The Times March 16, 2006
The Tough and The Toff put rivalry aside over breakfast
From David Powell in Melbourne
THE Stones or the Beatles, Harley or Ducati, Coe or Ovett? You could never admit to being a fan of both. In the 1980s, opinion was as sharply divided between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett as it was in the Sixties between Britain’s first two supergroups and is today between the heavy cruiser motorcycle and the sports bike. They were the most intense adversaries who had little in common other than on a track.
Much of their rivalry was stoked by their contrasting backgrounds, their different characters and, outside the Olympics, their tendency to avoid each other. The Tough and The Toff was how they became known and, while the latter moved on to a career in the public eye, heading London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics, the former retreated to a relatively quiet life. He now lives in Australia.
But here yesterday they were reunited. They shared a stage for an hour of reminiscing, mutual appreciation and jokes. It was as if they had been friends all their lives. The frostiness between them was from a bygone age. “This guy ran the best 1,500 metres I have ever seen,” Coe said of Ovett’s 1977 World Cup victory in Dusseldorf. “Thanks very much,” was Ovett’s warm reply.
It was early morning here when about 500 guests, some paying Aus$170 (about £75), turned up for a breakfast with the men who between them won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers and one bronze and broke 17 middle-distance world records. Yet, as Bruce McAvaney, hosting the event, told those present: “We reckon they raced each other probably seven times in 15 years.”
Internationally, perhaps, but, as both men recalled, they had met on domestic fronts. “People say we never raced each other but we did in the Southern Road Relays, things like that,” Ovett said. And Coe’s earliest recollection? “Our first competition was in the English Schools cross-country (in 1972) when he finished second and I finished ninth,” he said.
Out of their schooldays developed an epic rivalry, one that still fascinates today. Pat Butcher returned to the subject two years ago with a definitive book, drawing on interviews with both men in The Perfect Distance: Ovett and Coe. In it he writes: “Sebastian Coe, looking and sounding as if he had sauntered off the pages of an Anthony Powell novel, or stepped off the set of Chariots of Fire. Steve Ovett, in contrast, the comic-book anti-hero. They were the sparring inseparable twins of the premier Olympic sport. Their stand-offs in Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 relegated the rest of the Olympic Games to a sideshow.”
Ovett upstaged Coe to win the 800 metres in Moscow, only to lose out to his rival in his premier event, the 1,500 metres. Four years later, in Los Angeles, Ovett was taken out of the stadium on a stretcher after a failed attempt to defend his 800 metres title, with Coe taking silver again. Five days later, in the 1,500 metres, Coe retained his title after Ovett stepped off the track.
They were in their twenties then. Now Lord Coe is 49, Ovett 50. While Coe still cuts a slender figure, hair in place, Ovett is overweight and almost bald. Cruelly, a newspaper carried unflattering photographs of him last year accompanied by the headline “Didn’t you used to be Steve Ovett?” The Ovett name, though, is not merely one from the past. Last season his son, Freddy, aged 12, won his district 100, 200 and 800 metres, the long jump and relay events, replicating his father’s accomplishments in the Sussex Schools Championships 35 years earlier.
Ovett remembered how, one year, he had been unable to travel to Edinburgh for a race because of a British Airways strike and instead drove his clubmates to Dartford for a half-marathon. Once there, Harry Wilson, his coach, told him he may as well run. He ended up winning, beating Barry Watson, the British marathon champion.
Watson’s nose had been put out of joint in what was then the amateur era, albeit that Coe and Ovett were well paid under the table. “The first thing Barry said to me at the finish was: ‘You’re not going to get the TV for first place,’ ” Ovett said. The house applauded. It was if he had just won another of his great races.