To stir interest in last Saturday's Brooks Meet of Champions at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, the promoters ballyhooed "The Magnificent Mile" as the main event, although the only truly magnificent thing about a mile these days is the cost of the gasoline needed to cover it. By Saturday evening the question was: Which magnificent mile? Mary Decker's American-record 4:23.5, the second-fastest time in history for a woman and only 1.4 seconds off the pending world record of Romania's Natalia Maracescu? Or Irishman Eamonn Coghlan's 3:52.9, the fastest outdoor time in the world this year?
It's too late now, but what the promoters should have done was bill each mile as "The Rabbit Chase." Both Decker and Coghlan were spurred to their splendid times by rabbits—runners who purposely set fast paces and then quickly fall out of contention.
Meet coordinator Ron Stanko persuaded Susan Vigil of the University of New Mexico to lead the women, and inserted two pacemakers, Paul Cummings and Elton Cochran-Fikes, into the men's race. Cummings, who has run 3:56.4, is a near world-class miler in his own right, but Stanko changed his classification for the Meet of Champions. "I won't say exactly what Cummings' role is in the mile," he said, "but I'm having a shirt made up for him with big ears on the front and a cottontail on the back."
Decker's record run pared almost five seconds from Francie Larrieu's old standard. Larrieu lowered that by .6 seconds, but her 4:27.6 put her 30 yards behind Decker and in second place. Decker had saddled herself with pressure by publicly stating that she was pointing for the American record. Behind the scenes she maneuvered to improve the odds. Stanko had planned all along to spice up the men's mile with rabbits, but he hadn't envisioned Vigil's role in the women's mile until Decker requested it.
July 8, 1979
"Mary wanted me to go out in 64 seconds for the first quarter," said Vigil. She succeeded in pulling the field, which included Jan Merrill, the American record holder in the 1,500, through the first lap in 64.5, but she fell far short of her half-mile goal of 2:08. When Decker, who was second at the halfway point, heard the time announced (2:11.3), she realized she had to take charge. Merrill had taken a brief lead late in the second lap, but Decker suddenly kicked past her, opening a big gap on both Merrill and Larrieu. Decker led by 15 yards at the end of her 66.4 third lap, and blazed the final quarter in 65.8.
Decker spent much of the winter in New Zealand, where she hoped to take advantage of the southern hemisphere summer for heavy outdoor training. But in February she slipped on a curb and suffered a whiplash injury that prevented her from working out until April. She is just now getting back into top racing shape. "I know I'm nowhere near my potential," she said after the race. "I'm looking forward to breaking the world record, and I'm confident that I will get it sometime this season."
With or without rabbits, the world record was in jeopardy in the men's race because Stanko had assembled the year's finest mile field. It included not only Coghlan, who set the indoor world record of 3:52.6 in San Diego last February, but also Steve Scott, the AAU champion the past two years at 1,500 meters; New Zealand's John Walker, the world-record holder in the mile (3:49.4); Walker's countryman Rod Dixon; and Villanova's Don Paige, the NCAA 800- and 1,500-meter champion. All five had run the distance under 3:55.
The Brooks meet had strong fields in other events, too, but produced impressive times only in the two mile races. Renaldo Nehemiah won the high hurdles in 13:30, beating Dedy Cooper by more than half a second, while Harvey Glance took the 100-meter dash in 10.32, defeating a formidable field: AAU champion James Sanford, Clancy Edwards, Houston McTear and Steve Riddick. Evelyn Ashford, who successfully doubled in the AAU championships at 100 and 200 meters, did so again, this time at 100 and 400 meters. Even Dwight Stones, the high jumper turned professional, made an appearance. After the meet was over, Stones staged a one-man exhibition to some cheers, some jeers and some yawns. Stones hadn't competed since last June, but he still managed to clear 7'3". Benn Fields jumped 7'3¾" in the regular competition, beating Franklin Jacobs on the basis of fewer misses.
Despite the quality fields in each event, only 5,144 fans turned out for the meet—and they looked lost in the 60,000-seat stadium on the Penn campus. "I bring all these great athletes in here," Stanko moaned, "and all you read about in the papers is the one athlete who withdrew."
That was South African miler Sydney Maree, 22, who also attends Villanova, out on the Main Line. Before Saturday's meet, Maree had the year's best outdoor time, a 3:53.7 that he ran in Stellenbosch, South Africa on May 7. But Maree withdrew from the meet on Wednesday amid considerable controversy.
As a South African, Maree is ineligible for international competition because his country's Amateur Athletic Union has been expelled by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the world governing body of track and field. The IAAF took this action in July of 1976, following the example of the International Olympic Committee, which has barred South Africans from the Olympics since 1964 to protest apartheid. To support its stand, the IAAF threatens sanctions against any athlete who competes in an international meet with a South African. So Maree decided to withdraw rather than jeopardize the eligibility of the other athletes.
