I can remember it clearly. I was eight years old. It was Summertime. 1984. I remember the excitement I had as I watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. They were in Los Angeles. A guy literally flew into the Coliseum on a jetpack. Still the coolest thing I have ever seen in an opening ceremony. The thousands of Chinese Drummers drumming in perfect unison from 2008 were the scariest. Buck Rogers Jetpack Guy = cool. Chinese Robot Drummers = Scary.
I remember the parade of athletes walking into the sun drenched and sold out LA Coliseum. I even remember my older brother Bobby kneeling down close to the television pointing to this athlete and that athlete, telling me about this great feat and that great performance and this one’s potential and that one’s past glories; trying to get me to understand that this was no ordinary collection of athletes. These were Olympians. He only paused twice, for two specific athletes. He would take his eyes off the TV briefly and let me know that over the next few weeks I needed to pay special attention to these two. They were , in his mind, the extraordinary amongst the extraordinary. One was a young basketball player – a Tar Heel named Michael Jordan. The best college basketball player in the world. At least according to my brother Bobby. Jordan was going to take the world of basketball to school in LA. I listened. I had never heard of the guy. I quickly forgot about MJ until a Nike commercial a few years later.
My older brother’s other athlete of special distinction was a guy by the name of Sebastian Coe. He was British. He sounded British. He looked British. He was small too. But he was the best runner on the planet. I had heard of this guy. Thanks to Wide World of Sports on ABC every weekend I had seen him race a few times. I really had no idea how good he was though. But an older brother’s words are gospel truth. So, as far as I was concerned, from the moment my brother Bobby uttered it, Seb Coe was the man to beat on the track.
Over the next two weeks I was either watching the Olympics or I was outside pretending I was in the Olympics. The day would often start with me running along the perimeter of my backyard mimicking Carl Lewis and his straight hands while he sprinted down a long jump runway or channeling Edwin Moses as I jumped the bushes lap after lap around my house. When I was in the swimming pool that Summer of ’84 I was Rowdy Gaines or Pablo Morales. I was a horrendous swimmer. Still am. But. in my mind I was world class when I was in the water that Summer. Baseball (played with a tennis ball to protect the windows) would find me morphing into my Team USA Baseball (former) idol Mark McGwire. He and I were both much smaller then. Over the years I got bigger simply by I growing up. He took steroids. I digress. Turns out I did not need to use tennis balls. Nothing I hit would have broken anything.
I L-O-V-E-D the Olympics. I could not get enough of it all. I had a USA Track shirt (probably from a Marshall’s sale rack) that I wore just about every day. It had to have been filthy. Little kids are adorable when they are filthy though, right? Man, I hope so. Because I had to have been a little ball of dirt and sweat for those couple of weeks.
I’m sure that Bobby tried to explain the backstory to Coe’s ’84 Olympics as best as he could to an 8 year old. As I am sure YOU already know Coe was the overwhelming favorite to win the Gold Medal 4 years earlier in 1980 in the 800m at the Summer Games in Moscow. Coe was the World Record Holder. He had not lost an 800m race in years.
Coe lost the 800m.
He lost to his great arch-rival Steve Ovett of Great Britain in one of the classic upsets in Olympic history. Coe ran horrendously. He made just about every tactical mistake one could make in a race. At the finish line in a stadium of 90,000 he stood confused, shocked and devastated. Alone. The British press was not kind to Coe. One newspaper had a picture of Coe warming down after the 800 under the headline “Trail of Shame”. Those English may have great manners at tea time but they can sure be brutal after all the biscuits are done can’t they?
When it came time for the 1500m final a few days later no one gave Coe much of a chance. For one, he was not the favorite as he had been in the 800m. The 1980 Olympic 1500m favorite was none other than Steve Ovett. Yup, the guy who upset Seb in the 800m. What Seb was to the 800m Ovett was to the 1500m – a man amongst boys. Ovett had not lost a 1500m in 3 years – 45 straight wins and Ovett had recently set the WR’s in both the 1500 and the Mile.
But, they don’t hand the medals out before the race do they? Nor do they award the medals to the runners that the press choose.
Coe won the 1500m.
The second great upset of the Games in only a few days in Moscow. Redemption? Revenge? I don’t think so. He’ll never get that opportunity for 800m Gold back. I believe he won because he still believed. No one else did. No one else needed to.
At the end of the 1980 Olympic Games, Coe had the WR in the 800, and a Gold medal in the 1500m and a Silver in the 800m. He was young. He was strong. And 1981 would be his greatest year on the track. He looked primed to dominate straight through the LA Games. Three years is a long time though and when the 1984 Olympics 1500m came around the great Seb Coe found himself in a familiar position – being doubted.
