Nikolai Kirov had one chance and he knew it. The jostling pack of nervous Olympic 800-meter finalists had passed 400 meters in a disappointingly slow 54.5 seconds. Around the first turn of the last lap, Kirov, a short man, ran outside the elbows of the leaders, Agberto Guimares of Brazil and David Warren of Great Britain. He knew that Warren's more celebrated compatriots, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, were close behind him, and if he waited until the homestretch to kick, they would outsprint him. He also knew that if he kicked on the backstretch with 250 meters to go, he would probably die in the last 50 meters. These were the Moscow Olympics. Kirov is a Soviet citizen. He kicked on the backstretch.
Kirov flew ahead at a point just beneath the windblown Olympic flame, and as he built his lead to two meters and then three, those in the crowd rooting for the U.S.S.R., perhaps 80,000 of the 100,000 filling the great bowl of Lenin Stadium, emitted a deep-throated roar, a sound subtly different from mass expressions of delight and encouragement in Western stadiums. There seemed a hunger in it, a more visceral need, because during the first three days of track and field competition in these boycott-thinned Olympics, the Soviets' men's team and that of East Germany had not conducted their expected dual meet for the majority of the medals. Instead, a remarkable British team, perhaps the United Kingdom's strongest in Olympic history, had stood out as an island of eccentric individualism in a stolid, Eastern-bloc sea.
No Briton had won the Olympic 100-meter dash since Harold Abrahams did it in 1924. But when Allan Wells of Scotland, 28, a former long jumper trained in good part by his wife, Margot, won his quarterfinal in 10.11—a race in which defending champion Hasely Crawford of Trinidad was eliminated—he seemed to have a solid chance against Silvio Leonard of Cuba.
The final was run into a cold, gusting wind that shifted so often the flags at the stadium were furled about their poles. Leonard drew Lane 1; Crawford had won from there in Montreal. Wells was all the way across the track in Lane 8. Feeling that the wind was stronger on the outside, Wells bent into the blocks with anger. "The British always seem to draw the worst lanes," he said later.
August 3, 1980
The stadium was noisy because an event beloved among the Soviets, the triple jump, was in its last round. Once, Leonard, unable to hear the starter, rocked back and pointed across the track at the disturbance. Then the sprinters settled in once more. Before they came to the set position, another great cheer went up. On his last try the U.S.S.R.'s Viktor Saneyev had nearly equaled Al Oerter's record of winning a gold medal in four straight Olympics; he came up 4½" short and had to settle for the silver behind teammate Jaak Uudmae, who jumped 56'11¼".
Any other starter would have called the sprinters up to relax and stretch while they waited for calm. This one kept them coiled in their crouch. It was a time for poise, and Wells had it. When the gun finally sounded he was away powerfully. After 50 meters he and Leonard were roughly even, having left the field a yard behind. Then Leonard seemed to float for a few strides. "I wasn't very attentive for a while," he would admit later. Wells crept into a slight lead.
Then Leonard came back. With five meters to go, Wells' margin had all but disappeared. He leaned desperately. Leonard didn't bother.
"God, I don't think I've done it," thought Wells as he slowed, seeing cameramen converge on the Cuban. But Leonard, even though he had raised a hand in triumph, wasn't sure either. Both would be given the same time, 10.25. Now they watched the grainy TV replay on the scoreboard. Wells' lean had brought his shoulders to the line just ahead of Leonard's chest.
"There is a Scottish tradition of banging heads in the pubs on Saturday night when looped," said Margot as her husband took a victory lap. "It's called nutting. You try to get your forehead down and break the other man's nose. That must be the training that won it for him."
Soviet hopes in the decathlon were dashed by another blithe British spirit, one Daley Thompson. The son of a Nigerian mother and a Scottish father, Thompson gave up a promising career in soccer as a youth to concentrate on track, won the British Commonwealth Games decathlon in 1978 and just this May in Gotzis, Austria added five points to Bruce Jenner's world record with a score of 8,622. West Germany's Guido Kratschmer subsequently raised the record to 8,649, but seeing that Kratschmer was a casualty of the boycott, Thompson's confidence, which was supreme, hardly seemed misplaced. "Well, I've been training for this for five years," he said. "I ought to be good at it."
He was the outright winner of the first two events, the 100 (10.62) and long jump (26'3"), a leap surpassed by only two other British athletes ever, and at the end of the first day Thompson had 4,542 points, a record pace. But the morning of the second day was wet and raw. "I nearly got blown over while warming up for the hurdles," said Thompson. "I knew the record wasn't on, so I concentrated on what I came here for, winning."
To insure that he made an opening height in the pole vault—it is the decathlete's nightmare to labor through a day and a half only to miss his first three tries in the vault, thus scoring no points for the event—Thompson sawed a foot and a half from one of his poles and used a careful 10-step approach to clear 13'5¼". Once safely on the board, he switched to a full-length pole and did 15'5".
