For all my marathon exploits, I’m probably a frustrated middle-distance runner. I’d love to have a mile race against ten people of my own level – four laps of the track to see if I could outrun and out-think them.
Middle-distance running tends to be the most romanticised of athletic disciplines. Sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers and throwers can concentrate on going as fast or as high or as far as possible. As a marathon runner, I race against myself and the clock.
But middle-distance runners are in direct combat, literally rubbing elbows (and often jabbing elbows too) with their rivals. They need to devise tactics, outwit their opponents and judge their efforts to perfection. It’s a combination of raw speed, physical strength, mental alertness, a sense of bravado, and split-second decision-making.
The golden age of the mile (and its metric counterpart, the 1,500 metres) is arguably from the mid-’70s to mid-’80s, a period that featured iconic and charismatic athletes like Filbert Bayi, John Walker, Eamonn Coghlan and Steve Cram. But above them all towered Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. The two men broke record after record on the Grand Prix circuit in the late ’70s, carefully avoiding each other to maximise their advantages (financial and psychological) ahead of a showdown at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, in defiance of Margaret Thatcher’s call for a British boycott of the Games. Four years later in Los Angeles they clashed again, in a dramatic conclusion to the greatest sporting rivalry of its time.
Pat Butcher’s excellent book on the pair may have the ungainly three-legged title of “The Perfect Distance: Ovett & Coe: The Record-Breaking Rivalry”, but it tells the fascinating story of how two exceptional English athletes emerged almost simultaneously, revolutionised their sport and entranced the world. The book features interviews with both Coe and Ovett, the supporting cast of competitors left in their wake – and two athletes who managed the rare feat of beating both Coe and Ovett in the same race.
Butcher explains how the star quality and record-chasing feats of these two athletes brought the sport into the professional era. His forthright opinions, especially on the pair’s obsession with paced record-breaking and their reluctance to race each other outside of the Olympics, are entertaining and refreshing, despite sometimes leading to long digressions.
And if you want an alternative history of athletics, it’s hard to beat a chapter that argues convincingly that “the worst thing that ever happened to British athletics was Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile barrier.”
There’s plenty of Irish interest in this story too. Eamonn Coghlan and Ray Flynn, still the Irish record-holders for the mile indoors and outdoors respectively, are frank and good-natured when reflecting on the dominance of their English rivals. Ovett’s frequent visits to Ireland show why Irish fans had a soft spot for him. And then there’s the incredible story of the athletics-loving priest Fr Liam Kelleher organising a world-class track meet with Coghlan, Ovett and other stars in 1979 in a field in rural County Cork.
Butcher’s story of Ovett and Coe is one of the best books ever written about athletics. Whether you run every day, only watch running when the Olympics roll around, or are nostalgic for sports of that period, you’ll find it an enjoyable and informative read.
A BBC series called ‘Clash of The Titans’ included an excellent programme on the Coe-Ovett rivalry, and you can watch it online in parts one, two, three and four. For a quick overview, here are the main points from two brilliant careers: