One for the Ages
Dr Matt long and Jamie French disaggregate the notion of ‘age' in exploring a classic 800m encounter involving the greatest rivalry in British athletics history.
The date is Saturday 26th July 1980 and Britain has come to a standstill to watch gladiatorial combat over two laps of tartan in Moscow's Red Lenin stadium. It's Coe versus Ovett or should we say Ovett versus Coe?
In his autobiography 'Running My Life', Coe recalls, "as the gun went off I did what no one else in an Olympic final can risk doing: I started too slowly. When we came to break lanes, I was already seven metres adrift, but didn't realise it". Coe effectively forfeited the gold medal with some 250 metres remaining stating that "the big brutal mistake was not following when the pace picked up halfway down the back straight - by the time I'd emerged from my somnolence and pulled the ripcord, it was too late. I was just too far adrift - Ovett closed the door and the race". Ovett (1m45.40s) became the first Brit since Tommy Hampson in 1932 to win Olympic 800m gold, with a despondent Coe taking silver (1m45.85s). So, what was the difference between the two men in a race that Coe was overwhelmingly expected to win? A disaggregation of the notion of 'age' offers some clues.
The time since birth. Coe was slightly younger at 23 with Ovett 24 years of age. They met once as teenagers at the English Schools Cross Country Championships in 1972, with 16-year-old Ovett finishing 2nd and 15-year-old Coe back in 10th place.
The physical development of a person for a given chronological age. Ovett matured more quickly than Coe in running 1m52.5s as a 16-year-old in 1972. At the same age in 1973, Sebastian was the owner of a still promising but far more modest PB of 1m56.0s. As a 17-year-old Ovett ran a phenomenal 1m47.3s at the AAA's at Crystal Palace in 1973. In this very year, the Brighton man burst onto the international scene in winning the European junior 800m title in Duisburg. A 17-year-old Coe, by comparison, was almost 8 seconds slower in recording 1m55.1s in a time trial before succumbing to injury for the rest of 1974. An 18-year-old Ovett ran a European junior record of 1m45.77s in taking silver at the European Championships in Rome in1974. By contrast, an 18-year-old Coe was once again some 8 seconds in arrears in running 1m53.8s in the summer of 1975.
When they met in Moscow, significantly Ovett had already peaked at 800m, running his lifetime best of 1m44.1s in taking European Championship silver two years previously in 1978, ahead of Coe in bronze. Coe would not peak over two laps until a year after Moscow running his long-standing world record of 1m41.73s in 1981. This being said going into Moscow, Coe carried a world record of 1m42.33s set in 1979 in Oslo into the final which was well ahead of Ovett's aforementioned best.
The amount of time spent in the sport since the commencement of focused training. Coe first ventured down to Hallamshire Harriers at the age of 13, so effectively had ten years under his belt by the time he met his arch-rival. Similarly, Ovett had a training age of around ten years after his first race of note in March 1970, finishing 37th at the English Schools Cross Country Championships in Blackburn.
The emotional and social maturity of the athlete. Athletes with higher developmental ages may be able to deal with the anxieties of competition more. Coe was publicly trumpeted as being both mature and accommodating with Ovett perceived as the self-styled bad boy of British athletics, with frequent refusals to deal with the media. During the heats of the 800m in Moscow, a more introspective Coe appeared to go about the business of qualifying for the final far more quietly than the charismatic Ovett who famously produced his 'I Love You' hand gestures to his fiancée Rachel at home whenever in the proximity of the nearest trackside camera.
The proximity of birthday to the start of the academic year. According to the work of Cobley et al. (2009), the time of year that people are born has a profound effect on the chances of success in a wide variety of contexts. The school academic year uses birthdate to group children into year groups which means those that are born in September or October are Chronologically and often Developmentally and Biologically approximately a year older than those born in August in the same class. Whilst Coe and Ovett are a year apart in Chronological age, with birthdays being 29th Sept (Coe) and 9th Oct (Ovett) there would be no significant difference between them with their Relative ages. It is however interesting to note that as both were born in the first quartile of the academic year, their relative ages are likely to have given them advantages over other competitors who were born later in the academic year.
This variable is critical and perhaps best explains why Ovett as a massive underdog overcame his comparatively faster rival. Coe had five international Championships of note before Moscow. Significantly these were limited to European rather than global competition. Ovett, by contrast, had seven international Championships of note before Moscow. Critically unlike Coe, the Brighton man tasted global competition at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. After making an initial tactical error not dissimilar to Coe four years later in Moscow, Ovett finished 5th. The further invaluable global experience was gained in winning the World Cup 1,500m a year later in 1977.
By the time Coe and Ovett met in Moscow, the differences in their respective chronological ages were an irrelevance. In terms of biological age, Ovett had already peaked in terms of speed over 800m, two years before Moscow. Whilst Coe would not peak over two laps until a year after Moscow, he was significantly quicker in July 1980. In terms of developmental age, Coe apparently 'bottled' the final after struggling to sleep the night before due to nerves, while Ovett continued to exude the kind of confidence he displayed in the heats. With nothing to choose between them in terms of Relative age, Competition age is key to explaining Ovett's unexpected triumph. Unlike Coe, he had learned the hard way about defeat due to tactical naivety on the global stage 4 years earlier in Montreal.
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About the Authors
Dr Matt Long and Jamie French are the 2013 Winners of the Frank Horwill Scholarship Award. The British Milers Club established the award to continue the legacy of their co-founder who was made an MBE in 2011 for voluntary service to the sport. The assistance of former UKA Coaching Qualifications Workforce Manager Neil Wheeler is acknowledged.