Moscow — They're already calling it Moscow's "Battle of Britain," and without doubt the forthcoming duels between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett should be among the most dramatic competitions of the entire 1980 Olympics.
Not since the heyday of Roger Bannister and John Landy in the mid-'50s have the world in general -- and Great Britain in particular -- been so excited about such a matchup. And seldom have two runners approached an Olympic showdown so evenly matched as Coe and Ovett appear to be right now.
Starting about a year ago and continuing right up to the eve of the Moscow games, the two young and Britons have rewritten the world record book at virtually every distance between 800 meters and a mile. But as close as they are in ability, that's how far away they seem in personality, temperament, and even training philosophy. Meanwhile, the fact that the two countrymen are anything but friendly rivals -- and have studiosly avoided racing against each other for years -- makes the whole competition that much more intriguing.
Coe, who was the lesser known of the two through most of the late 1970s, suddenly leaped past his rival in the fame department last summer with an incredible spree in which he broke world records in the 800, the 1,500, and the mile within a span of 41 days. Then just two weeks ago on the same Oslo track where he had set the 800 and mile marks, Sebastian showe he was peaking for the Olympics by setting another mark in the 1,000 meters -- making him the first British athlete in three-quarters of a century to hold four world records simultaneously.
This distinction didn't last long, however, for later in the very same meet Ovett took away the most precious of all Coe's records -- the mile -- with a 3: 48.8 clocking. Then just last week in his final major tuneup for the Olympics, Steve went out on that same lightning-fast Bislet Stadium track and tied Coe's 1 ,500-meter mark.
So which one will it be in the Olympics?
Most observers think Coe, who has the edge in terms of raw speed, should win the 800, while Ovett may have the better chance in the longer event. Either one could peak at the right moment, though, and be able to dominate his rival at this all-important time. It is also entirely possible, of course, that while concentrating on each other the two favorites could fail to recognize that there are some other people on the track -- and wind up not winning at all.
This, in fact, is exactly what happened in the only previous meeting of the pair. It was in 1978 in the 800-meter final of the European Championships, where the relatively unknown Olaf Beyer of East Germany rolled past both of them in the stretch, with Ovett finishing second and Coe third.
Both claim to have learned a lesson from that race, however, and they insist they won't make the same mistake again.
Coe, who at 5 ft., 9 1/2 in. and 129 pounds has a build more typical of a marathoner than the bigger frame usually associated with middle-distance runners , began his track career 10 years ago at the age of 13. His father, Peter, an engineering director at a cutlery factory in the Midlands industrial city of Sheffield, recorgnized the boy's tremendous potential almost immediately. Although he had had no formal track and field training, he began reading the manuals, attending conferences, and literally turning himself into a coach who could mold that potential into world class performance. The training program he worked out for his son involved less distance than that logged by most of his rivals, but a heavier concentration of speed work. The results, of course, speak for themselves.
While raw speed is Coe's forte, Ovett empahsizes strength as well. His races almost always follow the same pattern: stay fairly close to the pace, whatever it happens to be, then with 200 meters or so to go, turn on the big finishing kick. His results, too, leave little room for argument -- especially in the mile and 1,500 meters, where he now has a combines 42-race winning streak going all the way back to May 1977.
Ovett, a former art student from the seaside resort of Brighton, is a year older than Coe and reached prominence quite a bit earlier than his rival. Steve was on the British Olympic team at age 20 in Montreal, reaching the final of the 800, in which he finishes fifth, and getting to the semifinals of the 1,500. At the time, though, he was concentrating on the 800 -- a decision that seems to have been a mistake a view of his phenomenal record since then in the longer distances.
Also, as often happens, Ovett turned out to be an athlete who reached his peak just one year too late in terms of the Olympics. He was rated first in the world in the mile in both 1977 and '78, lost that distinction to Coe in 1979, but now has the world record again and the inside track for the top spot this year.
As for their personalities, Coe is relatively outgoing and comfortable with people -- traits that helped him handle the situation fairly well when his 41 -day blitz last summer turned him into an instant celebrity, with all that entails in terms of public and news media interest. The more aloof Ovett has been nicknamed "Mr. Arrogance" by some for his uncooperative attitude toward the fans and the press -- and these qualities certainly haven't improved any since Coe took the play away from him in terms of public recognition last summer.
Finally there is the little game both seem to have been playing of avoiding each other on the track ever since that European championship 800 two years ago -- either by competing at difference meets or at different distances. Ovett has usually seemed to be the one who wanted to make sure their next meetings came in Moscow, but Coe also demonstrated on at least one occasion that he wasn't too interested in any "previews," either. That occurred this past spring, when after announcing that he would run the mile in a meet in London, Sebastian switched to the 800 after Ovett became a late entry in the longer race.
The moment of truth is at hand now, though, on the track of the Lenin Central Stadium here -- first in the 800 final on Saturday, then in the 1,500 on Aug. 1. Assuming there are no mishaps along the way in the heats or the semifinals, the whole sports world will be watching for the results of these two "Battles of Britain."