As the runners sprinted past the starting line at the end of the first lap, the 15-mph cross wind whipped away the spurts of dust from their spikes and a small colored boy, resting from hauling hurdles, chuckled softly. "Those cats think it's the 440, look like," he said. "Somethin' gotta give."
For a long time nothing did. The 9,000-odd spectators who crammed into Compton Junior College's ramshackle Ramsaur Stadium for one of the great miles of the year began to roar steadily as the field finished the half mile. Ron Delany, the sparrow-legged, dogged Irishman from Villa-nova, who has been unbeaten in the mile since running second to Derek Ibbotson's great 3:57.2 last July, clung doggedly to the heels of Australia's young Herb Elliott. Elliott, in turn, stayed a couple of strides off the blistering pace set for the first two quarters by Jerome Walters and Bob Shankland, a couple of milers along for the stride.
Elliott took over the lead as the field finished the half mile in a driving 1:59.3. Just before the race, Elliott's peppery, bright-eyed little coach, Percy Cerutty, his gray goatee bouncing with excitement, had boasted of how he and his pupil intended to beat the Irish Olympic champion: "We will set too fast a pace for him and steam him out."
But Delany did not look steamed out at the half. Afraid to let the Aussie get out of reach of his fine finishing kick, he stayed close through the third lap as Elliott, his stride even and smooth in odd contrast to Delany's pitter-patter, jerky style, led the way. Now Laszlo Tabori, the Hungarian expatriate who is training hard in California to regain the form that carried him to a 3:59 mile three years ago, moved past Delany, and as they turned into the gun lap it was Elliott in solid control with Tabori challenging. Delany, his stride choppy now and showing no signs whatsoever of being able to mount his famed finishing sprint, began to falter.
Although Elliott does not boast a blazing kick, he does run as fast a final quarter as anyone in the business. Tabori challenged him briefly down the backstretch, but it was a forlorn effort. With Cerutty waving a white towel at him in token of the possibility of a record, Elliott accelerated smoothly around the last turn and won easily in 3:58.1, 1/10th of a second off the recognized mark. Delany, turning into the homestretch, suddenly seemed to stop running, his legs moving on a treadmill and his face agonized. He bogtrotted in like a peat cutter heading home from a long day, a distant third behind Tabori.
Elliott, who appears to be a cinch to break the world record soon, might have done it on this night, save for the raw cross wind and the tremendous pace of the first quarter. But the happy-go-lucky youngster wasn't disturbed.
"Anytime I can win and run in 3:58 I feel that is what the people came to see and I am happy," he burbled. He mistook Tabori's challenge on the backstretch for Delany. "I thought I was in for a real race," he said, "but I didn't look around to see."
Coach Cerutty, whose prerace strategy had worked out perfectly, interrupted. "Delany can't hold a fast pace," he sniffed. "It's all very well running 4:04 on those boards indoors. But this is running to win."
TWO-LEGGED SILKY SULLIVAN
Delany, who is famous for running to win, offered no excuse for losing. "I felt good," he said cheerfully. "I was running all right for three-quarters and then all of a sudden I wasn't moving at all. No, it wasn't the wind. It was lack of wind. I didn't have any. I was running lovely for three-quarters. All of a sudden my legs seemed to be tired. I was running like Silky Sullivan."
Someone suggested that year-end exams at Villanova might have interrupted his training. Villanova Coach Jim Elliott had made this point; Delany was reluctant to use it as an explanation. "I don't really have any excuses," he said. "I don't like to make excuses." Well, was it possible the exams hurt him? "Well, yes, that might be," Delany finally conceded.
Asked to compare Elliott to John Landy, the Australian who holds the listed world record at 3:58, Delany said, "I don't know. I couldn't say anything but what his times say about him. They say he [Elliott] is absolutely brilliant. That was a fabulous performance for him tonight. But, on the other hand, it is a 3:58.1 performance. I believe in reality. What you do, you do."
Should Delany and Elliott meet again, this summer in Europe, it might result differently. With more time to reach peak condition Delany should certainly run far better than he did last Friday night. Then, too, he learned uncomfortably well that it is impossible to stay with Elliott through the blazing early pace and hope to retain a finishing kick. It was, oddly enough, the veteran tactician who lost the battle of tactics at Compton. Unfortunately for Delany, there may be no tactical answer to the sheer speed and power of Elliott, the boy from the bad lands of Australia, who may become the greatest miler in history.
But Delany, whose time was a shocking 4:10, doesn't concede anything to Elliott. "I just believe I can take him or anyone when I'm right," he said.
Ibbotson, England's claimant for the world record (3:57.2) and the last conqueror of Delany in the mile, won another meeting of four-minute milers a night later in Vancouver. His time was a fairly slow 4:05.4, but the race was run on a track made mushy by overnight rains. He jockeyed with Australia's Merv Lincoln most of the four laps as both of them trailed another Aussie, Arizona State's Alex Henderson, for a couple of laps. In the last 50 yards Lincoln and Ibbotson sprinted for the tape with Ibbotson the winner by a deep breath.
Ibbotson reckoned later he might have done 3:59 on a fast track. Henderson and Lincoln could conceivably have been under four minutes, too. No one mentioned 3:58, though.