Forty years ago this week, on a chaotic June night in Florence, Sebastian Coe set an 800m world record so breathtakingly supreme it stood for 16 years. His time, 1:41:73, remains instant shorthand for English sporting excellence, alongside 1966, 364 and 3:59:4 in the pantheon. Even now, in the era of super spikes and slick-fast tracks, only two men have gone quicker. “I didn’t want to just nibble at world records,” he tells the Guardian, as his mind whirls back to that rumbustious night at the Stadio Comunale. “I wanted to take chunks out of them.”
He was as good as his word. By the time Coe put away his spikes for the 1981 season he had shattered five world records in six months, won all 22 of his races on the track, and recorded one of the great invincible seasons in athletics history. “It was an odd feeling,” he says. “I was in such a purple patch that I went to the line knowing I was not going to lose. And my opponents knew they were not going to win.”
Ironically, Coe was planning a low-key year after the drama and trauma of the Moscow Olympics, where he was mugged by Steve Ovett in the 800m before gaining revenge over 1500m. But his early season form – including an 800m indoor world record in February and a lightning quick 45.7 sec 4x400m relay leg as England beat the United States in early June – made him recalibrate. A 800m world record attempt was pencilled in for Oslo. And a race in Florence on 10 June appeared an ideal tune up.
“I wasn’t planning to break my own world record that night,” says Coe. “But it was a beautiful Mediterranean evening and the opportunity to take it from gun to tape over 800m was too good to miss.”
As he warmed up, he was also pleasantly surprised by how good he felt – with the pain from a recently pulled muscle in his right foot having eased. The only problem was that it was nearly 11pm and Coe’s race, which had been due off at 9.45pm, was yet to get under way.
“I’m trying not to be too stereotypical, but the meeting was running very late,” says Coe. “And it was already a comedic evening because Carl Lewis had appeared to set a 100m world record only for a scoreboard glitch to be discovered while he was on his lap of honour. There were flowers, notes, coins, even parents throwing daughters as he went round. It was a crazy scene. But when he finished that lap he was told his actual time was 10.13sec and not 9.92.”
Coe remained calm amid the chaos. And when the race finally started he immediately slipstreamed the 19-year-old pacemaker Billy Konchellah, who took him through halfway in 49.69 sec – world record pace. “I sensed it was quick,” said Coe. “But I couldn’t be sure.” For some reason Maeve Kyle, the manager of the British team, had not called out his lap time as planned.
Not that it mattered. Coe took the lead with 300m to go before obliterating his own world record by six tenths of a second. Or so he thought. Another issue with the electronic timekeeping meant he faced an agonising 10-minute wait for it to become official. Luckily reassurance was at hand. “Maeve came up to me looking shellshocked,” says Coe. “‘I didn’t shout out your time at halfway because it was 49 and bits and I didn’t want to derail your strategy,’ she said. ‘But I have you finishing in 1:41 …’”
Moments later it was confirmed. Coe had run 1:41:72 – later rounded up to 1:41:73 – and the crowd burst into applause. “There wasn’t much of a celebration though because it was so bloody late,” says Coe. “We got back to our hotel at 1am and I had a few glasses of wine with my teammates before getting a very early flight home.
“In fact it was so early that when I arrived back at Loughborough University, where I was doing a crazy hall warden’s job while training, I bumped into a couple of bleary-eyed people coming down for breakfast. One of them said to me: ‘We didn’t see you last night. Were you up to anything interesting?’ I couldn’t bring myself to say: ‘Well, actually, I took another lump off the world record.’”
Nowadays athletes get a $30,000 bonus for a world record. But, at a time when track and field was still supposed to be amateur, Coe got nothing. In fact that week he faced a “run for cash” controversy after L’Équipe claimed that someone close to him had asked for£7,400 for Coe to turn out in Paris. Coe says he doesn’t remember the ins and outs, but writing in the Observer at the time, Christopher Brasher highlighted how ridiculous the situation was.
