Hicham El Guerrouj – a running hero

For many people in the UK, the 1500m is a race that had its heyday with Coe, Ovett and Cram. After them – after Peter Rono put an end to Great British dominance of this event in the Olympic final in 1988 – the 1500m sort of lost its shine.

But I think that this is one of the most iconic distances of all. Please don’t misunderstand me, I love all running distances. But I think certain distances are special. They, for me, are about the raw pursuit of fulfilling our genetic heritage. The 100m is impressive, but as a species we’re pretty crap at running fast over short distances and every predator in the savannah would have absolutely no problem making Usain Bolt lunch if he was caught 100m from safety. A squirrel would outrun Bolt by rather a large margin over 100m (especially if the savannah predator was happy to have either one for lunch!)

But the 1500m becomes the sort of distance where the genetic benefits that come with being homo sapiens really come to the fore. Sustained speed-endurance that has beauty, grace, power, tactic… everything basically.

And this clip from the BBC series Faster, Higher, Stronger really illustrates the point that post Coe-Ovett-Cram, the 1500m did not stagnate. It found new heroes. It reached new heights. It became an even more beautiful race to watch. And Hicham El Guerrouj was at the forefront of that. He and Bernard Lagat, now a US citizen and one of Mo Farah’s keenest rivals, created one of the most memorable races in Olympic history. You cannot fail to be moved by this. Have a look at the clip and let me know: how does this make you feel?



The perfect review of ‘The Perfect Distance’

A two part review of Pat Butcher’s book The Perfect Distance

In this review, Michael Shelton took the time to review the book that takes an in-depth look at the rivalry between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett and ultimately resulted in such spectacular races in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Having read the book myself, I have then added my thoughts at the bottom – Simon

Michael’s review

My earliest memories of athletics were of events like the Golden Mile in Oslo and seemingly amazing feats as runners tried to break 3 or 4 world records in a matter of weeks. It was a golden age of British athletics, being led by two men,  Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.

The Olympics are just around the corner [Michael sent this review before the Games started but I have only just had a chance to post it here. Sorry Mike! – ed] and despite all the predictions of a record medal haul, there are few expectations for team GB in the men’s 800m and 1500m.

Yet just over 30 years ago, in the Communist stronghold of Moscow at the 1980 Olympics, it was the British that ruled middle distance running with an iron fist. In 1984,  we went into the Los Angeles Olympics with the Olympic champion (Coe), the world record holder (Ovett) and the world champion (Steve Cram). It is scarcely believable these days.

The Perfect Distance is the fascinating story of Coe and Ovett, two driven athletes, following contrasting timelines from promising beginnings through to titles, world records and Olympic triumphs.

The title refers to the magical mile distance, but also how a middle distance runner has to be the perfect athlete. They must have the speed of a 200m runner, the endurance of a six miler and the tactical savvy to win a race at any speed and from any position.

The fact that Coe and Ovett rarely faced each other in a competitive race meant that the Moscow Olympics was even became a national talking point in the USA, a country who had boycotted the games.

The events of 1980 may be well known (Ovett won the event, the 800m, that Coe was favourite for, while in the 1500m the reverse happened), but it’s the more personal moments that Butcher captures and you come to understand how these champions were moulded.

Butcher draws the battle lines between the pair –geographically, physically  and socially. Coe would become an MP and head of the London Olympic movement, while Ovett has remained out of the spotlight, even to the extent of being the only living British Olympic gold medal winner not to appear on special series of BBC Radio programmes. Rather than by these great enemies represented in the media, they were just very different personalities who would never be friends in any walk of life.

Like the Boat Race, most of the media and watching public lay their allegiances in either the Ovett or Coe camp. However you would be hard pressed not to develop a huge amount of respect for the other by the book’s conclusion.

Imagine being in the shoes of Coe, after running the worst race of your life at the Olympic Final. Rather than getting encouraging words from his father, he instead receives a four letting dressing down from his coach (aka Dad) in front of a packed press corp.

Ovett is remembered as incredibly hard working and a natural runner. He could complete the 400m in under 50 seconds, won a 5000m gold at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986 and clocked 1hr5 for a half-marathon he entered on a whim. His unwillingness to speak to the media saw him portrayed as aloof, but the picture Butcher moulds is of a shy man with a complicated family who just wanted to run.

