As the gun sounded to begin the Golden Mile in Brussels' Heizel Stadium last Friday night, Tom Byers was caught off balance. He was in the inside lane, determined to set a world-record pace. But now several runners had sprinted ahead of him and were about to crowd across and trap him against the rail. "I thought, 'Oh, God, I've blown it again,' " Byers would say later. But the fastest runner off the mark, Sebastian Coe, didn't cut for the pole. Instead, he stayed wide, shoving out Sydney Maree and Steve Scott so Byers could have a clear path to the front. "Just a delicate use of the whip," Coe thought as he settled into second behind the now-steaming Byers.
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 1981 issue
After 200 meters, Kenya's Mike Boit was a close third, and a gap was already widening to the trailing pack, led by Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland. Coe ran close to the curb, content with the pace, feeling an easy confidence that was far different from his sensations nine days before when he set a world record of 3:48.53 in Zurich. "That race had been planned as a record attempt for months," Coe said later. "Television executives were calling and all but saying, 'You'd better not let us down.' But the more you plan.... I was tight in that race, mentally scattered. But now I was flowing."
Coe's ease was all the more remarkable considering that that record had lasted only a week, until the end of a chaotic day in Koblenz, West Germany, when Coe's countryman, Steve Ovett, took it back with a 3:48.40.
A measure of confusion seems to accompany Ovett constantly. The Koblenz race, run just two days before the Brussels mile, was originally scheduled for 1,500 meters, Koblenz being the site of Ovett's 3:31.36 world record at that distance in 1980. But after Coe's Zurich mile record, Ovett wanted a shot at the English distance. The Koblenz meet director quickly agreed to make the change. But not all the entrants were pleased. West Germany's Dr. Thomas Wessinghage said, "I want a 1,500. It's a more important distance to a German. At home I get asked, 'So you ran 3:50 for a mile. What's that for 1,500?' " So there would be two races in Koblenz, a 1,500 and a mile, and all afternoon on the day of the meet the milers went through a dance of decision. "It was a confusing day," said Scott. "I wanted to run the mile and to be in a world-record try, but this was my last chance this year at a fast 1,500 and Jim Ryun's American record [3:33.1, set in 1967]. I figured I could try the mile in Brussels, so I went to the 1,500." So did Boit, who wanted to break Ben Jipcho's Kenyan record of 3:33.16.
Only Scott was successful. In what he called "the one race a year when everything clicks," Scott kicked past Wessinghage in the last 300 meters to win in 3:31.96, taking Ryun's last American mark and threatening Ovett's world record. Boit was shoved into the infield at the start and had to run through part of the long-jump pit. He was the last of 19 by the time he got back. He finished third, in a fine 3:33.92, but was galled by what he felt was the waste of a good race and vowed to do better in Brussels.
Then came Ovett's mile, the first ever contested at Koblenz, and the runners had to wait while officials measured the starting point of the 1,609.344-meter race and chalked it on the track. Ovett's close friend, Bob Benn, was the rabbit for the first two laps, which he covered in 55.63 and 1:53.59, with U.S. 800-meter champion James Robinson second and Ovett third. Robinson was in there for the third lap, which was a chance to redeem himself as a pacemaker. Earlier in the season, in Stockholm, he had roared through the 800 meters of Coe's 1,500-meter record try in a berserk 1:47.5. Coe was pulled to 1:49.2, and showed amazing stamina to finish in 3:31.95. "I was so upset I wanted to go home," Robinson said. "I caused him to miss the world record." In Koblenz, Robinson was instructed not to lead until Benn dropped back. He took the pace at the half and smoothly escorted Ovett for another 360 meters.
