As Sebastian Coe took a victory lap after the fastest mile ever run, his 3:48.53 on a still, warm night at the Zurich International Meet last Wednesday, the applause for his record was interrupted by the victory ceremony for Renaldo Nehemiah's world record of 12.93 in the 110-meter high hurdles, set half an hour earlier. Nehemiah came off the platform with his medal, trotted to Coe, and the crowd of 25,000 rose, more than doubly inspired by the sight of them together. For a moment, as they raised their arms in salute, Coe and Nehemiah seemed to embody the unifying effect of athletic achievement, the splendor of their performances temporarily overriding differences of event, background and character.
Yet their own feelings were in contrast. Coe's were mixed. There was joy that he'd taken the record back from his British rival Steve Ovett, who had lifted it from Coe a year ago with a 3:48.8. But Coe also sensed he'd had an opportunity for a far better time—and Ovett's 1,500-meter record of 3:31.36 en route—and had not seized it.
Nehemiah's satisfaction was complete. It was the solid knowledge of return, of vindication, almost of revenge. He had become the first man to break 13 seconds in the highs without benefit of an excessive following wind, and he did it while defeating his archrival Greg Foster, who cut his own best to 13.03 while finishing second. But the thing that made Nehemiah ecstatic was the length of the road he had traveled.
In May, a week after Foster had beaten him in the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA, in 13.10, Nehemiah fell at the tape in the Maryland Track Classic 100-meter dash. "I cracked a bone in my right ankle," he says. "That put me out for seven weeks. I felt like quitting. A lot of people wrote me off, saying Foster finally had my number. I was sick and tired of that."
August 30, 1981
So when he was healed enough to train, Nehemiah put himself under the eye of famed hurdle coach Wilbur Ross of Somerdale, N.J. "We just ate and slept hurdling," he says. Nehemiah trained away 10 extra pounds of muscle he had put on to win the February Superstars competition, returning to his racing optimum of 172. And, interestingly, this man who has so perpetually exuded sureness credits Ross with increasing his confidence. "He instilled in me that I could do it, that I still had it."
His first try at Foster came at the National Sports Festival on July 26 in Syracuse, N.Y. "I didn't have much choice," says Nehemiah. "I had to win." It was raining. The track was mushy. A strong trailing wind precluded any record possibility and forced both men closer to the approaching hurdles than they wanted, a condition that favored the shorter, more limber Nehemiah. "I had a great start, and that was the race," he says. "Greg panicked and tried to catch me." Foster hit several hurdles. Nehemiah won in 13 flat, with Foster at 13.22.
The rubber match came in Zurich, on a freshly resurfaced track, with the barest breeze of 0.2 of a meter per second in the hurdlers' faces. Nehemiah had taken full advantage of his position as world-record holder to arrange for personal preferences. "The meet director, Andreas Brügger, asked me, 'What lane do you want?' I said, 'Four.' 'What lane do you want Foster in?' I said, 'Five.' I wanted to know where he was at all times. There was no way he was going to run a lane or more away like in the past, which is what he likes best."
There was one false start, by Sam Turner of the U.S. "I was glad we had that," said Nehemiah later. "I felt a little tight, and that made me move and got the adrenaline flowing more."
Then they were off cleanly, with Foster getting a splendid start. They were even over the first four hurdles. "I thought he had a little lead for three," said Nehemiah, "and I said to myself, 'Oh, no. You got to catch him.' " At the fourth, Nehemiah was exhorting himself, "Skeets, stay on your toes. Lean more. Drive more," and he began to edge ahead. By now they were moving so fast that it appeared that their requisite three strides between hurdles were no more than furious stutter steps. At the sixth, Foster felt a twinge in the lower hamstring of his right leg, the trail leg that is whipped to the side across the barriers. Nehemiah went ahead by two feet and as he approached the 10th hurdle was thinking, "Now, Skeets, this is the most important one. He can catch me. Carry on through the tape."
