Sebastian Coe: Britain’s greatest ever athlete?

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In the first of a six-part series we look at the competitive highlights of the World Athletics president Sebastian Coe with details of more than 200 of his races in a near 20-year career

Just short of 50 years ago, Sebastian Coe started his running career and 10 years later he was probably the most famous runner in the world when he won the Olympic 1500m ahead of Steve Ovett. Click here for greater details of the Moscow clashes.

Some 35 years ago for AW’s 40th anniversary issue he was selected by former editor Mel Watman as the greatest ever British athlete narrowly ahead of Daley Thompson when both were still competing and gained further honours.

Of course, since then their two Olympic golds have been bettered by Mo Farah’s four golds and six world titles but if you factor in all the world records and impact on the sport, then Coe would still be most people’s choice for the accolade of Britain’s greatest ever.

My own personal first recollection of hearing about Coe was probably in October 1971. The pick of our very good school team based in South London had travelled up to Batley in Yorkshire (that is, without me) to take part in a composite relay where one junior, one inter and one senior took part. On their return their most significant moment of their lengthy trip was I recall them seeing a diminutive little runner with the memorable name of Sebastian Coe demolishing the field on his leg.

His name – or indeed any names from that relay – never appeared in AW – just the teams and Hallamshire finished second that day. After that point, though I always looked for his results.

I was lucky enough to be in the AW Tour party that went to Prague in 1978 where Coe made his senior outdoor championships debut and also to be one of the AW reporters at his final event – the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990.

Coe and Ovett – the only British male middle-distance runners to win Olympic titles in the AW era from 1945 to 2020 – obviously stand out as Britain’s best despite the claims of record-breakers like Steve Cram and Roger Bannister, who also had their big wins, but not in the Olympics.

The previous British Olympic 800m/1500m winners – Albert Strode-Jackson, Albert Hill, Douglas Lowe and Tommy Hampson – were all in the 1912 to 1932 period and great as they all were, none can match the careers of the more modern athletes who had far greater opposition and lengthier careers.

At 800m, Coe’s two Olympic silvers, European indoor and outdoor titles and two extraordinary world records easily top Ovett’s Olympic gold and two European silvers.

At 1500m, Coe’s two Olympic golds and multi world records similarly edge Ovett’s records, unbeaten run and lesser titles, and even Steve Cram’s world title, world records, Olympic silver and double European and Commonwealth gold.

Coe stand outs even from a special era which will never be repeated. I’m not sure any other runner in history including current ones could have beaten Coe in those two Olympic runs the way those races were run.

Remember, he had 1:41.73 800m speed that even nearly 40 years later only two other world athletes had ever beaten and neither of them (David Rudisha and Wilson Kipketer) were remotely proficient as 1500m runners.

For all the wins and records, if Coe has a downside in his 1978 to 1990 period, he did miss a lot of big championship events, mostly due to illness. He never competed in a World Championships (missing 1983 and 1987) and while his career straddled four Commonwealth Games, he missed the first in 1978 to concentrate on the Europeans, missed 1982 due to illness, was ill again in 1986 and missed the final and in 1990 was again ill and trailed in sixth after being in good form a few weeks before.

He also missed the 1988 Olympics which still perplexes but that was most definitely not his choice. Illness at the trials did not help and cost him a chance to go for three 1500m consecutive golds when he was clearly fit enough to at least challenge seriously for a medal. He was selected for the 800m but his selection was inexplicably narrowly overturned by the BAAB to allow Peter Elliott to double.

Coe had easily beaten the future Olympic 800m champion Paul Ereng in July and in August, when healthy again, he ran 1:43.93, a time that would have won a medal in Seoul. He proved to many he could have won the Olympic 1500m with his World Cup run the following year given his big race preparation record.

It’s worth remembering for someone who was effectively British champion at 400m, that Coe started his career more as a 3000m runner and he threatened throughout much of his career that he would end it at 5000m, but sadly apart from a few reasonable domestic 3000m races, he never showed his true potential over twelve and a half laps.

