Having heard about the casting taking place in a new movie about the Ovett and Coe rivalry I felt compelled to write a little piece about one of my running heroes – Steve Ovett.
I’m currently reading The Perfect Distance by Pat Butcher which goes into great detail about the rivalry between Ovett and Coe and looks at their different paths to running greatness.
Ovett came into prominence at the back end of the 70’s and it’s fair to say that he was immense. Winning silver in the 800m at the 1974 European championships in Rome people were starting to take notice of the young man from Brighton. Despite getting caught up in the pack on the last bend he still managed to find a kick to take them all on the outside and finish in second place.
Ovett won gold comfortably at 1500m In the 1977 IAAF world cup in Düsseldorf. His final kick was becoming a stuff of legend. Tearing away from the pack there was absolutely no catching him.
Then came the European Championship in Prague in 1978. This was to signal the beginning of the rivalry between him and Sebastian Coe as the two met for the first time in the 800m. Ovett and Coe looked to be cruising to a first and second in the 800m when Olaf Beyer from East Germany came out of nowhere to take the Gold thus leaving Ovett with the Silver and Coe with the Bronze. It was said that Ovett and Coe had clashed after the run but Coe later revealed that Ovett had come up to him and put an arm on his shoulder and said “Who the **** was that?” The name of Olaf Beyer was allegedly found in Stasi files as an athlete that was doping but still to this day the result stands.
Ovett and Beyer met again in the 1500m but this time things were different. Ovett easily won the Gold in this one with Eamonn Coghlan getting the Silver and David Moorcroft grabbing the Bronze while Beyer trailed in ninth. Seb Coe didn’t participate.
Ovett and Coe were to clash again in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow this time in both the 800m and the 1500m. The media had made a big thing out of the fact that Ovett, who wasn’t media friendly, was the arrogant bad guy as opposed to Coe who was more at ease speaking to the press and was portrayed as the media darling. In the 800m Ovett won the Gold with Coe trailing in second to get the Silver.
Then came the 1500m final. Ovett was the favourite to take the Gold in this one as he had been unbeaten at the 1500m distance for three years. But this time it was Coe who had the final kick to take the Gold. Ovett had sat on his shoulder for most of the race and it seemed like he was just waiting to make his move. He left it too late though and Coe accelerated to take the win. Ovett had to settle for Bronze as Jürgen Straub managed to hold him off to take second place and the Silver.
In 1981 Ovett raced the 1500m at the IAAF World Cup in Rome. Ovett got his tactics right in this one and once again it was his trademark final kick which got him the Gold.
Ovett suffered an injury in 1982 when he twisted his knee having ran into some railings. Further injuries hampered his 1982 season and it was 1983 by the time he returned to action. The 1983 season was further hampered by injury which resulted in him not getting picked to run the 800m at the World Championships in Helsinki. Ovett was selected for the 1500m but didn’t get his tactics right on the day and fell fourth behind winner Steve Cram.
Ovett attempted to defend his 800m title in the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles but had been suffering from bronchitis leading up to the games. Ovett was struggling and was suffering from respiratory problems throughout the games only just qualifying for the final as he lunged for the line and finished fourth in his heat. In the final Ovett finished 8th and collapsed after finishing which resulted in a two day hospital stay.
Madly he then returned for the 1500m against the advice of doctors and friends. Ovett was in fourth place before dropping out at the beginning of the last lap. Ovett had to look on as Seb Coe took the Gold in this one. Following the race Ovett had severe chest pains and had to be stretchered away.
Ovett started to wind down his career at this point but his latter career was not without highlights. In August 1986 he won the Gold in the 5000m of the Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh where he showed that he still had that final kick.
This was to be Ovett’s last gasp at the top of his game. He then failed to make the 1988 Olympic Games and then decided to retire in 1991.
Ovett is still one of my running heroes and I still look back at some of his wins from back in the day and marvel at his final push to the home stretch. It’s fair to say that I’ve modelled my own final kick on his (although I’m pretty sure that his was way better than mine). He may have been arrogant, aloof and kept himself to himself but he got the job done and he believed in his ability. Ovett (along with Coe and Cram) was one of the greatest runners that generation of athletics in Britain had seen and, in my opinion, there wasn’t much in the way of talent which followed them for a long time.
Hopefully one day I’ll be able to meet him but failing that I’ll have to make my way to Brighton and see his statue and pay my own tribute to the great man.