The very first sporting event I remember watching was the clash between Steve Ovett and Steve Cram over the mile in the Summer of 1983. Ovett was coming off a new 1500m world record in Rieti and Cram off victory in the inaugural World Champs (where Ovett was 4th). In a race regarded as one of the best ever on British soil, Cram won by about a yard and cemented his status as world number 1. I only have vague recollections of the Los Angeles Olympics but from 1985 to 1993 I associate the year, not with personal events, but with what was happening in athletics. In ’85 Cram set three World records in just 19 days; in ’86 Coe, McKeen and Cram swept the European 800m medals; ’87 was the big Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson show down etc etc.
The 80s were the ‘Golden Era’ for British athletics. Founded on the great rivalry between Coe and Ovett and orchestrated by the canny promotional skill of Andy Norman. I was born only weeks before their first track showdown in the ’78 European Championship (Ovett beat Coe but was himself pipped by drug fuelled East German, Olef Beyer) and just two when they had their famous showdowns in the Moscow Olympics. From 1985 Ovett was on the decline and had moved up to 5000m whilst Coe’s form was erratic so I never had the opportunity to appreciate them at their prime. As a fastidious student of the sport however I’ve read all the biographies and seen all the documentaries on both athletes. Back then I had a VHS called ‘The Supermilers’ which I watched several times each week before rushing out to try and beat my best time around the block. I might well be the only person on the planet who can reproduce verbatim the commentary from the last lap of the 1500m in Moscow.
During those years you had to pick a side. Coe or Ovett? I was attracted by Coe’s undoubted poise and guts as an athlete but turned off by his snobby personality and conservative politics. Conversely, I never found Ovett as exciting or aesthetically pleasing as a runner but I gravitated towards him as a rebel and showman. British cycling’s equivalent of the Coe Ovett rivalry is Obree and Boardman. Boardman was a rare talent with a deep and varied palmares. He was years ahead of his time in both training and aerodynamics and (please God) won clean in an era thoroughly riddled with drugs. He’s an incredibly astute and likeable man… but he ain’t Graeme Obree.
Obree is my all time number one sporting hero. Actually he's my ONLY sporting hero. When Clarry and I got married we used photographs of sporting icons rather than numbers for the tables. We had Ali, Redgrave, Botham, Dimas, Senna and Armstrong but it was Graeme Obree who decorated the top table. The footage of Obree training topless in his back yard on a rusted old exercise bike is among my favorite ever. He was the ultimate underdog. A man who beat the system... Twice. A rare maverick for whom the phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ doesn't scratch the surface of reality. A flawed man but an inspiration to those of us with mental health issues. His real life story would be dismissed by the layman as ridiculous fantasy... A complete and utter legend.
Last night I attended an intimate talk by the man only a few hundred yards from our flat in Henley. I also had the great fortune to talk and be photographed with him. He didn't disappoint. To hear the familiar stories delivered with that unique energy and undimmed passion is, in my opinion, the only way to truly understand them. As always Justin's text afterwards cut straight to the chase, 'Take home points?'... We always over protect ourselves. You can always give a little more... Unless you're Graeme Obree.