With 10 yards remaining in the Millrose Games' Wanamaker Mile and the cheers of a sellout Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,301 raining down upon him, Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan glanced backward. On the track behind him was six-sevenths of what New Zealand's John Walker, the world-record holder in the mile outdoors and in the 1,500 meters indoors, had earlier described as "the best mile field assembled in the United States this year." Nevertheless, more than 10 yards separated Coghlan from his nearest pursuer, Kenya's Wilson Waigwa, who would finish second in 3:56.3. Waigwa has one of track's fastest finishing kicks, but kick as he might last Friday night, he only lost ground.
Behind Waigwa was Sydney Maree of South Africa and Coghlan's alma mater, Villanova, on his way to a personal best—outdoors as well as indoors—of 3:57.1. He was passing Walker, who was destined to finish fourth in 3:57.3. Never before had four milers run under 3:58 in the same indoor race. Next came American Steve Scott, heading for a 3:58.6. Only when the field stretched back to sixth place was there a runner who failed to break the four-minute barrier. That was Dick Buerkle, the world-record holder in the indoor mile (3:54.9). In last place, behind Buerkle, was Paul Cummings, who had undertaken the role of rabbit. He had set up the record finish by leading the field through the three-quarter-mile mark in 2:58.5.
Master of all he surveyed, Coghlan slowed, triumphantly thrust his arms upward and broke the tape. To a roar from the crowd, the electronic scoreboard flashed WORLD INDOOR RECORD. The Garden buzzed. Several minutes passed. Then the buzzing changed to a groan with the announcement that Coghlan's time was 3:55, one-tenth of a second slower than the record. That fraction of a second was more than the time Coghlan had consumed with his spectating and celebrating as he approached the tape.
In a way, that scene epitomized the 72nd edition of the Millrose Games, where the announcements of official times were almost as dramatic as the events themselves because world records were so often in jeopardy. Three actually were set. The marks came in the mile walk, an event not contested outdoors (Todd Scully, 5:58); in the women's 440-yard dash, a distance which has become an oddity in this age of metrics and which is seldom timed automatically (Adelphi University's June Griffith, 54:04); and in the 1,000-yard run, but only for an 11-lap track (Villanova's Don Paige, 2:05.3). What truly distinguished the Millrose Games, however, was the unrelenting assault on the best-known world indoor records by some of the best-known track athletes in the world. That assault produced 11 meet records, which fell to the likes of Renaldo Nehemiah (60-yard hurdles), Houston McTear (60-yard dash) and Dan Ripley (pole vault) in addition to Coghlan, Paige, Scully and Griffith. In fact, the Millrose Games produced a record for Millrose Games' records.
February 19, 1979
One competitor who didn't set a record was high jumper Franklin Jacobs, who has suffered of late from a lack of competition. That may have become a permanent problem as of last Friday, when Dwight Stones, the former world-record holder who is under suspension by the AAU for taking money in Superstars competition, announced that he was giving up his fight for amateur status and turning professional. Professional what? Stones didn't say. Yet without anyone else in the field capable of topping 7'2", Jacobs cleared 7'4" and 7'6" on his first attempt, then missed three tries at a world-record 7'8¾". Nevertheless, afterward he oozed confidence, saying he felt he might be within two weeks of flying 7'9".
Like Jacobs, Nehemiah was effusive in victory, and, like Coghlan, he may have cost himself a world record because of his theatrics. After winning a heat in 7:04, which would have been a world record a year ago, Nehemiah false-started in the finals and thus was forced to sit in the blocks at the gun for fear of being disqualified. Despite a slow start, he burst so far in front of a field that included UCLA's Greg Foster and San Jose State's Dedy Cooper that he broke stride just short of the tape to thrust a finger into the air. Thus, he ended up missing his own world record of 6.88 by only .02 of a second.
Going into Friday's meet, Nehemiah had achieved five straight world records at distances from 50 to 60 yards. Even though he broke that streak at the Millrose Games, he was obviously pleased. "Up to this point, there were still a few doubts about my dominance," he said after his race, "but now I know. I am No. 1. Come the outdoor season, there is no doubt that the world record is in real jeopardy...and soon."
McTear is also pointing to the outdoor season. His blazing starts make him almost unbeatable indoors, but he has never been able to sustain his advantage over the longer outdoor sprints. Now his coach, Hilton Nicholson, is trying to teach him to run with rhythm, not just with power. "You must have a rhythm in your head," says Nicholson. "It's just like a drum. If you beat it too fast, you just confuse yourself." McTear may be running to a slower drummer, but he was still fast enough at the Millrose Games to outsprint Harvey Glance and Steve Riddick. His time of 6.09 set a Millrose record but was .04 off the world mark. Like Nehemiah, however, McTear wasn't overly concerned, because the world record is already his.
