Monday, 11 August 2008

Engineering Greatness: Peter Coe

In 1980 I was queuing at Gatwick Airport to book in for the Aeroflot flight to Moscow for the Olympics. Behind me I suddenly heard a voice that I thought I knew. I turned round and instantly recognised Peter Coe, who was flying out to coach and support his son Seb in his memorable races, the 800 and 1500 metres, at the Games. We knew each other by reputation (his far greater than mine as we shall see) and so teamed up for the flight to the Soviet capital.

Peter and Seb formed one of the great all-time coach-athlete partnerships and in Moscow they would face another team, Harry Wilson and Steve Ovett. The recent death of Peter, aged 88, begins to close a chapter on a great era when British coaching, especially endurance coaching, was the envy of the world.

We sat and talked athletics and coaching on the long flight sipping glass after glass of orange juice which appeared to be the only beverage available. Peter, naturally, was on a confident high and entertained me well into Russian air space. The plane came into land and we got ready to disembark at what turned out to be, not Moscow, but Leningrad (now St Petersburg) airport. No one satisfactorily explained this sudden switch of destination. We disembarked and went through the rigmarole of immigration and customs, communist style, had further (non alcoholic) drinks and got ready to embark again.

I had noticed a flurry of interest when Peter presented his passport (by this time Seb had broken four world records, one at 1000 metres as recently as July) and when it came to re-boarding the flight the rest of us (including the venerable Baron Noel Baker, iconic Olympian, one-time government minister and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) were held back so that Peter could majestically (and embarrassedly) board the plane on his own.

When we landed at Moscow the media circus surrounding the clash of these two titans of the middle-distance running world was building to a frenzied climax. Independent Television (ITV) was covering top international athletics in those days and they tried to bring Gay Ovett, Steve’s mother (also on that extraordinary flight from Gatwick) and Peter together in what seemed to be a vain attempt to re-enact the family feuding of TV series The Beverley Hillbillies.

We were transported to one of those colossal, 1000 bedroom hotels, so beloved by the Soviet Union, where the most successful workers on the latest 5 Year Plan were rewarded by a stay in the capital. Peter and I elected to share. We also decided to get some fresh air with a brief walk. We handed in our two sets of keys. On our return we asked for our keys and three sets were handed to us. No, no we said, only two sets. Consternation and widespread whispered discussion took place with a growing group of individuals, including a porter, obviously a war hero, with a wooden leg. “Would you mind,” said the concierge sweetly, “if we went to your room?” Peter and I agreeably concurred. The whole party, including the war hero with one leg, crammed into a lift which took us to our lofty perch, where we were joined by a formidable crone in charge of the floor. We flung open the door and Peter triumphantly demonstrated that there were just two beds. Further urgent, whispered consultation was followed by the concierge again sweetly asking: “Would you mind if you changed rooms?” Flexibility was never a Soviet bureaucratic strong point.

I decided to try and bring Peter down from his high. Frequently on the phone he would refer to himself as “Seb Coe’s coach.”
“What do you mean,” I challenged him, “Seb Coe’s coach? You’re his father for God’s sake.”

Peter contemplated this remark. “Well,” he finally said grinning broadly, “it took me much longer to make the athlete than the son.”

He left for a more central hotel a couple of days later. The days that followed were dramatic and, for both Peter and Seb, traumatic. As world record holder, Seb was confidently expected to cruise the 800 metres but the man who actually did that was Ovett, with Coe coming second. But Seb struck back to win gold in the 1500 metres, after, it was rumoured, team management’s attempts to keep Seb and Peter apart after Peter’s forthright statements about the 800m tactics employed by his son. With Ovett finishing third in the 1500m, honours between the two great runners had ended up even.


When Peter realised that his young son could be a world beater he set about the task of becoming a coach with the precision of an engineer which was his profession. He read and consulted widely and surrounded himself with those whose knowledge he respected. He and Seb used the British Milers Club for both coaching knowledge and, early on, fast races. As Seb became a world class athlete so Peter’s reputation as a coach grew.

He always emphasized that the training methods that he advocated were only “what seems to be correct for Sebastian Coe.”

In January, 1983 I was at the 12th Congress of the European Athletics Coaches Association held at Aldeia Das AƧotteias in Portugal. The main speakers were John Anderson (coach to world 5000m record holder David Moorcroft), Harry Wilson (Steve Ovett) and Peter. He said this:

“Coaching is an art. Although it is science based it is still an art. Whereas in science one can fall back on formulae and repeatable experiments, art relies on sensitivity of feelings. The athlete is a unique individual and cannot be seen in the same way as a piece of matter where the predictability of the whole embraces the behaviour of the individual molecule.”

Peter also said this: “…the programme must be tailored to the individual; what improves one athlete can destroy another. It is self evident that in modern middle distance running speed is essential for an athlete, but there is more than one kind of speed. There are not any “secrets” in athletic training: as in any activity the most important thing is to identify the goal. If a coach is looking for speed, he must define what kind of speed is required.”

Almost twenty years later, Abdelkader Kada, the coach to the great Hicham El Guerrouj, was invited to explain the ‘secrets’ of El Guerrouj’s success at a British Milers Club gathering. He chuckled. “It is ironic that the British invite me here,” he told the assembled coaches, “because I learned my training techniques from the great British coaches and runners of the Eighties.”

Seb took 800 metre running in particular into a new era. His 1:41.73 lasted as a world record for 16 years and was testimony to Peter’s emphasis on speed, the particular speed-endurance of a 400 metre runner. Seb, remember, represented UK in 4 x 400 metre relays. After 27 years he remains second on the world all-time list, behind Wilson Kipketer. Only Steve Cram and Peter Elliott really followed him into the new era and are the only other Brits in the world all-time top fifty. The emphasis on speed seems to have gone. Currently British two-lap runners are running four seconds or so slower than Seb at his peak.

Some felt that Peter was a maverick but this was incorrect. He was an individualist, unique in British coaching, a man who did not suffer fools gladly, which often put him at odds with the athletics establishment of the time. In fact all three of the men who spoke that early spring afternoon in Portugal were individualists, men whose ideas were carved from reading, learning and their experience with runners.

He has lived to see his son achieve further greatness in his winning of the 2012 Olympic Games for London. He must have passed away an extremely proud man.

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