The 1978 European Athletics Championships 800m final remains one of the most thrilling middle-distance races ever – any championship, any era – and a mark of its magnitude is the fact that the winning time of 1:43.84 is still a championship record more than four decades later.
The race had all the elements of a film script with a backstory of two fierce rivals for the title and a stunning and surprising denouement which nobody could have predicted, least of all the parochial British media at the time.
The British duo of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe were not just the main contenders for the gold medal in Prague over two laps of the track but, in many people’s eyes, the only contenders. However, as athletics aficionados know that’s not how the race in the Czech capital played out.
As the gun went, and anticipating Coe’s tactics accurately, the famed British TV commentator David Coleman asked: “Will Coe run it from the front all the way?”
By 150 metres, shortly after the stagger had unravelled, Coe had darted across the track from his designated lane five, taking the shortest line and in the lead.
With 300 metres covered, coming into the home straight for the first time, Coe was still dictating the pace at the front with East Germany’s unsung 21-year-old Olaf Beyer just behind him and Ovett tucked close to the curb battling for third with another East German, Andreas Busse, on his outside.
The order remained the same as the leading quartet passed the bell, Coe clocking an astonishingly fast 49.32 for the first 400m, over a second inside the first lap en route to his British record of 1:44.25 that he had set 13 days earlier in Brussels.
Ovett started to move up just after 500 metres and tracked Coe down the back straight, getting on his shoulder as they entered the final bend and started to sprint away from his compatriot with 100 metres to go.
However, all the while Beyer had been following the two Britons and as Ovett made his move the tall blond blue-vested Easter German started to go through the gears, firstly passing the tiring Coe 60 metres out and then catching the flying Ovett 20 metres before the line.
Beyer ran a European best with electronic timing, just 0.1 away from the existing European record of 1:43.7 held by Italy’s Marcel Fiasconaro, with records still rounded to a tenth-of-a second, and less than half-a-second outside the world record of 1:43.4 by Cuba's 1976 Olympic champion Alberto Juantorena.
Ovett ran a British record of 1:44.09, also inside the previous championship record, while Coe took the bronze with 1:44.76.
“That was the undoubtedly the run of my athletics career," reflected Olaf Beyer in 2018 on the 40th anniversary of his gold medal. Despite a plethora of domestic titles, he was never again to climb to podium at a major international championship.
“In 1978, I got through the year without injury. I was able to prepare very well with training camps in Iraq, Algeria and Bulgaria. Shortly before Prague, I ran the 400m twice in 47.5 in Potsdam (his home city) so I knew I was in shape.
“In the European Championship final, I planned to run at the front right from the start. It worked. Sebastian Coe immediately took the lead, running the first 400 in 49.3 and faster than ever, I was just behind. The second Briton, Steve Ovett, passed me 250 metres before the finish but I knew I had the speed. I then had to switch to the third lane to have a free run over the last 100 metres.”
The Britons were stunned.
“Two weeks earlier…I broke the British record, and I was feeling pretty upbeat. I was ranked No. 1 in Europe, my time a full second inside Ovett’s, but even so, he was still the man to beat. There were two other East Germans in the field, Detlef Wagenecht and Andreas Busse. Although they rarely competed outside the Eastern Bloc, you couldn’t discount these guys and I’d thought ‘If anyone is going to figure in this race beyond Steve and me it was going to be one of them….’ But Beyer?” reflected Coe in his autobiography Running My Life.
“After seeing off front-runner Seb, I thought I had done all that was needed to win the 800m until Olaf Beyer stunned me, and the world,” commented Ovett succinctly in his own autobiography.
One man who did have faith in Beyer’s ability was his coach Bernd Diessner. “Olaf was in superb form that year, he was a great talent (Beyer had won the 1976 and 1977 East German 800m titles),” Diessner commented to the German athletics journalist Jorg Wenig back in 2004.
“I had expected that Coe and Ovett would somehow tear each other apart in that final so I told him to stay behind them, and Olaf was tactically a very clever runner. It was all happening as expected.”
“Right after the race Olaf simply went out through the tunnel, which I did not understand, but it was typically of Olaf. He is a very shy person and he would never have liked the idea of being celebrated so he simply went through that tunnel. I later asked him: 'Why did you do this, why did you not run a lap of honour? You should have done so.”
Beyer’s quick departure from his scene of triumph led to no end of cold war rhetoric and insinuations in the western European media but, at the same time, the East German noted that neither of the two Britons made much effort to congratulate him or shake his hand.
The prevailing politics in Europe have changed a lot since that race but those two combative and exhilarating laps of the track in Prague have stood the test of time as, without doubt, a Golden Moments in European Athletics.