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.

Faithful to the system of contraries, Ovett’s ‘motivator’ has been his mother. Presumably some part of the job was handed over when, on 18 September, Ovett was married – to the recipient of the ‘I Love You’ messages he sent, by television and digital code, from Moscow. This gesture was welcomed by the press, as proof that Ovett did, after all, love somebody. But he had long been wrapped up in his family life. Quite early in the days of the athlete’s fame, Cliff Temple of the Sunday Times wrote an article, ‘Ovett on Ovett’, which found its way into that newspaper’s Bedside Book for 1978. Here Ovett described, with an openness he has since become famous for never having shown, the home life he shared with his parents, Mike and Gay, and his younger sister and brother, Sue and Nicky: ‘We’re totally honest and open with each other. It’s stimulating just being here. We have rows, deep discussions – people get thrown out, and come in again. You never know what’s going to happen next.’ It sounds like group-therapy or a commune. Not everyone would like it. But it appears to work; and one can understand Ovett’s reluctance to give the world’s press the goods when he is already being as honest as he can with the folks at home. Everyone in the press-box should be willing, at any rate, to concede that Ovett’s intransigence is defensive in intent (though Christopher Brasher of the Observer has sometimes come close to suggesting otherwise).

It must be said that the press, and to a lesser extent television, have their problems when it comes to athletics. Not the least of the difficulties is that most discussions of running arrive fairly rapidly at the far end of what can be said, at least within hearing of the God-fearing reader or licence-holder. A game like cricket, being almost entirely composed of circumstantial evidence, is almost as productive of words as the forensic process, and football has the assorted caperings of 22 men and a referee to go on. But a middle-distance race is literally a single-file procession: indubitably dramatic, but concealing the noble strivings of the mind, which cannot easily be reconstituted after the fact. ‘The thing about athletics,’ says Coe in his book, ‘is that it is a little like poker sometimes: you know what’s in your hand, and it may be a lot of old rubbish, but you have to keep up a front!’ This is fair enough: a good commentator during the course of a race can make a satisfying analysis of the bluffing game. But once a game of poker is over, the tactics that brought about its result stand revealed as bathetically simple – and so it is with running. The complexities of the thing are very far sunk in the biological mechanics of morale.

It follows that most athletics reporting is either exclamatory, as well it might be in the current season (‘Magnifi-Coe!’ – Daily Star), or would-be intimate, the journalist doing his best to share the experience of competition (Coe ‘need not have apologised to me as he did later for failing speak to me then. I recall how much I used to hate speaking to people in those lonely moments before a race’ – Peter Hildreth, Sunday Telegraph), One senses that the press box is full of people trying to ‘adopt’ Coe. Television viewers can see the process at work in the person of David Coleman, who maintains, on camera, what comes across as a flirtatiously bantering relationship with ‘Seb’. Coe may be inured to it by now, but as his book records, he has been embarrassed in the past: ‘To cap it all, [Frank] Bough had signed off the programme by saying: “what an attractive young man.” I got the most impossible stick for months afterwards. I couldn’t go anywhere without ribald remarks being made.’

There is no doubt a vicarious element in the attentions of Coe’s well-meaning ‘uncles’. Coleman, for example, had early ambitions in track and cross-country; and David Miller of the Daily Express, Coe’s collaborator on Running Free, was a near-achiever in more than one sphere, having been, we are told, ‘in the training squad for the British Olympic soccer team’ of 1956, and ‘only 12 feet short of the qualifying distance for the javelin’. (Was it Miller who invented the long throw-in?) There is a natural desire to participate in Coe’s success at some deeper level than a grandstand view can offer, and Ovett’s attitude intensifies this feeling. As Coe himself remarks, ‘both the press and TV had wanted me to win because of Steve’s refusal to co-operate with them, they wanted it as much for themselves as for me, I suspected.’

There may come a time when Coe has to fight free of his admirers’ embrace, and he may have to do something unpopular and Ovett-like to achieve that escape. So far he has made himself heroically available, disponible, turning down only This is your life, as is the duty of every civilised man. As he warms to the subject of television, Coe already sounds a little like his opposite number: ‘there is a tendency for television people to suppose that you must be grateful and willing to co-operate in anything they decide they want to do.’

But Coe’s objections to Ovett are real and persistent (it would be a self-defeating ‘motivator’, after all, who tried to soothe them away), and he itemises them in Running Free. ‘Many athletes can’t help feeling that Steve has had kid-glove treatment from the Board.’ This one goes back a long time, at least to 1978, when Cliff Temple recorded of Ovett: ‘He won’t run in the international championships in a fortnight’s time ... “I’m not being a prima donna,” he says. “I’m not insisting on air travel and a room at the Hilton – I’m just not going,” ’ The authorities seem to have realised early on that Ovett’s refusal is much like a young horse’s: a second attempt will only make it worse, Coe feels they have let him off with a caution too many times. Nor does Ovett’s personal demeanour appeal to the charming Northerner. ‘He is without question a wonderful athlete and my admiration of him as such is sincere and unbounded, but he does conduct himself in a way which regularly leaves so much to be desired.’ (Coe is at times capable of a Percy-like tone.) ‘He should not belittle inferior opponents in lesser races the way he sometimes does. That is sheer bad manners.’ As for their occasional contacts: ‘After I broke the mile record in Oslo, Steve said, when asked whether he would congratulate me, “Why should I, it’s not my record. I don’t get caught up in times. I never run against the clock. I run against men on the day.” ’ Perhaps the moral in this case was that he who asks Ovett a provocative question should expect a provocative answer (or nothing) in return.