“Coe and Ovett are two of the hottest properties in sport – comparable with Björn Borg,” he wrote. “Yet, unlike Borg, they are not supposed to make one penny from their talent, skill and dedication. It is ludicrous.”
Meanwhile Coe’s record-breaking year showed no sign of abating. After taking a small break following a virus, he went to Oslo and smashed the 1,000m world record by running 2:12.18 – a time that stood for 18 years. “I personally think that was more of a sizeable performance than my 800m record,” he says. “I was through two laps in 1:44.7 and I clung on at the end. My right leg actually ceased to work with about five or six strides left. I could barely lift it off the ground I was so fatigued.”
Now Coe set his sights on the mile record of 3:48.80, held by his great rival Ovett. The two finest middle-distance runners of their generation had not raced each other mano a mano on the track since Moscow, much to the frustration of fans and purists. But over nine days in August they had an extraordinary long-distance tug of war over the record.
Coe struck first by running 3:48.53 in Zurich on 19 August. Ovett retaliated a week later in Koblenz. But Coe was to have a final and emphatic say in the Golden Mile two days later, running a stunning 3:47.33, to rip more than a second from Ovett’s record.
It was only the third mile Coe had run in three years – and each time he had set a world record. Asked how much Ovett spurred him on, Coe starts to smile. “At the time our default position was always: ‘No, we don’t think about each other, we only think about our own careers,’” he says. “But who were we kidding? When I wasn’t training, I believed he was out there in the cold and rain. Of course that pushed me on.
“That said, I am not sure the mile record would have gone three times in nine days if we’d faced each other,” he adds. “We would have wanted the bragging rights from burning each other up in the finishing straight. It’s like when you get two tasty teams in the Champions League, it doesn’t always guarantee a great final.”
Why was Coe so good that year? He puts it down to being at a peak age, 24, long training stints in Italy, and being able to go for it in a year when he wasn’t on the “Championship rollercoaster”. However Frank Dick, British Athletics’ director of coaching in the 1980s and early 90s, says that Coe’s humility and training were key factors too.
“Of course Seb was a very driven young man. But while he may have given the impression that he was a little bit above people, he was actually a very humble boy. He never stopped asking questions of me, or anyone else who could possibly give him that extra edge. Not every top athlete has that sense of humility – or pride.”
Dick also praises Coe’s father and coach, Peter, for focusing so much on speed in his workouts as well as a training programme set by George Gandy, then a lecturer in biomechanics at Loughborough, that focused on lifting heavy weights twice a week, box-jumps and speed drills. “It was groundbreaking for middle-distance at the time,” adds Dick.
However, while Coe’s 1981 season was extraordinary it wasn’t quite perfect. Coe believes there was a sixth world record on the table in the 1500m in Stockholm, and he could have run “something skirting the edges of 3:28”, but paid the price for the pacemaker going off too fast. And, he confesses, after his final race of the season, a World Cup victory in Rome, there was actually a solitary defeat during a fun run.
“I was out with Brendan Foster and the press pack to celebrate the end of the season when someone suggested we should run an 11.7km road race the next day,” he says. “It sounded like a great idea at 3am on a Frascati loading diet, and it started to the chimes of the bells in St Peter’s Square. But it was a classic Rome Sunday morning, with people in costumes and dogs, and we were also near the back.”
The Athletics Weekly editor Mel Watman, who started with Coe and Foster, told the Guardian he timed their first 1500m in 8 mins 46 seconds. But when the path cleared Coe picked up the pace and finished ninth.
Meanwhile Coe insists he had no regrets when he heard that Wilson Kipketer had finally knocked his 800m world record off its perch in 1997. “I was surprised it stayed as long as it did,” he says. “I first broke it in my early 20s and only ost it when I was William Hague’s chief of staff having been a member of parliament for five years.
“I was also happy to lose it to someone like Wilson, who was a proper runner and a lovely guy. And when you look at the record books, there have only been four 800m world record holders since 1975. Alberto Juantorena, Wilson, David Rudisha and myself. That’s not bad company to keep.”