By STEPHEN WILSON
As the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games approaches, Sebastian Coe looks back and wonders: “What if?’’
Seb Coe won a gold and a silver at Moscow 1980. (ATR)
As in, what if Britain had decided to join the U.S.-led boycott of the Games?
What if Coe had been barred from traveling to Moscow for those dramatic duels on the track with British arch-rival Steve Ovett?
What if Coe had missed out on winning the first of two Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 meters and first of two silvers in the 800?
“I often wonder about that,’’ Coe said. “I actually wonder whether a British government would have gone so far to actually remove somebody’s passport. I often wonder if I might have been able to go in some neutral capacity, whether the British Olympic Association might have gone some way to allowing that.’’
What if the BOA had not stood up to pressure from the British government to heed the boycott called by U.S. President Jimmy Carter over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?
“Would I still have been in the sport in four years’ time?’’ Coe said. “I don’t know the answer to that. Possibly not. Possibly not.”
Coe was one of the headline stars of the Moscow Olympics, which opened on July 19, 1980. While more than 60 countries boycotted the Games, Britain was among the nations that did send athletes to Russia. Other U.S. allies which shunned the boycott included France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Ireland, Finland and New Zealand.
The Soviets and some of its allies retaliated against the U.S. by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where Coe successfully defended his 1,500 title and won silver again in the 800.
“I don’t think there was ever a more aggressively political decade than the ‘80s in sport,’’ Coe said. “It was a raw collision of sport and politics.’’
And the message learned from those political boycotts?
The 1980 boycott denied Edwin Moses of an almost certain gold medal. (World Athletics)
“They are completely counter-productive,’’ Coe said. “The only people they damage are the athletes. If you look at the Moscow boycott, we all went off to Los Angeles four years later and the Soviet Union was still there (in Afghanistan). Not much had changed.’’
Coe still feels “a mountain of sadness” for U.S. athletes who missed out on the Moscow Games –especially Edwin Moses, the 400-meter hurdler who was unbeaten over 10 years while winning 122 consecutive races between 1977 and 1987.
Moses won gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and again eight years later in Los Angeles. But the Moscow boycott deprived him of what almost certainly would have been three consecutive Olympic titles.
“It would have taken a hurricane in Moscow to stop him from winning,’’ Coe said.
Coe’s own journey to Moscow was a bumpy one.
Margaret Thatcher, who had become British Prime Minister in 1979, backed Carter’s boycott call and urged British athletes to stay home.
“The political landscape became very aggressive in the U.K.,” Coe said. “The country split.”
Coe was undecided about the boycott at first.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “I did weigh it up significantly. I was slightly torn at the time.’’
Moscow 1980 opening ceremony (Wikipedia)
Coe said the turning point for him came when the head of the BOA was being described as a “crypto-Communist” and athletes were being berated for being disloyal to the government.
“At that same time BP (British Petroleum) signed a pipeline deal (with the Soviets) and the Bolshoi Ballet appeared in London,’’ he said. “There was a collective view of: ‘Hold on a minute, we know this is serious but are we the only ones that are going to be carrying the burden of this?’”
Coe and his father and coach, Peter, started speaking out strongly against a boycott. The elder Coe was summoned to the Foreign Office where a young junior minister, Douglas Hurd (later to become Foreign Secretary), urged him to tell his son to quiet down and toe the government line.
The meeting only strengthened the Coes’ resolve to fight the boycott. In the tense atmosphere, Coe and other British athletes came under attack from sections of the media and public. Some athletes received photographs of mutilated bodies in the mail. A Swastika was painted on Coe’s garage door in Sheffield.
In the end, the BOA voted to defy the government and send a team to Moscow, allowing individual sports and athletes to decide whether to go or not. A team of 219 British athletes competed in Moscow in 14 sports, winning 21 medals, including five gold.
British athletes did not march in the opening or closing ceremonies. The country was represented by BOA secretary general Dick Palmer, who walked with the Olympic flag. When British gold medal winners stood on the victory podium, the Olympic flag was raised and Olympic anthem played.
Did Coe regret not hearing “God Save the Queen” or seeing the Union Jack raised?
“I can’t tell you I did,” he said. “That’s not why I competed. It would have been nice but I don’t look back to it and that it was anything unusual. I was just happy. I was just pleased that the BOA had stood tall and independently and given me the opportunity to be there.”
Coe competing at Moscow 1980 (Wikipedia)
The Moscow Games served as the stage for the Coe vs. Ovett drama played out in two acts.
First came the 800, where Coe arrived as the world record-holder and big favorite. But Coe, short of experience in major championships, said he felt out of sorts the day before the final.
“I’ve never had trouble sleeping, but I remember sleeping very fitfully, if at all, the night before the race,” he said, recalling that he also dropped a jug of milk during breakfast in the athletes’ village.
“I just felt disconnected,” he said. “Everything that day just wasn’t right. And it was summed up in the race.”
Coe ran what he has called the worst 800 race of his career. Running wide on the outside, he lagged near the back of the pack coming into the final turn. He put on a furious kick down the home straight but it was too late as Ovett pulled away to win in 1:45.4, with Coe second in 1:45.9.
“I was finishing like a train by which point Steve was home and celebrating,” Coe said.
He joked that “there are times I wish the boycott had been successful – about five seconds after I’d crossed the line in the 800.”
It was a humbling defeat for Coe and led to a blunt talking-to from his father.
“He said, ‘I’m ashamed,” Coe said. “He didn’t mean he was ashamed of me. He meant he was ashamed of the whole thing. He said, ‘I am responsible for somebody who has just run two and a bit seconds slower than he’s capable of doing.”
The conversation helped clear the air. Coe escaped the village the next day for a 10-mile run, tailed by a group of British journalists and photographers. Newspapers the next day published photos of Coe running through an industrial zone in Moscow with the headline: “Coe’s Trail of Shame.”
The criticism served as motivation for Coe going into the 1,500, where Ovett was the heavy favorite, having gone unbeaten in 42 races at the distance over three years.
A pep talk from Coe’s father set the tone for the final.
“He said, ‘The only person that can stop you winning this is you. If you keep with the field, if you are there at every move the field makes, you will win the race. You won’t lose this, but you will lose it if you lose contact.’ He wasn’t wrong.”
This time, Coe ran the right race and timed his finish perfectly, accelerating to the front around the final curve and sprinting to victory in 3:38.4 ahead of East Germany’s Juergen Straub (3:38.8) and Ovett (3:39.0).
Four years later in Los Angeles, Coe grabbed silver again in the 800 behind winner Joaquim Cruz of Brazil. Ovett, struggling with respiratory issues, finished eighth. In the 1,500, Coe took control in the backstretch and cruised home in 3:32.53 to retain his gold, holding off another British runner, Steve Cram. Ovett failed to finish the race.
Coe, World Athletics president since 2015, will likely become an IOC member next month. (IOC/Greg Martin)
Coe is now president of World Athletics and is in line to become an IOC member in elections on July 17. The boycott era is over but the Olympics – like the world at large – have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics postponed for a year, questions remain about whether the Games will take place next year. For Coe, the final decisions should be made by sports leaders and not by science alone.
“It is important that we don’t overcomplicate this,” he said. “I think we can talk about numbers, vaccines etc. But there will come a point, and there should come a point, where sport has the confidence to want to start making these decisions.”
The same sort of confidence, it might be said, that led Coe and the BOA to decide to defy the Olympic boycott 40 years ago.
Stephen Wilson is the former longtime Olympics correspondent and European Sports Editor of The Associated Press and former president of the Olympic Journalists Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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