It’s 10.35 on one of those gloriously mellow July evenings in Oslo when it seems as if the sun is never going to set, and the past 4½ hours of athletics in the time-honoured Bislett Stadium have provided surely enough entertainment and excitement to satisfy the most demanding of knowledgeable spectators. Admittedly, the snowball-throwing for Under 16s (meeting record 81.46) was no more than a quaint tea-time diversion, but what followed was seriously good. The action had been non-stop, unfolding as follows in more or less chronological order on 10 July 1993.
Linford Christie had beaten Frankie Fredericks, 10.08 to 10.11, and Merlene Ottey had won by only slightly more from Gwen Torrence, 10.94 to 10.98, in the 100 metres races.
Trine Hattestad had enraptured the 20,000-strong clamorous Norwegian crowd packed on the terra¬ces round the intimate six-lane track with the furthest women’s javelin throw for three years, 72.12.
Sonia O’Sullivan had run the fastest women’s 3000 metres for five years (8:28.72), with Yvonne Murray only 10 metres or so behind and 19-year-old Paula Radcliffe almost unnoticed with a personal best in 6th place.
Werner Gunthor had hurled the shot out to 21.42. Colin Jackson, Heike Drechsler, Michael Johnson and Maria Mutola (ahead of Kelly Holmes, who was under two minutes for the first time) had all won their events in majestic style.
Oh, and by the way, Yobes Ondieki had broken the World record for 10,000 metres and become the first man under 27 minutes, despite not having run the event for the last decade. But then for those of us who had been making our way to the annual Bislett Games for a few years now – and would go on doing so for some time to come – a 10,000 metres world record was more or less part of the script. Ron Clarke had run his historic 27:39.4 here 18 years ago. Ingrid Kristiansen had broken 31 minutes in 1985 and then got close to the half-hour the next year.
Now the runners were on the starting-line for the men’s 800 metres – and the track record for that had itself been a world record, and the 43rd of 81 so far set in this gathering-place for the Gods, when Sebastian Coe had run 1:42.4 in 1979. On the face of it, this year’s event looked to provide no more than a pleasant interlude before the milers appeared. None of the world’s fastest 10 of the season, led by Johnny Gray at 1:42.80, were entered. But Tom McKean and Martin Steele were there for Britain, and there were a couple of Norwegians who would enthuse the locals (one of the pair would eventually become an Olympic champion, though we had no reason to suspect so at that juncture).
In any case, with even more distant memories of Moens and Boysen becoming the first men to break 1 minute 46 seconds on this same track almost half-a-century previously, and then Coe cracking 1:43, the 800 metres had a particular Nordic resonance. To enhance the personal passion of a long retired half-miler of modest attainment (cinders and yards in my day), I’d been spellbound at the 1989 Bislett Games as an unfamiliar Kenyan named Robert Kibet had charged through a first lap in under 49 seconds, and for a few delirious moments as he continued in like manner round the third bend I really believed we might be witness to the first sub-1 minute 40. We weren’t … and we’re still waiting.
The line-up, as we mused on these tantalising reminders of past deeds wafting like ghostly spirits across the azure sky-line, was McKean and Steele, Atle Douglas and Vebjørn Rodal (Norway), Ray Brown (USA), Reda Abdenouz (Algeria), Andrea Benvenuti (Italy), Marko Koers (Holland) and Sammy Langat (Kenya). McKean had won the World Indoor title in Toronto in March, and he and Steele had been 1-2 against rather ordinary US opposition in Edinburgh eight days before. Douglas had set a Norwegian record of 1:44.88 at the end of May. It should be a good race – and maybe some fast times if the customary pacemaker had been provided and did as he had been told.
Whether or not Ray Brown was supposed to run under 49 seconds for the first lap (actually 48.73), I was seized with near paroxysms of expectancy as the time flashed up on the electronic clock. The others in the race duly followed as best they could – Steele passing in 49.6, two places ahead of an uneasy McKean – and it was Steele who startlingly produced the fastest finish to win from Langat and Koers in 1:43.84. This was sensational stuff, indeed!
Never having previously broken 1:45, Steele was now the fourth fastest Briton ever, behind only Coe, Cram and Elliott! Not the classic build for an 800 metres runner at 1 metre 70 tall, Steele was nevertheless a wonderfully imposing sight round the second lap as he strode purposefully, and as if effortlessly, to the front. That race still remains one of my fondest memories of 16 successive visits to Oslo, with every year a wealth of exceptional performances to savour. Sadly, I have been unable to locate a single photograph of the occasion.
What better, though, than to let Martin Steele himself tell the story, as he has now done more than a quarter-of-a-centurylater.
“For the Oslo race I knew I was running well, but the 1:43 was a surprise given my previous personal best. What I remember very clearly about that race is how strung out the field was after 300 metres. I remember feeling like I was running flat out but still trailing the field. At the bell this changed. The field began to come back to me and I was able to relax down the back straight. On the final bend I felt strong, and people were still coming back to me. Up the home straight I still felt on top of my running and began to work for the line.
“Oslo is an awesome place to run, I had been told about the large enthusiastic crowd and the fact that the stadium was small with spectators being close to the track. It was a beautiful night with good temperatures and very little wind – perfect conditions for good middle-distance running. In warm-up I remember thinking that the track did feel fast. It was a stiffer type of Mondo, and my spikes felt really connected gliding round the bends doing warm-up strides.”
The result: 1. Steele 1:43.84, 2. Langat 1:44.72, 3. Koers 1:44.84, 4. Abdenouz 1:45.62, 5. Benvenuti 1:45.94; 6. Douglas 1:46.13, 7. Rodal 1:48.20, 8. McKean 1:49.32. Brown did not finish.
