Coe chronicles: 1976 to 1979 – early senior strides to first world record

3 weeks ago
In part three of a six-part series on Seb Coe’s career, Steve Smythe looks at his races in the late 1970s

After a promising but not earth-shattering junior career Seb Coe moved on to the senior ranks as there was no under-23 competition back then.

He was still a teenager for the whole of the 1976 track season but he was improving fast and over this four-year period he moved from being Europe’s third best junior 1500m runner to the world’s fastest ever 800m, 1500m and miler.

» The first part of our ‘Coe chronicles’ looks at his greatest top 10 races. Click here to read.

» Part two analyses his early races as a teenager. Click here to read.

» Part three, here, covers Coe’s races from 1976 to his first world records in 1979.

» Part four goes through his competitions from 1980 to 1983. (To come)

» Part five analyses the 1984 to 1986 seasons including his second Olympic gold. (To come)

» Part six revisits the twilight of his racing career from 1987-1990. (To come)

Note, while some of his career highlights are available on the AW website, you will need to be a magazine subscriber and Clubhouse member (click here to log in) to read all of them.


National Indoor Championships 1500m, Cosford, January 24

5th 3:51.0 (3:51.2 heat)

Did well in his heat to beat Glen Grant, who would make the final in the following month’s European Indoor Championships. In the final he was well back in a race impressively won by Dave Moorcroft (3:45.6), who would make the Olympic final later in the year. Second was future Golden 5000m winner Barry Smith (3:46.6).

Harry Wilson BMC Mile, Crystal Palace, April 14

1st 4:07.6 (PB)

Took the lead after a 2:01.0 first 800m and then front-ran to a clear win over Kevin Steere (4:08.6) and two of Britain’s fastest milers of the 1960s – Walter Wilkinson and Jim Douglas. Ironically this race was named after the coach who would help deny him an Olympic 800m title in 1980.

British Milers Club Mile, Stretford, May 1

1st 4:05.7 (PB)

He improved his PB again with this win but it was still a long way short of his 1500m equivalent as he defeated Jim McGuinness (4:06.7).

Loughborough v RAF v MCAA v NCAA 800m, Loughborough, May 12

1st 1:53.0 (PB)

He had run a 1:52.0 relay leg at Crystal Palace in March but this was a narrow official PB as he won by over a second.

Yorkshire Championships 1500m, Cleckheaton, May 16

1st 3:43.3 (PB)

He took two seconds off his Athens time with an assured victory ahead of Wilkinson (3:44.3).

Loughborough v BRC 800m, Loughborough, May 19

1st 1:54.0

He gained a narrow win over Dick Ashton (1:54.2) who would go to make the European 400m final in 1978, having also run one of the greatest English relay legs of all-time in the Edmonton Commonwealth Games – albeit unavailingly as his team were disqualified for an earlier discretion.

Inter-Counties Championships Mile, Crystal Palace, May 31

2nd 4:02.4 (PB)

Set a three-second PB with a much faster second half but was a long way down on winner Grant (3:59.5), who would go on to finish second in the Olympic trials 800m and run a 3:38.05 Welsh 1500m record in the 1978 Commonwealth Games.

Kraft Games Olympic Trials 1500m heat, June 11

7th 3:43.2 (PB)

Set another PB but was some way from qualifying for the final in a heat won by Frank Clement (3:40.0) who would finish a close fifth in the Olympics. He did finish one place up on 1972 Olympic semi finalist Ray Smedley (3:43.8).
Ovett ran in the other heat and won the final in 3:39.6.

Loughborough 800m, June 17

1st 1:50.7 (PB)

Took two seconds off his best but with poor pace judgement as he put together laps of 52.5 and 58.2 to defeat John Greatrex (1:51.8).

British Milers Club 800m, Stretford, August 8

1st 1:47.7 (PB)

After a near two-month break from serious racing, went into the event hoping to break 1:50 and surprised himself with a further three-second PB.

