Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ovett, Coe and Cram

A quick confession and then I'll get on with it. I'm still having a hard time focusing on getting stuff done since I took a break from running. My head is just not in the game. I feel guilty about it. I started this blog when I had a stress fracture and it was meant to be self motivating—a healthy distraction. It turned into a passion that I was starting to believe may be motivating others too. Now, look at me! I'm feeling all blue and not posting very often. It's no good. I really do need to shake it off. I am probably going to try running again in another week or so. Keep your fingers crossed for me that the mysterious knee issue will be gone.

Onto the post at hand... This is a something I have been writing off-and-on for quite some time. It's a follow-up to a post I wrote about rockstar runners of my younger days in Britain. You can check it out here. This post is dedicated to Jim White because he is a track nerd :)

In Christianity, there is the Holy Trinity. In early 1980's British middle distance running, there was Ovett, Coe and Cram. To a kid, they were magical. I had no knowledge of running—no context for what I was watching. All I knew was that when major athletics were on the TV, it was these three men who were dominant and I was hooked like the rest of the country. It was the first time that athletics had been elevated to the rockstar status of soccer. How thrilling it was to see these men bring home major medals. It was an amazing amount of middle distance running talent for such a focused period of time and a small geographical area. I didn't want this post to be just a regurgitation of pure facts. I actually wanted to learn something, so I thought a fun way to approach it would be to see if the myths about them that I believed when I was a kid held true or not. This is what I believed back then:
  1. They emerged magically at the same time
  2. They were from different social classes and had very different temperaments
  3. They were very different runners
  4. They all raced the same distance
  5. Ovett and Coe disliked each other but they both liked Cram
  6. Any one of them could have won
Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Sebastian Coe
First, let's just get a basic reminder of who they are:

Steve Ovett, OBE
He was born in 1955 in Brighton, England. He was a naturally talented runner who loved to run any sort of race. His family recognized his potential early-on and committed to supporting his running career. He hit the senior running scene big time in 1973 and was dominant through the rest of the 70's and early 80's. In 84, he started to have fitness issues and his career wound down until he retired in '91. When he retired, he did sportscaster work and ended up moving to Australia, a place he had trained during British winters. Ovett was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the Queen. The following clip shows Ovett's incredible kick that obliterates a World class field.

Lord Sebastian Coe, KBE
Seb was born in 1956 in London and grew up in Sheffield, England. He was a frail boy who came from a good home. He had a slow start in school and didn't qualify for grammar school but made up for it and attended Loughborough University. His father became his running coach. His first big break came with a win in '77 and he was dominant from the end of the '70's well into the mid '80's. He started to have fitness issues around '88, even though he was still capable of strong runs. After recurring chest infections, he retired in 1990. Seb was the same over-achiever in retirement as he was on the track. He became a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party. He was a Council Member for the IAAF and later became Vice President. He was awarded the KBE (Knight Commander of the British Empire) by the Queen and was given a life peerage which means that he became a member of the House of Lords. He won further admiration from the British public for leading the bid to bring the 2012 Olympics to London. He had a watchdog role for FIFA which he gave up in order to pursue bringing the 2018 World Cup to England. He is still a worldwide ambassador for Nike and owns a chain of health clubs. The following clip shows Coe winning the '80 Olympic 1500m but has a very interesting interview with Ovett where he talks really eloquently about his frustration with the Ovett/Coe rivalry.

Steve Cram, MBE
He was born in 1960 in Jarrow, England. His nickname was "The Jarrow Arrow." He grew up in a hard working family with very little money. That region of Britain was very depressed at the time. When he started making money from running around 1980, he was paying his parent's mortgage. He studied Sports in University. He was only 17 when he first appeared at a Commonwealth Games. He was dominant in the early '80's but started to fade in the late '80's even though he had some strong runs into the early '90's. He retired in 1994. After retirement, he became a very well respected sportscaster for the BBC. He was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) by the Queen. Steve is an ambassador for the 2012 London Olympics. The following clip shows Steve taking the Gold in the '83 World Championships. He was not always the strongest kicker but this is a fine finish against a really talented field.

