Title: Steve Ovett: An Autobiography
Author: Steve Ovett and John Rodda
Published by: Willow Books, 1984
Steve Ovett was one of the most notable English athletes during the mid-1970s through to the mid-1980s. At this time – which was a renaissance of sorts for England, in the sport of middle-distance athletics – he was a world record holder in the 1500m and mile run distances and an Olympic Champion. He was born October 9, 1955 and grew up in Brighton, Sussex.
The era in which he ran is often referred to by who he was competing with at the time, typically the Ovett-Cram (Steve Cram) era superseded the Ovett-Coe (Sebastian Coe) era, when all three competed for world dominance while representing Great Britain. Little did he know how long his presence would prevail.
Presumably having no corporate sponsors to consider, Ovett and John Rodda deliver an autobiography that, by all appearances, reads refreshingly frank and honest.
In comparison to most sport-based authors of autobiographies, Ovett provides accounts of his training, racing and life outside of the sport in scrupulous fashion. For example, Ovett talks about his disdain for the British media and recounts that early on in his career he stopped communicating with the media altogether, when having just won a European Cup semi-final 800m in July of 1975, and had decided to not compete in the final. An ensuing conversation in the press box, “provided a final straw in my relationship with the media.”
“I did not feel any responsibility to promote my sport in talking to the press – I did that out there on the track, by winning,” Ovett lamented. He also writes, “when I added that I did not want to run because I was going to Athens that weekend to watch my girlfriend compete in the European Junior Championships, all hell broke loose.”
Ovett’s patriotism was called into question by the press. From that point on his mother communicated with the media on his behalf. His mother and father – in a very unusual manner – where highly involved in the management of his career, that is until they had a falling out years later over his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Rachel Waller. Ovett and his parents were estranged for years, Waller and Ovett later divorced.
Ovett’s relationship with Coe seemed to be amicable and nowhere in the book, does he say anything overtly negative about him except when recounting a moment when he, “learned more about Coe in two words than a recent race proved.” He added, “I mentioned earlier that in victory I found it difficult to say anything to Seb (Coe) for fear of being patronizing or misunderstood. His words to me as we shared that dope-testing room rankled. I passed him a drink and he said,
‘So you got silver then?’
‘No I got bronze,’ I replied.
‘Oh Good’ (said Coe).
Ovett, An Autobiography, is an entertaining read. Any fan of the era or of the sport of athletics should find the book difficult to put down. One situation he shares with readers that is especially humorous is when on a flight with Kenyan, Henry Rono, he discovers, “when I came close to knowing much more about the extent of Henry’s worldly belongings.”
Wherever he goes he carries with him a very smart Italian briefcase. And I am one of the few people entrusted with it. In 1978 we were flying to Tokyo for the Golden Mile, my last race of the season, and during that very long journey Henry wanted to sleep. He curled himself up on the seat next to me, under a blanket, clutching his briefcase. But that was uncomfortable so he asked me to hold it. As the hours dragged on the devil in me began to set me wondering about the combination lock.
What sort of number would Henry pick, I thought….then I mulled over the question as to whether Henry would know how a combination lock would work – that you can choose your number. Whereupon my fingers rolled the lock to zero, zero, zero and I touched the catch and the case sprung open. As the locks sprung up so did the blanket beside me and two arms reached and grabbed the case. Henry was not so much cross as puzzled. ‘How did you know the combination?’ – so I explained another complicated piece of the western civilization and pointed out that he could have changed it when he bought it. ‘I thought they were all different,’ he said.
Ovett prophetically wrote about the Kenyans at the time and what sort of world domination in the sport of athletics they would achieve in the future. However, he missed the mark in regards to the popularity of his sport, writing, “We have to realize that in the space of ten years athletics has grown to a very high position in national sport rating. Attendances at Crystal Palace meetings have been at capacity when people like Sebastian Coe, myself and other leading runners are competing,” but recovers nicely by suggesting that, “people are interested in watching personalities, not the teams.”
He was thoughtful about his general training method suggesting that aerobic development was very important however, he does mention that he considers Coe to be a speed-based middle-distance runner and himself endurance-based, commenting that although they were both world-class athletes competing in the same events, they could not handle each other’s training programs.
Ovett comes across as highly sensitive about his personal relationships, especially with his mother. Although he credits his parents with being of great help during his career, he also points out faults with their overzealous involvement, which came to an ugly head during the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. His over-protective and jealous mother became furious over the accidental publicity of his girlfriend (Waller) due to the British press’s interest being piqued over Ovett’s finger-in-the-air drawing of the the initials “I-L-Y” meaning, I Love You, to a probing camera, she said, “We’ve gone to all this trouble to keep the press out – which was absolutely true and extremely valuable – and here she is getting herself on the front page. All she’s trying to do is jump on the bandwagon. How can you get yourself involved with someone who doesn’t know you as well as I do.”
The only negative aspect in the way the autobiography is written is with Ovett’s penchant for Illeism; the need to speak in the third person. He refers to himself often as “Ovett” repeatedly however, that aside, for 209 pages Ovett and Rodda entertain and provide insight into the life of a world-class athlete in intriguing fashion. This book is a must read for the track fan and anyone seeking a frank and honest autobiography.
Sure to please the track fan is a listing at the back of the book, which contains five pages of some near-500 races that Ovett competed in, from his English Schools Cross Country Championships where he placed 37th on March 21st 1970 to his DNF, August 11th 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympic Games 1500m final.