The 1980 Olympic 800m champion enjoyed a long and successful career and here we list his 15 finest moments
Steve Ovett is uniquely the only athlete to win major championship golds at 800m (Olympics), 1500m (Europeans) and 5000m (Commonwealth).
His first mention in AW was 50 years ago in 1970 and his biggest honour, the Olympic gold, came 40 years ago in 1980.
No other athlete had his unique blend of speed and endurance that as a junior saw him win national titles at 400m and over six miles of cross-country.
And who else would run a half-marathon a few weeks before the biggest race opportunity of his life at the 1977 World Cup?
It is true he cannot match Coe’s Olympic record with a gold and bronze to his rival’s two golds and two silvers and Coe also clearly has the edge in record breaking, especially as that range included multiple records at 800m and 1000m.
However Ovett arguably had the better competitive record. In 1974 all the way through to just before the 1984 Olympics, not one British athlete beat him at 800m and that included wins over Coe in both the Europeans and Olympics. He ran in three Olympic 800m finals and also gained two European silvers.
From 1977 to the Olympic final in 1980 he won 46 consecutive races at 1500m and mile and though he lost in Moscow, he still then went on to win a staggering number of races at the longer distances until 1986.
He turned 65 last month and here we pick out 15 of his most memorable meeting performances but if you want to see detailed information of 150 of his best races in chronological order from his English Schools 400m win in 1970 to his Commonwealth gold in 1986 you will need to visit the AW Clubhouse here (available to AW magazine subscribers).
1. 1980 Olympic 800m/1500m, Moscow, July 26/August 1
1st 1:45.40 and 3rd 3:38.99 (3:36.8 heat)
World record-holder Seb Coe was a clear favourite for the 800m but the slighter Briton ran a terrible tactical race. Ovett’s race was far from flawless as he managed to barge his way out of trouble a few times on the first lap in a manner that many thought was lucky to survive disqualification. However, he ran a brilliant second lap, following the bursts of first Dave Warren and then Nikolay Kirov. He hit the straight in second but easily passed the Russian to win by around four metres. He covered the last 200m in around 24.9 and last lap in 50.5 as Coe’s late burst nabbed second (1:45.85).
For the 1500m, Ovett was favourite but found it hard to motivate himself and was not helped by running history’s fastest ever first round heat of 3:36.8 to maintain his unbeaten record. In the final at the second attempt, Coe (3:38.40) ran a perfect race, following Jurgen Straub’s burst 700m out (54.2 third lap) and kicking a 52.2 last 400m of his own. Ovett was close to the pair 100m out but failed to even get past Straub (3:38.80), who he had always easily beaten in the past.
2. 1977 World Cup 1500m, Dusseldorf
1st 3:34.5 (UK record)
Ovett went into the first ever IAAF World Cup as a promising young Brit yet to prove himself at the very highest level but ended it as the world’s most exciting runner. Olympic champion John Walker led down the back straight on the last lap in a fast race but Ovett produced one of the greatest change of paces in history as he blasted an unparalleled 11.8 100m on the final bend. Walker was so shocked, he dropped out on the final bend. Had the Briton run through the line he would have broken the European record as he went eighth all-time with his UK record. Thomas Wessinghage was a distant second in 3:36.0.
3. 1978 European Championships 800m/1500m, August 31/September 3
2nd 1:44.1, 1st 3:35.6
He had not prepared specifically for the 800m and had only run one international standard two-lapper in the past two years though seemingly his major rival Coe ran a far too fast 49.32 first lap with Ovett third in 49.9. Coe faded on the second lap and Ovett kicked past in the straight but he was himself shockingly passed by relatively little-known Olaf Beyer (1:43.8), who had actually been ahead of Ovett at the bell.
Ovett’s run was ridiculously portrayed as a failure by some in the press, but it was a British record and ranked eighth all-time in the world and was only 0.6 off Alberto Juantorena’s world record. He still had his main event to go and there he kicked 200m out and despite celebrating early he covered that stretch in 24.8 to win easily from Eamonn Coghlan (3:36.6) and Commonwealth champion Dave Moorcroft (3:36.7). Beyer was ninth.
4. 1986 Commonwealth Games 5000m, Edinburgh, July 31
Making his Commonwealth debut, 12 years after being disappointed he had been overlooked for 800m selection, he won comfortably. The battle for gold proved an all-English affair with Tim Hutchings’ 60.13 lap around 3000m being the major move but Ovett covered that and a 57.3 last lap of his own pulled him well clear of Jack Buckner (13:25.87) and Hutchings (13:26.84), who would go on to finish first and third respectively in fast times at the Europeans the following month.
5. 1980 Oslo 1500m, July 15
1st 3:32.1 (equals world record)
After effectively missing equalling the record in Brussels in 1979 (3:32.11) by a hundredth of a second as times then got rounded up, here he just about did enough (3:32.09) to get a share of Coe’s 3:32.1 record, in his last major pre Olympic run. After a slow 57.8 first lap, Steve Scott, who was missing the Olympics because of the US boycott, and keen to make a point to the Brit, blasted a vicious 55.8 second lap. He was still ahead at 1200m but as Thomas Wessinghage went to take over 200m out, Ovett kicked away with an incredible blast of speed in a world record pace run.
He seemed to ease off a little in the straight and waved to the crowd but he still equalled the record. Wessinghage, who was second in 3:33.16 and who moved to sixth all time, said: “Never have I seen running like that. To run at uneven pace, to fool around and play to the crowd and equal a world record. A year ago I felt we were starting to run closer to Steve. I sensed he was human after all. Now I know I was wrong.”