So, after a little research, what did I learn that expanded or changed my perspective?

They emerged magically at the same time.
There is no doubt that having three World class runners coming out of a small country like England during the same period of time is amazing. No wonder that it seemed magical to me and to the rest of the country.

In reality, it wasn't quite as synchronous as it seemed. For anyone who was following running and not just major televised races (like me), they would have seen the progression. Ovett was really making a name for himself on the senior circuit as a teenager in the mid 70's whereas Coe's running matured a little later. The younger Cram came onto the big stage around '80. There was definitely a window of time when they were all gold contenders but due to injury, their peek periods weren't exactly well aligned. I created a timeline to explore it. More on that later.

They were from different social classes and were very different men
I believed that Ovett was a tough, cocky, working class lad who had a bit of an anti-establishment attitude. I believed that Coe was an upper class gentleman who was calm and quiet. I believed that Cram was a happy-go-lucky working class kid from the North. After a little research, I don't pretend to know these men in great detail but I do feel like I got a more realistic impression of them. I think I got a much better sense of Ovett which wasn't limited by the British press' opinion of who he was.

Ovett really wasn't the street fighter type that he was made out to be. His family didn't have much money but he came from a good home and went to grammar school. He had been cocky and intense from his teenage running years and was certainly an aggressive runner. He was exceptionally confident and was known to throw up his hands in victory as early as the final turn. The fact that he shunned the press made them focus on his "bad boy" shenanigans and contrast it with Coe's exemplary behavior. Some suggest that Ovett's passion to race other people was so intense that his exuberant behavior was uncontrolled and unfairly judged as borderline impetuous. One thing is for sure, off the track Ovett was a very respectful and gracious sportsman. The one good thing about his reputation was that it made him more relatable to the general public. He was a bit of a people's champion.

Coe in contrast was calm, polite and politically correct. He was the ideal athletic role model. He wasn't really upper class but he did have the mannerisms of public schoolboy runners of years past. He was intense but in a more brooding and reflective sort of way. He was incredibly disciplined and focused. He was a warmer person and made time for the press which turned him into a media darling. His words were humble but at times, he seemed a little too self focused. I suspect he thought of his body as an instrument—something to work on and perfect.

Cram is nowhere near as documented as the other two. It's harder to get a feel for him other than his likable personality that shines through in sportscasting. It must have been hard coming up underneath two giants of running. Even in his prime, I don't think Cram had anywhere near the confidence that Ovett and Coe did. He seemed almost too nice at times. He was the good natured working class boy from next door. He always had a smile and a good word for people. He was often referred to as "Stevie" which reflects the affection that people had for him. He was incredibly humble and it felt very honest and heartfelt coming from him.

They were very different runners
At the time, I knew nothing about running but I had a sense of them not running the same way. I think I thought that their running somehow reflected their personalities. In a way, it did.

Ovett was a stalker which is why he did not focus on record breaking earlier in his career. He liked races that were slower and more tactical. He could physically fight to maneuver himself and then hang-back in the perfect stalking position ready to kick. His 200m kick could be devastating. What I didn't realize before spending more time watching him run was how smooth and relaxed he looked in mid flow. He is one of those runners with a short torso and long legs.

Coe was a very disciplined runner. His training with his father was precise and grueling. On races that were slower and more technical he could get himself into trouble. He favored going out very early and breaking down the competition with punishing sustained pace. The amazing thing about him was that when he did this, he inexplicably had gas left in the tank for a final kick. Maybe I am biased but when I see Coe run, he looks like he is floating smoothly along—it's a beautiful and effortless. I'm not an expert on running form but I love to watch him.

Cram was said to have great form. Apparently, the knee lift and turnover was excellent. To my eye, he seemed a little long and gangly. He ran on the balls of his feet and his feet were slightly turned out. To me, it was like watching a young puppy who hadn't quite grown into his body. Don't get me wrong, he looked amazing, especially from the side—just not quite like Coe in my opinion. Cram didn't have the finish that Ovett and Coe had, so his preferred technique was to wind up the pace gradually to the finish and hope that he had run the kick out of his opponents.

