Mike Rowbottom: Seb Coe – the wariness of the cross-country runner…

Thursday, 27 December 2012
Mike Rowbottom head and shouldersA binliner of ripped wrapping teeters outside our front door. The lit tree which looked so radiant of promise now has a mournful edge to it. The fridge is full of brandy cream and going-over vegetables. All the signs that Christmas has been and gone. As has a Christmas read - Seb Coe's autobiography, Running My Life (Hodder and Stoughton, £20 – but only £9 from the insidethegames shop).

It would be facile to observe that, had the youthful Coe not turned around the most shattering defeat of his life, when arch-rival Steve Ovett beat him to the Olympic 800 metres gold at the 1980 Moscow Games, his book might have been titled Ruining My Life. Ah well. Observation made.

But of course he did turn it round, iconically, with victory in the 1,500m – the event Ovett was expected to win – and he has made a habit of producing triumphs ever since.

Even when, as Conservative MP for Falmouth and Cambourne, he dropped out of Government during the rout that was the 1997 General Election, Coe points out with grim pride that the swing against him was only five per cent, against an average across the country of 11 per cent - the smallest that night against any incumbent Conservative MP.

I know the subject of this book not well, but a bit better than many who will read it in the wake of the outstandingly successful London 2012 Games, to which Baron Coe of - appropriately enough - Ranmore was essential both in terms of bidding and execution. To me, having written about Coe as an athlete briefly and a sports politician at greater length, some of the story, and indeed some of the phrasing, is familiar.

And it's a curious thing, but having read the book I feel I know more things about Coe, but don't get a feeling of really knowing him.

Even despite its open moments – the description of how he told the organiser of the Stockholm meeting to "fuck off" after suspiciously bungled pacing had possibly deprived him of another world record, the family details revealing his grandmother Violet as a "true cockney" and his great-grandfather Harry Newbold as a professional gambler, his inexplicable failure to pass his 11-Plus exam, the confession of an extra-marital affair which got all over the papers and, painfully, temporarily damaged his relationship with his then 12-year-old daughter - even despite all this, there is a curiously closed feeling to the book.

Running my Life by Sebastian CoeRunning my Life reveals details of Sebastian Coe's life but left Mike Rowbottom wanting to know more

The text is as carefully modulated as the speeches we have come to expect of Coe in recent years as he has tip-toed around the often grotesque sensibilities of those who govern the world of sports politics - a world in which he himself is becoming an increasingly influential figure.

Decca Aitkenhead of The Guardian also observed this tendency in the book, forming the conclusion, following a subsequent interview, that Coe was "a crashing bore." Not fair. Not true. But for sure, Coe is guarded. He is a politician to his bones.

You question whether Aitkenhead, and other detractors, understand where Coe is coming from - or, more to the point, where he is heading to. He may have delivered on London 2012, but, to borrow from Robert Frost, he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps. His life is still a political work in progress.

Watching Coe walk through the ranks of his peers to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award was rather disturbing, if only because this master of self-control looked seriously in danger of choking up.

Sebastian Coe receives BBC Award from Duchess of CambridgeThe Duchess of Cambridge presents Sebastian Coe with the Lifetime Achievement Award during the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards 2012

The reference to his absent parents - his mother died in 2005, his father three years after that - was brief but heartrending. A glimpse into the interior, brief as the one afforded in the aftermath of that Moscow 1500m victory, where his face and body were transfixed with blazing emotion.

Thinking about it, I feel the most revealing passage of Coe's latest – but surely not his last – autobiography is the one where he describes his feelings about his early runs as a member of Hallamshire Harriers over the fells of Yorkshire and neighbouring Derbyshire:

"I loved everything about it - the physical sensation, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and covering the ground effortlessly and reasonably quickly, and also, if I'm honest, winning the approval of the older and more seasoned athletes...

"Cross-country running was literally the making of me...you are using every part of your body. It's hard and it's tough. You've got to maintain balance, you've got to be able to navigate and think ahead, you've got to watch your feet. You may be running on a track that's the width of a table, or across terrain that is little more than peat bog, making split-second decisions every step of the way. Your brain never switches off."

It stands as the perfect metaphor for Coe's progress through life. And the man is still picking his route ahead with the utmost care...

To order a copy of Running My Life by Sebastian Coe from the insidethegames shop click here

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian.
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