6. 1978 IAC Coca-Cola Meeting 2 miles, Crystal Palace, September 15
1st 8:13.51 (world best)
Having pulled out of the meeting earlier in the week, due to tiredness after Prague, he changed his mind and was then involved in one of the greatest ever duels on a British track. Bronislaw Malinowski led through the mile in a slow 4:08.8 and they were six seconds down on Brendan Foster’s world record schedule three laps from the finish. Then Henry Rono, who had set 3000m, 5000m, steeplechase and 10,000m world records during the season, started a series of surges to break Ovett but a sprint was followed by a jog and the record looked impossible at the bell (7:17.7). Rono gave it everything down the final back straight but Ovett eased past him at the start of the straight and gave a wave to the crowd. A 55.8 last quarter gave him a world best by 0.2 of a second with Rono (8:14.7) setting a Kenyan best.
7. 1980 Oslo Mile, July 1
1st 3:48.8 (PB/world record) (3:32.7 1500m)
Less than a hour after he had set a world 1000m record, Coe lost his mile record to his fellow Brit. Dave Warren got to halfway in 1:53.5 with Ovett going ahead uncharacteristically early with 600m left. He passed three quarters in an unprecedented 2:51.0, over two seconds up on Coe’s time. He was only marginally ahead versus Coe at 1500m though (3:32.7) but he held his form to nip Coe’s time (3:49.0) by a few tenths. Steve Cram was a distant second (3:53.8) which sealed his Olympic spot.
8. 1980 Koblenz 1500m, August 27
It had seemed Ovett might be tiring after a packed racing schedule following a gruelling Olympics and some less than impressive results. Not so. Before the race the world’s fastest 1500s in tenths of a second were 3:32.1: Coe (32.03) and Ovett (32.09), 3:32.2: Ovett (32.11) Bayi (32.16) and Coe (32.19). This was all cleared up in Germany. Garry Cook led through 800m in 1:53.00 and Wessinghage led at 1200 in 2:50.69 and was still ahead in the straight and though Ovett passed him and ran a 40.6 last 300m and 53.9 last 400 and smashed the world record, he only won by two metres from the German doctor (3:31.58) while little-known Harald Hudak (3:31.96) also bettered the old mark with a four second PB.
9. 1981 Koblenz Mile, August 26
After Coe had taken his mile record back in Zurich (3:48.53), a week later the promoter agreed to add a mile to this meeting though Scott and Wessinghage refused to change events and ran the 1500m instead. Bob Benn led most of the first half but James Robinson took over and led through halfway in just over 1:54 and most of the third lap before Ovett was ahead at the bell in 2:51.5. He ran a strong last lap but it was close as he took just 0.13 of a second off Coe’s mark. Craig Masback was a distant second in 3:54.14. The record lasted just two days as Coe then ran 3:47.33 in Brussels.
10. 1983 Rieti 1500m, September 4
1st 3:30.77 (world record)
On the notoriously fast Italian track, he set his third world 1500m record – a feat only previously achieved by Gunder Hagg in the 1940s as he took just under half a second off Sydney Maree’s mark of 3:31.24. David Mack set a perfect pace of 54.17 and 1:51.67 before Ovett took over by 1200m (2:49.14) as looking strong throughout he achieved a 55 last lap and 41.63 last 300m well clear of Pierre Deleze (3:34.55).
11. 1974 European Championships 800m, Rome, September 4
2nd 1:45.77 (PB/UK junior record)
Just 18 years old, he set a one second PB and gained a silver medal in his first senior championships but was dismissive of his run as he was boxed when Luciano Susanj (1:44.1) burst away with a 25 last 200m. Finishing strongly he went from fifth to second in the straight passing world record-holder Marcello Fiasconaro (1:46.3) who was sixth.
12. 1976 Olympic 800m/1500m, Montreal, July 24
5th 1:45.4 (PB)/3:37.7 ht (PB)/3:40.3 semis
Much to his annoyance, the first 300m of 800m races (a failed experiment!) in this year were run in lanes, and with an outside lane, the then 20 year-old went off too slow and then used too much energy catching up when they broke. It did not help that the race was at a cracking pace and won in a world record 1:43.5 by Alberto Juantorena.
In his 1500m heat, he ran a 39.0 last 300m to defeat Wessinghage (3:37.9) in a PB but got balked in his semi and, tired in his fifth race of the Games, failed to qualify.
13. 1973 European Junior Championships 800m, Duisburg, August 26
He won his first major title but only just as he held back from a fast 52.6 first lap. He caught front-running future world champion Willi Wulbeck (1:47.57) with virtually his final stride. Future double Olympic medallist Ivo Van Damme was fourth.
14. 1980 IAC/Coca-Cola 5000m, August 8
The only Olympic 800m champion who would ever choose to run a 5000m in his homecoming race in front of a capacity crowd welcoming Britain’s Olympic heroes. He suffered an embarrassing loss but only because of complacency and carelessness and a 13:27 5000m with the after effects of flu, still warrants a special mention.
The race on YouTube is headlined ‘arrogance personified’ and has had seven million views. Ovett looked like he was jogging most of the race and he sprinted into the lead 100 metres out and waved to the crowd. John Treacy, the two-time world cross country champion, sprinted up to his shoulder and the Briton went three metres clear again but he again eased before the line and held his arms aloft only for the Irishman to sprint and dip under his raised right arm and both shared the 13:27.9 time though Treacy got the verdict by a few hundredths.
15. 1981 World Cup 1500m, Rome, September 5
Representing the winning Europe team, a 53.6 last lap was enough to comfortably defeat John Walker (3:35.49) and Beyer (3:35.58) and he broke Herb Elliott’s 21-year-old track record set in winning the 1960 Olympics (3:35.6).
» Visit the AW Clubhouse here for a detailed breakdown of 150 of his best races in chronological order