Running and Cheating: regarding Coe, Ovett and Savile

I love running, and the history of my race times for 10k’s, half-marathons, marathons and other random distances is all laid out through the internet, should anyone care. I’ve entered many races, and from time to time found myself unable to run due to injury, or with some clashing engagement. Sometimes you may be able to return your number to the organiser, who, perhaps for a small fee, can reassign it to another runner at your direction. But frequently this is not allowed, or the deadline to do this has expired. So it seems harmless enough, charitable even, to simply give your number unofficially to another runner – after all, the race may be sold out. And half marathons can cost upwards of £30 to enter.

But if you give your number to a slower runner, you’ll get a disappointing time against your name. Worse, if they are faster, you’ll get a great time which you haven’t earned, of which you’re not capable, and may have to face the congratulations or suspicions of fellow runners who notice it. My running history shows a wide range of performance stretching from poor to average. But it is mine, and it is true. This is why I have never given away my race number, or taken over anyone else’s. I don’t want to be a cheat. In a world of bullshit, some things should be kept pure.

But it’s easy to say that when nothing depends on my performance besides personal pride. At the elite end of the field, if an athlete can summon just a 1% improvement in his or her time – perhaps using performance enhancing drugs or blood doping – that translates to the length of the home straight in the 10,000 metres. That could easily be the difference between gold and fourth. We shouldn’t be surprised that athletes and their trainers are prepared to break the rules in pursuit of glory.

The athletics heroes of my (relative) youth were Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, who presided over a golden age of British middle-distance running in the late 1970s and early 1980s: between them they won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers and one bronze. They broke a total of seventeen world records in the 800 metres, mile and 1500 metres.

In his fascinating book on the rivalry between these two athletes, The Perfect Distance, Pat Butcher attempts to address the suspicions which Coe and Ovett inevitably attracted with their astounding performances. This is what Coe said:

‘I used to hear those rumours: “Oh, he goes to Switzerland, to Italy, for his blood.” I used to laugh it off, and Steve [Mitchell] and Malcolm [Williams] were mainly with me in Switzerland. I’m afraid it’s the sadness of sport. This is where you’ve got to be so careful about pointing fingers at people making big breakthroughs, because only in public terms is it a big breakthrough. In reality, you’ve been slogging away, mile after mile, weight after weight, ten years at a time.’

Not quite a denial, is it? Here is Ovett’s take:

‘I suppose when we were knocking records off left, right and centre people must have thought, What the hell’s going on here with these two? But I can put my hand on my heart, and on my children’s lives, that I never took an aspirin or a paracetamol at any stage in my career. I was frightened to death of doing a thing like that, and I’m very proud that I didn’t. So, you know, they can say what they like because I know the true facts.’

When read literally, despite the chilling decision to involve his children, this statement falls short of being a complete denial of taking performance enhancing drugs, and doesn’t address blood doping at all. The truth about drugs may be that they themselves don’t know: it would make sense to employ a ‘don’t ask’ policy with their scientists and nutritionists to enable them to believe themselves clean. However, it is unlikely that blood doping – which involves removing a pint of blood about a month before the event, then reintroducing it before race time to supercharge performance – could have taken place without their knowledge. I’d like to believe that Coe and Ovett were clean: they were my heroes. And it’s not possible for them to prove the negative. But their statements do not dispel the doubt.

Nor is cheating confined to the elite. There have been many instances, for example, of lesser mortals – often running for charities – cheating in the London Marathon: participants who, for example, run the first half in about two hours, only to then disappear from the timing mats until they are pictured beaming with their medal at the finish line at a time suggesting they ran the second half in near world record time. Typically they have simply turned left after crossing Tower Bridge and killed a little time before sauntering over the finish line.

Since the modern London Marathon began in 1981, one of the most regular celebrity runners – and now the most notorious – was the predatory and prolific sex offender, broadcaster Jimmy Savile.  He claimed to have run hundreds of marathons.  Before and after his death, and posthumous disgrace, there was much speculation in the running community about whether he had really done so, or whether he had cheated, perhaps by taking rides between photo opportunities.  Some runners offered anecdotal evidence of having overtaken him several times during the race while he had never passed them in return.

Jimmy Savile

Of course, set against his many serious crimes, this matters not at all.  But I found the question wouldn’t go away, and until recently, to answer it would require more research than I had time or energy for: the London Marathon results for the early years were confined to dusty libraries and ancient newspaper listings.

But a while ago the organisers of the London Marathon created a results database to celebrate the first one million finishers of the London Marathon, and it became possible to search online all results since the race was founded.  This has enabled me to carry out the research with the economy of effort better suited to a marathon runner.  So here it is.

Jimmy Savile’s London Marathon Times

Savile ran the London Marathon for each of its first eleven years, until he was 64 years old.  He is not shown in any results after 1991.  One caveat is that these years didn’t have the benefit of chip timing, nor the timing mats at 5k intervals which make it difficult to cheat the course.

