Andrew Wharton

One of my earliest memories is sitting at the kitchen table with the radio listening to the 1980 Olympic Men’s 800m final from Moscow. My Dad was a huge John Walker fan and as New Zealand boycotted the 1980 Olympics, Dad shifted that attention and support to Sebastian Coe. I vividly recall Dad slamming his hands on the table muttering “I bloody hate Ovett” as Coe’s great rival Steve Ovett stormed to an easy victory. 

This started my fascination with Seb Coe and in particular his apparent rivalry with Steve Ovett. Although what’s really unusual about their rivalry is that they very rarely raced each other. In fact they only ever appeared on the track together on 6 occasions, 4 of those Olympic Finals. When there was any choice in the matter, they preferred to be kept apart. They would run the same distance on the same night but at different meetings, or different distances at the same meeting. In the run-up to the 1980 Olympics Ovett took the unusual step of entering at short notice a race over a mile in which Coe was already scheduled to compete. Coe, who had written an Ovett-avoidance clause into his contract, promptly switched to the 800m. Most of the time they competed only statistically, trading personal bests and world records. While the media liked to encourage this “bitter rivalry”, the reality is that they just didn’t know each other and are now great mates. 

Looking back, I’m not sure this was a rivalry at all. For me, a rivalry exists when beating your opponent becomes more psychologically important than procuring the prize itself. For Coe and Ovett, the Olympic Gold was always at the forefront. For many of us amateur battlers, real rivalries are more common as most of us are not going to sail off into the sunset with our huge cash prizes or Olympic medals. Because a rivalry’s potency lies more in the power of comparison with an opponent than the actual result, it can have a huge influence and push both effort and performance to a higher level than if the runners were solely concerned with the shiny medal at the end.

My rivalry with Stephen is a perfect example of this. Rowan Greig has termed it “the 100 year running war” and “more compelling than the Game of Thrones”. That’s probably a bit of a stretch but I certainly remember the day in 2017 when Stephen decided to call me out thus setting up an epic mile around the Basin Reserve. I was both stoked that Stephen deemed me worthy enough to be called a rival, but also incredibly nervous knowing the cauldron that this was going to play out in. I was really feeling the pressure. A poll went up on Facebook, my kids were talking to me about it and I was obsessively checking Strava to see how Stephen’s training was going. The race came and I won, just! Having done no training around the Basin, I kicked far too early in front of the RA Vance stand. While this makes for great video footage, which I effectively slowed down to really wind Stephen up, I made a massive tactical error and was simply very lucky. The wave of relief at the end was huge.

While Coe and Ovett raced each other only six times, in the last two years Stephen and I have probably raced ten times that. Typically, I have had the edge in the shorter races and Stephen in XC and the longer stuff. However, over the last year, this rivalry has encouraged us both to focus more on the other’s strengths. Stephen did more speed work over last summer and beat me a couple of times over 3000m in a personal best. Recently I have focussed on my speed endurance and managed to take Stephen down over the Half Marathon, also in my personal best. In fact the recent Wellington Half Marathon was a great example of this rivalry playing out. Effectively a 17km very steady warm-up, we spent the last 4km desperately trying to play to our strengths. Stephen doing everything he could to get away and avoid a sprint finish and me fighting to hold on. We ended up with another finish line photo with us both within metres of the other. I have at least dozen of similar photos.

Even as masters runners in our mid-40s, it is our rivalry with each other that has helped us both to improve our performance level. So rather than Ovett vs Coe, I prefer to compare our rivalry to that of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s. Evenly matched, the NBA stars used one another as benchmarks, to the point where Johnson reportedly had trouble sleeping and Bird obsessed over whether or not Johnson’s training regime was more intense than his own. They faced each other often, over lengthy careers. Even in their older years, each match brought out the absolute best in each other. 

So the next time you race your rival, whether you get beaten or not, shake their hand and thank them. Their mere presence has undoubtedly improved your performance and made you a better runner. 

Then, find the next race, call them out and smash them. Get that epic finish photo and tag them in it. They’ll love it 😉

Wellington Half Marathon 2019