middle-distance runners

middle-distance runners
   The early 1980s saw a massive increase in interest in running in the UK, with large national events such as the Sunday Times National Fun Run and the London Marathon attracting tens of thousands of applicants. But away from the limelight, the growth of local competition on the roads and over countryside courses was equally spectacular. Inspired by British Olympic successes at the Moscow and Los Angeles Games (1980 and 1984) and celluloid celebrations of the 1924 Paris Olympiad (in David Puttnam’s Chariots of Fire), keen amateur club and independent runners competed en masse for often no more than a cheap commemorative medallion and the singular pleasure of finishing a race.
   Despite a challenge from the sprints, perhaps the most commonly arranged and enthusiastically watched athletics events in Britain remain the middle-distance events. Ranging from 800 metres to 10,000 metres in length (but most commonly the classic ‘shorter’ distances of 1,500 metres and the mile), the middle-distance events formed the backbone of modern British track and field success. The tradition began with Roger Bannister’s celebrated first sub-four-minute mile (3:59.4) on 6 May 1954, but reached a peak between 1979 and the mid-1980s when British athletes dominated the 800 metre, 1,000 metre, 1,500 metre and mile events.
   Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, although rarely paired in competition outside of Olympic finals, cultivated a keen, albeit media-fuelled, rivalry which helped to make them both sporting celebrities and names to be feared in the athletics arena. Coe (now a Conservative MP) enjoyed a marvellous summer of running in 1979. In the space of just forty-one days, he broke three world records at 800 metres, 1,500 metres and the mile; the 800 metre record of 1 minute 39 seconds has now stood for over fifteen years. At the 1980 Olympics, Coe and Ovett stole the show in their battle for the major honours over the classic middle distances; in which Coe won gold at 1,500 metres and silver at 800, while Ovett took gold in the 800 and bronze in the 1,500.
   In 1984 in Los Angeles, Coe retained his 1,500 metres Olympic title. But, despite the emergence of a third world-class British middle-distance runner, Steve Cram (who took silver behind Coe), the ‘golden era’ was waning. Ovett had a poor Olympics, troubled by illness and the heat, and never retained the form which once saw him unbeaten in forty-five successive races between 1977 and 1980. Coe too had peaked, but the special magic which these two athletes had brought to middle-distance running (Ovett once described their contests as akin to the Ali versus Frazier heavyweight boxing title fights), helped inspire confidence, interest and, most importantly, participation in British athletics at all levels.
   STEPHEN C. KENNY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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