I’ll admit that I took a look at this hoping to nail the guy, perhaps by finding a freakishly good time, or extreme variations.  But to my disappointment I couldn’t find much of a story here.  These times have the ring of truth about them: not so good they’re unbelievable, but consistent with a recreational runner of a reasonable standard.  His best times are only slightly outside the current (fairly demanding) “good for age” times for the Virgin Money London Marathon.  His 1987 time, for example, is only 74 seconds outside the mark.

One reason for scepticism about his times has been his assertion that he didn’t need to train for marathons: he claimed that he just turned up and ran.  Galling though this might be to runners slogging through their training programmes, if you run in as many races as Savile claimed to, that can itself be sufficient training to produce a respectable performance.

And Savile had an extremely high profile – it is difficult to imagine him slipping in and out of the race unnoticed. There is no credible evidence of cheating, and on this occasion – only – we should give him the benefit of the doubt. (But see the fourth postscript below).

Coe and Ovett, though?  I think the jury’s still out.

Postscript: after I put a link to this story on Chiltern Harriers’ Facebook page, a fellow Harrier called Ian Chapman posted this:

Much as I hate to defend him I ran most of the London Marathon with, or close to, Jimmy Savile in 1983 although he pulled away and beat me by a few minutes in the end.

I can confirm from that year’s results that Savile did in fact finish about eight minutes before Mr Chapman. As this was the year of Savile’s fastest London Marathon time (3.33.59) this suggests to me that his other results are also likely to be genuine. You don’t have to be a good person to run a marathon, it seems.

Second postscript: 16 July 2019. I had this comment from Jules:

He did train!! Back then I lived in Stoke Mandeville, he was always out running so he definitely put the training in. I assume he trained harder when being a wrestler too. Lots of people do secret training as with secret revision for exams, so as to appear better to others!!

So it looks like Savile wasn’t telling the truth about not doing any training – which provides more evidence that his times were genuine.

Third postscript: 23 March 2021. Jeremy, a friend from school, chanced upon my blog and wrote this:

I did my first half-marathon at Windsor in about 1989 – I was overtaken by Jimmy Savile and his entourage chugging past.

More anecdotal evidence from runners that Savile’s running achievements were genuine. However…

Fourth postscript: 9 April 2022. Scottish comedian and journalist Scott Agnew wrote in this Facebook post that he caught Savile cheating during the 1999 Great North Run (half marathon). This took place when Savile was 73, over eight years after his final recorded London Marathon. This account is supported by the contribution from “Everso” to the comments section below. So it certainly appears that he did cheat at least once in later years – probably justifying this as not wishing to “disappoint his fans”. Agnew’s fascinating post gives an insight into how Savile was able to browbeat journalists into keeping his secrets. Where running was concerned, his undoubted fundraising prowess might excuse complicity: for his other offences, not so much.

11 thoughts on “Running and Cheating: regarding Coe, Ovett and Savile

  1. Hi Rik

    Can’t get on line to post a proper comment but loved this last ramble if only because marathons might have been the only honest thing Saville did! I agree with your conclusions about Coe and Ovett – very ambiguous comments but understandable in a way.

    Love Sue

    Sent from my iPad



    1. For what it’s worth… many years ago I did the Great North Run. Savile was the celebrity starter waving a flag in some bridge. I ran under that bridge with him still up there. I can’t believe I would not have seen him pass me yet he finished 20 minutes ahead of me.

      Don’t get me wrong – I an not complaining he beat me … I am was overweight and not in good condition … but I will swear on the life of my first born child he did not at any time pass me on the road.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Everso, interesting. What year was that? Was there any chip timing in the Great North Run at the time?


  2. Thanks Sue. Yes, for Coe and Ovett, I suspect at the time if you thought everyone else was doing it, you’d feel like a chump if you didn’t.


  3. He did train!!
    Back then I lived in stoke Mandeville, he was always out running so he definitely put the training in.
    I assume he trained harder when being a wrestler too.
    Lots of people do secret training as with secret revision for exams, so as to appear better to others!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jules. That’s interesting. I guess he was telling porkies about that, as you say, to make himself look more talented. I’ll reflect that in the article.


  4. I watched all Coes, Ovetts and Crams races.
    The first two were determined to beat each other. Never even looked drugged before or after their races. The question put to them was unkind and did not deserve an answer. Why should they defend or deny cheating when they had done nothing to defend.


    1. Hi, and thanks for your comment. Certainly Coe and Ovett were fiercely competitive, especially against each other, but that could actually increase the temptation break the rules. As to looking drugged, I don’t think the drugs athletes might use to enhance performance would result in them looking any different, or looking “spaced out” like so-called recreational drugs would. But you’re quite right, they’re not on trial, and aren’t obliged to answer any questions. They were heroes of my youth, and believe me I still want to think they were clean.


    2. I know that not far from Coe and Ovett era there was a certain Lingford Christie who was always suspected of enhancing his running but it was never proved.

      I like to think Coe and Ovett were good clean guys and ran without help.

      Remember the first 4 minute mile?
      Also Johnson who was proven to have enhanced his skills, this makes me more confident about Coe and Ovett.
      Finally we have Mo Farrah who broke many records and was clean as a whistle.

      Put into perspective Coe, Ovett and Mo were all overtaken by faster people in the end and naturally so.

      Liked by 1 person

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