Memory’s a funny thing isn’t it? We each have our own version of it, and then there is the history that enters the annals, the story that people who come later will read as the truth.
It’s the Olympics again that has set me thinking, especially as in the filler bits between action, the BBC is giving us snippets of Games from the past so we can point at the screen and say ‘I remember that.’
Yesterday, on the day of the semi-finals for the men’s 800m, we were given a show of Sebastian Coe returning to the stadium in Moscow where he ran under the Olympic flag in the 1980 games (there was an ‘official’ political boycott because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). Coe is the chairman of the London Games and has somehow become to embody the spirit of good sportsmanship, which is fascinating to me mainly for its disparity from my memory of his behaviour in Russia.
In 1980, the 2 best middle distance runners in the world were British: Coe and his arch rival Steve Ovett. It split the nation, as in tennis where you were either for McEnroe or Borg, you either favoured Ovett, the surly rebel, or the more conventional Coe.
Coe was meant to win the 800m in Moscow, but was beaten by Ovett. Coe, in my memory, didn’t behave well in defeat. He couldn’t bear to look at Ovett, and shook his hand as if it was something he might have stepped in. In contrast, when Ovett, was beaten in his preferred event of the 1500m, he seemed smiled and congratulated his rival with some grace.
Since retiring from competition Ovett has not been in the public eye, while Coe is front and centre rubbing shoulders with politicians and Royals. His reputation has been buffed and glossed. It’s another reminder that history is written these days by the people with good PR, but I can’t quite rid myself of the memory of what a bad loser he was.