The events of August have in any case rendered this exchange obsolete, for Ovett is now unquestionably aiming for times rather than just wins. He was reported earlier to be switching to the mile event in the Coca Cola international at Crystal Palace, the last major meeting of the season, in order to knock off Coe’s mile record before hibernation set in. The season has left the public, I think, with the overall impression that Ovett has ‘avoided’ his obvious opponent – although, on the face of it, the man more likely to benefit from a regime of non-confrontational races, with the man-to-man element minimised, would be Coe. His has been the colder approach, in every sense – his book describes a tough daily routine in the Yorkshire hills, where ‘you often can’t get the car out for days at a time because of the snow. It’s not quite like that in Brighton’ – and he measures his record against Ovett’s in correspondingly chilly terms: ‘He does not have the same ratio of records to attempts that I have – four records in five attempts ... It is records more than medals which excite me.’

This sort of statement inevitably revives the suspicion that Coe’s race-instinct may eventually atrophy. Exposed to really threatening competition such as Ovett provides, he could find himself vulnerable again to the emotional paralysis that struck him in the first Moscow final. Ovett, so the theory goes, is the more emotional performer and thus, when it comes to the extremities of race-response, more finely tuned. This would make sense if Ovett had shown himself to be the possessor of a fully reliable sensitivity to the race going on around him, but not many weeks ago, he was rather distressingly vanquished by a runaway pacemaker, Byers. Ovett managed to laugh this off, quite graciously, as an aberration, a comedy. It was certainly a mistake. If Coe had perpetrated it, the whole press would probably have risen in chorus to call him a duffer, as they did in Moscow. There can be no doubt, though, that he enjoyed the sympathies of the British team on that occasion. In a Foreword to Running Free, Mary Peters OBE, British Women’s Athletics Team Manager, makes no attempt to preserve managerial neutrality on the matter: ‘Many of us considered Seb had the speed and style to win, but as Steve broke the tape those of us watching on television stood in stunned silence. Thrilled as we were by more gold and silver medals, we had felt the gold was meant for Seb.’ As their careers reach a climax, this is possibly Ovett’s greatest spur – the chance to shatter a sense of the appropriate which, in so many minds, casts Coe as the natural winner.

The title Running Free – unintentionally, I dare say – has acquired a heavily ironic undertone. Coe and Ovett are, indeed, still nominally running without payment: but everyone seems satisfied that the official ‘breach’ in the amateur’s historical status (even if certain IAAF pronouncements have been over-eagerly interpreted) is about to be effected. The thought, Coe reports, was not far from Ovett’s mind, even in Moscow: ‘As we waited in the tunnel, Steve said to me: “It’s stupid to think we’re doing this here for nothing when we could turn professional and fill a stadium on our own.” ’ Coe’s own view, based on more immediate possibilities, is interesting: ‘Whether or not I run against Steve in 1981 depends on a number of factors. It is obvious that a race between us, over 1500 metres or a mile, in a sponsored meeting, is capable of generating a huge sum of money through television. It is my belief, however, that most of the revenue ought to go back into athletics, rather than be siphoned off by some PR consortium working in collaboration with TV and advertising geared to programme ratings in Britain or America.’ We can all agree with this, but can we expect the situation to be any more manageable when top athletes, as now seems likely, have to respect the wishes of sponsors who are legally keeping them on showbiz-sized retainers? The danger is that Coe and Ovett, in their roles as, say, Mr Coca Cola and Mr Pepsi Cola, may be kept eternally apart.

The definitive loser in all this is the traditional idea of The Race – rare, shambolic, surprising, and utterly exhausting. At top level, this has gone. What we have now is a circuit, not unlike the tennis circuit, with the same names circulating week after week. Possibly it was always like that and we just knew less about it, or chose not to inquire. (Even now there are tennis fans who prefer to believe that the great stars of the game scarcely exist fornine-tenths of the year, except insofar as they are ‘preparing for Wimbledon’.) Athletics in Britain took a long time to lose the old Gentlemen v. Players quality – one remembers Bannister as a gentleman, Pirie as a player, temperamentally – but now it has quite gone. We have reached, as at a T-junction, the road most other nations are on. In neither direction is the destination attractive. To the east, we have governments taking out options on the future Olympic potential of dimpled tots in push-chairs. To the west, we see the not very distant possibility of winning athletes doing their laps of honour dressed as peanuts, Honey Monsters or packets of cigarettes. The extent to which Britain will prove capable of resisting both kitsch and Kraft-durch-Freude depends very much on the attitudes being struck, even now, by Coe, Ovett and a few favoured contemporaries such as Daley Thompson. The man who provides the leadership in this sphere will have won, in my estimation, whatever the record books finally say. As Coe is fond of remarking, records are only borrowed. There are whole populations, as yet unreleased onto the happy freedom of the all-weather surface, just waiting to shunt him and his rival into the Hall of Fame.