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Britain's Golden Boy

Matt Lawton Of Daily Mail
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

When it comes to the filming of Gold, the movie that will chart the great rivalry between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, one can only hope the directors resist the temptation to have full-length shots of Daniel Radcliffe running in any of the scenes.

Admittedly I've never seen the star of the Harry Potter series in action, but I think it's safe to assume the diminutive actor will not float across the tartan with the finesse of the man he is playing.

Ignore such a detail and I fear the film, however well scripted and directed it might prove to be, will have me cursing for lacking such attention to detail when Coe's running style was so central to his success and central, too, to why we enjoyed watching him compete.

At the very least they should use a body double. Perhaps even the man himself.

Forgive the cliché but Coe really was poetry in motion; that smooth, seemingly effortless stride of a man whose legs were unusually long for the ultra-light 5ft 9in frame.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of joining Coe, with two colleagues, for a morning run in the snow in Zurich. We were there for a World Cup draw that proved utterly disastrous for the Football Association.

But a few hours before FIFA declared that 'Russia' and 'Qatar' had somehow landed the big prize I was thrilled by the prospect of living a bit of a boyhood dream. It was going to be wonderful. The chance to run along the shore of Zurich's idyllic lake while listening to Coe retelling stories of his world record heroics in the very same city.

But then, to my disappointment I must confess, came the sight of Boris Johnson emerging from the lift in the hotel lobby. Dressed in baggy shorts, the white shirt he'd been wearing the previous evening, a moth-eaten V-neck jumper, black socks and a pair of old running shoes, it quickly became clear that London's portly mayor was joining us.

Worse still, Coe informed us, Boris would be acting as pacemaker.

It was so painfully slow it was a struggle to even get warm, but as Boris huffed and puffed one could not help but notice how serenely the man alongside him, a man now in his mid-50s, still managed to glide across the powdery surface. He barely left footprints.

Coe and Ovett were naturals, even if Coe was a little slower to develop than the physically mature teenager that would rival him as a junior as well as a senior.

Ovett had an incredible range of ability that enabled him to win the English schools 400m and finish second in the English schools cross-country; an achievement, to my mind, every bit as staggering as the success he enjoyed later in his career.

But Coe also possessed a breathtaking combination speed and endurance, and while that was obvious with the burst of acceleration he could produce at the end of a 1500m, not to mention his stunning ability against the clock over 800m, I discovered more during my years at university.

While nothing like as talented as Coe, I followed him to Loughborough and became part of a middle distance training group that would often listen to stories about his days there.

After a Tuesday night interval session George Gandy — the legendary Loughborough athletics coach and biomechanics lecturer who would introduce Coe and his father, Peter, to the strength training that would become an intrinsic part of his programme — would hold court in the Forest Gate pub and tell us about the skinny economics undergraduate who could blitz the long interval sessions on a Tuesday (far quicker than we ever could) and then train with the sprinters on a Thursday.

Coe was not just the finest distance runner at Loughborough. As a 46-second 400m runner he could take on the powerfully-built speed merchants too. The kind of physiology they would even struggle to create with genetic doping.

Of course, he also had what distinguishes the great from the good; a mental toughness that made him the ultimate competitor; an inner strength that enabled him to recover from the crushing disappointment of losing to Ovett in the 800m in Moscow to win 1500m gold a few days later.

That he then won the 1500m again in Los Angeles four years after that — he remains the only man to have successfully defended the Olympic 1500m title — was a further demonstration of that iron will, given the injury and illness problems he had endured the previous couple of years.

Prompted by the recent news of this movie being made, I tried to secure an interview with Ovett.

He now lives in Australia and, in politely declining the invitation to reflect on a golden era in British sport, a time when athletics would consistently knock football off the back pages, he expressed his surprise that anyone would be interested in watching a recreation of his career on the silver screen.

He would probably be alone in feeling that, because here was a moment in history when Great Britain boasted two of the finest athletes the world has ever seen. Who even today, with improved training methods and nutrition, would have been good enough to win medals and set world records.

I do agree with Ovett on one thing, though. Radcliffe as Coe?

'Baffling,' was how Ovett put it, even if his verdict was determined more by an inner modesty than my concerns about Harry Potter's running style.

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