Tag Archives: Amateur vs Professional

The Perfect Distance: Ovett & Coe – The Record-Breaking Rivalry by Pat Butcher

There’s a poignant moment at the end of the (excellent) film Rush, where Formula 1 racer Niki Lauda admits to his arch-enemy James Hunt that their bitter enmity on the racetrack made them both better drivers and champions: A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends.”

Ali vs Forman. Federer vs Nadal. Coyote vs Roadrunner. Rivalries define all great eras in sport. Truth be told, most sports are quite boring to watch if you don’t have something invested in the human drama behind it all. Competition makes things interesting, which is one of the reasons why Mo Farah struggles to get the universal appreciation he deserves; at his preferred 5,000 and 10,000 distances, you never doubt that he will win.

For people my age (35) and younger, it’s hard to fully appreciate the excitement created by the Coe vs Ovett era of athletics in the early 1980s. The 9 o’clock news was famously interrupted to broadcast Coe’s attempt on the mile world record. For a brief period of time, the wider public actually cared about elite-level running. All of this generated by two men who only raced each other 7 times in 17 years.

The contrast between the two athletes has “film-script” written all over it (and, as it happens, Daniel Radcliffe has been cast as Sebastian Coe in a planned adaptation of this book). Steve Ovett was the tough working-class lad who was hated by the press, but admired for his innate talent. One of the things that emerges from this book is just how astonishing his natural ability actually was. Ovett could take on – and hammer his opponents at – a range of distances. Despite being a 1500m specialist, he once entered a half marathon on the day at a whim, and won it easily in 65mins. Seb Coe was the weedy posh kid who trained liked a demon, and whose impeccable manners endeared him to reporters. ‘The Tough and the Toff’ would dominate the narratives of both the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, and every major athletic meet in between. Coe was an 800m specialist, and Ovett a 1500m runner. Yet the curious outcome of their rivalry was that they actually won gold medals at each other’s distances, and neither won Olympic gold at their preferred event.

Both were in thrall to their parents to a degree that most of us would find unusual, bordering on unhealthy. Ovett’s mum, a market-trader with a potty mouth, controlled media access to her son, and her regular sweary tirades at reporters were partly responsible for Ovett’s poor standing with the press. Coe was coached by his engineer father, Peter Coe, well into his 20s, a highly unusual arrangement and relationship that few outsiders could understand. Peter’s political views were apparently somewhere between those of Thatcher and Genghis Khan, which goes some way to explaining Seb’s later career as a Tory MP. Ovett, meanwhile, once set the mile world record wearing a Soviet team vest. However, despite the class divide, what both parents gave their children is immense self-belief. At an early age, both athletes were told that they would make the Olympics in 1980. The mental barriers to success simply did not exist.

Pat Butcher’s book is as comprehensive a guide to their story as you could hope to read. As a long-time athletics correspondent with extended access to both Coe and Ovett, he writes as an insider, and his account is peppered with stories from the various colourful characters involved. One of the highlights is an interview with Olaf Beyer of the former German Democratic Republic, who shocked the sporting world by actually beating both men in 1978, and who promptly ran out of the stadium in shock at what he had achieved. Butcher is also good at rehabilitating Ovett, who he clearly regards as a self-assured man who ran for enjoyment of the sport and family pride, and who didn’t give a damn what the media thought. Ovett had a mischievous side though, and would have had fun in the age of Twitter, once baiting fellow British Olympian (and media bogeyman) Daley Thompson by describing Thompson’s event, the decathlon, as “9 Mickey Mouse events and a slow 1500m”.

If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that Butcher is a little too dedicated to providing finish times for virtually every race either man entered. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a stats nerd – but even I started to glaze slightly over in certain sections. I was reminded of the story of how one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s work-in-progress readings of Lord of the Rings was interrupted by a fellow Oxford academic with “Oh no! Not another f*cking elf!”.

It’s a minor complaint though. Butcher writes well, and his passion about the mile as a racing distance is infectious. “Four laps of the track. Like a four-act play. Prologue, Exposition, Action, Denouement. All inside four minutes.” As well as their Olympic feats, Coe and Ovett repeatedly traded the mile world record, and “The Perfect Distance” is a reminder of what has been lost in recent years. Why are serious mile races so rare? The current record is 16 years old. Someone, somewhere, needs to throw down the gauntlet to Mo.

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“Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession” by Richard Askwith

The fastest mile ever recorded by a human is not Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record of 3mins 43secs, set in 1999. It is actually 3mins 24secs, ran by Craig Wheeler at the Meltham Maniac Mile in 1993. It’s not a world record because the race is entirely downhill on a steep descent in the Pennines, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. If El Guerrouj had tripped and fallen during his record attempt, he would have bruised his knee. If Wheeler had fallen, he would have left his knee, most of his leg, and probably also a bit of his head halfway up the mountainside. As Feet in the Clouds makes clear, ups are tough, but its the downs where fearless legends are made.

