The President of World Athletics was an iconic runner. The only man to ever take back-to-back silver medals at 800 meters as well as gold medals at back-to-back 1,500m in the Olympics, Seb Coe was a masterful racer.
Coached by his father, Peter Coe, and advised by the late George Gandy, the man who brought core training, plyometrics to the elite, Seb Coe was a masterful racer and world record holder.
In part 2 of this multi-piece feature, Jeff Benjamin writes about Seb Coe’s record-breaking 1981 season.
The 40th Anniversary Of Sebastian Coe’s Record-Breaking 1981 Season! Second In A Series, Chapter 2 –
By Jeff Benjamin
After a winter of grueling, consistent training Sebastian Coe (who calls that time “The Purgatory of Training”) was ready to open his 1981 season with an indoor race at 3000 meters..
With the pack of Brits going through splits of 2:40.9 (1000m) and 5:21.8 (2000m), Coe was hovering behind, mostly in 4th place. As the paced picked up with 2 laps to go (400m to go indoors) Ken Newton had a stride on Coe at the bell lap.
Coe then unleashed a final 200 meter split of 27.3 seconds (Coe’s last 400 was timed in 56.2) and won over Newton by 6 tenths of a second, clocking a new personal best of 7 minutes 55.2 seconds.
“It wasn’t an easy run,” said Coe, “” But I ran better than I thought I would.”
Coe’s surprises were just beginning.
Three weeks later in the same indoor track in Cosford at the Britain VS East Germany meet, Coe lined up in a field of four in the 800 meters against two old Moscow nemeses from the year before – Andreas Busse and Detlef Wagenknecht. Both had run 1:47 the previous week, threateningly close to Carlo Grippo’s 1:46.4 Indoor World Record.
Seemingly dwarfed by the taller competitors (Brit Mike Whittington was, like the East Germans, also over 6 feet tall) the 5′ 9″ Coe broke last at the start and let Whittington lead the way through 200 meters (25.4). Then, in what almost seemed like a fartlek run, Coe accelerated into 2nd place at the 400 (52.3), almost looking as he was holding back in the surge.
With Coe now going into the lead and once again looking like he was hesitating once again, , Busse looked like he was stalking Coe and ready to take him at the bell lap (600 meters – 1:19.5).
Whether it was the rising roaring hometown crowd or his own fear, Coe just accelerated gradually on the next to last straightaway and, after taking a quick backward glance, accelerated all out off of the final turn, even easing up over the last few strides.
The reaction of the crowd confirmed that Coe had netted the World Record from Grippo in a time of 1 minute, 46.0 seconds.
Once again, another surprising performance. “I didn’t think I was in that kind of shape,” said Coe. “I knew I was fit, but not that fit…it was surprising really.”
“There was no intention of a world record,” said Coe. “But it was always a possibility in a field as classy as that…I felt I would have to do better than 1:47 to beat them.”
40 years later Carlo Grippo reflected on that performance.
Yes, I did own the indoor world record from 1977 to 1981, until “Seb Coe found a parking lot 800m long and beat it!”, Grippo said jokingly.
Grippo then shared a photo from his World Record day in 1977.
“The image is with Marita Koch as we shared the trophy for the best performance she had also broken the 400m world record.”
“Her career exploded, while mine stopped in a car crash that same summer -it was hard to get back at decent levels.”
But Grippo’s tenacity and dedication made him persevere and he would go on to try and take on Coe and the world’s best middle-distance runners in 1981, a story for a future chapter.
Video of the 1981 800 Meter World Record
With an Indoor World Record in his collection, Coe’s next quest will be to harness his speed, as the 800 World Record Holder and 1500 Gold Medalist will now go in to compete for the months of May and June in some 800 meters and the —
Stay tuned for Chapter 3 –
“The Need For Speed!”