He wasn’t Coe, Cram or Ovett, but a bit of luck and some fairness from officialdom might have seen Peter Elliott mentioned in the same breath as those running greats.
I realise this column is rapidly becoming a delve into my childhood but sport was so much more fun in my day… before football dwarfed everything, before the advent of satellite TV, before sports stars became controlled by agents, before access to them involved crediting some sponsor etc. etc.
When I was young, athletics was one of the biggest sports in the country largely thanks to Britain’s champion middle-distance runners.
The rivalry between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett kicked things off in the late 70s but the baby-faced Steve Cram joined them by becoming the first 1500m world champion in 1983. There were others who didn’t quite make the step up to the very top: Tom McKean who sometimes had to barge his way out of a pocket at the end of the 800 metres; and David Sharpe, Curtis Robb and Matthew Yates who all showed great promise as youngsters but later struggled with injury.
But there was one who did make the jump to world class despite often finding his path blocked, sometimes unfairly, by the big names.
If I break into something a bit brisker than a jog, I go into Peter Elliott mode. There’s quite a high knee lift and a sort of staccato arm action with one arm (my right as opposed to Elliott’s left) coming up higher than the other. There’s also an occasional look down which I always see as akin to ‘digging in’ to up the tempo.
At 16, Elliott was one of the best young runners in the country and he was given a taste of what lay in store when he trained with the already-established Ovett under his coach Harry Wilson in Wales. He soon took a full-time job at British Steel which only became part-time in 1988 as his athletics career flourished.
Rotherham’s finest made his first big impression at just 20 at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki, reaching the final where he and future Olympic champion Joaquim Cruz did a great job of cutting each other’s throats before Willi Wuelbeck took gold. While Cruz managed to hold on for the bronze, Elliott faded back into fourth.
The following year, Elliott became a household name in unfortunate circumstances. Back then, you had the AAA Championships (known as the three ‘A’s) which served as the trials for major competitions. With world champion Cram and then world record holder Ovett already pre-selected for the Olympic 1500m, there was what was billed as a race-off between the red-headed Yorkshireman and defending Olympic champion Coe who had been struggling for form and fitness. Elliott won it but scandalously, and I say this as a huge childhood Coe fan, the place went to the older man. While the selectors would have felt vindicated by Coe retaining his Olympic title in Los Angeles, it was still a case of unfair play. Elliott did run in the 800m in LA but an injury saw him fail to line up for the semi-finals.
The next couple of years were lean for Elliott. He took 800m bronze in the 1986 Commonwealth Games – a depleted event with Kenya among several nations boycotting Edinburgh due to Britain’s refusal to issue sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa – although even at his best he’d have struggled against Cram who absolutely bolted up.
Elliott then qualified for the 800m final at the 1987 World Championships in Rome but found one too good as Billy Konchellah took gold with McKean again orchestrating his own downfall. But he had claimed his first global medal and continued that fine form into Olympic year.
After the 1984 debacle, the powers that be had decided on a consistent qualification format with one athlete pre-selected and the first two in the AAA Championships joining them. Personally, I prefer the ‘top three or bust’ system employed in the USA and Kenya, but I digress. Cram got the automatic berth and would double up in Seoul after taking victory in the 800m. But Coe was short of fitness and failed to make the final in Birmingham meaning he would be unable to defend his Olympic title. Elliott won from Steve Crabb and that should have been that.
Except it wasn’t. The Daily Mirror started its ‘Coe Must Go’ campaign and Elliott was bizarrely the man in the firing line. Elliott also doubled up but, unlike Cram, he reached the 800m final which came first. Unfortunately, he needed a pain-killing injection in his abdomen before that final in which he finished fourth behind the long-striding Paul Ereng who, despite visuals suggesting he ran the second lap far quicker than the first, actually ran both laps in the same time and was merely staying on past slowing rivals.
Elliott made smooth progress through to the 1500m final and was arguably the favourite to keep the title in Britain. But he again found a Kenyan too good, the previously unheralded Peter Rono who barely won a race after his Olympic triumph. Rono gradually wound it up with a lap to go and Elliott, East Germany’s Jens-Peter Herold and Cram could not reel him in.
Arguably his finest hour came in the Commonwealth Games 1500m in 1990 when he beat the best Kenyans in Auckland for his first major triumph. An unassuming athlete who let his running do the talking, Elliott showed his class by inviting home hero John Walker, who had tripped during the race, to join him on his lap of honour. Coe retired after Auckland having finished sixth in the 800m before pulling out of the 1500m with a chest infection.
Still only 27, Elliott then ran a personal best of 1:42.97 for the 800m which was the fastest time in the world in 1990. But then came what he describes as the biggest disappointment of his career – suffering an injury which meant he had to fire the starting pistol to open the new synthetic track in his hometown Rotherham he had long campaigned for rather than race on it.
That track was the scene of another crushing blow two years later when, while training ahead of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Elliott tore a hamstring. He quit the sport, a year after Ovett and with Cram a shadow of his former self. The era of British middle-distance greatness was over.
Between those two Rotherham track setbacks was one last great triumph. Herold had beaten a below-par Elliott to win the European title in 1990, but Elliott gained revenge in typically gutsy fashion at the 1991 Europa Cup. He may not have had the devastating finishing kick of a Coe or a Cram, preferring to run from the front or wind up the pace around 200-300m from home, but he was mighty hard to pass.
Since retirement, Elliott has been working to help the next generation of athletes. He joined the English Institute of Sport in 2004 and is now its Director of Operations. As a competitor and as a person, there can’t be many better examples to follow.