They all ran the same distance
As a child, you don't really focus on the distance—not unless you are really interested in running. As a TV spectator with no knowledge, it's all the same thing. Just men running around a track until they are done.

All three men ran various distances. The 800m and the 1500m happen to be the premier distances for major events. It was interesting for me to learn that Coe favored the 800m whereas Ovett favored the 1500m. This was incredibly ironic considering that Coe took 2 Olympic Silvers for the 800m and 2 Golds for the 1500m. Ovett took a Bronze in the 1500m and a Gold in the 800m. Steve Cram was more focused on the 1500m. Obviously the Mile was important to all of them because it was a classic distance and the British obsession with it was forever frozen in Carbonite when Sir Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute barrier.

Ovett and Coe disliked each other but they both liked Cram
Again, this impression was really fueled by the story that the press put out there. The rivalry was a huge deal. Going into the '84 Olympics must have been so intense for these men. Like being at the Olympics isn't stressful enough!

It seems that there was no real grudge between Ovett and Coe other than the usual athletes desire to be dominant. I'm not saying that they were compatible personalities, I'm just saying that they admired each other and both seemed to wish that the press wouldn't play up the rivalry in such a negative way. Ovett said "Seb is the caliber of athlete that only comes around once or twice in a lifetime." At times, the press was just plain unfair to Ovett. On one occasion, they speculated about Ovett arguing with Coe and Coe later reported that Ovett was actually talking to him about another runner that had just beaten them both. Coe said that he never intended to alienate Ovett further from the press by being transparent and accessible to them. He said "Steve was the most talented athlete I ever ran against."The earlier video shows Ovett wishing that the press would celebrate them both and think of them as a team going into the Olympics. I'm sure Ovett and Coe both liked Cram What wasn't to like? The worst thing I ever heard him say was that Ovett's 200m kick was predictable. That's nothing. Kicks are predictable. Ovett's advantage was a turn of speed that outmatched his opponents—not the element of surprise. These three men were always very respectful and complementary of each other. It's how it should be.

Any one of them could have won.
In my mind, I see all three men running. I have the excitement of knowing that there are medals coming home to Britain but there is also the excitement of knowing that there is no firm pecking order. On the day, any man can win.

Maybe Ovett and Coe winning each others favored distances in the Olympics is what made this stick in my mind but it's not really an accurate reflection of how it played out. Their careers didn't quite flow the same way and their peek periods didn't quite align. Cram's dominant period was as Ovett and Coe started their decline. Ovett and Coe rarely ran against each other and they were often not fit at the same time. Even when they traded World records, they were usually not running in the same race. In order to get a better feel for how their careers flowed, I created the timeline below. It's was actually very helpful for me to see it laid out like this. It's missing all the details of races that give a full perspective of their performance but you can you still get a feel for how things played out.

Ovett takes a personal best (PB) for the 400m and wins a Silver in the European Championships 800m

Ovett gets his first Olympic experience at 21 years of age, placing 5th in the 800m final. He did not make it to the 1500m final.

Ovett has a PB in the 3000m and wins a Gold at the IAAF World Cup 1500m.

Ovett has a PB in the 800m and the 2 Miles. He breaks the World record for the2 Miles. He wins a Silver in the European Championships 800m and a Gold 1500m.
Coe came onto the scene breaking some British records. He won a Bronze in European Championships 800m.
Cram got his first experience in the Commonwealth Games at 17 years old.

Ovett has a PB in the 1000m
Coe is on fire this year. He has a PB in the 400m. He takes World records in Mile, 800 and 1500 (in 41 days)

Ovett tied Coe's World record in the 1500m and then took the record outright. He took Coe's World record for the Mile. He beat Coe with a gold in the Olympic 800m and surprisingly took bronze in the 1500m.
Coe had a PB in the 5000m, he took the World record for the 1000m (briefly holding 4 records). He took a disappointing silver in the Olympic 1500m but caused an upset with gold in the 800m.
Cram had his first Olympic final experience, placing 8th in 1500m.

