A trio of British 800m boys swept the medals at the European U20 Champs but can they go on to match the exploits of their famous predecessors?
One of the great mysteries of British athletics is why the middle-distance successes of the 1980s eventually dried up despite so many young runners being inspired by the exploits of Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, Peter Elliott and others.
There have been glimmers of hope. Curtis Robb reached world and Olympic finals and Matt Yates won the European indoor 1500m title in the early 1990s. Mike East won Commonwealth 1500m gold in 2002. Mark Sesay, Mike Rimmer and Ross Murray showed flashes of brilliance. This summer, of course, Charlie Grice ran 3:30.62 to go No.4 on the UK all-time 1500m rankings. Yet none have quite displayed the world-beating ability of their famous predecessors.
Teenage record-breakers are often dubbed ‘the new Coe or Ovett’, but the pressure of history and expectation weighs heavily on their young shoulders and when it comes to winning a global senior men’s 800m or 1500m title there have been 35 years of hurt.
Perhaps the latest generation will be different, though. They certainly appear to have their heads screwed on and with an eye-catching sweep of the 800m medals at the European Under-20 Championships in Borås, Sweden, last month they have got off to a flying start.
Oliver Dustin surged to victory ahead of long-time leader Ben Pattison with Finley Mclear earning a battling bronze as the rest of Europe finished more than a second adrift. As they swept off the bend it was reminiscent to the 1986 European 800m final when Coe, Cram and Tom McKean (pictured below) were memorably described as like ‘Spitfires out of the sun’. But can these baby Spitfires develop into senior champions?
“It’s overwhelming to be compared to people who dominated the world in the 1980s,” says 18-year-old Dustin. “I’m just doing my own thing rather than being caught up being compared to Steve Cram and Seb Coe, who were world record-holders. I need to continue to work hard and dedicate my life to getting what I want to achieve.”
Despite only being born in December 2001, Pattison says he is very aware of the British runners from the 1980s and says: “I knew what they’d done and I knew we could do similar – albeit at a younger level. It shows how strong 800m running is at the moment in Britain. The fact our fastest runner, Max Burgin, wasn’t even there and we still managed to come top three, quite a way clear of the rest of the field, is pretty special.”
Mclear adds: To be compared to them is an honour really. They achieved so much and did so much for British athletics and the sport on a whole. I hope we can emulate them and bring back the golden days and that this is the start of something and not just a one-off.”
Very much like the 1980s icons, the class of 2019 come from different parts of the UK too. Coe and Elliott were raised in Yorkshire, with Cram in the north-east of England and Ovett on the south coast city of Brighton – and they all had their own coaches, training plans and personalities. Similarly, Dustin, Pattison, Mclear and Burgin have different backgrounds.
Dustin is from the fell running county of Cumbria but describes himself as a “400/800m type who trains like an 800/1500m runner with plenty of cross country”. He’s been coached for several years by Graeme Mason and is advised by Cram – and that arrangement will continue when he starts a chemistry degree in Birmingham this autumn.
Pattison is from Basingstoke & Mid Hants AC in the south of England and has focused on 400m in recent seasons before moving up to 800m with great effect. A tall, long-striding runner he was also the youngest in the entire event in Borås.
Mclear, meanwhile, studies in Ohio in the United States but the 18-year-old’s parents own a pub in Devon and he has a background as a footballer, basketball player and, in 2016, he won the English Schools 1500m steeplechase title.
As for Burgin, the Halifax Harrier is guided by his father and grandfather, who were both good runners. He employed his trademark front-running tactics to win the European under-18 title last year and despite missing Borås this year with a minor injury he clocked a spectacular 1:45.36 aged 17 in June.
Burgin’s time is faster than any British junior in history has achieved. He has a long way to go to match Coe’s British record of 1:41.73 but could hardly have enjoyed a more promising start.