Track & Field is a game of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately and Seb had not done much in 1984 or 1983 for that matter. The British Athletics powers-that-be felt that Seb was not fit enough to take a spot on their squad. They had a valid point. Seb had come down with a parasitic disease called toxoplasmosis in ’83 and had shown signs that his battle with the debilitating sickness was not over. He ran at the very best poorly in the lead up to the LA Games. Controversy fueled by the British papers erupted. When he was named to the Olympic team the press seriously questioned the move. Some in the British press were quite obnoxious in their ‘journalistic’ opinions.
I knew almost none of this as I watched Seb take the line in the 1500m. I just knew that some people did not want him on the team because they thought he was old and sick and weak and past his prime. Some people believed that Seb was arrogant for even believing he belonged at the Games much less believing he had a chance to medal in 2 events like he did in 1980.
Seb started the LA Games by winning both his heats of the 800m before running into the Brazilian 800m titan Joaquim Cruz. Seb scored a second Silver in the 800m to go with the one he won in 1980. It was considered a great performance by Coe. Many believed that whatever magic he could summon during these Olympics must surely be spent. Seb had already raced three times. He was not the same runner that dominated middle distance running in 1979 or 1980 or 1981. Next, would be the 1500m. Even History seemed to be against him. No man had won two successive Olympic Gold medals in the 1500m.
I remember watching the race in my family room. I sat on my knees on the floor. Over the course of the week I started to know some of the milers. So I knew it was Steve Scott, the great American miler, taking the pace early, too early, probably giving the sold out LA Coliseum crowd what they wanted but not what his coach wanted. Scott faded after halfway. With 1 lap to go the Spaniard Jose Manual Abascal led with three Brits on his heels – Seb Coe, young Steve Cram and Steve Ovett. I vaguely remember the line of them as they hit the first turn of the last lap. Abascal wore red and blue and the Brits each had white shorts and white singlets. I remember I was nervous. I didn’t need to be. Coe blasted the field from 220m out. He pushed again at 120m and yet again with 80m to go. Three moves at the end of an Olympic Record 1500. Amazing.
There would be no one waiting for him at the finish at the end of this race. He would cross first and as the first to ever win the 1500m twice in a row at the Olympics.
I know the race inside and out now. I have watched it dozens of times. If I really try to remember what it was like watching in 1984 and what I actually saw as an 8 year old it gets hazy…except for one moment that remains crystal clear.
Coe finished the race. Shook some hands and then walked away from the other runners. He was alone. He looked around briefly as if he was looking for someone specific or a group in a certain section of the Coliseum. He seemed so intense. I remember that whatever or whoever he was looking for he found.
He raised both his arms. He was pointing at someone. His eyes locked on a target. He roared something from deep within him, from his gut and his soul and his heart all at once.
I remember people in the family room asking questions. I hear people ask it now as they watch the race so many years later.
Was he mad?
Why was he mad?
I knew he wasn’t mad.
I knew he was looking up at those guys in the Press Box. He was looking up at them as they sat in front of their typewriters and smoky ashtrays. He was looking up at all of those that typed the words “washed up”, “soft”, “old”, “unfit”, “pampered” over the last two years. He was looking up at them from the oval, the finish line, the battlefield.
I didn’t know what he said exactly. I still don’t. I don’t want to know. I know why he said it though. I knew he had read what they wrote and heard what they had said. They didn’t believe – not in his recovery from sickness or his training or his tactics. They didn’t believe in Seb Coe.
And I know he believed in himself when they didn’t. He believed during those cruel comeback races and those less than stellar interval workouts and those breakfasts reading the morning paper shouting headlines that said he did not belong. Not them. They were up there. He was down on the track. And down with Seb is where the story is lived and breathed and raced and lost and won. Up there is where the story is typed.
We all have our own British press that we have to battle during our lives. People will tell you where you failed and where you came up short – people who often have never taken a starting line or made it to a finish line or ever had to stand up and deliver or face the wall.
Sometimes we are our own British press. We doubt ourselves. We beat ourselves up. We call ourselves names. We tell ourselves to shut up when we want to open up. We tell ourselves we don’t deserve to try. We tear ourselves down and we tear ourselves away from where we want to be.
But we all have within us the same stuff that Seb Coe had. That stuff is what battles the demons. That’s the part of us that actually puts those toes to the line and waits nervously-confidently for the gun. That tells us we can in fact begin. The part of us that believes to the end, even when everyone else has left and gone.
I was 8. It was 1984. I was sitting so close to that TV. I watched Seb Coe in the Olympics. I watched Seb Coe battle. I watched Seb Coe cross the line. I watched Seb Coe stand there all alone.
I had just learned my first lesson on what you need to be a stronger runner, a stronger person.
I learned that sometimes you’ll find yourself all alone there at the end.
You’ll be alone with the one person who believed in you – you.
I learned sometimes being alone means you won.