AAA Championships 1500m, Crystal Palace, August 14

4th 3:42.7 (PB) (3:45.1 heat)

Coe led the first lap in a slow 61.7 and went back ahead to run a 58.1 third lap. He was unable to repel 1972 Olympic medallist Rod Dixon (3:41.4) or 1976 Olympic finalists Moorcroft and Clement but he did run an exceptional 53.2 last lap and defeat Olympic 5000m silver medallist and future world record-setter Dick Quax.

Rediffusion Games Mile, Gateshead, August 22

3rd 4:01.7 (PB)

In very strong winds, Coe was at one stage 40 metres ahead of a top class field who were playing it cagily. Moorcroft caught him at the bell and they were still 25 metres clear but Olympic champion John Walker (3:59.9) caught the pair making up 15 metres on Moorcroft in the straight Coe defeated European record-holder Thomas Wessinghage.

Emsley Carr Mile, Crystal Palace, August 30

7th 3:58.35 (PB)

Coe led again but in better conditions, he hit halfway in 1:59.4, 12 metres clear of the pack He was caught at the bell (3:00.4) but finished well as Moorcroft (3:57.1) won from 1500m world record-holder Filbert Bayi (3:57.5) and Brendan Foster (3:57.7). Coe set a three second PB close behind Olympic steeplechase champion Bronislaw Malinowski (3:58.0).

Bells Whisky Games Mile, Gateshead, September 14

2nd 4:01.5

Dixon (fourth in the Olympic 5000m) was too strong again but this proved to be Coe’s last defeat in the mile for seven years.

Cosford 600m, November 20

1st 79.7 (PB)

Proof that his speed was progressing further as he ran at 1:46 800m pace indoors.


AAA Indoor Championships 800m, Cosford, January 29

1st 1:49.1 (Indoor PB)

Third at 400m (54.0), he moved ahead at 600m (82.1) and a strong 27.0 last 200m took him over two seconds clear of John Goodacre to go third all-time indoors in the UK.

UK v West Germany 800m, Dortmund, February 19

1st 1:47.6 (UK indoor record)

In his senior international debut he was up against Olympic 1500m bronze medallist Paul-Heinz Wellmann and he started fast and led through 400m in 53.0 and held his form well to beat the German (1:49.3) by 10 metres and take a half a second off John Davies’ UK indoor record.

UK v France 800m, Cosford, February 26

1st 1:47.5 (UK indoor record)

He had been ill during the week and almost withdrew but it did not stop his boldness. He put together splits of 25.8, 26.6, 27.0 and 28.1 to take a tenth off his record and win by nearly three seconds and strengthen his hold on second in the 1977 world rankings.

European Indoor Championships 800m, San Sebastian, March 14

1st 1:46.5 (UK/Commonwealth indoor record (1:48.5 semi and 1:50.5 heat)

There were concerns how he would cope with three races in 36 hours in his first senior championships, but he sailed through qualifying with two wins and in the final he produced his greatest ever race up to then by some margin.

To stay out of trouble, he caught his opponents out by blasting the first 200m in 24.9 and hitting 400m in an unprecedented 51.37. He was still two metres clear at 600m (78.9) and holding his form well with a 27.6 last circuit he stretched the margin to five metres over East German Erwin Gohlke (1:47.2). It just missed Carlo Grippo’s world record (1:46.4). Grippo had dropped out of his semi-final.

AAA Championships 800m, Crystal Palace, July 23

2nd 1:46.8 (outdoor PB)

The three races on the tight Spanish track were probably the cause of an Achilles injury that stopped him training properly for over three months and he knew he was a long way short of his March fitness so he was highly encouraged with his fastest outdoor time and out-kicking Olympic 1500m champion Walker (1:46.9) though the lack of training meant he could not repel Milovan Savic’s (1:46.3) late kick.

Seb Coe and John Walker at C. Palace 1977 (Credit: Mark Shearman)

European Cup Final 800m, Helsinki, August 14

4th 1:47.6

Well placed into the straight and ready to kick, and now fitter and stronger, he was pushed sideways by future world champion Willi Wulbeck (1:47.2) who should have been disqualified. Olaf Beyer, who Coe would encounter the following year was second.

Ivo Van Damme Brussels 800m, August 16

3rd 1:46.31 (PB)

He set an outright PB in finishing third.

