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UK Athletics

Steve Ovett

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Steve Ovett
Ovett - the original bad boy of athletics

Steven Michael James Ovett

Born: 1955

Birthplace: Brighton, East Sussex

Club: Brighton & Hove, Phoenix, Annan & District

Coach: Harry Wilson  



Career Summary


Devastating Start

In the early 1970s, Britain had an outstanding record in distance running, from Ian Stewart to David Bedford to Brendan Foster, such names which would fill the newspapers and be seen as heroes to any young, impressionable athlete.

If, at the time, teenage successors were being sought to follow those champions and world record breakers, the 400m would probably not have been an event where anyone would have looked, so the result of the English Schools Junior race might have gone slightly unnoticed.

It was won by a 14-year-old called Steve Ovett…and within a decade he was among the biggest sporting superstars in the world.

Think of Ovett, and you think of Sebastian Coe; vice-verse. Between them, they conjured some of the greatest moments in track and field history, both middle-distance runners of remarkable ability. Their clashes in the 800m and 1500m at the Olympic Games in Moscow were monumental, and each side of that event, came world record and sensational deeds.

Ovett was always seen as the ‘bad boy’ of the two, mainly portrayed that way because of his refusal to speak to the media, a public persona which did not help the image.

But on the track, boy, what an athlete!

A character of wonderful fight and natural ability to go alongside his glorious trademark of waving to the crowd halfway down the home straight, such was his confidence and control of taking charge of a race. Ovett was one-off.


Ringing The Bells in Brighton

Ovett joined Brighton & Hove in 1969, quickly developing into a fine 400m runner and following his success in the English Schools Junior event, then he won AAA Youth titles in 1971 and 1972, and emerged internationally in 1973 when he won the 800m at the European Junior Championships in Duisburg in 1:47.53.

The following summer he had progressed to senior level and found himself anything but overawed when he competed in the European Championships in Rome, running a European Junior 800m record of 1:45.77 as Yugoslavia’s Luciano Sušanj won in 1:44.07.

A star was being nurtured, and he further developed his grounding and experience at the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976 when he made the 1500m semi-finals and he was fifth in the 800m.

The World Cup in Dusseldorf the next summer proved one of many key moments when Ovett won the 1500m in a UK record of 3:34.5, a time which even today would put him among the best 15 of all-time. Naturally, he is higher up that position, being the third best ever Briton behind Steve Cram and Coe.

How he milked the moment when he won the 1500m at the European Championships in Athens in 1978, waving to the crowd in style.

He won that title in 3:35.59 from Ireland’s Eamonn Coghlan, who was second in 3:36.57, with Britain’s David Moorcroft third in 3:36.70.

That win made up for silver in the 800m, when he faced Coe, a year his junior, in their first duel since an English Schools Cross Country race six years earlier.

Ovett had finished second in that event in 1972 and Coe was 10th, and now in Athens, neither won again.

Coe had set the national 800m record with 1:44.95 in the summer and he led in Athens with 700m left, but he had put so much into it, that he had nothing left.

Ovett took over but then suddenly, dramatically Olaf Beyer, of East Germany, came through to beat them both and win in 1:43.84.

Ovett was in second in 1:44.09, which remained his personal best time, while Coe took bronze in 1;44.76.

Ovett bent down to talk to Coe at the finish and the instant reaction from the watching media was that the pair had had a disagreement. It was anything but because Coe revealed: “When Steve came over, he put his hand on my shoulder and said something. The media thought we were having a row, but what Steve actually said was, 'Who the **** was that'?"

But his 1500m glory led to him being named as the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year in a 12 months where he had set a world best for Two Miles with 8:13.51 but professed himself uninterested in records.

Yet between 1977 and 1980 he set some personal mark when he won 45 successive races at 1500m or the Mile.

His record, and defeat in the 1500m, would come to an end when few expected it…at the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980.


Amazing Days

It was some year, and when it came to the middle-distance finals, it hardly mattered that the USA had sparked more than 50 countries to boycott the Games because of Russia’s refusal to leave Afghanistan.

Over 800m, and 1500m, it was about two men, who arrived in Russia in devastating form.

On July 1, at the Bislett Games in Oslo, a momentous night for British athletics when Coe broke the 1000m world record in 2:13.40 before Ovett ran 3:48.8 to smash the Mile time.

A fortnight later, the 1500m record became Ovett's property with 3:32.1 back in Oslo - and the stage was now set for something amazing in Moscow.

The 800m final came first and it fell perfectly for Ovett, even though he did not have a great race. The key was that he stayed out of trouble for as much as he could while Coe, the favourite, ran a bad race tactically, and could not make up enough ground after a great deal of bumping.

