongly, as a self-made authoritarian gifted with inflexible will, prescient ambition and a strikingly neo-Victorian belief in ‘scientific’ progress. It comes as no surprise to learn from the new book on Coe, Running Free, that ‘Peter’ is a name assumed by Coe Sr to disguise the baptismal ‘Percy’.

Steve Ovett, by contrast, tends to engage the more rebellious sympathies of disaffected youth and the working man. Much the bigger of the two runners, and the more obviously muscular, he exemplifies the virtue of getting there by hard graft. A man of six feet one inch can never float round the track on pure talent. Ovett’s gappy teeth, bared in the extremity of victory or the post-race panting, recall those British wartime propaganda pictures of the Common Soldier making the best of it in a dug-out. A heroic sight, but not one bursting with spirituality. Coe, again, falls unerringly into the opposite category. I doubt whether in the history of athletics there has ever been a finishing-line picture more reminiscent of the Great Religious Agonies than the classic Pop-perfoto of Coe winning the 800 metres in Moscow. Coe’s is an agonised/ecstatic attitude fully worthy of the martyr who bears his name, though the horizontal hands suggest nothing less ambitious than crucifixion.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in