Sebastian Coe's 3:47.33 world-record mile run in Brussels in late summer didn't surprise me one bit. After all, the Portuguese scoring tables predicted just that time.
The Portuguese what? The explanation is forthcoming, but first let's back up to a point early in the recently concluded track and field season.
Toward the end of last spring, in Florence, with 15,000 fans cheering him on, Coe sprinted through the finish line of an 800-meter run, his head tilted back, his face in the grimace that has become so familiar, his right hand fisted, in 1:41.72 to break his own world record by an impressive .61 second.
"I have to think," said a happy Coe afterward, "that [this] is a better relative athletic performance than my mile in three minutes 49 seconds." Coe was referring to his world-record (actually 3:48.95) run in Oslo in 1979. It was his best performance at the distance until he and his English countryman, Steve Ovett, successively lowered Ovett's 1980 world record of 3:48.8 in a frenzy of record breaking this summer.
November 2, 1981
A few days before Coe's marvelous performance in the Florence 800, my son, Frank, a high school junior, had placed sixth in the 800 in a big nighttime invitational meet. His eyes searching wearily for the finish, he crossed the line in 1:59.42, a personal best.
As he warmed down, he wondered, as he had so often that spring after finishing races at 800 and 1,500 meters, sometimes even tripling in the 3,000, what his time was worth in terms of that classic distance, the mile.
I am a track nut, familiar with a collection of intriguing, somewhat speculative, track and field comparative performance scoring tables. The tables try to match the apples and oranges of disparate events against each other, using mathematical velocity-based formulas and world-class performances. The first tables were created back in 1912 to score the decathlon at the Stockholm Olympic Games and have since been repeatedly revised and expanded, as is the wont of statisticians, beyond the needs of the decathlon, pentathlon and heptathlon.
I had three tables to refer to in order to answer my son's question: the so-called Portuguese tables (Système Rationnel pour Classer les Performances Athlètiques), devised by the Portuguese mathematician Fernando Amado and revised in 1962; the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) tables, published in 1962 and amended in 1970 and 1977; and the scoring tables of J. Gerry Purdy, an American computer scientist, which were last revised in 1975.
Therefore, I had some fairly reasonable estimates of the mile equivalent of Frank's 800. The times ranged from 4:25.8 (Portuguese) to 4:27.6 (IAAF) to 4:29.2 (Purdy), all of which led to a great deal of theoretical jubilation. Frank had never run faster than a 4:15.74 1,500, which, in turn, translated, at best, to about a 4:36 mile.
Coe's 800 was absolutely sensational, and he was perfectly right in assuming that it was a better performance than his 1979 mile. On the Portuguese tables, it was, prophetically, considered equivalent to a 3:47.3 mile; the IAAF scored it as a 3:47.7; and for Purdy, it was off the top of the chart, but suggested something like 3:45.4.
Though track and field statisticians, who love to wallow in split-second detail, are fascinated by the scoring tables, there is considerable skepticism as to their value. Both Dave Johnson of Track & Field News and Rich Perelman, editor of American Athletics Annual and statistician extraordinaire, term the tables "out of whack" and outdated almost as soon as they are completed.
The impact of the fiber-glass pole in the pole vault has distorted the Portuguese tables for that event. An ordinary 5.50-meter vault (18'½") is listed as equivalent to a 3:46.6 mile! And the world-record vault of 5.81 meters (19'¾") by Vladimir Polyakov of the Soviet Union translates to about a 3:38.4 mile! High altitude also bestows unfairly high values on world-record marks such as Pietro Mennea's 200-meter time of 19.72 and Lee Evans' 43.86 for 400 meters, both set in the 7,350-foot-high altitude of Mexico City.
Indeed, the Portuguese tables rank Mennea's 200-meter record as the most imposing men's running mark, though a leading track expert has criticized the tables' values in this event as inflated—at sea level or upon a mountain. According to the IAAF, Henry Rono's world-record 8:05.4 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase is deemed the best. Purdy appears to give first place to Coe's 800 record over Evans' 400 mark, though both are off the top of the tables. The consensus softest world record is Jim Hines's 9.95 for the 100-meter dash, set in the '68 Olympics.
On the field-event side, Bob Beamon's fabulous 29'2½" long jump in the rarefied Mexico City air has long been considered the best track and field performance in history. But while that mark gets 1,189 points on the IAAF tables, less impressive world records in the pole vault and discus go right through the 1,200-point maximum, and the hammer-throw mark exceeds Beamon's record by three points. Brian Oldfield's 75-foot shotput, an unofficial record because he set it while he was a professional, also cracks the 1,200-point barrier.
Overall, on the Portuguese tables, forgetting about the distorted pole vault, Beamon's jump ranks first, five points better than Mennea's dash. And on Purdy's tables, Beamon tops Coe's 800, though both go through the 1,750-point ceiling.
And what about the women? The best distaff world record, according to the IAAF, is Ilona Slupianek's 73' 8" shot-put, which is too long to be included on the scoring table. This is followed by Tatyana Kazankina's 3:52.47 for the 1,500, which is also clear off the table.
Do any of these comparisons between 400-meter dashes and long jumps really mean anything compared to the actuality of an exciting race? For example, the Landy-Bannister matchup in the mile at Vancouver or Billy Mills's glorious winning kick in the Tokyo Olympics 10,000? Well, of course not. But my son says he's going to run 1:55 in the 800 next spring, and if that happens, it means he should run the mile in.... And, given his time for the 800, Coe should run 3:29.7 for the 1,500 (Ovett's world record is 3:31.36). At least, that's what the Portuguese tables predict.