The Lenin Stadium in Moscow may not be high on many people’s list of unforgettable places, but for Sebastian Coe, as he said earlier this week, “This spot probably defines everything else I’ve done for the whole of my life”. That interview with Coe was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 early morning programme, Today, for which he was guest editor last Monday, Boxing Day (on the British holiday calendar).
Coe’s guest editorship was largely due to his position as head of the London Olympic Games Organising Committee (LOCOG), but that Coe has occupied a prominent place in British public life for the last 30 years is due to that ‘moment’ in the earlier paragraph when, having lost the Olympic 800 metres at Moscow 1980 in an ignominious fashion to his great British rival Steve Ovett, Coe redeemed himself magnificently by winning the 1500 metres a few days later, and in the process beating Ovett, who had not lost a 1500m/mile race in 45 outings over three years. Becoming the only repeat winner of the Olympic 1500 metres, in Los Angeles four years later, only cemented that position.
In the context of the Today programme, Coe was taken back to Moscow and the Lenin Stadium for a lengthy interview, only a few minutes of which was broadcast last Monday. But as he went on to say about the Moscow 1500 metres, “It was a big, big moment… You look back at key moments… would we be standing here doing this interview….(otherwise)?”
Of course, for a long moment, there was a possibility that the Brits might join the US-led boycott, along with the other 50 or more countries who boycotted the 1980 Olympics, ostensibly over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (How hollow does that ring now?). Coe, of course would go on to be a Tory (Conservative) Member of Parliament under Margaret Thatcher, who was the most strident voice in the UK calling for a Moscow boycott.
But, in that part of the interview broadcast on Monday, Coe said, “It wasn’t as easy a decision as people thought (to go to Moscow); athletes are thinking people too. We didn’t just say, it’s sport, we’ve got to be there (with) an air of entitlement.
“For me there was a tipping point; it was the moment when the maximum pressure was being applied (fellow Moscow gold medallist Allan Wells revealed that pictures of Afghani children allegedly killed by Soviet troops were sent to Olympic athletes by government departments). Pipe and gas contracts (between the Soviets and the West) were still being signed; the Bolshoi Ballet arrived in London, and I thought, hang on a minute, this just seems to be disproportionate….”.
And so they went; and as Ovett said to me a decade ago, “If we’d have chucked in the towel, I don’t know what would have happened to the Olympics”.
Well, like the pipe and gas contracts, they would have struggled on anyway; but that’s another story.
The rest of the Coe interview will be broadcast in a special programme dedicated to the Coe-Ovett rivalry in Moscow, and it will air on BBC Radio 5Live, between 19.30-21.00gmt next Thursday, January 5, and your correspondent, having catalogued much of that rivalry in The Perfect Distance, will be the studio guest.
The programme can be heard live worldwide at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/stations/5live