Dedicated to my friend, Vidya Mandir classmate and running guru, R.Srinivasan alias Cheeni alias Kopparai – a master strategist and tactician – whether it is planning an 800 m / 1500 m race or planning for an Accountancy test !
His unique strides, running style and the way he kept checking the positioning of his competitors throughout the race was a treat to watch.
VM86 rocks !
“He ran like an idiot” his father replied. There were murmurs in the room as the scribes digested this. After a short time but which seemed like an eternity, the press conference came to an end.
Back in their room at the hotel, Sebastian Coe confronted his father. “Do you think it was really necessary to say that ? Damn right I blew it but words like “idiot” are the journalistic equivalent of hard currency. Any scribe who doesnt make hay out of THAT would be failing miserably in his profession”.
But Peter Coe was defensive and defiant. “There was no way I was going to let them think it was YOU who was running out there. I had to impress that on their minds”, he shot back at his son.
Just the day before, Sebastian Coe had lost what should have been at the very least an Olympic record breaking outing and had to be content with a silver, losing to compatriot Steve Ovett.
The United States boycott protesting the Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan cast a huge shadow over the Moscow Olympics bringing an abrupt and tragic end to the careers of many top athletes.
Therefore, the participation of England provided a lens to focus on middle distance running, which is known as the blue riband event of athletics – where tactics and tactical response provide an absorbing mindgame to athletics watchers.
Sebastian Coe was the 800 m world record holder. This was HIS race. The press created this rivalry between Ovett and Coe.
Going into Moscow Seb Coe was under immense pressure. The press and public had already anointed him the 800m Olympic champion.
Just a month ago he had broken Alberto Juantorena’s World Record in the Bislett games.
In contrast, Steve Ovett was the showman and surprisingly, the enfant terrible of the press.
This led to an ongoing the Press versus Ovett battle and the fourth estate was therefore looking for a white knight to overthrow him.
Ovett also had a self destructive streak in that he tended to exult before the finish – in fact he lost the 5000 m at the Montreal Olympics by a 100th of a second simply because his more focused competitor ducked into the tape while Ovett was doing his celebratory antics before the finish line. This was diametrically opposite to the Gavaskaresque Coe who didn’t let up till it was well and truly in the bag.
Coe didnt want any part of this as the pressure of being the World record holder by itself was difficult to handle.
The 800m is a physically demanding and mentally taxing, tactical race where a moment’s miscalculation can spell death.
But the climactic build up to the 800m final and the intense pressure of expectation didnt do Coe’s nerves any good and his nervous energy drained when he needed it the most.
He didnt want to be running the media s race.
The 800m Final
Come D-day and Coe seemed listless while Ovett looked jocularly hungry. Both athletes made it to the finals in predictable fashion. There was the danger of a European upset in the form of the German Detlef Wagenknecht (the British press called him Detlef Wagonwheels).
As it happens when the stakes are the highest , none of the frontrunners were willing to dictate the momentum of the race preferring to wait for a pacemaker to materialize before making their individual move.
From the beginning, Coe was stuck on the outer most lane for the most part of the race which proved to be his undoing.
Around the 400 m mark, seconds before the bell, Coe found himself in that worst of predicaments – he was boxed in by the other runners and could barely get out of the ”ring fence” let alone get within striking distance of the race leader.
By the time Coe got behind the leader, Ovett was firmly in the driver’ s seat with 150 m to go and maintained the lead breasting the tape first and taking the gold in an unexciting timing of 1:46 – nowhere near the scorching 1:42 of the month before.
Rather than be crestfallen, Coe seemed to be relieved.
One ordeal was over but he didnt know that a bigger ordeal was about to begin.
Years later while reminiscing about the loss he said ruefully “In the home stretch you cant give Steve O-Vest (sic) the space the size of a vest’s thickness. He’ ll simply get away and there’s nothing you can do about it”
Ovett was understandably over the moon. He now had a shot at the middle distance double. A feat achieved only by Peter Snell of New Zealand four Olympic Games earlier and he was the World record holder in the 1500m to boot.
Coe senior concluded that upping the training ante was probably not going to help. Already the papers which had put their white knight on a monstrously steep peak were writing his obituary.
Did he have what it takes to perform when the stakes were high ? Did he have the big match temperament ?
Lost and confused, Seb did the only thing he knew to get his mind away from the problem – go for a long 12 mile recovery run. But he found the reporters were following him there too.
With the 1500m heats round the corner, coach and athlete, father and son, came to some firm conclusions –
No more getting boxed in
It was just too dangerous.
In the first 1500m heat, in line with the new plan, Seb Coe ran an uncharacteristic race playing pacemaker with the sole aim of staying out of trouble i.e not getting boxed in. The first 300 m was done in a fast 42 seconds before he finished together with Vittorio Fontanella of Italy at 3:40.
