Coe: "I didn’t want to end my career without a recognisable 800m title"

Sebastian Coe
European Athletics

Sebastian Coe's last major title was his 800m gold at the Stuttgart 1986 European Athletics Championships

With European Athletics celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe speaks exclusively and in-depth to European Athletics on his European Championships career which was bookmarked by gold medals in the 800m in both 1977 and 1986.  

The 1977 European Athletics Indoor Championships in San Sebastian was an introduction to what Sebastian Coe terms the “street smarts” of international championship racing. The following year’s European Athletics Championships in Prague, where he took bronze in the 800m behind Steve Ovett and surprise East German winner Olaf Beyer, taught him and his father-coach Peter arguably their most crucial lesson. 

And his unconventional but crushing victory at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart, at the point where he was “just beginning to wonder” if he would ever win a global or recognised title at 800m, brought him as much “devilish satisfaction” as any other race in his career.

Only a few weeks before the 1977 European Indoor Championships in San Sebastian, Coe had made his British team debut in Dortmund, setting a Commonwealth indoor 800m record of 1:47.6. Facing him in the Spanish city located in the Basque region was Italy’s Carlo Grippo, who had recently set a world indoor 800m best of 1:46.37 in Milan. In the event Grippo failed to finish his semifinal, but Coe still found himself facing a strong international field.

“My father - my coach - was keen for me to start learning how to traverse heats and semis and finals, to learn the street smarts of championship racing,” he said. “Because I had missed out on the 1976 Olympics, and we didn’t have World Championships every two years, we didn’t even have European Championships every two years.”

Coe chuckled as he recalls his interaction before the final with the British team manager Robert Stinson, whom he eventually replaced on the IAAF Council. “Robert was the most urbane, avuncular figure that probably ever led a team,” he recalled. 

“He was Oxford, and Achilles Club and all that. I went off to warm up on my own before the final, and I said to Robert ‘Would you mind holding my shoes?’ And he said: ‘Yes, don’t worry. I’ll be exactly where I’m standing.’ And of course I came back and he’d wandered off. I had visions of having to run the final in road shoes, which I had been warming up in. 

“Then I saw him – he had actually wandered over to a television and was watching the skiing! Anyway, I got the shoes and put them on, and he walked with me towards the edge of the arena. I was surrounded by all the heated team talks of East Germans, Italians and the Spanish, and Robert looked at me amidst all this and I thought he would obviously say something. And he just went: 'Well um….bye bye then.'” 

Maybe there had been something in Stinson’s words however, as Coe swiftly said bye bye to the rest of the field, leading from gun to tape and winning in 1:46.54, the second fastest time behind Grippo.

As it turned out, losing his spikes was not the worst scenario Coe faced that day. “The race actually came quite close to not being staged,” he said, recalling the extraordinary circumstances that saw Sir Arthur Gold, then President of European Athletics, being bundled out of the stadium by armed Basque separatists.

“Arthur was smart enough to know that if you took him out of that environment they would have made their presence felt, hopefully no harm would come to him but the meeting could continue. So he in a way offered himself up as a hostage.

“He got dumped on the edge of the town in some industrial estate. We were able to run the race. John Rodda was there covering for The Guardian and the following day their headline was ‘Too many Basques in one exit’.

“My tactic at the time – because I hadn’t got the finishing speed I developed over the next two years – was just, get out there, make it as painful as you possibly could for the rest of the field. And on most occasions it paid off pretty well for me.”

Beyer had failed to make it to the final in San Sebastian. The following year he shocked the athletics world by beating both Coe and Ovett to take his one and only major medal.

Thirteen days earlier in Brussels, Coe had lowered the British 800m record to 1:44.26. But Ovett was still favourite following his extraordinary victory over 1500m in the previous season’s inaugural IAAF World Cup in Athletics, where he had kicked with 200m left to devastate a field including New Zealand’s Olympic champion John Walker.

“I said to my Dad, what do you think I should do today?” Coe recalled. “And he said, ‘Well you’re not going to win.’ Which was a slightly disarming observation to make. "He said: 'Look, basically if you run as fast as you can and as hard as you can for as long as you can you’ll probably nick a medal.'

“He then said: ‘But you’ll find what the bastards are made of. We need to know what their breaking point is.’"

Coe took his father at his word, disputed the lead with Beyer at 200m, and led through 400m in a breathtaking 49.32. By the time the field entered the final bend Ovett had moved menacingly up to his shoulder, and when the taller figure went past in the finishing straight it looked over.

But then the supercharged figure of Beyer, having passed Coe, overtook a bemused Ovett 20 metres from the line before winning in a championship record of 1:43.84. Ovett took silver in 1:44.09, with Coe third in 1:44.76.

Looking back, Coe believes that Beyer was supposed to be the “sacrificial lamb” to break up the field and allow the leading East German, Andreas Busse, to profit. “What the East German team hadn’t figured on was that I was actually going to do that anyway!” Coe said.

