Sebastian Coe (born 1956) was one of Britain's greatest runners. He twice won Olympic gold medals in the 1,500-meter race, and was the second man ever to hold simultaneous records in the 800 meter, 1,500 meter, and mile races.
Sebastian Coe was born on September 29, 1956 in London, England. He was the oldest of four children born to Peter Coe, an engineer, and Angela Coe, an actress. The family was athletic: Peter Coe was a cyclist, and Coe's grandfather had been a sprinter. Coe was encouraged to play sports, but his family took him to the theater and museums as well.
Coe always loved to run. As a child, he preferred running to riding a bicycle on his trips around town. He took part in his first "official" run at the age of 12. Coe's father did not have experience in coaching or running. When he saw his son in that first run, however, he knew that Coe had great potential. He talked with people who knew about running, read all he could find on the subject, and became Coe's coach—using whatever ideas worked and discarding those that didn't. According to Michael Sandrock in Running with the Pros, he explained his method, "There is nothing revolutionary in what I have done with Seb, but it has been tailor-made for his physique. An athlete to a great extent determines his own training by his response to the tasks you set for him and by his racing results. The coach must adjust to his athlete."
When Coe was 14, he won the Yorkshire County 1,500-meter race with a time of 4:31. His father saw this victory as a seed for future greatness, and he set out a training plan that would have Coe running the same distance in 3:30, five seconds under the world record, and winning the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics, which were then ten years away. Predictions of future world records would be broken by his son were uncannily accurate. In 1970, he predicted that the 1980 world records would be 1:43 for 800 meters and 3:48 for the mile. According to Sandrock, his father said, "When Seb was 14, I knew he was good; at 16, I had a strange kind of certainty that if I was patient I had a world beater."
Because his father was not a trained coach, he had no preconceived notions about how to train, and was free to devise his own methods. In addition, he didn't have any preconceived ideas about what Coe could or could not do, so he believed in his son's unlimited potential as an athlete. He kept Coe's mileage low, concentrating on speed. He also added hill training, making Coe run repeatedly up the steep Yorkshire hills, but then meeting him at the top and driving him down, so that Coe's bones and joints would not be stressed by the pounding downhill. If Coe was injured, he stopped working out, unlike other runners who "ran through" an injury and often prolonged it.
Running only 30 miles a week, in comparison to other runners' 80 or 90 miles a week, Coe won the Yorkshire School Cross-Country Championships. He also came in tenth in the English Schools Cross-Country Championships. A runner named Steve Ovett placed second. Coe did not know him at the time, but he soon would. He also competed in British Amateur Athletic Association (BAAA) races, winning almost every race.
In 1973, at the age of 16, Coe won the English Schools Championship 3,000 meters and also won the BAAA youth title. He improved his times for the 400 and 800 meters as well. In 1975, Coe experienced a stress fracture and took time off from training. In the fall of that year, he enrolled at Loughborough University in Leicester. His father asked the coach, George Gandy, to help Coe with weight training and to get him on the track team, running the 400-meter race.
When he was 18, Coe won the 1975 Northern Counties under-20 3,000 meters. This victory and others led him to be chosen for the European junior championships in Athens, where he won a bronze medal and set a personal record for the 1,500 meters. His father realized that Coe needed to add strength in order to have a strong, fast finish. Coe used weight training to build up his strength for that final kick. In 1977, the family made an unusual decision: instead of pushing Coe toward longer and longer distances, they would concentrate on shorter distances, where Coe had much more potential.
A Well-Rounded Athlete
Despite the fact that both Coe and his father were deeply involved in running, the family helped him to stay well-rounded. If he talked too much about running at family dinners, his siblings would chant "boring, boring." Both Coe and his father deliberately tried not to think about track after they quit training for the day. According to Sandrock, "Coe's family helped imbue him with that special British sense of becoming a well-rounded citizen of the world, combining the artistic background of his mother with his father's scientific bent. He developed an interest in jazz (his favorite style being Dixieland), literature, and the theater.
In 1978, Coe stepped in a hole and tore the ligaments in his leg. He recovered in time, and went to the European Championships in Prague, the biggest race he'd been in so far. Steve Ovett, the runner he had met several years before, was expected to win. He and Coe felt an intense rivalry. Both were surprised at the end of the 800 meters when another runner, Olaf Beyer, passed them both and took the gold, leaving Ovett in second and Coe in third.
Coe continued to attend Loughborough, and found it difficult to balance his studies and his training. He and his father continued their earlier training strategy of running fewer miles, but running them harder and faster, so that every mile counted. Other runners were doing 100 to 120 fairly slow miles each week in training; Coe ran only 60 to 75, but he ran them at times of 5:15 to 5:30 per mile. In addition, Coe did speed work. He ran 200 fast meters, then had a short recovery time, then ran the 200 meters again at a faster time with less recovery, until he was running them quicker and quicker with less recovery in between. This brought him incredible strength and speed. Runner Kenny Moore told Sandrock, "We were running the 200s in 29 seconds. I was struggling, but keeping up, thinking 'this is great.' Then he starts running faster, and he did not look any different running 25 seconds instead of 29s. He just looked effortless. Others weren't like that."