In another heat, Ovett won comfortably in 3:36 tailing Nikolai Kirov of Russia for the most part.
In the first semifinal, the devil seemed to get back on Coe’s shoulder.
Juergen Straub of East Germany led for the most part of the race. At the bell Coe was in second with Gonzales of Spain hot on his heels.
With 300 m to go, Coe didn’t respond to the surge by Fontanella of Italy coming around on the outside to his right and Juergen Straub to his left.
The very thing that father and son feared happened once again………………
Coe was boxed in !!
But he managed to extricate himself and get on course fast.
With 200 m to go, Coe ran fast and wide round the others practically executing a parabola before getting out in front. The course correction was swift but not before stopping a few heartbeats.
The last lap was done in a searing 53.50, in stark contrast to the general slowness of the race.
Coe senior’s expression was a mixture of helpless rage.
He seemed to be saying “What the Hell are you trying to do to me?”
There was yet another problem.
Seb caught a stomach bug.
Even a minor discomfort is not welcome when you are trying to get your bearings.
The team doctor gave him a few pills “to close me up” he remembered with an embarrassed smile.
The next semi-final had the two Brits, Ovett and Steve Cram, racing together.
It was a very slow race with the clock showing 1:05 for the first 400 m. It ended predictably with Ovett looking like he was batting on a different wicket.
In the last 100m, with the other competitors going hell for leather to the finish line, Ovett, ever the showman, did a strange thing getting into the home stretch – he made some repeated gestures in sign language to his girlfriend watching on the telly back home.
“I sensed he was taunting fate” observed Seb.
Coe was slowly coming around to that desired state of mind where all an athlete wants to do is close out everything else, just get out there and run – period.
He was also getting his appetite back and enjoyed the good ol’ Sheffield home treatment – Roast beef, potatoes and Yorkshire pudding in ample quantity.
Soon after nature took its course and the stomach bug vanished as surreptitiously as it had made its appearance.
Before the semi-final he knew that the aggression which had deserted him a week ago was now coming back when he used appalling language at the guard stationed at the gate where the team bus was to pick them up before proceeding to the venue.
After the semifinal the papers were ambivalent and had their knives sharpened for the obituary. “Does Sebastian Coe have it in him to win this ?” and that sort of thing.
Journalist David Miller of the Gaurdian had a different view. The day before the final he wrote :
“If Sebastian Coe gets within striking distance of Steve Ovett on Sunday …….he will win ”
At the gun Straub of East Germany was in the inside with Coe bringing up the outside and Ovett tailing him, suffocatingly close. Ovett was tracking Coe all the way – stalking was more like it. Similar to the 800m final, the pace was slow.
The Brits had all their ducks in a row –Coe, Ovett and Cram (Steve Cram – the baby of the British contingent and subsequent 1500m World Champion in 1982).
in the third and penultimate lap Straub did the competitors a favour by pulling away and dispersing the field to “make room”.
At the bell, Coe was still in second position behind Straub. With 300m to go Straub shifted gears and “kicked” again. But this time Coe was right in position to respond and upped the ante.
With 120m to go, Coe quickly checked where everyone was for the last time and like a repelling magnet pulled away from Ovett even as Ovett began to close in on him with his lethal kick on the home stretch.
In the last 50 m, Coe didnt look back to check whether anyone was closing in on him for fear of being turned into a pillar of salt and breasted the tape first in a time of 3:36.
But surprise of surprises, Straub ran the race of his life and edged out Ovett for the Silver.
The finish line read Seb Coe – Juergen Straub – and Steve Ovett for Gold , Silver and Bronze.
It was Ovett’s first defeat over the distance in a long time.
The last 100m was done in a blistering 12.1 seconds. Similar to a record breaking 800m effort.
After breasting the tape it was more relief than exultation. Coe went down on all fours on the track letting the agony of the last seven days ebb out of him. When a reporter thrust a microphone in his face and asked him how he felt winning the event, he was clueless.
Still in a state of stunned euphoria, he cried out “Oh Christ !”which promptly earned him a reprimand from the Bishop of Durham “Bloody magic Bloody magic !” exulted his traveling companion from his hometown of Sheffield.
When Coe looked back at the replay of the finish he was embarrassed at his expression – almost like Luca Brasi at the point of being garotted by the Tattaglias.
The press now rose in one voice and celebrated the victory of a young man who had gone through immense turmoil and finally conquered his personal demons.
Ovett was prompt in congratulating the winner and in one of their rare quieter moments together said thoughtfully. ” Do you really think its worth it …………going through all this pain ?”
“I wonder if he would have felt the same thing if he had won” Coe mused. But at one level he felt happy that Ovett didnt go back home entirely empty handed.
Though not in the expected event , Ovett had won an Olympic Gold too.
(Next week : His Name Means ‘Greyhound’ in Russian)