In Stockholm's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday of last week, while 16,000 spectators roared approval for a young Swede who was winning the 400 meters, Ben Plucknett, would-be American folk hero—and soon-to-become tragic hero—methodically planted himself in the discus ring. He was unnoticed; to the extent that a 6'7", 287-pound man with a full red beard can go unnoticed. But when his discus sailed out over the divoted infield, landing well onto virgin turf, the crowd let loose a new burst of cheers, and Wolfgang Schmidt, his preeminent East German rival, rushed to the circle to shake Plucknett's hand. For a moment Plucknett, a 27-year-old farm boy from Beatrice, Neb., didn't know what all the fuss was about. The only thing he'd sensed was "severe back pain from the torque" of his effort. Then Schmidt cleared matters up. "Congratulations," he said. "You've made a world record."
As it turned out, Plucknett's prodigious toss—237'4", nearly four feet beyond the previous world record, which he set in Modesto, Calif. in May—was the first in a succession of remarkable performances in Stockholm, Milan and Oslo last week that surpassed three major track and field records and threatened others. It also could have been Plucknett's last great moment. Six days later the International Amateur Athletic Federation announced that it was banning him from competition for life and nullifying his record-breaking throws because "a measure of anabolic steroids were present" in a urine sample taken at a January meet in New Zealand. Although Plucknett can't appeal for 18 months, other athletes have been reinstated after similar prohibition.
Shortly after the IAAF announcement last Monday, Plucknett called his coach, Richard Marks, and insisted he wasn't worried. "Ben said there have been a number of procedural screw-ups with the samples," said Marks. "After the New Zealand meet he was told that the tests would be complete in four weeks, and that if he didn't hear anything then, that everything was all right. They've either mixed up the samples, or they've been tampered with. Ben is not on steroids. Ben has never been on steroids."
Things were better on the track, where the most hallowed of American marks, the 3:51.1 mile run by 20-year-old Jim Ryun back in 1967, was shattered, as was Sebastian Coe's 1980 world record of 2:13.40 for 1,000 meters. The world mile and 1,500 records barely survived. They not only could have gone, they should have. The happiest development was the news that Coe and Steve Ovett, the prepotent British rivals, will finally race against each other this summer in the Golden Mile, Aug. 28 in Brussels.
July 19, 1981
The focus of the Stockholm meet had figured to be not Plucknett but a dazzling 1,500 that would include Coe, Steve Scott, Eamonn Coghlan and Tom Byers. Coe figured to attack Ovett's 3:31.36 world record for the distance, though he was getting no help from the meet director. First, no one at trackside would be allowed to call out lap times to the runners. Then the start of the 1,500 was delayed 23 minutes while winners of other events were interviewed over the P.A. system. Worst of all, the designated pacesetter got sick. He was replaced by James Robinson, America's top half-miler but inexperienced as a rabbit.
Robinson took Coe through a blazing 52.43 first lap and a 1:49.18 for 800 meters—each three seconds faster than the splits Coe had wanted—thereby destroying any hope of a record. Still, Coe finished well ahead of the field in 3:31.95, only .59 of a second off the record. He was furious. "You have very few performances like this in your life, and this one was wasted," he said. "Everything else was right. But the organization turns out to be a bit of a mess all around."
Plucknett, by contrast, was "ecstatic." Or at least that was what he told his 5-foot, 105-pound girl friend. Rose Ramos, when he called her in San Jose, Calif., at 6 a.m. the next morning. Reporters, he said, had surrounded him, which says something in itself.
In America, Plucknett has never received much attention, except at the 1980 Olympic Trials, at which he became the villain for knocking then-43-year-old Al Oerter out of the third and final spot on the U.S. team. He celebrated that achievement more wildly than usual, taking a modest leap and even raising his arms briefly in exultation. Plucknett is shy, carefully polite, even stoic. He's part of a family that moved to Beatrice (be-AT-riss) in the early 1850s; some of his relatives still farm the original family acreage. Plucknett began his education in a one-room schoolhouse and from his earliest days spent spare hours caring for cattle and operating the irrigation system in the corn and milo fields. Nowadays he does building-maintenance work for the Canteen Corporation in San Jose, where he moved after graduating from the University of Missouri, with such quiet efficiency that his co-workers hardly know he's around. Plucknett's conscientiousness once got him into trouble. While working as a bouncer at a bar, he refused entry to two teen-agers. They came back and one shot him twice in the stomach. Big Ben still wouldn't let them in.