He finished a yard up on Foster. As he slowed, he caught sight of the time on the digital clock at the end of the stadium. That moved him to a jubilant victory lap, and he arrived back at the blocks just as Foster completed his slow, thoughtful jog back up the stretch. They hugged briefly, and Nehemiah said, with honesty, "If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have run that time."
Of his own 13.03, the disconsolate Foster said, "It's a good time [indeed, it was the third-best time ever; no other hurdler besides these two has ever broken 13.21], but not good enough."
Later, Nehemiah sat with SI's Anita Verschoth and watched a replay of the race, giving a remarkably candid description of the willfulness that powers most world-class athletes. "A lot has to do with my ego," he said. "It just tells me no one should be next to me." And Nehemiah's imperatives don't operate only during the race. Of Foster, he said, "He ran the best race of his life and he lost. There is no way he can tell me that he had a cramp. You don't run a 13.03 with a cramp against the best in the world. I think he's a more emotional type, and I'm more realistic. He's hoping that he can do it. I have the knowledge of what my capabilities are. If he runs his best time against me, he should be happy. You may want to call it boasting, but I just believe in my heart that I'm the best hurdler. He was at his best, his ultimate, I think. So I had to dig down and win it. When I'm at my best, nobody can beat me."
Nehemiah, No. 1 in the world rankings for three years and still only 22, went on to say his ultimate goal for the race is 12.4 seconds. It is likely that such certainty is essential for success. What is confidence but the belief, before the fact, that something is possible? The arresting thing about Nehemiah is that he will so forcefully challenge the beliefs of another, that he will seek to crush Foster's confidence.
Two nights later they went to the line again, in Berlin's rain and 56° chill. Again Foster started well. "He beat me to the first hurdle," said Nehemiah. But Foster hit the second, lost rhythm, and Nehemiah caught him. "I saw him easing off," he said. Foster clobbered the fourth hurdle and pulled up, disgusted. Nehemiah rolled on to a 13.18. "Give him his due," said Nehemiah. "It could have been the rain on his glasses." Or it could have been Nehemiah's raw, unavoidable presence. It is as he says: "There is a battle going on between the milers, but the only real world-class feud is between Greg and myself."
It might be the same in the mile but for Coe's having no wish to feud, only to explore his own limits. Thus he seems to find it easy to ignore Ovett's way of scheduling a summer of races without meeting him. "My answer is always that I'm available," says Coe. But in the meantime, he wanted Ovett's mile and 1,500 records. With the help of Kenya's Mike Boit and Tom Byers, a former Ohio State miler, both of whom now live in Eugene, Ore., he planned a pace of 1:52 for 800 meters and 2:48 for 1,200. Byers had beaten Ovett in Oslo earlier in the season in a freakish race in which the pack, thinking Byers a rabbit who would die, let him build a huge lead, and he didn't die. But now he was recovering from a terrible cold and felt he could only guarantee two good laps. Boit, who considers himself essentially a half-miler, agreed to take the third quarter. "I'm nervous," he said. "I'm not used to these long races."
As the 10:15 p.m. starting time drew near, the usually serene Coe seemed impatient—standing on the track, ready, even though the 200-meter dash had yet to be run. "It was the difference between not knowing what was going on, as in Oslo in 1979 [where he first took the mile record, with a 3:49.0] and consciously going for something," he would say later. "Before I'd broken world records, I suppose in a way I didn't know they were possible. After you do one, it becomes more real somehow and takes on a greater importance to you, the sentimental value of a collector's item." But beyond that, Coe won the 1980 Olympic 1,500 and so can judge, as few men can, the relative worth of medals or records. "The records of 1979 were the truer indicator of athletic ability," he has written in a new book, Running Free. "That's why I want them back."