Emsley Carr Mile, Crystal Palace, August 29

1st 3:57.7 (PB)

The previous day he had front run the 800m in the match against Germany (1:47.8) and though wary about his lack of training, decided to contest his first race over 800m of the year. He followed former mile record-holder Bayi and narrowly outkicked the Tanzanian (3:57.9) in an exciting finish and came courtesy of a 55 last quarter (pictured below).

IAC/Coca-Cola Meeting 800m, Crystal Palace, September 9

2nd 1:44.95 (UK record)

In front of a 18,000 sell-out crowd, Coe fought all the way with 1972 Olympic medallist Mike Boit (1:44.8) who after a 51.0 first lap, set an UK all comers record and Coe’s reward was breaking Andy Carter’s UK record (1:45.1) set in 1973.


Loughborough Match 400m, Crystal Palace, April 26

1st 48.0 (PB)

Further proof that his speed was progressing as he put together splits of 23.4 and 24.6 to pass Terry Whitehead – who would make the European and Commonwealth teams later in the summer and he then ran a 47.3 relay final leg to make up 25 metres to snatch victory.

Loughborough Match 400m, Isleworth, May 10

1st 47.7 (PB)

Further progress was achieved with another fast victory.

Yorkshire Championships 800m, Cleckheaton, May 14

1st 1:45.6

A brilliant solo run produced a world leading time and championships record.

Philips Games 800m, Gateshead, July 9

1st 1:46.8

A comfortable win was achieved over Americans Tom McLean (1:47.1) and future world leader and Coe-conqueror Don Paige (1:47.6).

UK Championships 800m, Meadowbank, July 15

1st 1:47.1

He easily defeated Scots Pete Hoffman (1:48.1) and current UK M60 No.1 Paul Forbes (1:49.1) though was initially disqualified for breaking too early from his lane but was reinstated on appeal.

Ivo Van Damme 800m, Brussels, August 18

1st 1:44.3 (British record)

While many Brits were competing in the Commonwealths, Coe chose to focus on preparation for the Europeans and first won in Viareggio in 1:45.7 and then really went for it here following a paced 50.5 opening lap, he held on well for a British record that put him into the all-time world top 10 and one that would have equalled the world record just five years earlier. McLean was a distant second (1:46.2)

European Championship 800m, Prague, August 31

3rd 1:44.8

In the form of his life and after impressive qualifying rounds, he run a brave but ultimately foolish race. He blasted through 200m in 24.3 and the 400m in an unprecedented 49.32 but still had Beyer and Ovett close by inside 50 seconds.

With a time of 76.2, he was still on 1:41.6 pace at 600m (the world record was 1:43.4) but he was struggling and was powerless in the final straight when first Ovett and then the unheralded Beyer shot by.

The German, who never approached this sort of form before or after, won in 1:43.8 for a two second PB to go fifth all-time Ovett (1:44.1) took Coe’s British mark.

Coe’s last 200m was 28.6 and 400m 55.4 – six seconds slower than his first lap!

IAC Coca-Cola Meeting 800m, Crystal Palace, September 15

1st 1:44.0 (1:43.97)

Running far more sensibly than he had in Czechoslovakia, he was paced through 400m in 51.0 and hit 600m in 77.1 and held on with a sub-27 last 200m to delight the big crowd with a British record time and technically run his first sub 1:44, though it was round up to 1:44.0 on hand timing.

McEwans Games Mile, Gateshead, September 17

1st 4:02.0

Having stayed away from the mile for a year, he thought he might challenge Frank Clement’s UK record but near gale-force winds kept the paced halfway time down to 1:59.2 and Coe’s vest strap was actually blown off his arm He then just followed new world 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m record-holder Henry Rono down to the 80 metres and took almost two seconds out of the Kenyan (4:03.8).

Loughrea 4 miles, October 1

1st 17:54

Having shown little of his former endurance qualities in past years as he focussed on speed, he shocked European 1500m silver medallist and future world 5000m champion Eamonn Coghlan (17:55) and Commonwealth 10,000m medallist Mike McLeod (18:01) with how he stayed with the fast pace and how he sprinted at the end and easily broke Brendan Foster’s course record.


