Steve Ovett

Steve Ovett

Stephen ("Steve") Michael James Ovett OBE (born October 9, 1955), is a former middle distance runner from England. He was gold medalist in the 800 m at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, U.S.S.R., and set world records for 1500 m and one mile. To this day, he holds the UK record for 2 miles, which he set in 1978.


Born in Brighton, Sussex and educated at Varndean School, Steve Ovett was an outstandingly talented teenage athlete. His first major title came in 1973 when he won the European junior 800 m, followed the next year in Rome with a silver in the senior event. He won AAA titles in the 800 m from 1974 to 1976, in the 1500 m in 1979 and in the mile in 1980.

Ovett gained some Olympic experience in 1976 in Montreal, Canada when he ran in the final of the 800 m and was placed fifth, behind winner Alberto Juantorena of Cuba. He failed to reach the 1500 m final after being obstructed in the semi-final.

He jumped into the world spotlight in 1977 when, at the inaugural IAAF World Cup in Athletics, he unleashed an astonishing kick with 200 m to go, running the final turn in 11.8sec and the last 200m in 25.1sec! He left Olympic 1500 metre champion John Walker, and the rest of the field for dead, Walker was so astonished by Ovett's kick that he dropped out of the race with 120 metres to go. He won gold ahead of his good friend, West German Thomas Wessinghage. As Ovett raced away from the field, Ron Pickering, commenting for the race on BBC Television, said "and there's one man's blazing speed, that has torn this field asunder".

The British public by now showed a keen interest in Ovett, and it was at the European Championships in 1978, that he raced against Sebastian Coe for the first time in their senior careers, beginning a rivalry that would come to dominate sports headlines in the UK and all over the world. He led Coe in the 800 m and appeared to be on his way to gold, before being surprisingly caught by the East German Olaf Beyer. After the fall of the GDR, Beyer's name would be found in the Stasi files of athletes alleged to have doped. His time of 1:44:09 turned out to be his fastest ever 800 m run. Coe finished 3rd. Ovett recovered to win the gold medal in the 1500 m, in which Coe did not participate.

The 1978 season for Ovett was notable for the superb times recorded at disparate distances. He ran an 800 m in 1:44.09 (world record at the time was Alberto Juantorena's 1:43.44 ) and set a 2-mile world's best with an 8:13.51 clocking, (an event the IAAF no longer recognised for record purposes), handing "Track & Field News" Athlete of the Year Henry Rono one of his few losses in his remarkable record breaking season. It's been speculated that if he'd spent that season preparing specifically & repeatedly attempting to run fast times in pacemaker led Grand Prix races, he was capable of breaking the 1000 m, 1500 m, 1 mile & 2000 m world records that year based on his 800 m & 2 mile times.Fact|date=August 2008

Ovett arrived at the Moscow Olympics as most people's favourite to take the 1500 m title. Earlier that month, he had established a new mile world record of 3:48.8 and two weeks later equalled Sebastian Coe's world record of 3:32.1 in the 1500 m. He had been unbeaten over the 1500 m and mile for three years. The Moscow Olympics marked only the second time that Ovett and Coe had met each other in international competition (the first being the 800 m in the 1978 European Championships) and there was huge media speculation over which would emerge as the greater.

Ovett's participation in the 800 m would serve as a test for the 1500 m. In the 800 m final, Ovett was only in sixth place at the halfway mark, but pushed his way through the crowd to second place. Seventy metres from the finish, he shot into the lead and held off Coe to win by three metres. In the 1500 m, contested six days later, it was Coe who came from behind to win, while Ovett had to settle for third place.

During the Moscow games, the British press zoned in on a signal Ovett had made to a TV camera in Moscow after his 800 m win. It later transpired that the signal represented the letters ILY and were intended for his girlfriend, Rachel Waller (whom he later married). This later led to a rift between Ovett and his parents, in particular his mother, who had remained a key figure in his career and had carefully managed the media's requests for his time (Ovett was still living at home).

Though in 1980 Ovett had tied Coe's 1500 m world record of 3:32.1, new timing rules would come into effect in 1981 which would recognise records over 400 m to the hundredth of a second. This would have the effect of giving Coe sole possession of the record, as Coe ran 3:32.03 to Ovett's 3:32.09. However, Ovett avoided this unusual removal of a record via rule change by setting a new record later in 1980 of 3:31.36.

During 1981, both Ovett and Coe were at their absolute peak. They never met in a race, but exchanged world records in the mile three times during a 10-day period.

Ovett's 1982 season was wrecked by injury when out training on the streets of Brighton in late 1981, he ran into some railings and badly twisted his knee. He had recovered by the spring of 1982, but further injuries hampered his progress.

He returned to action in 1983 although once again his season had been hampered by injuries, which resulted his not being selected for the 800 m at the World Championships in Helsinki. He was selected for the 1500 m, but ran a poor tactical race in the final and finished 4th, behind winner Steve Cram. He was yet to reach his peak for 1983, which followed with a 1500 m world record of 3:30.77 in Rieti. A few days later, he finished a close 2nd to Steve Cram in an epic mile race in Crystal Palace.

In 1984, after a successful season of winter training in Australia, Ovett's progress was slightly hampered by minor injuries and bronchitis. He attempted to defend his 800 m title in the 1984 Olympic Games but after arriving in Los Angeles he began to suffer from respiratory problems. He was unlucky to be drawn against eventual winner Joaquim Cruz in each of his two heats and also the semi-final, in which he only narrowly qualified for the final, lunging for the finish in 4th place and appearing to collapse over the line. He had run 1:44:81, his second fastest time at the distance. He recovered in time to make the final, but was clearly below his best, and finished eighth, after which he collapsed and spent two nights in hospital. Against the advice of his friends and doctors he returned to compete in the 1500 m. Running in fourth place at the beginning of the last lap of the final, Ovett dropped out. He later collapsed with chest pains and was taken away on a stretcher.

His career then wound down, although in August 1986 he won the 5000 m in the Commonwealth Games at Edinburgh. However the following month, in the European Championships, he failed to finish in hot conditions, allowing Jack Buckner (GB) - whom Ovett had beaten in Edinburgh - to win the gold. He then failed to make the 1988 Olympic team, and retired in 1991, a year after Sebastian Coe. He has been a Track & Field television commentator for the CBC since 1992. He now lives in Australia.

His times, though still impressive by today's standards, are arguably not indicative of his true talent, as he preferred winning races to chasing after world records (though on occasion he did do the latter). He was often content to wait on the shoulder of the leader until either the last 100 or 200 metres, at which point he would usually sprint past for victory. Nevertheless, the times he recorded over a wide range of distances were quite impressive, showing great versatility. They ranged from 47.5 and 1:44.09 in the 400/800 meters to 13:20.06 for 5000 meters on the track, while on the roads he ran 22:24 for 8k (Oxford, 1986), 28:16 for 10 K (London, 1983), and 1:05 for the half marathon (Dartford, 1977).


As a youngster, Steve showed great promise as a footballer, but gave it up for athletics because he did not want to do a sport where he would have to rely on teammates.

Steve's brother, Nicholas Ovett, represented Great Britain at luge in the Winter Olympics of 1988 and 1992.

Steve's younger sister, Susan Emma Warner, was also a highly successful Green Bowler gaining great success within the field at national standard.

There is now a street ("Ovett Gardens") named after him in Gateshead. (All the streets on the new estate are named after sports personalities, usually with some link to Gateshead.)

Personal bests


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