• Rewind to 1980

Coe & Ovett light up Moscow Olympics

Tom Walker
June 28, 2012

Great sporting rivalries will take centre stage at London 2012 this summer and to get the pulse racing we've dug up a classic battle from the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett dominated middle distance running in the late 1970s and early part of the 1980s, though their rivalry reached boiling point in Moscow.

Although always spoken about in the same breath, the pair were rarely seen competing against one another, preferring to be kept apart whenever they were given the choice. In the lead-up to the Olympics Ovett caused a stir by entering a race over a mile at Crystal Palace that Coe had already put his name down for. Subsequently, Coe pulled out, switching to the 800m, and both men won their respective races.

With the pair trading world records at a silly rate, the world yearned for them to go head-to-head, and the ensuing Moscow meetings did not disappoint.

By the time the Games came around, they had only faced each other once on the track - in the 800m final at the 1978 European Championships. It was fanciful to think anyone would dethrone them, but little-known 21-year-old Olaf Beyer pulled off a huge upset, leaving a shell-shocked Ovett, who finished second, to walk over to Coe, who took third, and say: "Who the f*** was that?"

Perhaps a little ruffling of the feathers was no bad thing; both men arrived in Moscow with reputations restored and with big expectations. First up was the 800m, Coe's favoured event. Both breezed through their heats and semi-final, but it was clear the nerves started to kick in - at least for one of the Brits - as the final loomed large. Coe had a terrible night's sleep before the showpiece, and proceeded to drop a jug of milk at breakfast - hardly the ideal preparations for the biggest race of your life. While Coe was seemingly struggling to compose himself, Ovett was taking it all in his stride, shaking other contenders by the hand and, at least on the surface, oozed confidence.

The race proved just as eventful. Ovett found himself boxed in by two East Germans, unable to free himself from the inside. Eventually he found a way to manoeuvre himself away from that hole, while Coe surprised many by running wide on the outside. The final played out differently from what many had predicted: Coe - trailing in last place with 300m to go - made a late surge but was unable to catch Ovett, who was only lying in sixth place at the halfway point, finishing three metres behind his rival as they crossed the finish line.

Recalling how the race panned out, Ovett wrote in his autobiography: "I kept thinking: 'Where's Coe, where's Coe? This was supposed to be the clash of the century with two men neck and neck down the finishing straight. It was almost like being in a dream and when I reached the line, I thought: 'You're Olympic champion. What's all the fuss been about?'"

Coe's recollection of events was somewhat different, describing the race as "a f***-up from beginning to end" and "the very worst 800 metres of my 20-year career".

He later added: "I suppose I must have committed more cardinal sins of middle-distance running in the space of one and a half minutes than I ever have in a lifetime. What a race to choose."

Four days later they returned to the track to go at it again in the 1500m. Coe, a relatively inexperienced 1500m runner, profited from a slow first two laps, which allowed him to take charge as an 800m race developed. Jurgen Straub stepped on the gas, which in turn gave Coe the green light to stetch his legs. Coming around the final bend, Coe kicked and stormed past the East German, who held off the favourite Ovett for second spot, to win by a few yards.

What happened next?
Coe became Lord Coe in 2000 and after the IOC awarded the 2012 Olympics to London he became the chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. Ovett has been a track and field commentator since 1992 and now lives in Australia.

Reflecting on their rivalry, Coe said: "When we got to know one another, we realised we had quite a lot in common. It was just that we had been set on a collision course through fate."

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