Winston Churchill once saw ‘history stumbling along the trail of the past with its flickering lamp’.
My path along that path takes me from World Athletics HQ in Monaco to the incomparable Italian gem of Florence, where the city is now hosting our third Diamond League athletics meeting of the year.
It would normally be in Rome, but the Olympic Stadium will host the Italian football team in the European Championship.
Seb Coe crossed the line in Florence in 1981 after setting a world record in the 800 meters of 1:41.73
Thursday’s event rather easily serves as the 40th anniversary of my second 800m world record. And I am truly honored to say that I have been given the freedom of this amazing city!
When I look back at other world records I’ve set in my career, I often think of those exhaustion situations with a grimace. But when I think back to that night in Florence, and as Churchill went on, “to fan with pale brilliance the passions of old,” it is not with a grimace but with a smile.
The record I set four decades ago bordered on comical. I arrived in Florence early that season with a carefree attitude.
The year before, I even came out of the Moscow Olympics with Steve Ovett. Olympic years are bruises physically and mentally, as the athletes currently preparing for Tokyo will readily attest.
Coe returns home with the trophy after his unforgettable 800m run in Florence in 1981
After taking an Olympic title with all the pressures that came with the Moscow Games, including the boycott attempt, I decided that 1981 was going to be a season of personal indulgence.
I arrived in Florence with a small British team, including one of my training partners from Loughborough, Wendy Sly, and others who are benchmarking their form for the remainder of the season.
On the night of the race, after I had warmed up gently, I was advised by the meeting director that the evening would be about an hour late.
So I went to the infield, accompanied by team colleagues who had already participated at the time, and promptly fell asleep.
I was awakened from my sleep by Wendy, who advised me it was time to start my warm-up routine again. While I was doing that, the great Carl Lewis – in the infancy of his career – won the 100 meters.
The clock stopped and registered a highly improbable 9.1 seconds, which not only broke the existing record, but also made me think about how many decades it would be before another human being would come within reach.
Coe (above) celebrates winning the men’s 1500 meters at the 1980 Moscow Olympics
As Carl crossed the line and the stadium erupted, he instinctively started his lap of honor as he entered the last straight while the crowd was still loud.
The clock brought its time up to a smidgeon outside of 10 seconds, which was still an excellent time at that time of the season, but a bit of a wet blanket at night. I even remember Lewis completing the last 30 meters of his victory lap to get mad.
In later years, when he remembered the race with him, he thought that lap of honor was the furthest he’d ever run. Against that background, I ran out onto the track for the 800m.
Our team manager that evening, a lovely former athlete from Northern Ireland, Maeve Kyle, asked if there was anything she could do to help. I took off my plastic training watch, handed it to her, and asked her to call halfway through the time so I could calibrate my progress to a fast time.
I didn’t go to Florence with a world record in mind. My pacesetter that night was Billy Konchellah, a very talented Kenyan runner who won two World Championships. Billy took me through the first lap and I felt it was fast, but in the midst of the noise I didn’t hear Maeve relay the timing information to me.
When I crossed the line, everyone ran onto the track. Maeve made her way through the crowd and apologized for not sharing the information. The reason she told me was that it was so fast that she thought she was wrong and didn’t want to be responsible for messing up my second lap.
I then asked in the chaos what time she had finally stopped the clock and she sheepishly said she was afraid to tell me. I pressed her and she reluctantly showed me the training watch that had stopped at something like 1.41.
My first thought was that I wouldn’t start a Lewis-esque lap of honor only to face a significantly slower time as the official clock came alive.
As I walked away from the track, some officials started yelling ‘world record’ at me. By the time official time came for all to see, it was too late to do anything but consider whether there would be any hot food left in the hotel.
Returning to Loughborough University early the next morning, I made my way to the refectory where breakfast was still being served. There were a few stragglers and a few of them, athletes, asked me why I wasn’t training the night before.
Oh, those beautiful days for social media. Now everyone knows everything in seconds! I was too hungry to really bother with it. They had the good graces to come back a few minutes later and celebrate that I had seen a newspaper.
Over the course of that season, I added the 1000m and one mile world records and won the Europe and World Cup. And a season undefeated.
And here I greet my team in the back room led by my father who was also my coach, my Loughborough University coach George Gandy and others who brought in cutting edge science skills.
Many of the things we did on the training circuit were new, certainly innovative, and in some circles a lightning rod for criticism, which often happens when you dare to challenge the status quo. But I’m still smiling.