Notwithstanding a boycott, led by the United States, in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979, a total of 81 countries, including Britain, did attend the 1980 Summer Olympics. The standard middle-distance races, including the 800 metres and 1,500 metres, which British athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett were expected to dominate, were not considered weakened.
Indeed, Coe arrived in Moscow as the world record holder over 800 metres and joint world record holder, with Ovett, over 1,500 metres. Just a week before the Olympics, Ovett had run 3 minutes 32.09 seconds in the 1,500 metres in Oslo, Norway which, in the days when race times were still rounded up to the nearest tenth of a second, was considered equal to the world record, of 3 minutes 32.03 seconds, set by Coe in Zurich, Switzerland the previous August.
Both men cruised through their heats and semi-finals in the 800 metres, but the final was a wholly unsatisfactory affair, which Coe later described as ‘the very worst 800 metres of my 20-year career’. It was no plain sailing for Ovett, either, who had to push his way out of trouble on more than once occasion, but Coe made the questionable tactical decision of racing on the wide outside throughout; last with 300 metres to run, he finished to good effect, but was never catching Ovett and had to settle for second place.
It was a similar story in the 1,500 metres, at least as far as the heats and semi-finals were concerned. In the final, for which Ovett appeared favourite, Coe helped to set a dawdling early pace – which, as a relatively inexperienced 1,500 metres competitor, was in his favour – alongside East German athlete Jürgen Straub. Straub picked up the pace, attempting to run the finishing kick out of Coe, but Coe took the lead at the top of the home straight and sprinted away to win by four yards, with Ovett labouring in third place.
Watch the Ovett vs Coe 800m Final