All had not gone smoothly for Coe since he brought his world record for 800 meters down to an amazing 1:41.72 in Florence in June. On July 7, during a near miss of the 1,500 record in Stockholm, he acquired a blister beneath the callous on the ball of his left foot. It opened up when he broke his own world 1,000-meter record with a 2:12.18 in Oslo. And winning the European Cup 800 in 1:47.03 on a searing track in Zagreb, Yugoslavia three days before Zurich didn't help any, the injury by then having developed into a deep wound. "We do a patching-up job that leaves it a little worse after each race," said Coe's father and coach, Peter. "After this he'll only run the Golden Mile in Brussels [Aug. 28] and the World Cup in Rome [Sept. 4-6]."
With little ceremony, the milers were sent off. Byers bolted to the lead as planned, with Coe taking a position almost beside his elbow. Boit made it to third, then was shoved wide by Spain's Josè Luis Gonzales coming through on the inside. The 400 was 56.13, right on. "I felt O.K.," said Coe, "and the 800 was comfortable, too, perhaps too much so." The split there was 1:53.59, more than a second and a half behind schedule. Byers saw Peter Coe beside the track gesturing for more speed, but he had none to give. Boit was tired from fighting back around Gonzales into third. So there was a little lull. Coe realized he had to go. "You can train all you want, but when you reach that area around 2½ laps, no one has it easy," he said. "I felt too good." He went into the lead with 600 meters to run. Boit kept close, feeling guilty that he hadn't been able to help.
The 1,200 mark passed in 2:51.68, more than a second slower than Ovett's pace in his record race. Coe went down the last backstretch with his head up and his fists clenched, gaining five yards on Boit and 20-year-old Steve Cram of England. He passed the 1,500 in 3:33.28. "In theory, 3:33 meant that the mile record was lost because I did 3:32.8 when I ran 3:49 in 1979," Coe said later. "I wanted to treat the race as a hard 1,500 and then try to maintain form the last 120 yards to the finish. As it happened, I had to dig in and go the last part. I've improved my finishing speed, thank goodness."
He lifted visibly in the stretch and just succeeded, his 3:48.53 making this the seventh occasion he has broken an outdoor world record. Boit hung on against Cram, and they both broke 3:50, with Boit's 3:49.74 taking more than five seconds from his previous best, and Cram's 3:49.95 making him the youngest ever to go so fast. John Walker of New Zealand, the first man ever to crack 3:50, almost did it again, six years later, with a 3:50.12. "And I'm teed off," he said, still full of racing fire. "I had way too much left."
Boit didn't. He walked and gulped air for many minutes. "I cannot believe it," he said when told his time. "You know, I don't think I can run any faster than that." Steve Scott, exhausted after coaching his wife through the delivery of their first child, seven-pound Corey Michael Scott, at 1 a.m. the previous Saturday and then flying from California, still ran 3:53.98. It was good enough to earn him only eighth place.
Coe went to Byers and thanked him for his help, promising to return the favor. Later, Byers would see Peter Coe and apologize for letting the pace drop. "Hey, was the record broken or not?" said Peter. "They're not 10 to the penny, you know."
The younger Coe was drawn away by British television, so Peter sought out Sebastian's mother in the stands where she was composing herself. "I saw a little of it," she said, "through my fingers." This was the third record of her son's that she had witnessed. "I'm worse at it every time."
They walked back to their hotel, where a frantic representative of ABC Sports called their room and tried everything he knew to influence Peter to put the absent runner on the phone. "Look, you've heard of Howard Cosell, haven't you?" the voice on the phone wailed.
"I guess so," said Peter, though he hadn't.
"Well, this is special. This is serious."
"I'm sorry. It's very serious to you, it's your job. But you see, it's all a joke to me," he said, hanging up.
Yet ultimately he did share a serious moment, one in which he acknowledged Sebastian's wish for a better race. "He's sewn up the 800- and 1,000-meter records for years to come. He knows that. What he knows, too, is that he could have blown apart that 1,500 and hung on to make a real reduction of the mile. Ah, you learn something about yourself in this bloody game, don't you? And maybe what we all should learn is you can't always get everything you want."
Perhaps the only man in Europe who would disagree is Skeets Nehemiah.