The Perfect Distance

The Perfect Distance is a book describing the careers of Sebastian Coe (Conversative Lord, adviser to Nike and the IOC, and therefore more-than-slightly dubious, under some interpretations) and Steve Ovett, a shaggier-looking chap who was naturally talented and not whittled into a formidable middle distance runner by a obsessive father. (Not that Peter Coe doesn’t come from a long line of fathers who seem to be doing horrible things to ensure the success of their progeny (Tiger Woods’ dad, anyone?).

It’s also written by Pat Butcher, who as well as being the Financial Times’ sports writer, was the name of the pub landlady in East Enders, which really messed with my head while I was reading the book.

I was too young to remember the 1980 or 1984 Olympics, when they had their greatest on-track conflicts, so there were cliff-hangers throughout this book where I just didnt’ know who was going to win a race. There’s lots in there where you feel you’d do better if you knew more – for example, reference to a book by Anne-Lise Hammer about drugs in sport that can’t be published in the UK due to legal reasons, or Daley Thompson’s mean streak (beyond destroying everyone’s joysticks with Daley Thompson’s Decathlon for the ZX Spectrum). Butcher also has clear ideas about what he thinks is right or wrong about running (winning races is more important than breaking world records, pacemakers are ruining the sport, …)

There’s also some frankly bizarre details, like the Swedish timekeeper who had the blinds pulled over his window part way through a race so he couldn’t see the runners to announce their split times, and then there’s also a fantastic part early on about the emptiness of winning and breaking world records – sometimes, that can become so anticlimactic that rather than wanting to celebrate, you want to leave the field and hide away until what you’ve done seems really real to you.

Overall though, the book feels a bit flat. Perhaps that’s because it was written in 2004, before the more recent (and juicier) allegations about Coe have come to light, or perhaps it’s the way the story stops just after 1984 and we don’t really understand the ends of the main characters, or maybe it’s just that it didn’t reduce me to tears like stories of Zatopek did, and I should be somehow resentful not to scale that height of emotion again.

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