Individually, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett were titans of middle-distance running. Together, they were one of the best advertisements athletics has ever had.
It was in 1978 when Coe started breaking all sorts of records. Ovett was barely a year older and had been dominating the sport a year previously. Coe was better at the 800m while Ovett specialised in the 1,500m. They were so focused on these respective events that they were instant favourites in each. So when they faced each other at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, their first Games, people assumed a predictable outcome.
Off the track, Coe signed more autographs and was always smiling that bit more. They were different on the track, too. Ovett was a more aggressive runner who used all of his body — the sort of guy you didn’t want to run into the home stretch next to, because you’d end up either finishing second or in the in-field — while Coe was smaller and ran from the front a lot to gain control.
Ovett was well behind midway through the 800m final with Coe leading, but he forced his way into contention and hit another gear going into the final lap to take the gold with Coe behind him. No one expected it — especially Coe, who no doubt went to bed saying a few choice words to himself.
The 1,500m final wasn’t for a few days, which gave Coe time to stew, and it made him all the more determined to do the unthinkable: beat his rival and win the 1,500m — an event that Ovett hadn’t lost in for more than two years.
When it came to the race, Ovett kept behind Coe but never upped the gears. He slipped to third and Coe took gold [above]. Coe was always about breaking records, but racing Ovett made him want gold even more. It was amazing and one of the most underrated stories in the sport’s history.
It shows that rivalries can push you further. I had travelled to those games with the US team, and although I was a sprinter and a few years younger than Coe, he and I were friends. He taught me to keep trying hard, never get down and keep fighting back.
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