That Plucknett would apparently add to his world record at Stockholm wasn't a surprise; the distance he added certainly was. His May record had surpassed Schmidt's 1978 mark of 233'5" by just two inches and had come at a windy meet in which nine of 21 throwers had achieved personal bests. He weighed 309 that day but the European travel and food had pared him down to 287 by the time he reached Stockholm. "I've seen him anywhere from 238 to 317 [pounds]," says Ramos. "He changes sizes a lot. Sometimes, like right before my eyes."
The European season heated up Wednesday night in Milan, where Ovett matched Coe's 1,500 time exactly—3:31.95. Ovett was clearly prepared for the Dream Mile in Oslo's Bislett Stadium on Saturday.
But first Coe would run the 1,000 meters at Bislett, and again he had problems. This time he was upset not only at the meet director but also at the IAAF. When Coe and his father, Peter, had offered to enter Seb against Ovett in the Dream Mile, they were turned down. That decision presumably pleased the IAAF, which organizes the "Golden" series of races and preferred to save the Coe-Ovett confrontation for Brussels. Further, IAAF General Secretary John Holt issued a warning—obviously directed at Coe—that his federation would strictly enforce its pace-setting rule, which, in effect, says that if a rabbit drops out after completing his lap or two, no record can be recognized for that race.
And finally, the quality of the competition in the 1,000 had deteriorated drastically from what had been expected. "We nearly went home when we saw the field," said Peter Coe. "I told Arne [Haukvik, the meet promoter] that I thought it was an insult to Seb."
Forty-five minutes before the start of the 1,000,400-meter hurdler James King, who had just finished third in his own event, agreed to set the pace for Coe, IAAF warning or not. After bringing the Briton around in 51.4 for the first lap, he peeled off to the outside of the track. Some observers say he finished; some say he didn't. Half-miler Rob Harrison of Britain then took over as rabbit and pushed Coe to the 600-meter mark. Harrison, too, was accused of failing to complete the race, though as with King, the IAAF will have to be the official judge.
Coe was now on his own and was obviously having another of those "very few performances." This one wouldn't be wasted, however. Striding smoothly in the warm night air, he broke the tape in 2:12.18, having been slowed only by a broken blister on his left foot. He had pared 1.22 seconds off his own world record—a startling reduction for such a distance. Coe passed the 800 mark in 1:44.56, faster than anyone else has run that distance this year, and ran the approximate equivalent of a 3:30.2 1,500 and a 3:47.8 mile. Those two times would both be world records.
To accommodate ABC, which televised the mile, it was 11:15 p.m. before the 11 competitors at that distance lined up for their run at a record, which some Norwegians assumed was the reason for calling this the Dream Mile. One of Ovett's close friends, Bob Benn, jumped immediately to the lead, with Ovett in close pursuit. The pace—56.69 and 1:55.15 splits—was fairly swift, yet almost 2½ seconds behind that of a year ago when Ovett achieved his 3:48.8 world record on the same track.
At about the halfway mark, Byers, who had upset both Ovett and Scott in the Bislett Games 1,500 in Oslo in late June, took the lead, with Ovett still second and Scott third. Byers had won that June race by serving as a rabbit for the first two laps and the second two. He attempted to steal the race again, but ran out of gas with 500 meters left. When Ovett didn't surge, Scott saw an opening. "I thought I would break with 200 to go," Scott said later, "but here was my chance so I had a go." He quickly spurted past Ovett into the lead.
The time as the bell lap began was 2:53.33, fast but still more than two seconds off last year's record split. In the last quarter mile at least five runners had a chance to go to the front. Into the final turn Ovett was the leader, with Scott in fourth but charging again. Gradually, however, Ovett pulled away from everyone. Then, to the amazement of all—though in typical Ovett fashion—he proceeded to throw away any chance for a world record. He looked back at his pursuers no fewer than four times in the stretch and slowed noticeably. If Ovett is as fit as ever, he is no less enigmatic. His winning time of 3:49.25, though not what it might have been, was still the third fastest in history.
Scott, unlike Ovett, was most concerned with the clock, for he knew he would be close to Ryun's U.S. record. Actually, Scott had not been close to Ryun's 3:51.1; he was well under it. His 3:49.68 was good for third place behind Jose Luis Gonzales of Spain (3:49.67). Indeed, seven of the 11 runners bettered 3:51. including another American, Baylor's Todd Harbour, who finished fifth in 3:50.34. "At last," Scott said, savoring the moment. "I've done it—in what must be the greatest race of all time."
If it wasn't that, it was at least the most compelling moment of a blockbuster week in track and field.