Below are what I have chosen as his 10 best races. They are so good there is no room for many of his world records and certainly none of his five Olympic and European silver medals. Additionally, as part of this series, I have listed details of over 200 of his memorable races between 1971 and 1990.

While his track races in his momentous career have been well documented, it took a lot more delving to get some of his road race results which often appeared in AW months after they happened. Hopefully the list contains the best of Coe but please email [email protected] if you think anything of significance is missing.

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.

» This first part of our ‘Coe chronicles’ looks at his greatest top 10 races.

» Part two (click here to read) goes through his early races as a teenager.

» Part three covers Coe’s races from 1976 to his first world records in 1979. (To come)

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

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

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

Coe’s top 10 races

1 Olympic Games 1500m, Los Angeles, August 11, 1984

1st 3:32.53 (Olympic record) (3:35.81 semi, 3:45.30 ht)

While Coe’s 800m runs in Los Angeles were of no comparison to winner Joaquim Cruz, no runner had ever gone into into his main event with such a quality series of four 800m races (1:45.71, 1:46.75, 1:45.51, 1:43.64) on successive days.

In the 1500m (after a 3:35.81 semi final) he completed an astonishing Games with a brilliant victory that smashed the Olympic record and with two golds and two silvers he then became Britain’s most successful ever Olympic athlete.

The fast time was even more notable considering the first lap was a cautious 58.85. With the 90,000 crowd roaring its approval, the host nation’s Steve Scott decided he had to make it a more honest race and he took the lead at 500 metres and powered through 800m in 1:56.81 with Coe just behind in second.

Scott was not in the same shape as his world silver medal form of 1983 and as he slowed he was overtaken by Jose Abascal just before 1000m and the Spaniard led at the bell (2:39.04) from Coe (2:39.28) who was followed by Cram and Ovett – though the latter, who had finished last in the 800m, had chest pains and dropped out 350m from the finish to end Britain’s chance of a clean sweep – they had uniquely gone into the race with the Olympic champion, world champion and world record-holder in three different athletes.

Coe moved up to Abascal’s shoulder at 1200m (2:53.21) to complete a 56.29 third lap. With 200m to go just as Cram made a move, Coe responded and kicked ahead to go three metres clear on the bend and then kick even faster in the straight, holding his form magnificently, to more than double his margin.

His last lap was 53.25 and his time took well over two seconds off Kip Keino’s 16-year-old Olympic record of 3:34.91. Cram was not at his fittest after injury but was a clear second in 3:33.40 but Coe seemed unbeatable that day whatever.

2 Olympic 1500m, Moscow, August 1, 1980

1st 3:38.40

Ovett’s undefeated 1500m and mile run ended at 45 races as Coe made up for the 800m with a perfectly executed run

The first 800m was a slow 2:04.9 and then East German Jurgen Straub blasted a 54.2 third lap and Coe was on his shoulder He was still trailing by a few metres 200m out but he closed up in the straight and his double kick took him away from the opposition, having run the last 400m in 52.2.

Ovett, unable to raise himself after his 800m win, was a well beaten third (3:39.0) and unable to even get past an inspired Straub (3:38.8).

3 Bislett Games 800m, Oslo, July 2, 1979

1st 1:42.33 (world record)

When Alberto Juantorena broke the world record in both 1976 (1:43.5) and 1977 (1:43.4), the consensus was the event would in future be dominated by powerful sprinter-types. That all changed on a perfect Norwegian night when Coe was merely hoping to break 1:44 in a year he was more focussed on achieving a degree.

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 possibly 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 0.9 in the 17 years between 1962 and 1979. He won by three seconds from Ed White (1:45.8) and Mike Boit, who had beaten him when he set his first British record two years earlier, was five seconds behind him.

4 Florence 800m, June 10, 1981

1st 1:41.73

Future world champion Billy Konchellah led at a perfect pace through 200m in 24.4 and 400m in 49.7 with Coe following in 24.6 and 49.9 and then going ahead 50 metres after the bell.

