Having shut off the unofficial scoreboard clock for the remainder of the evening, the directors of last week's Città di Firenze track meet in the Stadio Comunale in Florence, Italy were giving the stadium's official timing system a precautionary once-over. Earlier in the evening, when Carl Lewis of the U.S. had won the 100-meter dash, the clock had flashed an astonishing 9.92—.03 of a second better than Jim Hines' world record set in 1968—and had created molto clamore among the 15,000 spectators. The problem was that Lewis' actual time had been 10.13. A glitch lurking in the scoreboard clock had shaved off the extra .21. The directors decided the clock should be switched off to prevent any further embarrassment.
On the other hand, the official timing system had to be in perfect order because its clocking might well be a real world record in the next major event. Sebastian Coe of Great Britain, who had made his name in 1979 by setting three world middle-distance marks in only 42 days, would be running in the 800. And he had already issued a warning this spring: "I feel like in 1979."
While the timing equipment was being inspected, Coe was jogging lightly around the Stadio's Tartan track, savoring the still, balmy night air. He hadn't come to Florence specifically to challenge his 1:42.33 world 800-meter record—he had targeted a June 26 meet in Oslo for that—but then, neither had he planned his two most notable performances thus far in 1981: a world indoor 800 record (1:46.0) in February and, only a week before the Florence meet, the year's fastest outdoor 800 (1:44.06) at Crystal Palace. In fact, the 24-year-old Coe, who's now a doctoral candidate at Loughborough University, had found 1981 full of the unexpected. An unusually cold, windy and rainy spring in England had made training miserable for him; nevertheless he was in the best early-season shape of his life. And the British press, which had always treated Coe with favor—if not outright adoration—particularly when comparing him with his often thorny rival, countryman Steve Ovett, suddenly was printing accusations of professionalism against him.
Now, however, as he trotted past a soccer goal in the infield, Coe was surprised only by how good he felt—all the soreness from a recently pulled muscle in his right foot had faded. Perhaps the only problem was the hour: 11 p.m., normally Coe's bedtime. "A little late for my racing habits," he said.
June 21, 1981
Finally it was determined that the timing gear was, indeed, in working order, and Coe, along with seven other runners, aligned himself for the start. The group was undistinguished save for Coe, veteran Mark Winzenried of the U.S. and the young Kenyan, Billy Konchellah, but perhaps those two would be enough of a challenge to inspire Coe. Winzenried, a former 1,000-yard indoor record holder, had frequently carried middle-distance racers to outstanding times with his bold front-running, while Konchellah, a San Diego State sophomore, also figured to take the race out swiftly.
As the runners came out of the first turn, it was Konchellah who assumed the lead, with Coe, who is normally a front-runner, tucked in behind, doing some drafting. Standing just past the start-finish line, holding Coe's stopwatch, was Maeve Kyle, the 53-year-old manager of the British team in Florence. Normally Coe's father and coach, Peter, would have been at trackside, but on this occasion he had remained at home in Sheffield, tending to business affairs.
This was by no means a sign of father and son drifting apart. In fact, in the last six months Peter's "business affairs" have become the most controversial aspect of Seb's running career. In January Peter signed his entire immediate family—his wife, his two daughters, Seb and brother Nicholas, plus himself—to a contract with Mark McCormack's International Management Group, primarily in anticipation of a broad-based move to open (i.e., professional) track and field. "All athletics could change within a year or so," Peter had said. "The growth of road running in the United States, including increasing commercialization, has put enough holes in the amateur code that you could drive a coach and horses through it."
Since the start of the 1981 outdoor season there have been reports that IMG representatives have been visiting meet directors demanding larger under-the-table payments to Seb. The French sports newspaper L'Equipe reported that he had withdrawn from a meet in Paris because the promoters had refused to raise his "expense money" from 20,000 francs (about $3,500) to 80,000 francs (about $14,000). The Coes denied the reports, and Seb said he had withdrawn from the Paris race "because I don't want all that hassle."
As Konchellah and Coe passed the 400-meter mark, Kyle shouted out the split, "Fifty!" But because she wasn't stationed precisely at the start-finish line, her reading was inaccurate; Coe actually had passed the halfway mark in 49.7 seconds, nearly a full second ahead of his record pace at Oslo. And Coe, it seems, had already reckoned this. "Maeve was well past the line," he said later. "I knew that I was at least .8 up."
Coe decided it was time to make his move, so that so stunning a first lap wouldn't be wasted. Indeed, he fairly flew past Konchellah entering the second lap and quickly drew away down the back-stretch. When he reached the tape he was nearly 50 meters ahead of his closest pursuer, Dragan Zivotic of Yugoslavia, Konchellah having faded to last.
Without a scoreboard clock to tell them even roughly how fast Coe had run, the Italian fans remained hushed. Coe held off on his victory lap, instead consulting Kyle for a reading of his own stopwatch. The news there was good, but five, then 10 minutes later, there still had been no official word on his time. Jogging up and down the homestretch, Coe paused to speak to a journalist. "Christ, what are they doing to me?" he asked. "Maeve's got it at 1:41.69."
When the official announcement came through, it proved Kyle to be quite the timekeeper: Coe had run 1:41.72, which was .61 of a second less than his record and 1.72 seconds faster than anyone else in history.
Fans, officials and athletes swarmed Coe. He tried a victory lap but gave up and had to zig and zag his way across the crowded infield. Not fluent in Italian, Coe couldn't even understand most of the words of congratulation. Soon he was talking of running the 800 in 1:40, and after that, "I must start thinking of the 1,500. That's next on my sked."
Shortly after winning the 1,500-meter gold and 800-meter silver medals at the Moscow Olympics, Coe made it known that he wanted to regain his world mile and 1,500 records from Ovett and lower his own 800 and 1,000 marks. "I hope not just to nibble at the records but to improve them substantially," he said. In Florence, Coe proved the substance of what he had said.