Rivalry with Ovett
By 1979, Coe was still not doing as well as Ovett, who had won the Europa Cup, World Cup, and European Championships in the 1,500 meters. Coe spent the long, rainy winter of 1979 studying and training. He ran a few races and, in July, was at the starting line of the Bislett Games. Done with school, his exams over, Coe set a world record in the 800 meters with a time of 1:42.33. At the BAAA championships, he ran 400 meters in 46.85, and then went back to Bislett to run the mile. Despite his recent record there, he was not favored to win. He had the slowest mile time in the field, and he was running against veteran mile racers, including world-record-holder John Walker and Eamonn Coghlan. Ovett, Coe's old rival, was scheduled to run but did not show up.
Amazingly, Coe not only won, but he beat the field by a huge margin, coming in with a time of 3:48.95. In the final straight he was running alone and, according to Sandrock, said later, "I was afraid that someone could come surging up. I had a nagging doubt that I had done something wrong or unorthodox against a world-class field, and that a big kicker would come surging through." No one did. Coe knew Walker held the world record, but could not remember what Walker's time was, and was stunned when he learned that he had broken Walker's world record time of 3:49.4.
Coe raced in Zurich at the Weltklasse race in the 1,500 meters. Having set new records for the 800 meters and the mile, he was going for a third. According to Sandrock, Coe thought, "The record is there if I want it." He wanted it, and pushed himself to a win with 3:32.1, setting another world record by a tenth of a second. This made Coe only the second person in the world, after Jim Ryun, to have records in the 800 meters, 1,500 meters, and mile at the same time.
Ovett, who had stayed out of the races in 1979, was spurred to new efforts by Coe's victories. Both began preparing for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, while the press and public speculated about their rivalry and what would happen when they finally ran against each other. Coe was considered "Mr. Nice" by the media. Ovett, because he did not give interviews and seemed secretive, was called "Mr. Nasty."
Coe took a break from the publicity and from the adoring English crowds, and spent the winter training at a friend's estate in Italy. By the time the Games began, he was rested, fit, and ready to win. On July 1, at the Bislett Games, he set a new record in the 1,000 meters. Only an hour later, however, Ovett beat Coe's mile record, running the distance in 3:48.8. One week before the Olympics, Ovett tied Coe's record for the 1,500 meters, adding to the pressure.
1980 and 1984 Olympic Games
Sandrock wrote, "As the Games got underway, Ovett and Coe could not have been more evenly matched. Each had two world records and [they] were co-owners of a third." The night before the 800-meter race, Sandrock noted that Coe wrote, "I've never known pressure like it. I thought people had exaggerated, but they hadn't. There was no comparison." He stayed awake all night, lying in bed listening to his heartbeat, unable to sleep. In the morning he was clumsy, knocking over his orange juice and spilling the cream for his coffee. "I was suddenly quiet, conscious of my own awkwardness," he wrote.
Finally, the race began. Coe stayed at the back, planning to come on strong in the end and surge to the front, but Ovett was ahead of him. Coe could not catch him on the final stretch. Ovett won the gold, and Coe received the silver, upset at what he considered his inept performance. Coe and his father decided that, in the 1,500 meters, he would not stay in the back. He would, instead, run for the front and stay there. He settled into second place behind German Jurgen Straub, and the pace was slow. When half the race was run, Straub began to sprint, and Coe knew that now the race would be his kind of race: the same kind of hard, fast, intense and sustained running he did in training. He knew he could do that better than anyone else in the world, and he surged forward and kicked past Straub. According to Sandrock, he wrote, "I was now running for the tape, the mental agony of knowing I had hit my limit, of not knowing what was happening back there behind me. I was not to know they were fading, too. The anxiety over the last 20 meter was unbearable, and it showed in my face as I crossed the line."
Coe had won the gold. As he circled the track on his victory lap, he felt freed of the tension and weight of competition, as if he could retire from running now and be satisfied with what he had accomplished in the sport.
Coe did not retire, but he did take time off. He and Ovett avoided running in the same races for the next four years. In 1981, Coe beat his own 800-meter record with a time of 1:41.73. He and Ovett then traded record mile times back and forth throughout August of that year. Coe's record stood until 1985, when it was broken by Steve Cram.
In 1983-84, Coe was ill with a blood infection. Some believed he would not make it to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Still recovering, he began training. Coe felt that he was so out of shape that he might not even make the team. He did make it, and went on to win the silver in the 800 meters and the gold in the 1,500 meters-his second Olympic gold medal in the event.
In 1986, Coe won a gold in the European championships, a win that satisfied him since Ovett had previously won the championships, and Coe wanted to match him. Although Coe did not make the 1988 Olympic team, he set his personal best in the 1,500 meters in that year. After the 1990 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, he officially retired from competition. In 1992, he became a Member of Parliament from Falmouth and Camborne. He still runs to keep in shape, and has run a marathon in under three hours.
Further Reading on Sebastian Coe
Moore, Kenny, Best Efforts: World-Class Runners and Races, Doubleday, 1982.
Sandrock, Michael, Running with the Legends, Human Kinetics, 1996.