Wednesday, 25 July 2012

1984: Seb Coe 1500m

As Lord Sebastian Newbold Coe appeared on television yet again the other day, a thought occurred to me: How many people only know this man for his role as chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, rather than that of a world-class athlete? Holder of numerous world records in his running career, twice Olympic champion, and still a British record holder in two distances (800 and 1000 metres), Coe quite rightly sits proudly amongst the Olympic heroes of our nation, and should be celebrated accordingly. Beating Steve Ovett in the 1500m at the Moscow games was spectacular enough, but the back story to his repeat performance in Los Angeles is even more remarkable. If it wasn't for a very favourable selectorial decision going in his favour, the whole tale would have been over before it began.

The lead-up to Los Angeles was far from perfect for Coe. He missed the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki in 1983 and a large part of that season, after being diagnosed with a blood disorder (taxoplomisis). He did return to the track in the spring of 1984, but by the time of the AAA Championships in June, Coe was a man under pressure. Although he had been selected for the Olympics in the 800m, his 1500m place hung in the balance. With Steve Cram (World, European and Commonwealth 1500m champion) and Steve Ovett (1500m world record holder) already pre-selected for the Olympic squad, only one place remained up for grabs. Although the AAA final wasn't officially an Olympic qualifier, many felt that the winner of the race, and in particular the clash between Coe and Peter Elliott, would take the final 1500m slot. So when Elliott won the race in 3:39.66, beating Coe by 13 one-hundredths of a second, Seb looked a beaten man in more ways than one.

The Daily Mirror subtly seemed to sum up the situation with their headline the following morning: "COE CRUSHED". David Emery, writing in the Daily Express, backed up this view: "The raw-boned Yorkshire lad (Elliott) drove past Coe in the final strides of the AAA 1500 metres championship surely to destroy Seb's dreams of defending his title in Los Angeles." The press were already penning Coe's sporting obituary, although the British Olympic Board were to meet the next day to make their final decision on the issue. Elliott sounded fairly confident, stating after the race that "My understanding was that the selectors' decision went on what happened today." The British media, and sadly Elliott, were in for a nasty shock.

Coe's selection for the 1500m team for the Los Angeles Olympics was obviously seen as controversial - "Bust-up as Coe is chosen" declared the Daily Express. Elliott, understandably, was irate: "They did it to me before the Commonwealth Games two years ago and I'm just getting fed up - but I won't give up. Perhaps I should live south of Watford." Wilf Paish, Elliott's coach, was succinct and to the point: "It stinks." In backing Coe, the selectors had made a brave decision, one based on a track record, rather than current form. National coach Frank Dick said: "The selectors looked at the past and present records of both athletes. They gave the matter a good airing and concluded that Coe was the man." Ultimately the selectors would be proved right, and these words look extremely wise after the event. At the time though, Coe could perhaps count himself lucky that he would have a chance to defend his Olympic crown in America.

As in Moscow, Coe would win a silver medal in the 800m, Brazilian Joaquim Cruz winning the gold in a new Olympic record time of 1:43.00. However, Coe's defeat was not met with the same shock that had greeted his loss in Moscow; whereas in 1980 Coe was seen to be at the peak of his powers, the 1984 model was perceived by many to be on the decline. If so, then Coe could certainly take encouragement going into the 1500m, as there was no disgrace in coming second to a world-class athlete in Cruz.

Steve Ovett on the other hand, had problems galore. Limping over the line in last place in the 800m final, Ovett subsequently collapsed after the race, and spent two nights in hospital on a drip. Ovett had been suffering from bronchitis two months prior to the games, and a combination of this, the LA smog, and dehydration, brought on hyper-ventilation and breathing difficulties. On leaving hospital, Ovett declared himself fit for the 1500m, although British officials and his wife were not so sure. Finally, only four hours before the aptly named heats, Ovett was given clearance to take part in the event, in a stifling 94ºF. His bravery in then reaching the 1500m semi-finals was admired by many, but surely with his health problems, Ovett was no longer a major threat to the medal places.

The widely regarded favourite for the gold was Britain's Steve Cram, and it was hard to disagree with this reasoning. Undefeated in the 1500m since the 1981 European Cup in Zagreb, Cram held all major titles at the distance, and was predicted to add the Olympic crown to his collection. The 1976 champion John Walker endorsed Cram's credentials: "I'm not looking any further for the gold medalist", with David Emery adding "I believe Coe and Cruz will contest the minor medals - while Cram adds the ultimate accolade to the World, European and Commonwealth titles he already holds." With Moroccan, Said Aouita, now concentrating on the 5000m, it appeared that the way was clear for Cram to complete his gold medal haul. However, despite this strong backing, Cram's 1984 had been marred by injury throughout, and his lead-up to the games was also disrupted, leading to his absence from the AAA championships. It was a chink of light for Cram's rivals.