The eyes of the world may have been on only two men, but Butcher does not neglect the forgotten men. From the Scandinavians who tried to disrupt the gold parade, to German Olaf Beyer, who split the Brits to grab Olympic silver in 1the 1500m, we see how the Coe and Ovett phenomenon was portrayed around Europe and the world.

Inspiring, humbling and ultimately a very human story, I finished the book thinking that athletic perfection may be unattainable, but here were two runners who would give everything to try and reach it.

Simon’s review

I must start by saying that I agree completely with everything Michael has written. I think that Pat Butcher elegantly and accurately captures the rivalry that drove Coe and Ovett to achieve marvelous things in middle distance running during a period when Great British runners were unsurpassed at those distances.

I think for me, the most wonderful thing that Butcher manages to capture is the value of the rivalry from the point of view of driving the protagonists on ever harder. It is almost as though they were in a world of their own – team mates and yet fierce rivals who knew how hard the other was training and racing and as a result pushed themselves harder and harder to not be outdone.

This is epitomised for me in a story that Coe wrote about in the Telegraph:

It was a harsh winter (harsh enough to bring down a government) but I ran 12 miles on Christmas morning. It was a hard session and I got home, showered and felt pretty happy with what I had done.

Later that afternoon, sitting back after Christmas lunch, I began to feel uneasy but was not quite sure why. Suddenly it dawned on me. I thought: “I bet [Steve] Ovett’s out there doing his second training session of the day.” I put the kit back on, faced the snow and ice and did a second training session. I ran several miles, including some hill work.

Not long ago, over supper in Melbourne, I told him the story. He laughed. ‘Did you only go out twice that day?’ he asked.

It should never be forgotten that the fruit of the rivalry between Coe and Ovett (and to some extent the young pretender Steve Cram when he joined the fray and pushed the two greatest middle distance runners to even great heights) were magnificent:

  • three Olympic gold medals
  • two Olympic silver medals
  • one Olympic bronze medal
  • seventeen middle-distance world records

An amazing period and one that might not ever be repeated. As the Olympic Games of 2012 come to a close, we have been treated to the incredible running ability – hard work and humility being the fuel – of one Mohammed Farah. But he has no domestic rival. There is no one in the UK that he fears and indeed it is arguable that trying to find a team mate who would push him to new limits was part of the motivation for moving to the Nike campus in Oregon to train with Galen Rupp. So I hope that the Olympics of 2012 has a part to play in lighting the fire of inspiration into at least two youngsters currently taking their first steps in athletics – let’s all pray for the next Coe and Ovett!

The finished product

Inspiration from ‘The Perfect Distance’ by Pat Butcher

I have just finished reading Pat Butcher’s excellent book on the golden era of British middle distance running “The Perfect Distance. Ovett & Coe: the record breaking rivalry” (published by Phoenix and available here). I’ll write a specific review of the book soon, but in the mean time there was a theme running through the book that I found interesting because it spoke to me about my own current predicament.

In the closing pages of the book, Butcher writes about the Los Angeles Olympic Games 1500m final in which Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram all ran and which provided British athletics fans with one of the most iconic images ever; the three of them in a line at the bell (see right). The result of that race is that Seb Coe became the first man ever to successfully defend a 1500m Olympic title. But perhaps more extraordinarily, he did it despite battling with injury and illness almost his entire career. Butcher tells us that;

After almost three years of illness, half an elite athlete’s lifetime. He’d [Coe] done it [defended his Olympic 1500m title]. Against all the odds. He had done it.


And that is extraordinary to me in one very clear sense. How many people would have persevered through the sorts of trials and tribulations that Coe had endured? Stress fractures, crippling toxoplasmosis, sciatica and a host of other injuries? I have had a very fortunate ‘running career’ of 5 years during which time I have managed to avoid any serious illness or injury (save for a broken wrist that was the result of being knocked off my bike) whilst friends and contemporaries have suffered all sorts of set-backs. But the remarkable thing is that Coe kept coming back. He took his time, got the treatment and worked his way back to top form.