The book tells the history of fell-running, a sport that revolves around running up and down some of the hilliest terrain in Britain. The sport has its own version of climbing Everest: the Bob Graham Round. Beating this challenge involves covering 72 miles, 42 peaks and 27,000 feet of ascent and descent, all in under 24 hours. Most attempts fail. There is no prize money. Few people outside of running circles have heard of it. But the sheer masochism of the challenge gives it a romantic appeal. As one of the author’s friends says of someone who succeeded:

“Rob got there with five minutes to spare, but, God, you should have seen the state of him. He’d pissed himself, shat himself, puked all over himself. I thought he was going to die.” There wasn’t the slightest suggestion of disgust in [the friend’s] voice; just awe and respect, with perhaps a trace of envy.

Fell-running is a sport intimately bound up with the landscape of the north of England, particularly the Lake District. Arguably the most scenic part of the country, the Lake District’s beauty is matched only by its ability to absolutely piss on you for six days out of any week-long holiday. Many an English child of the 1980s can swap stories of being dragged to the Keswick Pencil Museum (slogan: “home of the world’s first pencil!”) on a rain-sodden day for the third time that week, because it’s the only dry attraction open.

Mere inclement weather wouldn’t bother the nutcases depicted in this book. At the sharp end, fell-running clearly attracts a certain kind of awe-inspiring psychopath. There is Tommy Sedgwick, a champion “who sprained his ankles so often they ended up twice as thick as those of a normal man”. Or Billy Bland, who holds the record for the Round at an absurd 13hours 57mins. But most of all, there is Joss Naylor.

Joss Naylor must rank as the most incredible athlete that hardly anyone has heard of. Naylor had two lumbar discs removed, all the cartilage drained from his right knee, and damaged his back so badly in a wrestling match that he had to wear a special brace for five years, all before he took up running in his 20s. He spent two decades in constant pain, yet managed to win virtually every fell race he entered. In his late 30s he had four more discs removed from his back, but at the age of 50 he ran and climbed all 214 Lake District peaks in a week, the equivalent of running 15 marathons and climbing four Everests. In my review of The Art of Running Faster, I referred to the ‘tough bastard’ era of British running in the 1980s. A whole new category of ‘iron bastard’ has to be created for these men.

The sad thing is that none of them made any money from it. For most of the years after the twentieth century, fell-running was mired in the acrimonious amateur vs professional dispute. Most fell-races were run for prize money, which meant participants faced a lifetime ban from amateur events, such as big city road races or the Olympics. Yet paradoxically, it was the amateurs who got rich from their sport, as sponsors and organisers found clever ways to circumvent the rules about not paying athletes. In 1981 the amateur Sebastian Coe became a millionaire; meanwhile the legendary fell-runner Kenny Stuart earned £687 in prize money, most of which he spent on petrol to get to races.

You get the impression that most of the fell runners don’t mind. Feet in the Clouds is a love letter to the landscape of the fells, and by interweaving the story of his own 5-year quest to achieve the Bob Graham Round, Askwith transports the reader to a world in which being harassed, humiliated and humbled by Mother Nature is the only thing that matters in life. It is simply an astonishing book, featuring the most captivating writing of any sports book I have ever read. For a while after reading it, you too will be inspired to drive up the M1, put on your spikes and take on Scafell Pike. Then you will come to your senses, realise that these people are quite, quite mad, consider getting a pint at a Keswick pub, and book tickets to see the world’s longest colour pencil instead.

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“The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop” by Bill Jones

I’m a big believer in the idea that single moments in time can change the whole course of someone’s life. In my own case, it was a fateful decision in 1996 to stop eating Pickled Onion Monster Munch, an act that made me (and my breath) immeasurably more popular with the opposite sex.

For John Tarrant, the subject of this book, it was his teenage decision in 1950 to accept £1 for fighting in a local boxing match, unaware of the consequences. That seemingly simple act would result in him being branded a ‘professional sportsman’ and banned from all amateur sport for life, based on the strict codes of the time. When Tarrant tried to join Salford Harriers running club a few years later, having realised he was a terrible boxer but a talented runner, he was suddenly confronted with the full force of an establishment that refused to let him in. Given that most road races were run under amateur rules, he was effectively banned from participating in any running event. Just imagine. No London Marathon. No Great North Run. Even the Didcot 5 would be off-limits.

The Ghost Runner is the story of what happens when a relentlessly pig-headed man faces up to an unforgivably uncompromising and out-of-touch bureaucracy. Prevented from competing legitimately in marathons and other distance events, John Tarrant began ‘ghosting’ at races, turning up on a motorcycle in disguise at the last minute , then leaping off and joining the pack. Stewards would try and catch this man without a racing number, but he could always outrun them. The press loved him, and the moniker of ‘ghost runner’ stuck.