Ovett had the lead at 1,200 in 2:50.62, and the 22,000 who had wedged into Koblenz' stadium, built for 10,000, screamed him on. "I felt so good I knew I had the record," Ovett said later. He sustained his muscular, rolling stride to the finish in 3:48.40, whereupon he was engulfed by waves of kids who had to be driven back by the Polizei. "The atmosphere was tremendous," he said. "I've got my zest back for racing." Yet he said he wouldn't run the Golden Mile in Brussels, having promised to race for England in a meet with Norway and Yugoslavia. He will run the 1,500 in this weekend's World Cup meet in Rome (where Coe will be in the 800), then be married to Rachel Waller of Maidstone and honeymoon in the U.S., where he will run an extravaganza mile down Fifth Avenue in New York on Sept. 26.
The impromptu nature of the Koblenz mile imperiled Ovett's chances of securing a world record because the IAAF has an obscure rule requiring events to be listed in the meet program. The mile wasn't.
"Hey, he did it," said Scott, who, like all the milers, at once accepted the mark. "I watched."
Not long afterward, Coe got a call from his sister Miranda, a dancer at the MGM Grand in Reno. "Oh, why did he do it in Koblenz?" she cried.
"I had to laugh," Coe said. "She seemed most affronted by his choice of venue." Coe calmed his sister: "Look, the record is on a carousel right now. I'll have a turn tomorrow in Brussels."
These successive records had no precedent except the wartime seasons from 1942 to 1945 when Gunder H‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ügg and Arne Andersson of Sweden broke or tied the mile and 1,500 records 10 times and reduced the mile mark from 4:06.4 to 4:01.4. Now, a record per week focused attention on the real question: Why on earth don't Coe and Ovett race each other? They have met only three times in their adult careers—in the European Championships 800 in 1978, when both were beaten by East Germany's Olaf Beyer, and in the 1980 Olympic 800, won by Ovett, and 1,500, won by Coe.
Certainly, Coe would welcome a race. On July 11, after Coe had set a 1,000-meter world record of 2:12.18 and Ovett had won a 3:49.25 mile easing off, Coe went to Ovett's friend and manager, Andy Norman, and said, "I've had enough. As of now I'm entered in the Golden Mile in Brussels." Ovett had already entered, and said that night, "If Seb's there, there will be a race." Yet a few weeks later he withdrew, saying he felt the clash, when it came, ought to be on British soil.
These were the public remarks. But in the cloudy, quasi-professional world of top amateur runners, there are other, necessarily private elements. One is appearance money, which is none too surreptitiously given to attract and reward good fields. Ovett was ready to race Coe in Brussels until West German newspapers reported that Coe had struck a deal for $15,000 for the race. Whether that was true or not, English observers reasoned, if Ovett couldn't match that figure, he would naturally withdraw. Money can plausibly be seen as a motive for Ovett's overall racing pattern, because if he doesn't risk losing to Coe, he doesn't risk devaluing his asking price.
Several milers agree. "If they go head to head, there's definitely a No. 1," said Byers. "But if they trade world records back and forth, nobody knows. That's fine by Ovett."
Scott, the leader of the Run Hard and Let the Chips Fall Where They May school, said, "It's ego. It's not life and death for us to win. It is for Ovett."
Coe said, "I never speculate on Steve's behavior in choosing races. Perhaps he's not going to race until he feels ready, which I respect. Maybe he feels a psychological advantage in hopping around and keeping everyone guessing."
Coe guessed Ovett might turn up in Brussels anyway, a suspicion that gained credence when British Amateur Athletic Board official David Shaw called the meet director with clearance for Ovett to run should he show.
On the afternoon of the race, as the rumors swirled, Coe seemed to be in a serene mood, taking a walk beside a pear orchard and through playing fields near his hotel. He lay on the grass and played on some swings, chatting about physiology with a friend, Dr. David Martin of Atlanta. A youngster kicked a soccer ball at him, and Coe kept it off the ground with his feet for half a minute.
"Are you a soccer player?" the Belgian boy asked.
"No. A runner," Coe said simply, sending the ball over the boy's head.