The same is true in so many walks of life – it is all too easy to see a finished product in any discipline and not realise what had been going on in the background for months, years or even decades. In terms of my interest in running, it is easy to think that sporting greats arrive on the scene as the finished product. But that is never the case. I think that arguably the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen is Haile Gebrselassie and he himself acknowledges that it was decades of running, starting with 10km a day to school and back, that set him up for his achievements in later life. One story that I love, which may or may not be true, is that of Picasso sketching a woman in a cafe;

A woman was strolling along a street in Paris when she spotted Pablo Picasso sketching at a sidewalk cafe. The woman asked Picasso if he might sketch her, and charge her accordingly. Picasso graciously obliged and in just minutes, there she was: an original Picasso.

“And what do I owe you?” she asked.
“Five Thousand Francs,” Picasso answered.
“But it only took you three minutes,” she politely reminded him.
“No,” Picasso said. “It took me all my life.”

The point of this story is obvious, but one that it is easy to forget – achieving greatness, whether that is objective greatness or simply being the best we can be, takes years or decades or even a lifetime of dedication. So how does that relate to my predicament?

The lesson learnt

For the last few months I have been struggling to train at the level that I think I need to, to achieve what I want to, especially in terms of achieving new personal bests. Now I am not suggesting for one minute that there is anything to compare between me and Sebastian Coe, but I do think there is much to be learned from his example – he rolled with the punches and dealt with the set-backs. And in my mind that is one of the things that makes an athlete great. Like all injured runners I need to stop feeling sorry for myself, find out what I need to do to get back to my best form and get there step-by-step . Thanks for the inspiration, Lord Coe!

Lord Sebastian Coe and the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games are coming to London. In just over 300 days. And there is an increasing amount of opinion being spouted about whether London will deliver a great Games, deliver on the medal expectations and deliver on the legacy, the promise of which went some way to winning the opportunity to host the Games for this great city.

It is often said – and I believe it – that if you want to know the truth it needs to come from the horse’s mouth. Last night I was privileged and honoured to be a guest at a dinner hosted by Nike where Lord Sebastian Coe addressed 30 of us and talked about how far the Games have progressed and what is still to be done.

In logistic terms alone organizing the Games is a herculean task. The numbers are mind boggling, from the thousands that are already employed by the organizing committee and the thousands more that will be required in the coming months, to the 70,000 volunteers who will work at the Games to the massed ranks of police, medical and security staff that will be required. Then of course there will then be visitors in the millions. And not forgetting thousands of athletes from around the world.

I often hear people say that sport is an analogy for life and to illustrate the mindset for winning the Games, Seb told the story of one of his earliest senior races over 800m at the European Championships Prague in 1978. In that race he set off at a suicidally fast pace, partly to try to neutralise the threat of his greatest rival, Steve Ovett. However, predictably, having run the first 400m in 49 seconds, physiology caught up with Coe in the last 200m and also predictably as he tied up, who was alongside him? Ovett. What neither of them realized however, was that there was a further threat – an East German athlete who blasted past the pair of them to take gold in the last 20 meters. Lord Coe said that he was on all fours, desperately trying to catch his breath when Ovett came over, put his hand on Coe’s shoulder and said ‘Who the f*** was that?’ With a wry grin Lord Coe told us last night that winning the Olympics was like that, with London as the unknown threat. Paris and Madrid were odds on favourites to win the Games, but with stealth and passion and great preparation, who snuck up on the outside and took it at the line? Yep, London. Lord Coe, undoubtedly a man of great vision, passion and leadership, talked frankly about the challenges that his organization faces, but in my mind there is no doubt that it will all come together and prove to be an exceptional event. And I got that from the horse’s mouth.

But the London Games in 2012 is about much more than the few weeks of competition. There is the issue of legacy. And for that Lord Coe dipped back into his own past to talk about the importance that companies like Nike play in encouraging and supporting young people and ensuring that sport, and athletics in particular, capture the imagination of youngsters and fuel the desire in them to compete and be the best they can be. Can we deliver on that? Well, thanks to Lord Coe and his team I have no doubt that we will have a great Games. But the legacy – well that is going to take a massive combined effort from all of us. I sincerely hope we succeed.