Ovett had taken command and he was not going to beaten, winning in 1:45.40 from Coe in 1:45.85, with Nikolay Kirov, of the Soviet Union, third in 1:45.94.

It was the first time since Tommy Hampson, at the Olympic Games in St Louis in 1932, that Britain had won this event - and it was not even Ovett’s main distance.

An Olympic double looked the likely scenario, but Coe was ready for revenge.

East Germany’s Jurgen Straub was never expected to play a part, but he did, increasing the pace with two laps to go.

Straub led but it was Coe who made the decisive move on the home turn and was not going to be beaten, however much Ovett battled.

Coe won in 3:38.40, Straub was second in 3:38.80 with Ovett third in 3:38.99.

It was not possible to predict before the start of the athletics programme in Russia that each would win the other’s event, but Ovett never allowed defeat in the 1500m to trouble him.

It was typical Ovett - and he left Moscow to steal the headlines at the distance once more only days later.

On August 27, Ovett smashed the 1500m world mark again, this time in Koblenz, in 3:31.36 - not bad for man who never set his eye on breaking records.


Mile Away

Ovett won the 1500m at the World Cup in Rome in 1981, but the summer will be best remembered for an extraordinary nine days where Coe, then Ovett, and then Coe held the world Mile record.

The Brighton runner’s 3:48.8 was the time to beat and Coe did just that when he ran 3:48.53 in Zurich on August 19.

It did not last long because on August 26, back in Koblenz, Ovett lowered it to 3:48.40 only for Coe to go to Brussels 48 hours later to run 3:47.33.

It was an incredible time. Britain’s Sir Roger Bannister had been the first man to break the four-minute barrier for the Mile in 1954, and now Coe and Ovett were writing headlines as extraordinary as that original feat.

Everytime they ran, you expected something historic - and normally it happened. But they would not meet again until the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which proved a championship to forget for Ovett.

He had lost the 1982 season because of a training accident when he impaled his thigh on church railings, but he came back in 1983 to finish fourth in the 1500m at the first World Championship in Helsinki in 3:42.34 as the new kid on British middle-distance block showed how he had arrived.

Steve Cram, who had finished eighth in the 1500m final in Moscow, won in 3:41.59 but on September 4, Ovett was back making history when he took the 1500m world record to 3:30.77 in Rieti.

He was disappointed with the lack of a medal that year and he was determined to run better in LA. It could not have gone worse.

Ovett suffered severe bronchial problems and finished last in 800m. He chose to run the 1500m, despite being warned his illness would worsen, and as the field began the final lap of the final of a race which saw Coe go on to retain his title, Ovett pulled out and needed instant medical help.

The longer distances did not hold the same attraction for him, although at 5000m he won the Commonwealth Games gold in Edinburgh in 1986 in 13:24.11, leading an English cleansweep as Jack Buckner, who was second in 13:25.87, with Tim Hutchings third in 13:26.84.

In his final major, Ovett finished 10th in the 5000m at the World Championships in Rome before moving to Australia.

He became a commentator on athletics for ITV and later the IAAF, but in a sad irony to his story, in 2006 he parted with his wife Rachel, the person he used to spell ’I Love You’ to with his fingers when he finished races.



International Championships

1973: 1st 800m European Juniors

1974: 2nd 800m Europeans

1975: 1st 800m European Cup

1976: 5th 800m, sf 1500m Olympics

1977: 1st 1500m European Cup, 1st 1500m World Cup

1978: 2nd 800m, 1st 1500m Europeans

1980: 1st 800m, 3rd 1500m Olympics

1981: 1st 1500m World Cup

1983: 4th 1500m Worlds

1984: 8th 800m, dnf 1500m Olympics

1986: 1st 5000m Commonwealth Games, dnf 5000m Europeans

1987: 10th 5000m Worlds


UK Internationals: 23 (1974-87)
National Championships

Won AAA 800m 1974-6, 1500m 1979-80; Youths 400m 1971-2; UK 1500m 1977, 1981, National Junior CC 1975.


Personal bests

400m 47.5 (1974), 600m 1:16.0 (1979), 800m 1:44.09 (1978), 1000m 2:15.91 (1979), 1500m 3:30.77 (1983), 1M 3:48.40 (1981), 2000m 4:57.71 (1982), 3000m 7:41.3 (1977), 2M 8:13.51 (1978), 5000m 13:20.06 (1986), Half Marathon 65:38 (1977).

Indoors: 3000m 7:59.6 (1990)


World records:

3 at 1500m 1980-3, 2 at 1 mile 1980-1. World 2 miles best 1978.

UK records: 800m (1), 1000m (1), 1500m (4), 1M (4), 2000m (2) 1977-83.