Lord Sebastian Coe: An Icon of Track and Field

by Bernard Frei on April 10, 2019

In the game of comparisons in the track and field world, there are a few specific athletes that will continually be the standard all greats are measured next to. In the realm of sprinting, Usain Bolt is surely the greatest. In long distance events, elite runners like Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele are the standard. In middle distance events, however, Lord Sebastian Coe of Great Britain has quietly stood the test of time as one of the greatest his respective sport has ever witnessed. Amassing his accolades and fame throughout much of the 1980’s, Coe’s success, both on and off the track is seemingly boundless.

Introduction to the Sport

Born in Hammersmith, London in 1956, Sebastian Coe first became interested in the sport of running when he was in grade school. Joining his local running club, the Hallamshire Harriers, Coe saw success at the low amateur levels of the sport, winning the the Yorkshire Cross Country Championship at age 14, and later the English Schools 3000m at age 16. Because of his obvious talents in the sport, a very raw Coe was taken under the tutelage of Coach George Gandy at Loughborough University. It was at this point in his still young career that Coe took his promise to new heights.

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Employing a variety of new training techniques to strengthen his muscular system and add aerobic capacity, Seb’s new coach used a gauntlet of cutting edge interval training to push him to new limits. Working diligently throughout his time at the university, Coe finally stepped into the professional running scene in his early 20’s. He would catch the world’s attention shortly thereafter.

Emerging on the World Stage

During the 1977 indoor season, Coe became a European sensation over middle distance events. Winning the 800 meter European Indoor Championship in a near world record time of 1:46.54, Coe was only 20 years old at the time. The immediate attention Coe drew only added fuel to his fire during the outdoor season that summer. In August, Coe would run a blistering 3:57.7 mile and capture his first UK national record in the 800m with a then personal record 1:44.26.

An ecstatic Seb Coe had his eyes set on world records and titles the following year, training rigorously throughout the off season. As his mileage and fitness increased, however, Coe was becoming more and more susceptible to injuries, and on a training run during 1978, Coe would suffer an ankle injury that would sideline him from weeks of his season. Returning in time for a personal record in the 800m, Coe would have to wait until the next summer to begin his assault on world records.

1979 and Beyond

Coe’s 1979 season was unquestionably one of the greatest in middle distance running history. Setting three world record marks in 41 days, Coe became the pride of England that summer. Coe would run both the 800m and mile records in Oslo, Norway with incredible times of 1:42.33 and 3:48.95, while also capturing the 1500m record in 3:32:03 in Zurich, Switzerland. He became the first man to hold all three of these middle distance records at once. Further showcasing his spectacular closing speed, Seb also stepped up to run the national team 4x400m relay, splitting the fastest of the British quartet with a 45.5. Coe proved in 1979 he was the ideal middle distance athlete, and as the 1980 Olympics approached, the world had its eyes set on Coe to dominate these events.

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As the summer of 1980 began and national level competitions and trials commenced, a clear rivalry between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett began to develop. Both clearly gifted and driven, the two men sought to not only represent their nation, but also prove their worthiness of the title of best middle distance runner in the world. With Coe favored in the 800m and Ovett favored in the 1500m, both men admitted their desire to upend the other. In a somewhat bizarre turn of events, Seb, a normally savvy tactical racer, came up short behind Ovett in his specialized event, and placed second in the 800m. Determined to makeup for his mistakes, Seb ran a blistering last lap in the 1500m, and won his first gold medal in an upset against Ovett. The two men combined for four medals in the Moscow Olympics, and ushered in a golden era of England middle distance running.

With both world records and world titles now to his name, Coe was only further motivated to repeat his world class endeavors. He would set yet another world record in 1982, this time in the 4x800m relay with fellows Brits Peter Elliott, Garry Cook and Steve Cram. Over the next two years, Coe would battle a bevy of health problems and injuries, and took a leave of absence prior to his return for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

1984 Olympics and Final Years of Competition

In a somewhat desperate move, Sebastian and his father, now coach, Peter Coe, began an intense block of training prior to the 1984 Olympics because of Seb’s dwindled health the prior years. This decision paid off in a major way, as Coe repeated his 1980 performances, becoming the first man to win back to back Olympic 1500m titles. Once again the world champion, Coe had solidified his legendary status in track and field history.

Over the next 5 years, Coe would remain an exceptional runner at the international level, running sub 1:44 and 3:33 marks a handful more times before his official retirement in 1990. While some health problems deteriorated his chances at a third Olympics in 1988, Coe was able to willfully step away from the sport knowing his greatness and achievements were unquestionable.

Lasting Impact and Present Involvement

Following his retirement in 1990, Coe was elected to Parliament to represent Falmouth and Camborne. Following his stint in British politics, Coe became the spearhead representative for London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Viewed as the perfect ambassador to sports because of his unique Olympic and political involvement, Coe is largely given credit for London’s successful bid to host the games. In many regards, the 2012 Olympics are viewed as one of the most successful variations of the game in modern times. Coe said during the games “What has been happening these past two weeks is beyond my wildest dreams. We have witnessed some of the best sport ever. It has been like glugging your way through a quart of cream…”

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After the success of the London Olympics, Coe became an immediate favorite to fill the President vacancy of the International Association of Athletics Federation. With controversies of doping and allegations being thrown around the international sports scene, many involved were searching for a former athlete of impeccable reputation and experience on the world stage to take over the organization, and Coe fit perfectly. Elected in 2015 officially, Coe continues in that role to this day.

Lord Sebastian Coe’s relentless dedication to his sport is undoubtedly responsible for his success. He has has inspired and continues to inspire new generations of athletes with Olympic dreams, and has remained dedicated to furthering the agenda of international competition. Standing today as an ambassador of the sport and of his nation, few athletes in world history have had the lasting impact on and off the field of competition that Seb Coe has.

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