With European Athletics celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe speaks exclusively and in-depth to European Athletics on his European Championships career which was bookmarked by gold medals in the 800m in both 1977 and 1986.  

The 1977 European Athletics Indoor Championships in San Sebastian was an introduction to what he terms the “street smarts” of international championship racing. The following year’s European Athletics Championships in Prague, where he took bronze in the 800m behind Steve Ovett and surprise East German winner Olaf Beyer, taught him and his father-coach Peter arguably their most crucial lesson. 

And his unconventional but crushing victory at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart, at the point where he was “just beginning to wonder” if he would ever win a global or recognised title at 800m, brought him as much “devilish satisfaction” as any other race in his career.

Only a few weeks before the 1977 European Indoor Championships in San Sebastian, Coe had made his British team debut in Dortmund, setting a Commonwealth indoor 800m record of 1:47.6. Facing him in the Spanish city located in the Basque region was Italy’s Carlo Grippo, who had recently set a world indoor 800m best of 1:46.37 in Milan. In the event Grippo failed to finish his semifinal, but Coe still found himself facing a strong international field.

“My father – my coach – was keen for me to start learning how to traverse heats and semis and finals, to learn the street smarts of championship racing,” he said. “Because I had missed out on the 1976 Olympics, and we didn’t have World Championships every two years, we didn’t even have European Championships every two years.”

Coe chuckled as he recalls his interaction before the final with the British team manager Robert Stinson, whom he eventually replaced on the IAAF Council. “Robert was the most urbane, avuncular figure that probably ever led a team,” he recalled. 

“He was Oxford, and Achilles Club and all that. I went off to warm up on my own before the final, and I said to Robert ‘Would you mind holding my shoes?’ And he said: ‘Yes, don’t worry. I’ll be exactly where I’m standing.’ And of course I came back and he’d wandered off. I had visions of having to run the final in road shoes, which I had been warming up in. 

“Then I saw him – he had actually wandered over to a television and was watching the skiing! Anyway, I got the shoes and put them on, and he walked with me towards the edge of the arena. I was surrounded by all the heated team talks of East Germans, Italians and the Spanish, and Robert looked at me amidst all this and I thought he would obviously say something. And he just went: ‘Well um….bye bye then.’” 

Maybe there had been something in Stinson’s words however, as Coe swiftly said bye bye to the rest of the field, leading from gun to tape and winning in 1:46.54, the second fastest time behind Grippo.

As it turned out, losing his spikes was not the worst scenario Coe faced that day. “The race actually came quite close to not being staged,” he said, recalling the extraordinary circumstances that saw Sir Arthur Gold, then President of European Athletics, being bundled out of the stadium by armed Basque separatists.

“Arthur was smart enough to know that if you took him out of that environment they would have made their presence felt, hopefully no harm would come to him but the meeting could continue. So he in a way offered himself up as a hostage.

“He got dumped on the edge of the town in some industrial estate. We were able to run the race. John Rodda was there covering for The Guardian and the following day their headline was ‘Too many Basques in one exit’.

“My tactic at the time – because I hadn’t got the finishing speed I developed over the next two years – was just, get out there, make it as painful as you possibly could for the rest of the field. And on most occasions it paid off pretty well for me.”

Beyer had failed to make it to the final in San Sebastian. The following year he shocked the athletics world by beating both Coe and Ovett to take his one and only major medal.

Thirteen days earlier in Brussels, Coe had lowered the British 800m record to 1:44.26. But Ovett was still favourite following his extraordinary victory over 1500m in the previous season’s inaugural IAAF World Cup in Athletics, where he had kicked with 200m left to devastate a field including New Zealand’s Olympic champion John Walker.

“I said to my Dad, what do you think I should do today?” Coe recalled. “And he said, ‘Well you’re not going to win.’ Which was a slightly disarming observation to make. “He said: ‘Look, basically if you run as fast as you can and as hard as you can for as long as you can you’ll probably nick a medal.’

“He then said: ‘But you’ll find what the bastards are made of. We need to know what their breaking point is.’”

Coe took his father at his word, disputed the lead with Beyer at 200m, and led through 400m in a breathtaking 49.32. By the time the field entered the final bend Ovett had moved menacingly up to his shoulder, and when the taller figure went past in the finishing straight it looked over.

But then the supercharged figure of Beyer, having passed Coe, overtook a bemused Ovett 20 metres from the line before winning in a championship record of 1:43.84. Ovett took silver in 1:44.09, with Coe third in 1:44.76.

Looking back, Coe believes that Beyer was supposed to be the “sacrificial lamb” to break up the field and allow the leading East German, Andreas Busse, to profit. “What the East German team hadn’t figured on was that I was actually going to do that anyway!” Coe said.

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