AAA Indoor Championships 3000m, Cosford, January 27

1st 7:59.8

In his first 3000m for four years, a 3:54.7 second half and 58.0 last 400m gave him victory over Dick Callan (8:00.6).

Yorkshire Championships 400m, Cleckheaton, May 21

1st 47.6

A further tenth was removed from his PB as he won his first Yorkshire title over one lap.

Loughborough Match 400m, May 23

1st 47.4

Two days later he removed two more tenths from his PB as he again worked on his speed.

Northern Championships 800m, Stretford, June 16

1st 1:46.3

He set a championships best with a 50.8 first lap despite almost hitting the railings outside lane six after being skittled sideways after 20 metres.

European Cup Semi Final 800m, Malmo, June 30

1st 1:46.7

A 51.8 second lap took him to a clear 10 metres victory, with all the margin coming in the last 70 metres as he played with the field led by Bulgarian European indoor silver medallist Binko Kolev (1:48.1).

Bislett Games 800m, Oslo, July 2

1st 1:42.33

When Alberto Juantorena broke the world record in 1976 (1:43.5) and 1977 (1:43.4), the consensus was the event might now be dominated by powerful sprinter-types That all changed on a perfect Norwegian night.

A 24.6 first 200m and 50.6 clocking at 400m were perfect. The third 200m though was exceptionally fast as after pacemaker Lennie Smith dropped out, Coe blasted down the backstraight to hit 600m in 75.4 having covered that stretch in an unprecedented 24.8.

While he could not keep that tempo up, he showed no signs of tying up and he stunned the crowd (and himself) as he took a whole second off the previous record with a 27.0 last 200m.

The record had fallen by just 0.9sec between 1962 and 1979. He won by three seconds from Ed White (1:45.8) and Boit, who had beaten him when he set his first British record two years earlier was five seconds behind.

AAA Championships 400m, Crystal Palace, July 13/14

2nd 46.87 (PB) (1st ht 46.95 (PB)

He set a PB and looked relaxed and full of running in winning his heat. Conditions seemed tougher in the final (only two broke 47 seconds as opposed to seven in the heats).

He was no match for Sudanese 45.18 performer Kasheef Hassan who won in 45.82 but by beating Roger Jenkins (47.01) he did effectively become British champion with a strong finish.

IAAF Dubai Golden Mile, Oslo, July 17

1st 3:48.95 (world record) (3:32.8 1500m PB)

Set an incredible 8.72 second PB in taking on the greatest mile field ever assembled which was only missing European champion Ovett.

Steve Lacy led to halfway at 1:54.5 and Coe overtook Steve Scott just before the bell to lead in 2:53.4. He had no idea he was close to world record pace but pushed on to ensure he kept ahead of Scott (3:51.2) and the first eight broke 3:54.

He said he was astonished to find he had beaten Walker’s 3:49.4. His 3:32.8 1500m time was almost 10 seconds quicker than his previous best.

European Cup Final 800m, Turin, August 5

1st 1:47.3

Two years after being barged out of contention in the same event, Coe gained his revenge with a stunning 24.4 last 200m and 51.5 last 400m which easily won from Dragan Zivotic (1:48.1) and Wulbeck (1:48.2) and his Prague conqueror Beyer (1:48.4). He also contributed a 45.5 anchor leg to Britain’s 4x400m team.

Viareggio 800m, August 8

1st 1:45.4

With a big 1500m a week away, he just settled on a quick victory and used this to sharpen up.

Zurich Weltklasse 1500m, August 15

1st 3:32.03 (world record)

Ovett was refused a place in the race so as not to distract Coe from his record-breaking attempt. Pacemaker Kip Koskei ran a far too fast first lap (54.2) and far too slow second lap (58.8) before Coe accelerated through a 57.6 third lap and he just about managed an uncomfortable 56.8 final circuit to narrowly break Bayi’s world record.
Craig Masback was a distant second in 3:37.0.

After three world records in 41 days, he was not to race again in 1979 due to an injured leg muscle suffered in training.

Photographs by Mark Shearman

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