The “perfect” race, forgetting to meet his family and a memorable journey through a wartime tunnel. The Jarrow Arrow recalls the experience of becoming the first men’s 1500m world champion

It’s in the small, quiet moments when the enormity sinks in. The gaps of time when the crowds and the clamour subside and leave space to fully appreciate what has just happened.  

The to-do list in the immediate aftermath of becoming a world champion is a long one, given that there’s a lap of honour to complete, a medal and congratulations from your nearest and dearest to receive, a press conference to be held, doping controls to go through. 

It does, therefore, take a little while to absorb that you are, in fact, on top of the world. That’s certainly what Steve Cram experienced when he became the first ever winner of the men’s 1500m world title in Helsinki 40 years ago. 

The then 22-year-old produced what he describes as “almost the perfect race” to become the inaugural gold medallist in the metric mile, having tracked and then overtaken Morocco’s Saïd Aouita (who ultimately came third) before holding off the attentions of America’s onrushing Steve Scott, with another great Briton, Steve Ovett, finishing fourth.

As Cram sits down with AW to remember that moment in history, he does so as an Olympic silver medallist, a two-time European and Commonwealth champion and an athlete who broke three world records – the 1500m, 2000m and mile – within 19 spectacular days in the summer of ’85 and during an unforgettable era of middle-distance running. 

Steve Cram (Mark Shearman)

Those groundbreaking days in Finland are undeniably special for “The Jarrow Arrow”, though. The memories remain vivid but, as he drifts back four decades, elation is not the first sensation that comes to mind. 

“Often, the initial feeling is just relief – even if you’ve been beaten, because there are stresses around trying to put together a major championship and run well, particularly if you are going for a medal,” says the now broadcaster, coach and event organiser.

“It’s a very stressful few days, if indeed it hasn’t already been for weeks and months beforehand and, when you cross the line, if it’s a good or bad result, there is an initial just [sigh] and then you can start to absorb ‘did I win? Great’. That’s a great feeling.

“I was well aware that it was the first World Championships, and it had an almost extra meaning in that sense. It did take a little while to sink in.”

It also took a while for Cram to realise that he might be in trouble with his family and his coach. With many post-race demands being placed upon him, he recalls: “I saw them briefly after the race and I said: ‘Look, this is going to take a while. I’ll see you afterwards at the entrance where the athletes come out. Wait for me there’. 

“This was in the days before mobile phones, of course, and about two or three hours later I was in the shower in the hotel and that’s when I was absorbing it all, running it all through my head and I was on my own.

“That’s when I suddenly remembered that my family and my coach would still have been standing at the stadium. I’d come out of a different exit and completely forgotten [about the arrangement]. I quickly went and found them.

“You’ve got to deal with all those things afterwards which come with winning – medal ceremony, doping control, press conference, I had a documentary crew following me too and I did an interview with them, all of that. And then you get to do the little quiet jog back to the hotel on your own. That’s when it really sinks in.”

Steve Cram (Getty)

The footage which Cram was replaying in his mind made for pleasant viewing. He had arrived in Finland after winning the first major prizes of his career – European and Commonwealth gold – during the previous summer. Despite his progress, however, he still felt in the shadow of two illustrious colleagues and fellow countrymen.

“[Seb] Coe and Ovett were still the two dominant people,” he says. “In 1982, yes I won both the Europeans and the Commonwealth but Seb withdrew from the European 1500m after being beaten in the 800m and then decided not to contest the Commonwealth Games, either. 

Steve was injured most of that year, too, so while there were plenty of other good athletes around who I beat, there were still a lot of people saying: ‘Well you’ve won two gold medals, but not against the big boys’.

“But I knew I was improving and I was definitely heading into the World Championships confident. I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t beat them [Coe and Ovett] but also Saïd Aouita had burst through that year and Steve Scott was running incredibly well, too. It was a golden period where I think, at the beginning of 1983, probably five or six people at least would have thought they could win the gold medal.”

Seeds of belief had been sown a little closer to home. Cram’s last pre-championships run-out had come over 800m, a sharpener which saw him defeat a top-class field that included Coe – a result which meant the latter opted not to compete in Helsinki. There were still major threats coming from all angles, however. 

“I sort of knew what Ovett did, I really didn’t know much about Aouita, while Steve Scott had almost broken the world record in Oslo about three weeks before the championships,” says Cram. “This is where Brendan [Foster, who was working for the BBC] was always very useful. 

“The rumour mill was always going and, from a pretty good contact, Brendan said he’d been told that Aouita thought that his best chance of getting a medal, if not winning, was to go hard from somewhere on the third lap and to make the long run from home. That suited me fine because that would have been my plan.

“I didn’t mind the slow start, but I couldn’t really afford for it to get to just the last 400m, I at least wanted them to be moving.”

Events began to unfold just as Cram had envisaged. 

“We genuinely jogged the first 600m and then started to pick it up a little bit,” he adds. “Then you’ve got to really be on your toes. You’ve got to be aware that it’s going to kick off at some point on the third lap, so you’ve got to be in a good position.

“I’d moved up on the outside and was watching Aouita. I’d run against him for the first time in the heats and we’d had a little bit of [a battle] over the last 100m – you know, ‘who’s got a better kick, who’s got a bit of acceleration?’ I knew he was quite similar to me, even from that. 

“So I thought: ‘When he goes, he’s going to go hard so I need to be close to him, I can’t give him a 10/15-yard head start’. 

“When he went to the front I was a couple of strides behind him and ready for it. I was able to follow him. The second part was: ‘When do I make my bid?’ and it was with about 200m to go that I just sensed that he wasn’t keeping the pressure on in quite the same way and I still felt really strong.

“If you’re going to go on the bend, you’ve got to go early – you don’t want to spend the whole bend running in lane two because you’re just going to waste energy – so I went past him fairly quickly and then it was a long run for home. I was strong enough to get through the line.”

Even now, the satisfaction of a job well done still readily comes to the surface. Cram is not being boastful in his description of the performance, more observing it from the position of someone who continues to be a student of their chosen sport and appreciates the nuances, intricacies and depth of what was involved.

“In a way it was almost the perfect 1500m race. When I look back on it, if you wanted to show how to run a tactical 1500m race – where you should be, what you should do – it fell into that category,” he grins. 

“It was a nice way to do it. I didn’t feel as though I nicked it. It was a great, tactical, championships 1500m race, which we don’t see all that often these days.”

» This is an abridged version of a feature that appears in the August issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here