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Coe and Ovett’s riveting Russian rivalry… 40 years ago the British adversaries locked horns

They don’t see so much of each other now, those two old boys. Never did, truth be told. But they know they will be together for ever, their names locked in one of sport’s eternal dances. Ovett and Coe. Coe and Ovett. The order always mattered.

Which is why one of them is chuckling about a story. About a rare evening when they did sit at a table and, even in jest, couldn’t quite give a yard to the other.

‘Occasionally our paths will cross,’ begins the younger man. And obviously the speaker is Sebastian, now Lord Coe, who is 63 and the president of World Athletics. Steve Ovett, one year the elder, doesn’t care for attention and was never fussed about this sort of chat. Sportsmail sent a message to him in Australia, where he has lived for three decades, and the wait for a reply is into its seventh week.

But Coe is on good form and so he takes us back into his memories. In time he will talk about Moscow and swastikas and the day, 40 years ago on Sunday, that he ‘ran like a c***’ in the Olympic 800m final. He also will talk about taunts from Daley Thompson, a remarkable redemption in the 1500m and the way it was. But before that he recalls his chance reunion in 2006 and a dynamic that will probably never change.

‘It was at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games,’ Coe says. 

‘Steve was doing commentary work and asked if I would sit with his son Freddie (who was 12 at the time) while he was doing his final stint. Afterwards the three of us had supper.

‘We were chatting about the build-up to Moscow and in a rare moment of candour I said that on Christmas Day 1979 I’d done a 13-mile uphill run from the Peak District into Sheffield. It was a wintry scene.

‘I told him that I got back, had my Christmas lunch, sat down for the 800th screening of The Dam Busters and I remembered feeling uneasy. I sat there thinking, “I bet he’s out training again”. So compulsively I went upstairs, put my kit on, ran another five miles.

‘I told Steve that story in Australia. And he laughed and said, “Did you only go out twice that day?”’

It was one of the most extra-ordinary rivalries that sport has known and that 800m final, on July 26, 1980, was the most astonishing day within it. If it has a challenger, then it would be the 1500m final six days later.

Coe was the clear favourite for the 800m and the hottest ticket in athletics, after setting world records in the 800m, 1500m and mile across 41 days in 1979. Ovett was 11-4 to win the 1500m, at which he was unbeaten for three years and shared the world record with Coe. He had also reclaimed the mark for the mile.

For two men with such similarities, their differences made a frenzied narrative. Coe was painted as the university kid of Sheffield, a clean-cut, slightly flash, middle-class star who obsessed on details; Ovett was the moodier, introverted son of a market trader from Brighton, a grafter fronting up to privilege.

The runners themselves — friends? No, nothing approaching that until retirement. Enemies? Not quite that, either.

Coe captures the grey area well: ‘We both knew that to come home with anything we were probably going to have to demolish 10 years of unremitting slog in each other’s lives.’

That they had only previously raced twice, at the 1972 English Schools Cross Country Championships and the 1978 Europeans, made it all the more intriguing as Coe, 23, and Ovett, 24, boarded their flight to Moscow for the Olympics. What played out on that plane itself was an amusing snapshot of the situation.

‘I got on to the plane late and realised there was only one seat left and it was next to Steve,’ Coe says. ‘A couple of team officials realised somebody at British Airways thought this was very amusing and before I’d made it a further two rows down, another seat was miraculously found.

‘When we got there the British Olympic Association had managed to put us in virtually different wings and floors. The first time I actually saw him was when we travelled to the race.’

Coe, who had avoided Ovett through two heats, has long described the 800m final as the ‘worst race of my life’, a storm of tactical errors, championship inexperience and nerves.

In regard of the latter, he had already been through significant psychological turmoil building up to a Games that had been widely boycotted owing to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was opposed to British participation; Coe was noisily in favour.

‘I was doing a degree in history and economics at the time and I did actually sit down and try to make a sensible judgment about what was right,’ he says. ‘Not everybody thought it was the right judgment — I did end up with a swastika being painted on my garage. It was a difficult time.’

Who knows how the months of anxiety about Britain’s participation contributed to the wider anxieties that helped Coe blow the race of his life. What is indisputable is that he was struggling badly by the day of his big showdown with Ovett.

‘Normally I can sleep through anything,’ Coe says. ‘The world can be crashing around my feet, as occasionally it does, and I still sleep. That was the only time in the lead-up to a race and certainly post-Moscow that I’ve ever had a problem sleeping.

‘I also remember sitting with my father (Peter, his coach) in the village having breakfast the following day. I was putting milk on my corn flakes and I dropped the jug. I felt very out of synch with myself and I guess that summed up for me the difference between my experience of mostly one-day meets and an Olympic Games.’

With journalists listening, Peter Coe told his son after the 800m final that he ‘ran like a c***’. This appalled a few, though not the recipient, who agreed.

He tends to buy into the idea that the East German runners teamed up to force him wide, which in turn saw him last with barely 200m to go, but he knows the fault was his own. Ovett met the same traffic, read the danger early, and used his elbows to get through off the final bend, crossing in 1min 45.4sec. Coe kicked from fourth to silver at the death and finished half a second back. With a personal best two seconds better than the field, it was a disaster for Coe and the aftermath was quite something.

He was heavily criticised in the media and found the going no easier in his own bedroom, which he shared with two gold medallists, Daley Thompson and Allan Wells, as well as Brendan Foster.

‘The following morning I was buried in bed,’ he says. ‘I said something lame to Daley like, “What’s the weather out there?” And as he ripped open the curtains he said, “It looks a bit silver”. It was the Daley Thompson school of psychotherapy.’

His late father was more measured in the coming days. Coe says that to his ‘dying day’ Coe Snr regretted having not broached the subject of his son’s pre-800m nerves for fear of compounding the problem. Ahead of the 1500m, he sat with his son and said: ‘This is up to you, you’re in the shape of your life, you don’t become a bad athlete overnight.’

From the paralysis of nerves, Coe was riding on his anger, and says: ‘I know it sounds odd but it didn’t matter that I’d lost to Steve.

‘The only thing that drove me for those days between the 800m and the 1500m was I never wanted to feel like that again. I was prepared to die with blood in my boots in the stadium for the 1500m.’

On the warm-up track, prior to that rematch, Steve Cram, then in the early throes of his own rise, has previously noted how the roles had reversed from the first race. He observed Ovett nervously asking his coach Harry Wilson over and again where Coe was standing. Coe, for his part, just paced. When Ovett approached Coe to make conversation, the latter just grunted.

From there, for the second thrilling time, the man expected to win ended up losing. Coe, arms outstretched, took gold in 3:38.4. Ovett was third.

In his autobiography, Ovett recalled a conversation that played out in the dope-testing room: ‘I passed him (Coe) a drink and he said, “So you got silver then?” “No, I got bronze,” I replied. “Oh good”. Those two words told me more about the man than the race did.’

The shame for those involved in the era is that they raced only seven times in 20 years.

After Moscow, they would go twice more in the 1984 Olympics — when Coe got 800m silver and 1500m gold and Ovett faded in both — and for a final time in Birmingham in 1989. Coe won that last duel and Ovett was in tears at the close.

Maybe the sport needed to do more to bring them together. Maybe the scarcity was part of the rivalry’s beauty, with two immense talents kept apart except for the days that mattered most, and snatching records off each other in the gaps. Indeed, a year after those 1980 Games, Coe and Ovett traded the mile record three times in nine days, each time in the absence of the other.

That was them. Always together, always apart, always the benchmark for sport at its best. Coe-Ovett. Ovett-Coe. An order that meant everything and nothing.

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