Monday, July 14, 2008

Great Olympic Moments: Coe and Ovett 1980

Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, both from Great Britain, were two of the greatest middle-distance runners of all time. For a period of several years, from the late 1970s until the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, they dominated the 800 meter and 1500 meter events, trading world records on a frequent basis. In one memorable month in August 1981, Coe broke the world record in the mile, it was broken by Ovett a week later, and again broken by Coe the week after that.

What made their rivalry so spectacular was that aside from racing, the two had very little in common, and didn't really like one another. But they always brought out the best in each other, and that was never more apparent than at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The United States boycotted that Olympiad because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but in these two events it didn't matter - Coe and Ovett would have been the heavy favorites, regardless of who ran in the races.

In the 800, Coe was the world record holder, and favored. But he ran a poor tactical race, was too far back on the final lap, and could do no better than second, behind Ovett.

Coe was absolutely shattered by this loss, and the press in Britain turned on him as if he had betrayed the Queen. Which was another reason Ovett didn't like him - Coe was the favorite of the fans.

In the 1500, Ovett was favored, but this time Coe ran a brilliant tactical race, running at the front for the entire race and running scared - just look at his face as the runners head into the final stretch - Coe is desperately trying to find Ovett behind him, wondering if he has the kick to withstand the vaunted Ovett charge.

He did. And the photo of Coe crossing the finish line, one of absolute relief, is one of the most famous photos in all of track and field.

Coe and Ovett. Ovett and Coe. One of the greatest rivalries. One of the greatest Olympic moments.

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