True star of an innocent age

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Golden years they were. Between 1976, when Brendan Foster claimed bronze in the 10,000 metres at the Montreal Olympics, and 1984, when Sebastian Coe retained his gold medal in the 1,500 metres in Los Angeles, British middle-distance runners ruled the world.

Coe, who learned to run in the hills and valleys of the Peak District, led the way. He set nine world records, three within the space of 41 days in the giddy summer of 1979. His rivalry with Steve Ovett was the stuff of legend. 

When Ovett pipped his team-mate to the 800 metres gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (below), Coe was avenged six days later with the first of those two golds at the longer distance. Giants, both.

They were followed by Steve Cram, who set world records over 1,500 metres, 2,000 metres and a mile within 19 days in 1985. No Olympic gold for him. Coe outpaced him over 1,500 metres in Los Angeles. But he won golds at the World and European Championships, and the Commonwealth Games, so he too must be counted among the number.

David Moorcroft, a world record holder at 5,000 metres, and later the chief executive of UK Athletics, must also be there. And so too must Brendan Foster, the man who kicked it off. As a BBC commentator, and the founder of the Great North Run in Newcastle, which has become such an important feature of the sporting calendar, Foster is the grand old man of British athletics.

Other than Ovett, who has always guarded his privacy, the other runners joined Kirsty Wark for the first programme in a new series of The Reunion on Radio 4. It was a joy. Here were four men who had performed remarkable deeds when sport was more innocent, and they spoke of their achievements with a modesty that was truly moving.

Wark, who usually needs no excuse to put herself at the centre of any discussion, was sensible enough to sit back and let her guests wander down Memory Lane. She reminded listeners that Chariots of Fire, which won the Oscar for best film in 1982, tapped into the prevailing mood. 

These fabled runners really were immersed in the life of the nation. Foster (1974), Ovett (1978), Coe (1979), and Cram (1983) were all voted Sports Personality of the Year.

Coe, who is now a peer and a Companion of Honour, still goes out running, though not in the hills around Sheffield. “It melds physicality with landscape,” he said. Foster is a knight of the realm, and Cram, Moorcroft and Ovett each have three letters after their name.

What worlds they conquered in that tumultuous decade, and how gracefully they have accepted their place in the pantheon. We have become familiar with the vaingloriousness of sporting celebrities, those strutters and posers who won’t get out of bed unless there’s a million pounds in it for them (with a tidy slice going to the agent). Here were true stars, who did it for the love of sport, and to find out how good they could be.

This programme reminded us they were very good indeed

This programme reminded us they were very good indeed, and in two cases they achieved greatness. The tales of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell were told beautifully in Chariots of Fire. Why on earth shouldn’t there be a film about Coe and Ovett? This was a marvellous programme.

The convincing spoof requires skill and cunning. A single joke, however amusing, stretches only so far unless the actor has the alchemic touch of Steve Coogan, whose Alan Partridge will leave Martians winded with laughter when they eventually pay us a call.

Radio 4 welcomed spring with a double dose of spoof-itis. Megan Nolan, a gloomy, 30-something Irish novelist, was invited to present A Point of View, the Sunday morning essay, but her misery-me drivelling (“I feel so excluded”) foundered on the rocks after a couple of poorly-spoken sentences. 

More promising, on paper, was the tribute to the late, mediocre radio presenter, Victor Lewis-Smith. Alas, the ball stopped a long way short of the boundary. Whereas Partridge was forever hoist with his own petard, Lewis-Smith was altogether less agreeable. Convinced of his moral superiority, he would ring up the likes of Mary Whitehouse to get a few giggles. Dar-ing!

On Archive On Four, a cast of biddable witnesses threw in scripted platitudes. By turns their chum was “life-affirming”, “gloriously rude” and a “subversive genius”. Shades here of Nat Tate, the imaginary painter passed off (with some success) by William Boyd. According to Laurie Taylor, who appeared alongside Libby Purves to lend a touch of verisimilitude, he was a satirist of rare distinction, the Tom Lehrer of York. 

Consider the source, as they say. And consider the performer. Here was a white man who sported dreadlocks, wore dark glasses on the murkiest days, and liked to say “bum”. His act was a sour martini: two parts cruelty, two parts vanity, with a dash of mild profanity. 

So, while a few dimwits tittered, mature listeners recognised Henry Blofeld’s description of another show-off, “who tried to fart above his arsehole”. But it was only a spoof. In real life the windmill-tilters at Radio 4 would never have engaged such a tiresome chump.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover