Arrogance personified? When mudlark John Treacy upstaged Steve Ovett
The Irishman snatching the race from Ovett in 1980 is an indelible childhood memory
John Treacy dips under Steve Ovett to win the 5,000 metres at the Coca-Cola International meeting at Crystal Palace in August 1980. Photograph: Steve Ovett
We were finishing up a little picnic in Luggala on Thursday evening when an old neighbour asked had I ever seen the YouTube clip of John Treacy beating Steve Ovett?
Sometimes it is best not to rush into answering a question like that. At least not without the risk of sounding aloof or perhaps even arrogant, especially when yes, you have seen the clip and also know everything there is to know about it. Or so it seems.
Where to begin? For me, the fragment of memory of being eight years old and watching the race live on BBC in the summer of 1980 – part of the reason for that being to look out for our dad, who we knew was sitting somewhere in the press seats in Crystal Palace in south London that evening of Friday August 8th – exactly one week after the last day of the track and field events at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
For you, maybe looking up that YouTube clip (under the title “Arrogance Personified”) if you haven’t already seen it; with some 7.6 million views and over 4,000 comments since being posted in 2011, it’s certainly popular – and understandably so, capturing in two minutes Treacy’s brilliant upstaging of Ovett in the very last stride of the 5,000 metres, the climax of the Coca-Cola International meeting billed as a homecoming for Britain’s freshly crowned Olympic champions.
The appeal of it is understandably lasting too, if anything increasingly referenced these days as some sort of reminder to never give up the chase, don’t raise your arms in triumph until the race is properly over, or, just because you’re a complete outsider like Treacy and only famous for winning in the muddy cross-country fields doesn’t mean you can’t out-sprint Ovett on the track. Indeed, run like Ovett did, and you’ll always risk being arrogance personified. Only, knowing everything that I know, that’s a tad inaccurate and definitely unfair – on both Treacy and Ovett.
When the clip joins the race, BBC commentator Ron Pickering is talking a trio of runners down the backstretch for the last time: the young American Bill McChesney (who had missed Moscow because of the boycott), followed by Ovett, who “still looks oh, so relaxed”, then Treacy, who “looks as though he’s pushing a little bit”.
Ovett, remember, had just two weeks earlier won the 800 metres gold medal in Moscow, upstaging his countryman Sebastian Coe, who responded to winning silver as if he’d lost both the race and the will to live. Coe found redemption six days later, winning the 1,500 metres, while Ovett finished third – his first defeat over the mile and/or 1,500 metres in three years and after 42 consecutive wins.That night in Crystal Palace, Coe was first to be lauded by the home crowd, winning the 800 metres in 1:45.0, perceived by some to be the greater British hero from Moscow, triumphing after defeat, while Ovett returned the other way round. It didn’t help that Ovett sometimes acted with certain arrogance around the British tabloid press, mainly because he simply wasn’t bothered with the games they played.
It was Ovett’s race to lose again that night. Around the final bend, Pickering sees him as “upright, beautifully relaxed, 200 metres to go, and one feels there is only one man with a killer threat there...” In truth, Ovett had just sat in for 12 laps with the intention of kicking over the last half one. However, that was the exact same tactic in Treacy’s mind.
Into the homestretch, and “Ovett goes, has a look and smiles”, raising his right arm in the process, but “Treacy’s going after him, and he’s got a race on his hands. And Steve’s gotta run, and it does him the world of good, he’s going to go for the line, well done John Treacy, and well done Steve...
“And oh, and he’s got it, Treacy may have stolen it. He might just have stolen it, in which case Steve has only got himself to blame.”
Indeed he did, Treacy ducking his head and torso under Ovett just as he’d raised both arms in triumph, to which Pickering says “he won’t begrudge Treacy, I know that, but Treacy the mudlark has sneaked it in 13:27.8...”
It’s here the arrogance part may be slightly misunderstood: Ovett certainly wouldn’t have under-rated Treacy, always had a great rapport with the Irish. In the Ovett documentary (also on YouTube) he talks about drinking several bottles of Russian champagne with some Irish supporters, who happened to be staying at the same hotel as his parents, after he’d beaten Coe in the 800 metres, before resuming the party after losing the 1,500 metres.
Treacy was certainly no mudlark either – a reference to those so dirt poor in 18th-century London they scavenged the river mud for items of value. Just turned 23, it’s true he’d won back-to-back World Cross Country titles, in Glasgow ’78 and Limerick ’79, on muddy courses, though his track speed was also perfectly evident when he finished fourth over 5,000 metres (missing bronze by 0.23 of a second) at the 1978 European Championships.
The year before Moscow, Treacy won the British 10,000 metre title in 28:12.10, outsprinting a young American named Alberto Salazar, who finished second in 28:12.39. And in the final weeks before Moscow, when Treacy frequently stayed over with us and our dad talked him into running the 5,000 metres at the National Championships in Belfield “to test his speed”, Treacy broke Eamonn Coghlan’s Irish record by nearly two seconds, running 13:21.93.
There was no doubt in Treacy’s mind he was going to Moscow to win a medal, and he might well have, had he not collapsed with heat exhaustion with 200 metres to go in his 10,000 metres heat, when right on the heels of Mohammed Kedir of Ethiopia, and Kaarlo Maaninka of Finland, who went on to win silver and bronze.
Against all advice and most assumption, he then came through two more rounds of the 5,000 metres, before finishing seventh in the final, mixing it in the final sprint which saw Coghlan finish fourth, Treacy less than a second behind. How many people forget that?
Whatever was going through Ovett’s head as he first waved and then raised his arms prematurely that night in Crystal Palace may well be perceived as nothing more than sheer arrogance. But, in going after him the way he did, maybe Treacy showed a little of it too, a reminder perhaps that no athlete can be entirely devoid of some arrogance to run as fast and win as much as they did.
“Oh f***,” Treacy heard him say, just as he dipped under his arms, although in fairness Ovett did include the picture of that finish in his 1984 autobiography. Seriously, the arrogance of him.