Commonwealth Games: Coe and Ovett tease out famous rivalry
Friday 17 March 2006
Historically, getting Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett together has never been easy. The two great middle distance rivals of the late Seventies and early Eighties actually raced each other just seven times in 15 years - and one of those events was a schoolboy cross-country.
So it was something of a relief when both showed up as per the programme here yesterday - no collisions with church railings (Ovett), no untimely bouts of toxoplasmosis (Coe) - to reminisce for the first time about their glorious years of tit-for-tat before co-hosting a seminar for young Australian runners. Ovett, in particular, has been notoriously reluctant to discuss their rivalry down the years.
The venue was a restaurant alongside the Yarra River which bisects this city; the occasion was an £80 per head "executive breakfast" populated by awed businessmen and respectful former athletics luminaries including Cathy Freeman, Ron Clarke, Jonathan Edwards and Daley Thompson.
Coe, whose part in securing London the 2012 Olympics means he is as high profile now as he ever was in his running career, is little changed from the dark-haired, wiry figure who broke three different world records in the space of 41 days in 1979, although the gaunt cheekbones of his superfit days are gone.
Ovett - who has lived for several years in a plush house on the Gold Coast - is a balding and somewhat portly figure now, a partial legacy of being hit by a lorry while cycling near his former home in Scotland and being left unable to exercise.
Within the Ovett family the sporting torch has been passed to son Freddy, aged 11, who recently became Pan-Pacific junior champion at 800 metres. Coe's 12-year-old son Harry, meanwhile, is also showing signs of athletic prowess.
But while Coe and Ovett Jnr shape up for further rivalry, that between their fathers has softened into a playful, faintly affectionate relationship.
Ovett admits, however, that he felt obliged to alter his approach to the sport when Coe began his world record-breaking exploits in order to match him flourish for flourish.
"I was quite happy to win races up to that point," he said. "But then there was another bar we had to climb over, and Seb had set it up. If someone your own age and from your own country suddenly starts breaking world records, what do you do - sit back and let him have the action to himself? No. You try to get part of it.
"People wanted us to do it. And it was a pleasure anyway to try to do it. If you are really fit, if you are really on song, it's not that difficult." Coe, in turn, acknowledged that their insistence at the time that neither was affected by the other's exploits was hollow.
"I remember Christmas Morning before the 1980 Games," he said. "I'd run a 10 or 12-miler and then had my Christmas lunch, but I felt uneasy the whole afternoon. I suddenly realised what it was and thought: 'I bet that bastard is doing another training session'." At which point Ovett, grinning, added: "So you only did two training sessions?"
A screening of the 1980 800m final at the Moscow Olympics, where Ovett won the title most expected Coe to claim, soon provoked more wolfishness. Noting that Ovett was boxed in, the BBC commentator David Coleman speculated "What will he do? Try to barge his way through?" Seconds later the lean, mean figure did just that.
Ovett accepts that victory in the first race may have dulled his hunger for the subsequent 1500m.
"As a kid," he said, "I wanted to win an Olympics - end of story. Some people set goals, and I was that sort of guy. Other people like Seb go beyond those goals.
"There was tremendous pressure on us both, and when I crossed the line it was a wonderful relief that I had done what was expected of me. I ticked the box, and part of me must have been thinking, 'I've done enough. Let me go home.' But having said that, I gave the 1500m 100 per cent, no question."
As for Coe, the question was raised again - would he have retired if he had not returned to win the 1500m? "I don't know the answer to that," he responded. Thankfully for him, and athletics history, he never needed to know.
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