In the mile, Coghlan thought a 56-second last quarter was needed to win, and, figuring on that, he felt a world record was possible if the field came through the three-quarter mark in 2:58. And at that point, there was the 26-year-old Irishman, ideally positioned in second place behind Cummings and just ahead of Walker. The P.A. system announced the unofficial split of 2:58.5. "When I heard that," Coghlan said later, "I felt the record was on."
Coghlan overhauled Cummings and at the same time opened a big gap between himself and Walker and Waigwa, both of whom were now giving chase. But Walker eventually faded, and Waigwa couldn't make up any ground. Coghlan, meanwhile, ran the record race he had so perfectly mapped out, only to give the record back at the tape. Still, his 3:55 extended a phenomenal streak. Coghlan has now won 21 of his last 23 indoor races in the mile or the 1,500.
Winning streaks are what focused attention on the 1,000-yard matchup between Paige and Mark Belger. They were teammates at Villanova until Belger graduated last spring, but Coach Jumbo Elliott had never let them run against each other. Coming in to the Millrose, both had extraordinary streaks on the line. Belger had won 20 consecutive races at distances from 800 meters to 1,000 yards. Paige was undefeated indoors this season and last.
Belger knew Paige had more speed so he figured to take the sting out of his rival's kick by building an insurmountable lead. In this strategy he got an unexpected break. With 3½ laps remaining, the race leader, Marcel Philippe of the New York AC, strayed wide, allowing Belger to burst to the fore unchallenged. Paige, forced to go outside, fell slightly behind. Using up a lap and a half, Paige gradually closed the gap, then kicked past Belger just before the gun sounded for the final lap. Belger finally conceded defeat with 20 yards remaining and simply jogged to his second-place finish. Still, his 2:06.5 was a personal best, and under the old Millrose record of 2:07.1. When he was told his time, Belger just waved a forefinger as if to say, 'Big deal.' He had reason to be discouraged. The running of the race had worked to his advantage, and he had achieved his fastest time ever, yet Paige had beaten him convincingly.
The only streak Dan Ripley carried into the Millrose Games was for consecutive pulled hamstrings. In 1976 he set four world indoor records at heights ranging from 18'1" to 18'3¾", with the latter holding up for the entire 1977 season. Yet despite his records, he had spent most of his time nursing muscle pulls. "When you see Ripley jumping out of the pit with his arms raised in triumph," says his coach, Tom Jennings, "it's not because he cleared the bar. It's because he didn't get injured."
At the start of last season, Ripley decided that instead of chasing records, he would ease into the indoor season, giving his legs a chance to attune themselves to competition. So there he was in Long Beach, Calif., "no heighting" at the opening meet of 1978 as Mike Tully smashed his world record with a jump of 18'4". Before the season was over, Tully had raised that mark to 18'5¼". The record had come at the NCAA meet in Detroit on a vault in which the bar bounced into the air before miraculously coming back to rest steady on the standards.
Ripley resumed hard training as Tully came on. "I had lost my motivation the last couple of years because I held the world record," he said. At the start of this season, Ripley felt ready, but in his first meet, he pulled his left hamstring. He didn't return to competition until two weeks ago. Then, at a meet in Edmonton, Alberta, he ran into worse luck. He was jumping well when an AAU official determined that the vault standards were too springy; when the bar jiggled they acted as shock absorbers. Ripley himself furnished some of the proof when he clipped the bar on his last try at 18'½". It flew into the air but landed back on the cushioning standards in a replay of Tully's record jump.
As fate would have it, Ripley then cleared a world-record height of 18'5¾", nicking the bar so slightly that he wouldn't have knocked it off if it had been supported on cement stanchions.
Had Ripley not budged the bar at 18'½", his 18'5¾" would have been submitted as a world record. "What kills me," said Ripley, "is that I did the same thing as Tully, and he did it on his record jump."
Ripley was the athletes' choice for a world record last Friday night. He didn't start vaulting until the bar was at 17'8½", a height only two others, Tully and Earl Bell, cleared. He won at the next height, 18'1½", a Millrose record. Then he had the bar raised to 18'6" for three world-record tries. His first was close, the next two were not.
Ripley showed no disappointment. When the meet was over, he stood on the Garden floor and analyzed his record tries. "When I came here, I was thinking world record," he admitted, "but when I saw what was going on, I lowered my sights. A win was as good as a record tonight because this was such a great track meet."