In the evening, the runner entered a stadium filled with 45,000 Belgians and an atmosphere of near-misses. Renaldo Nehemiah, trying to break his world record of 12.93 in the 110-meter hurdles, false-started twice, got away with it, but ran 13.07. Evelyn Ashford, showing splendid form, "took a deep breath" in the middle of the 200 meters and thereby missed her American record by .01 with a 21.84. Only Pam Spencer fulfilled her hopes, high-jumping to an American record of 6'5½". Both Nehemiah and Ashford were fascinated by the mile. "I wish I could have a rabbit," they said, almost in unison.
Coe had the best rabbit going. Byers led Coe past 400 meters in 54.92. "I felt the wind in the backstretch," said Boit, who was third. "I thought, 'Oh, the time isn't going to be good.' " After 600 meters the pack was 20 yards behind. "Everybody was pushing and stepping on each other," Scott said. "I cut my stride 10 times."
Byers hit 800 meters in 1:52.67, and as he came out of the first turn on the third lap, Coe closed. "He was antsy at 900," Byers said. "That's where I slowed in Zurich and he was anticipating." Coe stumbled, horrifying the crowd, but he recovered easily. Byers picked up the pace, but tired after another 100 meters. He moved wide as the curve began and Coe drove through into the lead. This was precisely the spot Coe's father and coach, Peter, had chosen to watch the race. "I'd decided that was where the climax had to come," he said.
Coe passed 1,200 meters in 2:51.00 with Boit only three yards behind. Both men looked strong, their arms lightly carried rather than pumped. Now it wasn't a calculated record attempt at all. There was one clear intent: Win the race. Down the last backstretch Boit let Coe gain only one more yard. "I knew he was there," Coe said. "The added spur was tremendous. It was the first time in all my record races where someone was with me almost to the end. There was no way I was going to subconsciously relax."
With 200 to go, Coe surged. "I felt great. 'Kick, I can kick,' I said to myself on the bend." He sprinted home powerfully, crossed the line and nearly disappeared into a bedlam of photographers and officials. His time was 3:47.33, more than a full second torn from Ovett's record. It was the third mile Coe has run in the last three years, and in each he has set a world record.
Boit faded, finishing 15 yards back in 3:49.45, nearly three-tenths faster than his 3:49.74 of Zurich. "It is good to break 3:50 twice," he said. "It gives you some confidence that it wasn't by chance."
Scott was third in 3:51.48, Maree fourth in 3:51.81, Wessinghage fifth in 3:52.60, and John Walker sixth in 3:52.97. "I was sluggish," said Scott, who hadn't recovered from his superb 1,500 in Koblenz two nights prior. "My season's over. I'm going home."
Byers trotted in last in 4:21.46, so no one could say the pacemaker didn't finish. Within an hour he received half a dozen requests to rabbit upcoming races. "It's great Seb got the record," he said. "But my rabbit days are over. It makes you feel three inches tall. From now on, if I lead, it's to help my own chances."
Coe was awarded a golden trophy, and then he pushed Boit to the top of the victory stand. "His being there made it for me," Coe said. "We put him up for not growing old. He's 10 years older than I am. [Approximately. Boit is unsure of his birth date, but guesses he is 33. Coe is 24.] His was the run of the evening."
Coe bubbled over: "It's like the 800 in Oslo in 1979 [when he ran 1:42.4], my first record." He concluded an interview with NBC commentator Frank Shorter with, "Thanks, Marty," and later said, "I lost a tenner on the race. I bet someone that a certain someone would turn up. I think it could have gone faster if Steve had run. There is more time to come off the mile yet, but it won't be done by finishing faster. It will be by going the three-quarters in 2:48."
Having polished off a 2 a.m. buffet, Coe gave his view of the turning carousel of records. "They were attacked and traded so often because they were so obviously achievable. Now they'll improve, but not as quickly. The 1,000 will go below 3:30 soon, perhaps, the mile below 3:47; but then it's going to get harder. I haven't thought about it until this moment," he said, his voice wistful and light, "but it's finished."