The irony of the situation, of course, is that Maree is black. "These rules were tailored for me," he says, "but now they keep me out, too. I have no rights in South Africa. I have no voting rights in the rest of the world. I just feel like an outcast."
Maree, who can compete in internal meets in the United States and won the NCAA 5,000-meter title last month, has taken part in several international events. Other competitors in those meets included Walker, Coghlan, Nehemiah, the Kenyan distance runner Henry Rono and the Tanzanian distance man Suleiman Nyambui, all of whom risked their eligibility. But the IAAF and, by extension, this country's AAU did not examine Maree's activities closely until two weeks ago. At the last minute he was denied admittance to a meet in New Jersey. "I thought if I became the best runner in the world, the world would demand me to run," Maree says. "But the stronger I get, the louder the noise gets."
Much of that noise comes from the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa, which organized the walkout by 24 countries at the '76 Montreal Olympics, and the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC). There is a popular misconception that Maree is the unintended victim of a poorly thought-out crusade against white supremacy in South Africa. The truth is, that though both the Supreme Council and SANROC are predominantly black groups, they have consciously worked to ban Maree from international competition. "The South Africans insert a black man here and there to combat protests and assure the world that there's no racism in their country," says Sam Ramsamy, chairman of SANROC, a black South African living in exile in London. "It's a deliberate fraud. I think Maree is an innocent victim and will eventually find out how he has been used." In the meantime SANROC and other interest groups are determined to keep South Africa from using Maree.
Maree seems to have an understanding of how he is being manipulated. The old notion of apartheid, that whites must only compete against whites and blacks only against blacks, is slowly crumbling. Yet Maree knows from experience that Ramsamy is right in arguing that apartheid is far from being leveled. "Before, I couldn't go to certain places in South Africa—stadiums to train, for example," Maree says. "Now I can. Black athletes can now join clubs they couldn't join before. But athletes are an elite group. Things are still the same for society as a whole. You can go to the stadium, but where do you go from there? Back to the same living conditions. What happens to your brothers, sisters and parents?"
Ramsamy suggests that there is only one solution for Maree: he should renounce his South African apartheid government and take up citizenship elsewhere. But Maree rejects that idea. Sitting in the stands as a reluctant spectator on Saturday, Maree was asked if he agreed with the IAAF and Olympic bans on South Africans. Contradicting the opinion of most track athletes, he answered, "Sports and politics do mix. I'm not for the ban, but I am for what it's trying to do."
To witness the mile he had intended to run in, Maree took a seat right at the finish line. Cummings had planned to bring the field past that point at the half mile in 1:56 by putting together back-to-back 58-second laps in the hot sun. But Cummings ran the first quarter in 57.1, a pace that obviously tired him. Cummings and Fikes held on to the lead through the half mile, but by then the pace had slowed to 1:58.2. Disappointed, Cummings pulled off the track.
In plotting his race Scott had intended to use the same tactics he had employed to win the AAU 1,500 three weeks ago. That day Scott, followed by Paige, sprinted away from the field with 700 meters to go. But Scott had also considered dropping back into the pack, where he could wait for a kicking race in the homestretch. When he heard the announcement of 1:58.2 for the half mile, Scott hesitated. "I had to make a split-second decision," he said, "and had only 10 yards to make up my mind. I took off. That was a mistake."
Scott had hoped to get away from the pack with a burst of speed. But Coghlan fell in comfortably behind him on the backstretch, which is exactly what he had hoped to do. Walker was behind Coghlan and then came Paige. Dixon had fallen back to last.
With 200 meters to go, Walker made his move, bursting by Coghlan and closing on Scott. Coghlan didn't give chase. Instead, he simply stayed close and waited to see whom he had to beat. For a moment he thought it would be Walker, but Walker, who suffered an injury to his Achilles' tendon in May and didn't work out for four weeks, has not yet regained his full strength. When Scott withstood Walker in the final turn, Coghlan knew that Scott—not Walker—was his opposition. Coghlan passed Walker on the turn, then set his sights on Scott on the final straightaway. And as Scott later described it, "He just went wailing by."
Coghlan's 3:52.9 was his best ever outdoors. Scott finished in 3:53.4, while Walker ran 3:55, yielding third on the homestretch to Craig Masback, a Princeton graduate currently studying at Oxford, who ran a personal best of 3:54.7.
Coghlan celebrated by taking a victory lap on the track. When he returned to the finish line, he went over to the stands and extended his arms upward to Maree. Rising, the South African reached down, and they fervently clasped one another's arms. The gesture transcended the race and made the mile truly magnificent.