Growing up, I had my fair share of heroes that I worshipped to varying degrees. Top of the list was Spiderman, but not far behind was the Olympic 800m champion Steve Ovett.
While I might kid myself that I can remember that epic victory in Moscow, where a ‘physical’ Ovett ran away from the world record holder Sebastian Coe, the reality is that my nine-year-old self has very little recollection of the events from 1980, a knowledge that has since been supplanted with frequent visits to youtube and repeats of any number of programmes documenting the event.
I used to have a book that Steve Ovett had signed (it’s since been confined to the annals of history, otherwise known as the bin). My ever-vigilant father spotted the middle distance supremo at Crawley athletics track doing a workout and – once Ovett had finished – asked for an autograph which he duly obliged. A few years later, Seb Coe did a book signing in my town, so I got him to sign next to his nemesis, an act that raised a few eyebrows (and dare I say a few pounds on ebay if I had been fortunate enough to keep the now-crumbling tome).
I was reminded of these events the other day during a conversation about today’s running heroes. Asked who I most admired, I struggled to come up with one name, let alone an exhaustive list. While I could reel off luminaries like Steve Prefontaine, Dave Bedford, Steve Jones, Ron Hill, Said Aouita and Emil Zatopek as ‘heroes’, from today’s leading talents, I would be hard-pressed to name anyone who could be close to a hero.
Where are the colourful characters of yesteryear, the mavericks who would make us smile or cheer with their antics and running prowess? Where’s the next Dave Bedford, all flowing hair and handlebar moustache, front running to a world 10,000m record? Where’s the next Steve Ovett, losing a race to John Treacy on the line because he’d had the gall to wave to the crowd with 100m left to go of his 5,000m race? Where’s the next Emil Zatopek who entered – and won – the Olympic marathon simply because he wanted to give it a go?
While I can stand and admire the talents of Mo Farah and Wilson Kipsang, fantastic runners that they are, could they ever be my ‘hero’. Sadly, the truth is no. God-given their talent may be, but charismatic? I don’t think so. Steve Prefontaine famously said “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.” I can’t imagine today’s runners coming up with something so pertinent – or heroic!