Ovett has a PB and a World Record in the Mile. He won gold in IAAF World Championship 1500m, World Record in Mile
Coe – PB 800m and 1000m, World Records in Indoor 800, 800, 1000, Mile X2, European Championships Silver 800m

Ovett has a PB in the 2000m but suffers from a knee injury.
Coe has a PB in the 2000m. He takes the World record 4x800m relay. He becomes sick with glandular fever.
Cram takes advantage of the other two being injured and has a foundational year, winning the gold in Commonwealth Games 1500m and the gold in European Championships 1500m.

Ovett has a PB and World record in the 1500m. He struggled in the World Championships and was injured.
Coe took the World record Indoor 800m, Indoor 1000m. He became very sick for months with Taxoplasmosis
Cram also was injured but then recovered to take the gold in the World Championships 800m.

Ovett has bronchitis in Olympic finals. He finds it hard to compete in the 800 and drops out of 1500.
Coe takes the Silver in the Olympics 800m and gold in the 1500m.
Cram is injured that year but recovers enough to take silver in the Olympic 1500m.

Ovett couldn’t find his form.
Coe wanted to move to the 5000m distance but had a lot of back issues.
Cram was on fire. He took the World record in the 2000m, 1500m and the Mile in just 19 days.

Ovett had PB in the 5000m, winning a gold in the Commonwealth Games.
Coe had a PB in the 1500m and the 3000m. He won silver in the European Championships 1500m and gold in the 800m.
Cram had a strong year winning gold in the Commonwealth Games 800m and 1500m. He won a Bronze in the European Championship 800m and a gold in 1500m.

Ovett struggled at the World Championships
Coe was out injured
Cram had a Golden Mile win but started to struggle and was 8th in World Championships.

Ovett failed to make Olympics
Coe had chest infections and could not qualify for the Olympics.
Cram won the Dream Mile and had an impressive Olympic trials. He was favorite for the Olympic 800m but a calf injury prevented him from making the finals. He recovered enough to take 4th in the Olympic 1500m.

Ovett continued to wind down.
Coe took a silver in the World Cup 1500m.
Cram started to wind down.

Ovett continued to wind down.
Coe had more chest infections and retired.
Cram only managed a 5th at the European Championship 1500m.

Ovett retired.
Cram eliminated in the European Championships.

After a few years of continuing to wind down, Cram retired

A few other things that I learned along the way:
  • Coe had a great relationship with his father who became his coach. Coe claims that his dad was ahead of his time when it came to training techniques. When people told his father "You are killing him", referring to Seb's training, he would say "Yes, I'm killing him all the way to a gold."
  • Ovett had strange training patterns and often befuddled other runners and coaches by doing things like running a local half marathon right before a major race. This type of behavior is really in contrast to Coe's precise and measured training plans.
  • A couple of fun facts about Coe. My friend Jim said that Seb came to his highschool. He was showing them squat exercises and Jim claims that he had remarkably large quads and hams—not side to side but from front to back. Another acquaintance of mine Victor who used to be an elite marathoner back in the day told me that Coe was doing some sort of exhibition where he was demonstrating an amazing vertical jump. Clearly the man had some powerful legs—no surprise there!
  • In the earlier video, Ovett and Coe both talk about how short lived being a top class middle distance runner is. It's not a topic you hear a lot from top runners. It seems very honest and a little bit sad.
  • Ovett had been dominant in the late '70's. He had a few uneventful races against Coe as juniors. I have to imagine that it must have been a shock for him to see Coe sweep 3 world records in '79. It made me think about the impact they must have had on each other's careers. How much better did they make each other?
  • Coe may have pressured Ovett to become more of a record breaker. Before Coe was on the scene, Ovett was more interested in racing people. In order to break records, he had to change his race patterns. When you are a racer like Ovett, it's a big deal to go out earlier as a front runner to chase down a time.
  • Ovett and Cram got to experience the Olympics without expectation of winning their first time. Coe took a silver and gold his first Olympics. I'm sure this had a lot to do with timing in relation to career development but it's still impressive.
  • When Coe lost the 800 in the '80 Olympics, he was devastated. Apparently the loss really rocked him. It's understandable after years of training to feel that way. I'm not sure how his dad motivated him but to brush himself off and take the gold in the 1500m showed an amazing amount of focus and self discipline.
  • I forgot that Ovett and Coe were under pressure from the British Government and public to not go to the '80 Moscow Olympics. Ironically, the Russians had invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. and Britain was unhappy with them.
  • The '84 Olympics could have been really interesting if Ovett and Cram were on top form. That could have been the big show-down for the three of them. Sadly, only Coe was on form, so we'll never know.
  • Apparently when Coe didn't qualify for the '88 Olympics, they tried to bend the rules to get him in. He even considered running for the Indian team (he is part Punjabi). 
  • It's a shame that Cram was injured in the '88 Olympics. He was always in the shadow of the other two and this could have been his moment to shine without them. Cram never got the credit he deserved. I have always thought about how cruel it is to be a World class athlete at the same time as anomalies like Coe are in your sport. It's the same as being second in the World to Lance Armstrong.
  • It was interesting to see Ovett and Coe trying to turn themselves into 5000m specialists around '85 and '86. I never really heard much about that.
  • I was interested to learn about the death of Steve Cram's younger brother Kevin. He died at the age of 39 while he was running near his home in Wales. He was alone and in a coma for 5 hours before he died because he wasn't carrying identification. Steve was 2 hours away in London. Kevin was in the mortuary for another two days before he was claimed. It was this traumatic experience that led Steve to partner with Reebok to create the CramAlertID wristband. This sad story reminded me of why I decided to get a RoadID. Check out my post about it.
  • In 2010, it was reported that the big Ovett/Coe rivalry was to be turned into a film by the BBC but I never heard anything more. I'd love to see a documentary that digs into the true rivalry—not the personal rivalry that the media exaggerated.

