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The rivalry between Sebastian Coe & Steve Ovett to be made into a film

18th February 2010

British sports fans in the 70s and 80s who were fascinated by the rivalry between athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, will be delighted to learn that a BBC film is to be made about it.

The two world-beaters entered the sporting arena for the same sport, from the same country, at the same time.   The climax came at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, when Coe was expected to win the 800m, but was beaten by Ovett, and Ovett was expected to win the 1500m, but was pipped by Coe.

Thirty years after the clash in Moscow, Sebastian Coe is now part of the British sporting establishment who headed the British bid for London 2012, is a former MP and inspirational and motivational keynote speaker. Steve Ovett emigrated to Australia and disappeared from public view.  Their differing backgrounds and class made it a compelling story. 

Both men were extremely popular at the time.  Sebastian Coe was voted Sports Personality of the Year in 1979 and Steve Ovett in 1978.




Peter Coe helped son Sebastian make athletics historyWorld-beating British sportsmen are like gold dust anyway. But when two world-beaters emerged in the same sport at the same time, the stage was set for a drama of rare intensity, climaxing at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, when Coe was expected to win the 800m, but was pipped by Ovett, and Ovett was expected to win the 1500m, but was pipped by Coe. Crazy script, but compulsive viewing.

To people watching back in Britain, it should not have mattered if Coe got the gold and Ovett the silver or vice versa. They were both Brits, so we could look forward to God Save the Queen and the Union flag being hoisted, whichever won. But that was the fascination of the Coe-Ovett rivalry. Yes, they were both Brits, but such very different Brits, appealing to such very different constituencies, that they divided opinion more starkly than if one of them had been a foreigner.

Both men enjoyed a big following in their own right. Both were voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Ovett in 1978, Coe in 1979. But you would have had to travel a long way to find a sports fan who admired them both equally. Temperamentally, the two men were chalk and cheese; indeed, it always seemed rather incongruous that they should excel at the same discipline.

People either rooted for Steve, drawn to his rough-diamond manner and ferocious work ethic, or they rooted for Seb, seduced by his clean-cut looks and fluent running style. There was no middle way.

It was a class thing, partly. Ovett, the product of a secondary modern in Brighton, had all the credentials of a working-class hero. Coe, though not exactly born with a silver spoon, was a university graduate with upwardly mobile pretentions. It was easy to see the Tory MP he would later become. And that Brideshead Revisited Christian name... But there was more to it than class.

From the moment the two men stepped on to the track, you could sense the underlying clash of personalities: Ovett intense, brooding, combustible; Coe calmer, looser-limbed, more at ease with himself. One was an artisan, the other an artist; one a scrapper, the other a natural born winner; one real ale, the other champagne.

Women wanted to bed Steve, but marry Sebastian – he seemed safer, the way Gary Lineker seems safer than Paul Gascoigne, Tim Henman than Andy Murray, Jonny Wilkinson than Lawrence Dallaglio. Men were equally torn. Did they want to be a Coe, effortlessly superior, envied by all? Or was it more satisfying to be an Ovett, getting to the top the hard way, through elbow grease and true grit? These conundrums are the soul of sport.

Thirty years on from their great tussles in Moscow, the two men are as far apart as ever. Coe, as could surely have been predicted, stands at the pinnacle of the British sporting establishment. Peer of the Realm, Privy Councillor, Chairman of the Organising Committee for the London Olympics, etc, etc. Ovett, as might also have been predicted, has emigrated to Australia, that classless paradise where nobody asks what school you went to and everyone loves a mongrel who is prepared to have a go. The smooth man and the rough man, the conformist and the non-conformist, have achieved their separate destinies.

But it was when those destinies were intertwined on the track that they inflamed the imagination. Top-flight athletics often seems to be dominated by the stopwatch: elite athletes trying to shave a few seconds off their personal best. But the Coe-Ovett rivalry transcended clock-watching. It was a show-down between two contrasting human types, enlisting our loyalty for quite different reasons. Roll on the movie.

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  • Thanks to Nick for sourcing us a speaker at such short notice. Investec

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