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Moscow 1980

Timekeeping in swimming was now more or less fully automatic. The Swim-O-Matic with integrated data processing equipment passed its test at the 1978 World Championships in Berlin. Before the device could be used at the Olympic Games, however, the timekeepers had to deal with a few political issues.

STORY

Olympic victory in Moscow liberated Sebastian Coe

When Sebastian Coe (born 29 September 1956) arrived in Moscow, the British team management immediately held a press conference. Around 400 journalists squeezed into the room, so great was the interest in the forthcoming duels between Coe and his slightly older fellow countryman Steve Ovett (born 9 October 1955).

Coe had made his big breakthrough in 1979. In the space of six weeks, the middle distance runner, who was studying economics and social history in Sheffield and was trained by his father, Peter Coe, had broken the world records over 800 m, 1 mile and 1500 m. In July 1980, he had broken another world record in the 1,000 m at the Bislett Games in Oslo. However, half an hour later, at the same meeting, he lost his 1 mile world record to Ovett, who had also equalled the 1,500 m world record nine days before the 800 m heats in Moscow.

That was the situation when Coe lined up for the Olympic 800 m final on 26 July. Coe was the favourite. “I was much more experienced at that distance. Although I had broken the world records in the 1,500 m and 1 mile, I had hardly ever run those distances,” he remembers. Coe had decided not to lead from the front and to let others take the initiative, a decision he paid for with a clear defeat. He reacted too late, although still managed to finish second behind Ovett after a dynamic finale.

Six days later, the 1,500 m final also began at a leisurely pace, although the GDR’s Jürgen Straub suddenly increased the tempo after 700 m. Coe remained close on his heels, accelerated on the final bend and beat Straub and Ovett to the finish line. “They were two very different tactical races. Very different from races with pacemakers,” said Coe.

Top-level sport is a highly complex business. Breaking records is not sufficient to give a feeling of superiority. Ovett was a precocious runner, participating in the Olympic Games in 1976 and finishing ahead of Coe in the 800 m at the 1978 European Championships. “I had never beaten him before Moscow and he arrived at the Olympic Games after 42 consecutive victories. I doubted whether I could beat him.” He did so over the “wrong” distance. “They were very interesting races for the public and my Olympic victory, which was so important, liberated me. From then on, I could do other things and I focused on breaking world records from 1981 onwards, something which benefited various meetings.”

After Moscow, Coe lost another world record to Ovett, but never lost to him again on the rare occasions they competed against one another. There was no repeat of the sleepless nights and wobbly knee that Coe had experienced before the 800 m final in Moscow. Coe and Ovett broke each other’s world records over 1,500 m and 1 mile twice each during the early 1980s, but they only ran against each other six times in competition. Coe won four times, following up his victory in Moscow by becoming Olympic champion over 1,500 m and Olympic 800 m silver medallist in 1984 and, to round off his career, beating Ovett in the 1,500 m at the 1989 British Championships. In the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Ovett was suffering from bronchitis and collapsed twice, while Coe, after a longterm viral infection, silenced his critics, who had already written him off, by winning a silver and a gold. “That gave me particular satisfaction,” he says.

For Coe, who was always chasing records, the concept of time meant everything. He only had one unusual experience with timekeepers in his career. It happened after his 800 m world record run in Florence late in the evening of 10 June 1981. “At first, Carl Lewis had been given a time of 9.91 seconds for the 100 m (beating the world record by 0.04 seconds) but this was later changed to 10.11. After that, some people did not want to believe my 1:41.73,” he explains. The electronic timekeeping of the Federazione Italiana Cronometristi had failed during Coe’s world record attempt. The time was reconstructed using three photo cells positioned at different heights on the finish line. The world record had stood for more than 16 years. It was not beaten again until 1997 by Dane Wilson Kipketer.

Timing still means everything for Coe today. In the meantime, he has forged a completely new career for himself. As Lord Coe, the Conservative politician has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2000. He played a major role in bringing the 2012 Olympic Games to London and is President of the Organising Committee (LOCOG). He is also an IOC member, a member of the IAAF Council, Chairman of the FIFA Ethics Committee, a businessman and a fan of many different sports. He still finds time for daily fitness training and to watch matches played by Chelsea FC, whom he has supported for 40 years.

ANECDOTE

Vladimir Salnikov broke 15 minute Barrier

The son of a sea captain was nicknamed the “monster in the waves”. If anyone was unaffected by the American swimmers’ boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow, it was Vladimir Salnikov. Since relieving American Brian Goodell of his 400 m freestyle world record in 1979, he had not been beaten. The only question on people’s lips before the final of the 1,500 m freestyle in the Olimpiski swimming pool on the Mirka-Prospekt on 22 July was: How fast will he swim? It was obvious that he wanted to break Goodell’s world record in this event as well in front of the 8,000 spectators. Salnikov took the lead from the very first stroke and swam like clockwork: 5:00.23 after 500 m, 10:00.85 after 1,000 m. After 1,100 m, he imperceptibly began to increase the strength of his arm movements and swam the last 100 m in 58.05 seconds. He finished in 14:58.27 – the first man to cover the distance in less than 15 minutes.

The man from St Petersburg won two further gold medals in Moscow in the 400 m freestyle and 4 x 200 m relay. The following year, he became the first to swim the 800 m freestyle in under eight minutes (7:56.49) and remained unbeaten in 61 finals until 1986. After suffering from jaundice, he was written off, but he came back once more and achieved his fourth Olympic victory in Seoul in 1988, at the age of 28. He had not competed in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which were boycotted by the Soviet Union. Salnikov held the 1,500 m world record for an unusually long period of 11 years.


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