Coe's book reveals gripping truth behind London bare-knuckle ride


ATHLETICS:Neighbours may be defined by distance, but no distance can keep friends apart, and thanks to a near neighbour and close friend, I’ve just had a special advance screening of Lincoln, already released in the US, and arriving in cinemas here on January 25th. It is, trust me, a tower of a film on so many levels.

Indeed, as some of us find ourselves already hounded by the sudden and hopeless failure of our New Year resolutions it’s hard to think of anyone more cursed by the notion of fresh ambitions than our own free man of Wicklow, Daniel Day-Lewis. Not only is he a shoo-in for a record third best actor Oscar, he’s so utterly convincing as old Abe Lincoln that it’s virtually impossible to see him ever stepping out of character this time.

Because if you really are, as we like to say in this business, only as good as your last game, what could possibly surpass this performance? Although in the truer sporting context, and having just finished his 481-page odyssey of an autobiography, Running My Life, there is at least one fair comparison, in Seb Coe.

Considering my few teenage years with pictures of Coe stuck to the headboard of my bed, not just my bedroom wall, and having once studied with biblical fervour his first autobiography, Running Free, this was a book approached with major prejudice, the assumption being there would be nothing in Running My Life that would be new to me, at least in the context of Coe’s actual running life.

This was proved wrong – Coe opens up with more honesty and bluntness than he did first time round, and layers it all with a sense of fun and sometimes self-deprecation. In the end, the biggest surprise is why Running My Life was somehow buried under the piles of rubbish that recently appeared in the sporting section of bookshops – it was the best read I had all year.

It helps, naturally, that Coe still boasts one of the uniquely triumphant sporting careers (only man to win back-to-back Olympic 1,500m) and also exaggeratedly tragic (losing back-to-back Olympic 800m, not being selected for a third 1,500m), and that’s all recounted here, in more juicy detail. His great rivalry with Steve Ovett still fascinates, and Coe is conscious of giving it some fresh air – starting with their first clash on the track, over 800m, at the 1978 European Championships in Prague, when they were both outgunned in the homestretch by the unheralded East German Olaf Beyer.

“The picture they ran with the next morning,” Coe writes, “was Steve with his hand on my shoulder, and the caption: ‘Even in their moment of medals they can’t set aside their rivalry’. The truth would have made punchier reading. What was actually said was, ‘Who the f*** was that?’ To which I replied, ‘I haven’t a f***ing clue’.”

Coe doesn’t shy away from the “dodgy business” either, adding his suspicions about Beyer: “I noticed Beyer about to set off on a lap of honour. Only steps into it, a couple of East German coaches rushed on to the track, wrapped him in what looked like a large horse blanket, and ushered him urgently away from the scene. Perhaps they didn’t want him prey to the drug-testing systems . . . Beyer has since denied that he ever took drugs during his career, but given the system he came from, I find it difficult to believe.”

After skipping through his years in politics, Coe comes to the tales of London 2012, and how he, having being initially ignored for any central organising role, was asked to chair the entire gig after Barbara Cassani stepped down. As it happened, this was the fresh ambition Coe was looking for, and we all know what happened next, as he orchestrated the best Olympics ever.

What Running My Life reveals is the gripping bare-knuckle ride that turned out to be London, and how in first winning the bid, Coe embraced many of his former rivals, including Tony Blair.

Without setting personalities aside, fully embracing his role, and encouraging others in theirs, London’s Olympic bid – and subsequent Games – would surely have failed. “We all needed to deliver Oscar performances,” Coe writes, “including me.”

This, as it turns out, is the central theme of the new Lincoln film, which Steven Spielberg has based on the 916-page monument of words Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, first published in 2005, and the book that reportedly inspired Barack Obama to run for the US presidency.

Only by embracing his team of rivals, namely once opposing candidates William H Seward, Salmon P Chase and Edward Bates, could Lincoln have begun the process of agreeing the Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1st, 1863, 150 years ago, that set free, at least in theory, most of the four million slaves still languishing in the Confederate South.

It was to become Lincoln’s most lasting legacy, and no matter what Coe does next, his legacy will always be London 2012, while for the rest of us there’s always time to make the embracing of rivals our own little New Year resolution.

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