Our series on the greatest moments in the 75-year history of AW continues with the Moscow Olympics middle-distance clash of clashes

IT is now 40 years since Seb Coe and Steve Ovett took part in the most talked about head-to-head in the history of the sport. Yet even though four decades have now passed since the Moscow Olympics of 1980, their monumental showdown at those Games still sends a tingle down the spine of athletics fans who were mesmerised by a duel that captured the imagination of the world.

Coe held the world 800m record and was favourite for that event. Ovett was unbeaten in 43 races at 1500m or the mile, held the world mile record and was tipped to triumph in the 1500m.

The two men also came into the Games with a share of the world record at a distance they had never met over – 1500m. Ultimately, though, Ovett won 800m gold after Coe ran a disastrous tactical race, whereas the latter enjoyed redemption in the 1500m.

The result? A one-all draw with two own goals.

The first clash, over 800m on July 26, was an anti-climax. As Mel Watman reported at the time in AW: “Ovett ran so physical a race that he can consider himself lucky not to have been disqualified, while Coe chose an Olympic final of all occasions to run the most abysmal tactical race of his career.

“Instead of the full-blooded battle we had been anticipating so excitedly, the race turned out to be an untidy, ill-mannered affair won in the modest time of 1:45.4. We didn’t see the best of either Ovett or Coe.”

Watman added: “Having got that off my chest… Ovett, the supreme racer, got himself in the right place at the right time and when he struck for home early in the finishing straight there was never any doubt as to the outcome.

“Whereas Coe was left floundering in the cut and thrust of an Olympic final, Ovett was absolutely in his element.”

On August 1 the two middle-distance gladiators returned to race over three-and-three-quarter laps and, after Coe took his revenge, Watman wrote in AW: “Rounding the final turn Coe, with Ovett just behind, closed up on the leader Jurgen Straub for the kill. Both Britons gathered themselves for one last lung-searing effort but it was Coe, glancing back to take stock of the situation, who got in first.

“Turning into the straight Coe drew level with Straub and then with another burst of acceleration 80 out, the ‘double kick’ we had heard whispers of, he was away and winging it to everlasting glory.”

The careers of Coe and Ovett were played out in the pages of AW in the 1970s and 80s. Coe first appeared in the magazine when winning the colts race at the Yorkshire Cross Country Championships in 1971, whereas Ovett was featured in the Spotlight on Youth column in 1970 and his first photo appeared when finishing runner-up in an 800m race aged 15 in 1971.

From then on they appeared on the cover multiple times with AW providing such a definitive coverage of their exploits that an entire book was published in 1982 called The Coe & Ovett File containing little more than a collection of cuttings from past pages of the magazine.

Both athletes broke many world records and won lots of titles. Yet the moment they are remembered for best remains Moscow 1980.

As Coe told AW in 2016: “Steve was precociously talented and there was a sort of inevitability that our paths were going to cross in the perfect point of the graph in 1980.”

» This feature was first published as part of a 10-part series in the December edition of AW magazine, which is available to order online in print here and read digitally here

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