Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe presided over the golden era of British athletics. Between them they won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers, one bronze, and broke a total of twelve middle-distance records. They were part of the landscape of the late seventies and early eighties -- both household names, their exploits were watched by millions (in an age before video, satellite and Sky Sports, the BBC Nine O'Clock News was often interrupted to accommodate their successes). As far apart as possible in terms of class and upbringing -- Ovett is the art student, the long-haired son of a market-trader from Brighton, a natural athlete; Coe's formative years were spent under the rigorous training routine of Peter Coe, a self-taught trainer who referred to his son as 'my athlete' -- their rivalry burned as intense on the track as away from it. The pendulum swung between the pair of them -- each breaking the other's records, and, memorably, triumphing in each other's events in Moscow in 1980 -- for the best part of a decade, until the final showdown at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 . . .
Twenty years on, Pat Butcher, a runner himself and athletics correspondent of The Times in the eighties, has spoken at length to both athletes; to Coe, the Tory MP, and to Ovett, whom he tracked down in Australia. He writes in depth about the British obsession with and dominance of middle-distance running, the mile, and speaks to many of the great 'milers' down the years, the likes of the Swedes Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson, John Walker and, of course, Roger Bannister. The Perfect Distance is both a detailed re-creation and a fitting celebration of the greatest era of British athletics.