Tarrant is a difficult man to like. He behaved abominably to his long-suffering wife, virtually abandoning her and their young son in the pursuit of high mileage (he reached over 5000 miles a year eventually). He then literally abandoned them both for a couple of years later in life, when he emigrated to South Africa to pursue his dream of winning the Comrades ultramarathon. He was also lazy in relation to anything that wasn’t running and absolutely fixated to the point of madness on the Great Matter of his professional status, which he spent decades trying to overturn. On many occasions in the book he sounds like the dinner party guest from hell, and you wonder why anyone wanted to spend time in his company.

And yet despite the above, he was an easy man to admire. Born just before the Second World War, he was evacuated to a children’s home for seven years during the war, where he was brutalised by staff and spent most days in a state of misery. His mother died while he was there, and when his dad finally collected him in 1947, it was with a new wife in tow. His difficult personality therefore had understandable roots. His later passion for running is jaw-dropping in its intensity, and he would eventually set world records at the 40-mile and 100-mile distances. What is even more incredible is that he set those records on a track, which meant he had the mental control and stamina to spend up to 12 hours running in circles (400 laps!).

Tarrant’s story is a fascinating one, especially his time in apartheid-era South Africa, an experience which forced him – for once – to look critically at the world that was going on around him. However, I am sad to say that the part of the book I related to the most was the description of his bowel problems. Tarrant was a consistent sufferer of the ‘runner’s trots’ or ’gingerbread man’, which meant he was often forced to dive off into the bushes during races, sometimes forfeiting the lead in the process. I’ll freely admit it’s happened to me too, usually during a hard interval session. I once terrified the staff and patrons of the Spread Eagle pub by running straight into their bogs at 5:30 minute-mile pace in full lycra and sunglasses. I probably terrified their cleaners afterwards too.

The tragedy in Tarrant’s case is that his gastro-intestinal problems were probably caused by repeated exposure to asbestos during one of his many industrial jobs. His early death from cancer at the age of 42 was almost certainly caused by this. For my part, I can only blame the childhood diet of Monster Munch. Just say no, kids.

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“The Perfect Mile: The Race to Break the Four Minute Mile” by Neal Bascomb

Spoiler Alert! At some point in this book, Roger Bannister becomes the first man to break the four minute mile! I know, I know. Some of you will have thrown away this review in disgust with me already. As for the rest of you, I hope you’re not too annoyed that I’ve given away this vital plot point. The genius of this book is that, despite knowing how events will play out, it is still a riveting page-turner. As it happens, the events on 6 May 1954 are only a part of the full story.

Indeed, the book isn’t really about Bannister. This is a book about global rivalry, human eccentricity, and superhuman feats of time management.

Bascomb looks at the three pre-eminent milers of their day: Bannister, Australian John Landy, and American Wes Santee. Each of these men was licking his wounds after disappointment at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and set out to break the seemingly impossible target of a sub-4 mile, the record for which had been stuck at 4:01.4 since 1945.

Quite frankly, you wonder how on earth Bannister did it, while simultaneously practicing as a junior doctor AND conducting pioneering sports science research in the lab. The book records how Bannister would jump on the Tube during his lunch break, head to the Paddington track, complete an interval session with chain-smoking Chris Chataway (who would beat Bannister to BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1954) and Chris “founder of Sweatshop and London marathon” Brasher, then head back to the hospital, shower and eat – all within his lunch hour. You can only assume that (a) he ran those intervals with his eyeballs on stalks, and (b) the sandwich queue at Pret-a-Manger wasn’t as bad in those days.

The sections about Bannister are interesting enough in their own right, but how many of us know who was the second person to break the four minute mile? I won’t spoil the story by saying whether it was Landy or Santee, but both are fascinating characters, worthy of wider recognition. Landy was a seemingly middle-of-the-road runner in 1952, but was utterly transformed by training during the Olympics with the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek, who won golds in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon, all while grimacing like he’d been forced to eat a rotten brussel sprout. Santee was an outstanding college runner, who would face the challenge of having to do military service while preparing to take on the mile, as well as dealing with the bureaucrats from the American Amateur Athletics Association, who kept on finding inventive ways to undermine a runner who seemed to be getting too big for his plimsolls.

Bannister’s record is not the ending of the book, and comes just two-thirds of the way through. The real drama came in the weeks and months that followed, leading to a ‘mile of the century’ between the men who had now done the seemingly impossible. The ‘perfect mile’ of the title is not the one that happened at Iffley Road on 6 May 1954, but the showdown the following August in Vancouver. For those of us that don’t know how that race unfolded, the race report here is genuinely thrilling, and keeps you guessing the winner until the very last yards.

Overall, this is one of the best running books I have ever read. It even inspired me to (literally) run a mile afterwards, a distance few of us race these days, to see how it felt. I would have been more than a lap behind Bannister. And he probably didn’t throw up afterwards.

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