By the last event—the 1,500, which he despises—Thompson had a 280-point lead over the U.S.S.R.'s Yuri Kutsenko. With Kutsenko running a 4:26.6, Thompson could've lost by 46 seconds and still won the gold medal. He only lost by 17 and ended up with a total of 8,495. "There are 200 or 300 more points left in there," he said soon afterward on British TV, before he was bodily removed from the interview by officials who demanded his presence at a doping test. Perhaps that seemed rude to higher Soviet officials, for Thompson was allowed to return to say a few more words. He's a nice blend of candor and cheek. "What now?" he said when asked about his future. "Why films, blue movies, you give me the details and I'll do it." Momentarily serious, he said, "Sure I'd like to earn a million like Jenner, but I'd like to keep doing this, too. I'm an athlete first, and I'll try to get the most out of myself before leaving the sport for anything else. Certainly I'll be in L.A. in 1984. I'll only be 26 then, and this is all good fun, isn't it?"
Thompson even made it seem fun to be carted off to a van that would take him through the thick Russian night to the doping test back at the Olympic Village. But as the vehicle pulled away from a swarm of autograph-seekers, the decathlete's expression suddenly changed to one of concern. "What happened in the 800?" he called from the window. "What happened to Seb...?" Just this. As Kirov bolted down the back-stretch, Ovett worked his way out of a box and charged after him. Coe, whose habit it is to run wide and thus preserve his tactical freedom, was in seventh. It was his plan, as the world-record holder and the fastest quartermiler in the field, to simply cover any moves made by the others and win in the stretch. Already, near the end of the first lap, he'd had a golden opportunity. Ovett had been sealed tightly against the rail. If Coe had begun a sustained drive then, Ovett couldn't have escaped to follow. But Coe stayed where he was. And finally Ovett pushed his way free.
Now, as the last turn approached, Ovett closed on Kirov. The pack began to string out. Still, Coe stayed where he was. Here the race hung in balance.
Coe had to come to these, his first Olympics, with a clear, observant eye. He had seen that inevitable Olympic theme played out, the conclusion of careers. Saneyev departed with honor in the triple jump, while in the 10,000 Finland's Lasse Viren was forced to allow someone else to win for the first time since Mexico City in 1968. In a shifting tactical battle in which the lead changed hands some 50 times, Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia won with his practiced, predictable kick over the last 300 meters, Viren fading to fifth.
Coe attempted to prepare for his races by tuning out the cacophony dinning upon the British athletes, whose Olympic Association permitted them to attend over the protests of the Thatcher government. But try as he might, he couldn't escape the fact that the Games were unique in being Russian. From the thousands of security men stationed about the city—unnerving in how they stood stock-still in the woods of the Olympic Park, their heads hidden by low branches—to the way Tass altered an old interview of Coe's to fit the Soviet position, to the continual thanks the British athletes and officials received from the Soviets for coming to the Games and thereby, the Soviets felt, legitimizing them, Coe was assailed by politics. And the assault was joined by his own nation's press, which seemed determined for a while to match Soviet propaganda blow for blow. Reporters complained that positive remarks about anything Russian were being cut from their stories. "The question," said a sour Peter Coe, Sebastian's father and coach, "is not whether sport and politics can be separated, but whether sport and tabloid journalism can ever mix."
Sipping tea in the Olympic Village courtyard, being eaten alive by the mosquitoes that abound there, Sebastian ruminated on how long the grudges caused by the boycott will last. At the suggestion that the Games in Los Angeles might return the Olympic movement to better times, he looked up, startled. "You really think they'll be held?" he asked.
As he moved easily through his quarterfinal and semifinal heats, winning both, he was lifted by a letter from his younger sister, Emma. "Oh, do get some gold," she wrote, "it suits you so.!'
But gold is seized, and as the 800-meter finalists came out of the last turn, Ovett, the daunting, remote Ovett who, said one observer, seems to freeze his opponents with the force of his will, was out front and pulling away.
Coe was in fourth. He had 10 meters to make up. He had waited too long. He ran down Guimares, and then the dying gambler Kirov, but he lost by half a second. More than that, he hadn't gained on the flying Ovett in the last half of the stretch. Ovett finished in 1:45.4, having run his last lap near 50 seconds flat. He darted around a restraining guard to have a word with his mother, Gay, and then stood on the victory stand aglow as the Olympic flag was raised in place of the Union Jack. The last time British athletes won as many as three gold medals in Olympic track was in 1964. Now they had three within 24 hours, and good prospects remaining in the 200 and 1,500. A group of British fans deliriously sang God Save the Queen and waved Union Jacks, and Soviet television held its cameras on their celebration throughout.
Ovett declined to meet with the press, as is his custom, but he was overheard to say of Coe, "I hope no one writes of him as a failure." Coe dutifully allowed himself to be led before the assembled inquisitors. He seemed shrunken, for he needed no one to tell him his mistake. "I threw it away over the last lap," he said. "I simply didn't respond when the break was made at the front."
Peter Coe sat in the press bar, silent among his champagne-drinking countrymen. A silver medal moves him not a whit. "All that is left," he said, fastening on the only possible redemption, "is to win that bloody 1,500."