Having been 4th in the 1992 European Indoor Championships, Martin Steele was a semi-finalist in the 1993 World Championships and 7th in the next year’s Commonwealth Games final, and he says,
“On reflection I don’t feel as though I achieved my potential, I don’t feel as though I studied the event, the training or the diet required properly. At the time my attitude was that of ‘work hard and the results will come’. There is so much more to the event than this. The 800 metres was my event and I have massive respect for it. I enjoy watching the event and the tactical battles that evolve. It remains special to me and I am still proud of my UK all-time list 5th place.
“The 800 metres has a good mix of speed and endurance. It has evolved in recent years to become more intense, with fewer races having slow first laps. If you want to be competitive now, you have to be able to cope with first laps of 50-51 seconds. Historically, lots of races would have first laps of 53-54, allowing for breaks down the back straight and explosive kicks off the final bend. Given what I know now, I feel I may have been better suited to the 400 metres hurdles, but we will never know.
“I feel that as we evolve 800 metres times will continue to fall, but where it could go I have no idea. I’m more fascinated by the marathon, although I would never run this event. In terms of physical endeavour I find the pace maintained over the distance to be truly amazing. When I consider the world-record pace for 800 metres, and a runner covering each 100 metres in around 12 seconds for two laps, for the marathon world record the athlete is maintaining around 17 seconds per 100 metres – for over 26 miles.”
Born in Huddersfield on 30 September 1962, where he continues to live, Martin Steele was a late-comer to athletics, as he explains, “I turned to athletics at 22. My running at school was never recognised as being a potential. I took part in other sports – martial arts, cycling and going to the gym regularly. I do remember watching Sebastian Coe and his battles with Steve Ovett and thinking I could give running a go. I think I first attended Longwood Harriers in the September of 1984 and ran a time-trial over 200 metres and 800 metres. I posted 25 seconds for the 200 and around 2:16 for the 800. The coach at the time, Bill Dance, suggested I may be suitable to the 800.”
Steele’s progress was immediate, with 1:51.8 in 1985 and 1:49.0 in 1986, but was followed by five years on something of a plateau in the range 1:47.1-to-1:46.26 but winning the AAA indoor title in 1991 and 1992. The 1993 breakthrough had started with a 1:45.28 victory in Belfast on 19 June. But he was a rarity among athletes of the highest class because he was combining his sport with the most demanding of full-time jobs, and he acknowledges the difficulties he faced: “This goes back to ‘work hard and the results will come’. I come from a working-class background, and combining my ‘hobby’ with work was normal. This also shows my lack of understanding and knowledge at the time around what it really takes to be at the top of such a game. I did not devote the necessary time, energy and study to get the best out of myself.
“I’ve remained in Social Care, working across different areas, children with disabilities, Social Work teams and Children Looked After. Currently I am employed by my Local Authority to manage a Children’s Home. This is the work I enjoy, feel comfortable doing, and have grown accustomed to.
“I’m a life-time member at Longwood, and they wheel me out at celebration events. I have not turned to coaching, I feel that although I may have knowledge to share I’m not OK with being responsible for the success or failure of others. My daughter, aged 28, is aware that I had an athletics career but has not chosen to explore this sport for herself and I have not questioned this.”
Great Britain’s Top Ten All-Time at 800 metres
1:41.73 Sebastian Coe (1) Florence 10.06.81
1:42.88 Steve Cram (1) Zurich 21.08.85
1:42.97 Peter Elliott (1) Seville 30.05.90
1:43.77 Andrew Osagie (8) London OS (OG) 09.08.12
1:43.84 Martin Steele (1) Oslo 10.07.93
1:43.88 Tom McKean (1) London CP 28.07.89
1:43.89 Michael Rimmer (4) Rieti 29.08.10
1:43.98 David Sharpe (1) Zurich 19.08.92
1:44.09 Steve Ovett (2) Prague (ECh) 31.08.78
1:44.52 Jamie Webb (6) London OS 20.07.19
Geographical note: Six of these Top Ten were born in the North of England (Cram and Sharpe in the North-East; Elliott and Steele in Yorkshire; Rimmer and Webb on Merseyside). McKean was born even further north in Scotland. Coe lived most of his life in Yorkshire until going to college, though born in Middlesex. Only Osagie and Ovett are specifically from the South of England.
A statistical framework for GB’s sub-1:44 runners at 800 metres
Best times 400 metres 800 metres 1500 metres
Coe 46.87, 1979 1:41.73, 1981 3:29.77, 1986
Cram 49.1, 1982 1:42.88, 1985 3:29.67, 1985
Elliott 48.2, 1984 1:42.97, 1990 3:32.69, 1990
Osagie 48.8, 2009 1:43.77, 2012 3:48.99, 2009
Steele 47.4, 1990 1:43.84, 1993 3:42.8, 1992
McKean 47.60, 1985 1:43.88, 1989 3:47.95, 1990
Rimmer 47.9, 2016 1:43.89, 2010 3:38.91, 2011
Sharpe 48.04, 1990 1:43.98, 1992 3:42.7, 1985
Author’s footnote: After making contact with Martin Steele, thanks to Longwood Harriers, and receiving those so illuminating answers from Martin to the questions I put to him, he sent me a further e-mail, saying, “Thanks for your interest. Answering your questions took me back. It had me evaluating and re-living some of the events from that time”. My thanks, too, to Martin for his responses. They certainly revived memories for me.
As for the “Dream Mile” on that July evening of 1993, Morceli won in 3:47.78 from Bile and Cram, and the Olympic 1500 metres champion, Cacho, was 7th. I recall nothing of it. My mind was still agog with a most delightfully surprising 800 metres.
Was it all really more than a quarter-of-a-century ago?
Thank you to Bob Phillips for writing this article.