“I remember afterwards there was a lot of criticism I got for the tactics I had chosen. I had a classic British press conference and then saw the British athletes and coaches all averting their gaze as I came back into the Village.

“My father bowled in absolutely unabashed and put his arm around me and said: ‘Great! That was unbelievable. I didn’t think you were actually going to do that!’ 

“I had found out what their breaking point was – although my breaking point had come a little bit earlier! We thought Steve was probably not going to run much faster at 800 metres. And in fairness he never did. And that was in large part how we approached the rest of my career. 

“So for all sorts of reasons I probably learned more about the sport and my coach learned more about me that day than on any other single occasion. It was mission accomplished.”

By the time Coe reached the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart he had two Olympic gold medals at 1500m  – but no significant international 800m titles.

“I was getting towards the end of my career,” he recalled. “I had lost the Europeans in 1978, I was starting that toxoplasmosis in 1982 that effectively took me out of 1983, and I got the silver again in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. And I was just beginning to wonder whether I was going to win a global or recognised title at 800. 

“There were very few tomorrows left for me at 800 and I just – I didn’t want to end my career without a recognisable title at that distance.”

The man of the moment was Steve Cram, after his superlative world record-breaking year of 1985 and his seemingly effortless 800/1500m double at the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games that had ended less than a month earlier. Scottish runner Tom McKean had also proved himself as a formidable operator. But Coe approached the race with confidence.

“I’d had a fairly rocky start to the season, and I’d been in Switzerland training, and I was coming back into good shape,” he said.

That shape was confirmed a couple of days before the 800m started when Coe trained on the track with his regular sprinting mates from Haringey AC's New River Stadium, British internationals Mike McFarlane, John Regis and Donovan Reid. “I remember running some 200s in 21 and bits with the guys,” he said. “And they all started putting money on me for the 800m.”

“Of all the races I ran that was probably the most calculated risk I took and I didn’t dare to tell my old man the tactic I was going to adopt that day. 

“I knew I was going to have to do something that would take them all by surprise. Tommy McKean was quick, and he really had a kick like a mule. I also knew that Steve Cram was in absolute pristine shape and to go from the front was probably setting myself up a bit.

“So I decided – actually in the warm-up – that what I would do was just stay at the back, keep out of sight. If you watch the race there are moments when Steve Cram is looking round to see where I am. He towered above me and he was looking above my head. He just did not know where I was.

“My mum tells me my dad was just going apeshit in the stands. He just thought this was completely suicidal. I came into the finishing straight – I was in third going into the bend – pulled alongside Steve Cram halfway round the bend and then started to go for home.

“Tommy held me quite well, and it was only really in the last 20-odd paces that I started to pull ahead of him. I think Crammy was a little bit bemused by the tactics. He got his own back in the 1500m, which was fair enough. I didn’t follow him when I needed to. But the 800m was the one where I probably took the biggest risk in my career, and it paid off.”

It was not the first risk Coe had taken in Stuttgart. He had got “quite close to being sent home” for taking over the wheel of the official bus going to that pre-800m training session after the driver had abandoned the vehicle following an hour and a half of fruitless searching for the right venue. Coe got the 40-seater coach to the right place. But he received a “severe warning” from the British team manager. 

“That was the race that probably gave me as much devilish satisfaction in my career as any other,” Coe reflected. “Because I had done it in such an odd way. So there was a sort of devilish joy in that. You never get anywhere near perfection. But I do think the 1500m in Los Angeles came quite close to it for me. So those were the two standouts for me.”

Turning his mind to favoured performances elsewhere within the European Championships arena, Coe highlights the 1971 edition in Helsinki – and in particular the performance of the home runner Juha Vaatainen in winning the 10,000m title with an electric final lap of 53.8 to outsprint East Germany’s Jurgen Haase after both had burst clear of a pack including Britain’s long-time leader David Bedford. 

“I remember those championships very, very well, because it was the first time I was starting to watch championships,” said Coe, who was on a family holiday in Ireland at the time.  “I was racing regularly, running at Yorkshire Schools level, and suddenly it all became very vivid to me, as if it suddenly mattered. 

“I do remember that race and the hype around it, standing with a lot of people on a ferry watching Dave Bedford on the television. He was the Pied Piper at the time – he got the crowd back into British athletics. But he couldn’t do anything once Vaatainen took off, and the crowd there were going mad…” 

Reflecting on the importance of the overall event, Coe added: “The European Championships have produced some of the great athletics moments and memories in our sport. A large part of the history of our sport is based around the European Championships.  

“We’ve had some absolutely spectacular ones – Stuttgart stands out for me because it was one I was at, and Britain won eight golds. But I was blown away by the organising committee and the quality of the athletics I saw in Berlin in 2018, particularly some of the final events – the men’s pole vault was staggeringly good and exciting.  

“European athletics is an absolute stronghold, particularly for technical events, and it’s really important that we maintain that standard.” 

Mike Rowbottom for European Athletics