"Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up."
— Captain Ahab on the white whale, in Moby Dick
"Watching you win those races when I was fighting for my life — you were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.''
— Niki Lauda on James Hunt in the movie, "Rush"
It was Christmas, 1979, but Sebastian Coe's memories of the day have little to do with gifts or the dinner at his family's house in Sheffield, England. He was instead focused on the future and fixated in the present on a rival.
Coe would be a gold medal contender at the 1980 Summer Olympics in one of the middle distance races the British view as their national patrimony.
Over the six years since he had first raced — and lost to — countryman Steve Ovett in a prep cross-country championship, it had also become apparent Coe's biggest rival for gold would be Ovett. It was northerner against southerner, an outgoing athlete against a silent one, both so good they would later break Ovett's year-old world record for the mile three times in nine days, Coe twice and Ovett once.
On that Christmas morning, as Coe recalls, he did a 10-mile run over demanding terrain near his home. After returning, he felt a vague sense of unease and realized it came from thinking Ovett must be doing two workouts that day. So Coe went out for another run of some 15 miles.
More than a quarter-century later, when the long-retired rivals and 1980 gold medalists were having dinner together in Australia, Coe told Ovett how he had spent that Christmas. And Ovett replied, "Did you only go out twice that day?"
A few years earlier, another such nearly monomaniacal confrontation in another sport the British long considered theirs had become a gripping national and global melodrama.
This one involved the battle between England's James Hunt and Austria's Niki Lauda for the 1976 world championship in Formula One automobiles, a sport where death then was an ever-present shadow. It was a rivalry that had begun in 1973 and escalated into a mix of recrimination and respect that caused both men to compete in 1976 at the boundaries of reason.
Lauda's team had Hunt disqualified from a race he won for a minor technical infraction. Hunt, who later had the disqualification overturned, pushed defending world champion Lauda to race under conditions that nearly killed him. After nearly burning to death, after skin grafts and lung vacuuming, Lauda returned to racing 42 days later in an attempt to keep his lead in the standings and win another title.
The aristocratic Hunt, then 28, was a playboy epitomizing the devil-may-care culture of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in mid-1970s England, while Lauda, 27, was the everlasting archetype of dull Teutonic precision.
A poster for "Rush," a Ron Howard film about the Hunt-Lauda rivalry that opens nationwide Friday, uses the tag line, "Everyone's Driven by Something."
"The movie captures the extremes to which sportsmen — even intelligent sportsmen — are prepared to drive themselves once they are locked into a duel like this," said James Allen, who covers Formula One racing for the Financial Times and BBC radio.
Athletes can do the irrational simply out of inner drive. The Arizona Cardinals' Rashad Johnson kept playing Sunday after part of his finger snapped off while his team was being pounded by the New Orleans Saints. The Boston Bruins' Gregory Campbell broke his leg blocking a shot in Game 3 of the 2013 Stanley Cup conference final and stayed on the ice to help kill more than a minute remaining on a Penguins power play.
The intensity of a great rivalry can heighten the risk of such behavior, going from motivation to obsession for the people involved.
"My coach said, 'Don't focus on (Ovett), focus on what you are doing,' " Coe said. "That's completely logical but in reality it's (b.s.). ... It's not what great rivalries are about."