After spending quite a bit of time learning a little more about these men, I am a little ashamed to say that Coe is still my favorite and it's purely from the way he runs versus his personality or some other factor. I really want to watch the Born To Run movie (not to be confused with the book). It looks like it has lots of footage of him training with his dad.

Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram

Here are a couple of quotes to close out the post:

"I became a great runner because if you're a kid in Leeds and your name is Sebastian you've got to become a great runner" Lord Sebastian Coe

"When you're fit, you're fit" Steve Cram

"Sometimes I run and I don't even feel the effort of running. I don't even feel the ground. I'm just drifting. Incredible feeling. All the agony and frustration, they're all justified by one moment like that" Steve Ovett

POST Update Feb 16th, 2012
A couple of people have told me that Coe isn't popular at this point in time. This post is obviously historical and my preference for Coe is based purely on how he ran—not the person he was or is now. As someone who hasn't been exposed to the media in Britain since '92, I'd be interesting to hear from any British readers. I'd love to know how they felt about about all three runners back then and how they feel about them now based on their experiences of them through news and sports, etc.


  1. Thanks Simon, great post! Coe was always my favorite as well.

    Joe Newton, my high school coach was good friends with Peter Coe and we had the good fortune of spending some time with both of them back in '84 a few weeks prior to the L.A. Olympic Games. If I remember correctly, Seb & Peter decided to come to the States early to get away from the British Press and I believe they even stayed at my coach's house for several weeks leading up to the Games. It was quite a thrill to be able to hang out with him like he was just a regular guy not to mention watching him run intervals on our high school track and lift weights in our gym. Very soft spoken, gracious and polite is how I remember him.

    1. Oh, one correction though... The clip you have posted of Coe winning the 1500 is the 1980 games. Here's a good clip of the 1984 games.
      You can see Coe after the race thumbing his nose at the British Press. I remember jumping out of my seat watching this race!!

  2. That's awesome Jim. What a great time to meet him. What was it like watching him run? Were you all amazed at the form? The speed?

    1. Yeah, I remember him doing some 'easy' 400's on the track one day as part of his warm up. I think he did 4 of them in the low 50's and he looked like he was jogging. It's always a site to behold when someone can fly around a track at that pace and look totally relaxed.

  3. Indeed it is. Thanks for the correction Jim.


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