Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe have come to the point where they can afford to play fast and loose with world records. On the first of July in Oslo's Bislett Stadium, Coe ran 1,000 meters in 2:13.4 to surpass Rick Wohlhuter's 6-year-old record by half a second, and then stood by as Ovett relieved him of the mile standard he had set a year ago on the same track. Ovett's time of 3:48.8 was two-tenths of a second better than the old mark. Thus, the two Britons now hold all four records between 800 meters and the mile, as well as the two-mile world outdoor best.
With wondrous restraint, these sharply distinct men from disparate areas of England—Coe from industrial Sheffield in the Pennines, Ovett from the resort of Brighton on the English Channel—have raced each other only once in their lives: in the 1978 European Championships 800, where both were beaten by Olaf Beyer of East Germany. Because they plan to meet three weeks hence in the Moscow Olympics 1,500 meters, their evening of racing and watching in Oslo, for all its excellence, had about it a preparatory air, a sense of prelude to a historic confrontation.
Coe was up first, having planned since January to make this his one all-out test before Moscow. But about a week earlier he had come down with a chest cold severe enough to require antibiotics. He had canceled plans to enter two minor races, in Sweden and southern Norway. With rest he had improved, and over lunch on race day, shortly after learning that the 1,000-meter field wouldn't include Kenya's James Maina, who ranked behind only Coe in the 800 last year and would have constituted a real threat, Coe and his coach-father, Peter, decided he should attempt a record pace. Coe then had two hours' sleep in the afternoon while it rained. But, as seems ordained for special evenings in Oslo, the clouds passed, and by the time a record crowd of 22,518 had wedged into Bislett, the flags surmounting the stadium hung motionless in the still, warm air.
There were 11 men in the 1,000, and Coe's intent was to run a fast 800 and then hang on for the long, last 200 meters. He went wide around the first bend of Bislett's six-lane, 400-meter oval, slipping into third behind Mike Solomon of Trinidad and Paul Forbes of Scotland. The three took fewer than 25 seconds to cover the first 200, and the 400 was 50.1 for Forbes, 51 flat for Coe. With a lap to go, the two pacesetters stepped off the track and Coe was alone, 25 meters ahead of the field. The crowd at Bislett claps in unison at a tempo just faster than the lead runner's footfalls. Thus escorted, Coe ran past 800 meters. "I heard the time called as 1:44," he said later, "and I thought, 'That's the fastest 800 this year' [Don Paige won the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1:44.53], so I eased off."
In fact, the 800 had passed in 1:45.2, but Coe's relaxed final 200 wasn't much slower than its predecessors, and he got his fourth world record, the others being at 800 (1:42.4) and 1,500 meters (3:32.1) and the mile. It had been his first race ever at 1,000 meters.
Fifty minutes later Coe watched as the milers impatiently trotted about, their start delayed by the failure of the automatic timekeeping equipment. Finally, the field was sent on its way timed only by hand. David Warren of England led, with Ovett second, followed by Steve Cram and Graham Williamson, the latter pair racing for the single 1,500-meter spot remaining on the British Olympic team, a place Cram would win.
Warren, a fine half-miler, had grumbled about serving as a rabbit, but under a threat that other races might become scarce if he didn't lend a hand, he cooperated with a vengeance, his head bobbing as he hit 400 meters in 55.5 and 800 in 1:52.8. At that point, Ovett was timed in 1:53.5, which was one second faster than Coe had run on his way to his 3:49.0.
Warren lasted a half lap beyond the 800-meter mark and dropped out, leaving Ovett to cover the final 600 alone. The tall, lithe Ovett appeared to be in perfect control. "It was well set up," said the absorbed Coe. "You could see the record was going by halfway. I had almost a minute and a half to come to terms with it."
Ovett reached three-quarters of a mile in 2:51.0, more than two seconds faster than Coe had run, and it seemed that the mile record was in for an astounding revision. If Ovett could finish as fast as Coe had, with a 55.6, he would run the mile in 3:46.6. For 200 meters he carried on powerfully, but into the last curve his reckless early speed finally told. He passed 1,500 meters in 3:32.7, now only a tenth ahead of Coe's pace. In the stretch he labored heavily to finish in 3:48.8, a time just enough better than the record to make things interesting because, being a hand time, it was subject to some debate. Hand times are generally a tenth or two faster than automatic ones simply because human-reaction time in starting a watch is a tenth or two slower than the electrical impulse from the starter's gun that activates an automatic timer. In recognition of this, International Amateur Athletic Federation rules require races through 400 meters to be automatically timed to qualify as records.
Peter Coe pointed out that the average of the backup hand times on Sebastian's 1,000 had him in 2:13.13, significantly faster than the automatic—and official—2:13.4. "If that margin held in the mile," he said, "Steve might have finished outside the record."
Ovett's feelings on this question, or any other, could not be determined because, as is his practice, he declined to grant any interviews. A careful guardian of his privacy, he wishes to avoid the perhaps inevitable misinterpretation of his words by a rushed and sometimes sensationalistic press, preferring to express himself on his sport through his sport, or in relaxed social gatherings with the cognoscenti, such men as British national distance coach Harry Wilson. "His is the artistic temperament," says one English observer. Indeed, his hobby is painting.
Ovett, who ran a two-mile outdoor world best (two-mile records have not been recognized since 1976) of 8:13.6 in 1978, is accepted in Brighton as a man who speaks his mind when so inclined and wins his races. At London's Crystal Palace track he has an undeniable rapport with the crowd, though on occasion his jubilant arm-waving halfway down the homestretch as he kicks past the field—surely an expression of the joy and ease of his own running—is interpreted by opponents as a denigration of their efforts.
As Ovett came off the track after his record mile, Coe had found a car to take himself back to the hotel. He told the driver to stop so he could get out to congratulate the new record holder. Ovett was warm in his thanks. One suspects that there is no real animosity between these men, simply an awareness of their great differences.
Even at the reception following the meet the countrymen-rivals stayed apart, Ovett with Wilson at one end of the room, Coe with his parents and a few journalists at the other. Coe admitted to some curiosity about why Ovett, who in the past has eschewed the pursuit of records in favor of establishing racing dominance, now has chosen to break a few, but judged the moment not the best to ask. "For 55 minutes I held four World records," he said.
"Don't worry. The mile was the least important," said Peter Coe. "Only Americans run the mile anymore. And besides, it will be back in our grasp by the end of the season."
Peter Coe then had a word with Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan, who had won a hotly competitive 3,000 from Thomas Wessinghage of West Germany and Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, in the fine time of 7:37.6. "Not as exciting as last year, was it?" said Coghlan.
"No," said Peter Coe. "Records or not, it was all a bit clinical. It's still not racing. Racing's the thing. I have always agreed with Ovett when he says that." The elder Coe turned to watch the two milers, both with so little left to seek except each other. "Well, it will not be long now," he said.