Joaquim Cruz though, would not be competing in the final, withdrawing from the semi-finals due to a cold. However, the quality of the final line-up could not be argued: along with Cram, Coe and Ovett, were World Championship silver medalist Steve Scott (USA) and the Spaniard Jose Manuel Abascal, who had finished fifth in Helsinki. As the athletes stood waiting for the Olympic final, all eyes were on the British trio for varying reasons: Could Cram justify his favourite tag and complete his major medal tally? Could Coe somehow defend his title after struggling to gain selection in the first place? And could Ovett possibly even compete due to his failing health? In roughly three and a half minutes time, all would become clear.

He who laughs last....

At the start of the race Coe was away quickly, although the pace was soon taken up by the Sudanese runner Omer Khalifa. Brendan Foster, co-commentating on the BBC, indicated the strategy of the British trio, as the race progressed through the first 300 metres. Cram favoured making a move before the final 200 metres, with Coe and Ovett (if strong enough) preferring to wait until the last 200, hoping for a sprint finish. After a first lap of 58.8 seconds, American Steve Scott made his move to the front of the pack, and as the second lap ended, Coe sat in third, with Abascal and Cram in close contention, and Steve Ovett in eighth place. The time for 800m was 1:56.81, not an electrifying pace by any means, especially when you consider that at the same stage of Ovett's world record in 1983, the first 800m was covered in 1:51.67. But the second part of the race would be very different.

With 600 metres to go, commentator David Coleman pointed out that the competitors who had run the 800m as well as the 1500m event would be tested (Coe, Ovett, Khalifa and the Italian Materazzi), due to a test of strength as well as speed. Right on cue, Abascal lengthened his stride and made his move. As the bell sounded, the field had spread, with Coe, Cram, and Ovett attempting to keep the Spaniard in check. Sadly for Ovett, this proved an obstacle too far, and the sight of the world record holder stepping off the track, sinking down on his haunches, remains a poignant image of the Los Angeles games.

The medals would now be contended between Abascal, Coe and Cram, although Kenyan Joseph Chesire would try his best to stay in touch with the leaders. As Cram made his move in the final 300 metres, Coe countered, glancing over his shoulder towards the younger man before surging in front of Abascal. As they approached the finishing straight, it was clear that this was very much a domestic affair, a British battle between old and young, past and present. Immediately Coe accelerated, leaving Cram for dead, covering the final 100 metres in 12.7 seconds, as incredibly he stormed to gold in a new Olympic record time of 3:32.53 (surpassing Kip Keino's 1968 effort). "Sebastian Coe, back at his best, is the Olympic champion again" declared Coleman, as ever giving a precise assessment on what had unfolded. As Coe crossed the finishing line, he had certainly proved the doubters wrong, and he was about to let them know this in no uncertain terms.

Coe immediately turned his attention to the press trackside, angrily getting his point across to the members of the journalistic profession that perhaps he wasn't finished after all. Speaking to the media after the event, Coe said: "I rate that alongside any of the world records I have broken, that was the best I've felt for two years." His gold medal had completely vindicated the selectors' decision to show faith in him, and he still remains the only man to have defended an Olympic 1500m title. Cram was magnanimous in defeat, admitting: "Seb was brilliant. My plan was to get in front with half a lap to go, but I just couldn't get there. Seb was always in control. I'm satisfied with my silver - I know I got beaten by one of the all-time greats." So true.

During Coe's lap of honour, Ron Pickering, referring to Britain's golden era of middle distance running, pointed out that "we must be the envy of the world". His opinion was accurate, but it was almost fitting that at the very same time, Steve Ovett was leaving the stadium on a stretcher again, suffering from chest pains and spasms in hands. Although the great age of British middle distance running wasn't quite at an end, in retrospect the race does have a slight feeling of fin du regime about it, especially from an Olympic perspective. By 1988, Coe and Ovett were out of the picture, Cram finished fourth, and although Elliott made the grade and gained a silver medal, that was pretty much it for British men in the 1500m Olympics. That is why we should look back fondly on such a great era, such superb athletes, and golden times, because you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

So the next time he appears on television, perhaps try and remember, and tell someone too young to know better, just how great an athlete plain old Seb Coe was back in his day....

For another 1980s Olympic story, please read my blog on Daley Thompson at the 1988 Olympics

1 comment:

  1. dean stephenson5 March 2013 at 14:27

    A very accurate and informative summary of one of the greatest come-backs in athletic history. Well written too. Thanks.