There was no slowing down in the third 200m stretch as he ran a superb 25.1. Just as two years earlier, he was bound to slow a little but it was minimal and he still produced a 26.7 last 200m which took half a second off his previous record.

Astonishingly, that meant he was now 1.72 seconds (15 metres!) quicker than anyone else in history and the average of his top five runs was 1:43.27 when no one else had run faster than 1:43.44!

5 European Championships 800m, Stuttgart, August 28, 1986

1st 1:44.50

Eight years after first trying to win a major outdoor title over two laps, he finally succeeded as he ran one of his greatest tactical races.

Last at the bell, he moved up on the outside on the second lap as Tom McKean held Cram off on the final bend before easing past both in the straight as Britain got a historic clean sweep of the medals.

His last 200m was a superb 24.7 and he only won by a metre from an inspired McKean (1:44.60) and a disappointed Cram (1:44.88) who was not at his sharpest after a calf injury and some way below his Edinburgh gold medal winning form though Cram would later win the 1500m from Coe.

European Champs 1986: Coe, McKean and Cram sweep the medals in Stuttgart

6 IAAF Golden Mile, Brussels, August 28, 1981

1st 3:47.33 (world record)

Coe’s previous record at Zurich (3:48.53) lasted a week before Ovett (3:48.40) responded in Koblenz but his fellow Brit’s mark would only last a couple of day’s.

Byers paced again but this time was healthier than in Zurich and he ran perfect splits of 54.92 and 1:52.67 and Coe’s only worry was he caught Byers’ heel down the backstraight and had a slight stumble.

Coe went ahead with 500 metres to go but held back as he went through three-quarters of a mile down on Ovett’s time in 2:51.9 but Coe still had Boit close behind him and was saving his sprint.

He was through 1500m in 3:32.93 and then surged down the finishing straight to take a whole second off Ovett’s mark.

His last 109 metres was a lightning fast 14.30 and his finishing burst took two seconds off Boit who set an African record (3:49.45).

7 IAAF Dubai Golden Mile, Oslo, July 17, 1979

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

He set an incredible 8.72 second PB in the greatest mile field ever assembled which was only minus European champion Ovett from the world’s best.

American Steve Lacy led to halfway at 1:54.5 and Coe overtook 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 at the distance.

8 Oslo Games 1000m, July 11, 1981

1st 2:12.18 (world record)

Running slightly more evenly than his 2:13.40 record of the previous year, he put together splits of 25.6, 25.7, 27.1 and 26.2 – moving him through 800m in a staggering 1:44.6 and then he held on well with a 27.6 last 200m to take over a second off his world record.

It would last as a world record for 18 years when 1500m Olympic 1500m champion Noah Ngeny ran 2:11.96 – and no one else has run faster in the 39 years since Coe’s run.

He won by nearly 50 metres and close on seven seconds from future global 1500m medallists Jim Spivey (2:19.03) and Jose Abascal (2:19.57).

9 European Indoor Championships 800m, San Sebastian, March 14, 1977

1st 1:46.5 (UK/Commonwealth indoor record)

There were concerns how he would cope with three races in 36 hours in his first senior championships, but after a 1:50.5 heat and 1:48.2 semi, 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.

10 Rieti 1500m, September 7, 1986

1st 3:29.77 (PB)

Seventeen years earlier, Peter Coe drew up a projected progression in the hope that his son (then aged 13 with a PB of 4:31.8) would see a 3:30 in 1980.

Six years late he reached the target smashing his PB by over two seconds with a world lead but he frustratingly missed the world record by only 0.31 of a second to go equal third all-time behind Said Aouita (3:29.46) and Cram’s (3:29.67) world records.

Through 800m in 1:52, he looked on schedule at 1200m in 2:48.10 (Aouita was only 2:49.4 in his world record) He finished well but not quite as quick as the Moroccan and his 55 last lap left Maree – whose PB he equalled – 25 metres in arrears. The American (and former South African) ran 3:33.44.

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