The strangest occurrence in Sebastian Coe's suddenly eventful summer took place in the Swiss resort town of Interlaken on Aug. 15. Coe, the world-record holder in the mile and at 800 and 1,000 meters, was staying at a hotel there with his parents, Peter and Angela, and his girl friend, West German skier Irene Epple, preparing for his first serious race in two and a half months, an 800 three days hence in Zurich. When Epple came ashore from a boardsailing session on the Lake of Thun that Sunday afternoon, she left her board on the beach with the three Coes and went to the hotel to change clothes. Then the trouble started.
A huskily built Swiss boardsailing instructor, one Ralph Baumann, 45, came in off the lake and began screaming furiously at the Coes to get themselves and Epple's board off his section of beach immediately. "Just two minutes," said Peter Coe, 63, who began moving slowly toward the board. This only further enraged Baumann, who snapped, "You English are all the same. You think the world waits for you." He heaved Epple's board into the lake, grabbed the elder Coe by the shirt collar and started shaking him. When Angela Coe rushed over to free her husband, Baumann took a swing at her. "At that point," said Sebastian later, "I blew my top."
The slender (5'9¼", 129 pounds) runner picked up a three-foot piece of driftwood and clobbered Baumann on the back of the head. "I must admit I'm a bit surprised he got up," says Coe. But Baumann did indeed get up, and while two passersby held Seb, the instructor sailed into him with his fists. Coe showed up in Interlaken court two days later with a black eye, a swollen nose and a skinned elbow. Baumann had five stitches in his head. They explained the incident at a preliminary hearing, then patched up their differences. Baumann even offered Coe free boardsailing lessons.
Thus it was that after months of being at less than his best because of injury, Coe, now 25, assumed his familiar role as the center of attention on the European track circuit last week, and his coming-out races in Zurich, London and Cologne proved he can still run better than he can hit. But Coe may have run too well. By week's end, some of the attention he was getting from his fellow runners was cynical and caustic. They doubted he'd ever been hurt at all.
On Wednesday night in Zurich, Coe was mostly the butt of harmless jokes. "I see he's come here unarmed," said a British newspaperman when Coe stepped onto the track. Cracked miler Craig Masback, "No one will dare run against him in a relay." Others suggested Coe might be of use in cricket test matches. The runners in the 800, however, found nothing humorous in Coe's presence.
Through 600 meters, Coe stayed near the front. Off his shoulder sat U.S. champion James Robinson, always a strong finisher, seemingly ready to strike. Though the pace had already been fast, Coe and Robinson quickened it as they entered the far turn. Together, they took the lead. For a moment.
Coe then pulled away so rapidly that he had an eight-yard lead halfway down the homestretch. This was the Coe who ran the stunning 1:41.8 world record last year. Seven times he looked back to check on his pursuers and seven times he saw them straining, tying up. By the finish line Coe had intentionally slowed to little more than a walk. Still, he beat Robinson and Detlef Wagenknecht of East Germany by more than half a second. He had run the second-fastest 800 in the world for 1982: 1:44.48.
"I sounded like an old Victorian steam engine," Coe said later, describing the trouble he had had breathing through his swollen nose. Yet he had looked as smooth as ever—remarkable for someone who hadn't run a step between early June and the end of July because of a stress fracture in his right shin.
Too remarkable, said several other middle-distance runners, who doubted that Coe had suffered a stress fracture at all. "The X rays are there to be seen at Charing Cross Hospital," said Coe, slightly miffed. During his seven-week layoff, he said, he hadn't been idle: He had worked out on a rowing machine and with free weights and had pedaled the equivalent of 1,350 miles on a cycling machine. That, he explained, was why he had been able to come back so fast.
The milers on the European circuit offered a different explanation. They said that Coe and British rival Steve Ovett had each been guaranteed between $125,000 and $190,000—easily the highest payment to a performer in the history of track and field—by British and U.S. television promoters to race each other in the mile this Sept. 25 in Eugene, Ore. (If either received such a sum and admitted taking it, he would be required to give 15% of it to the British Amateur Athletic Board and put the rest in a trust fund until he retires.) That race is said to be the payoff to Coe and Ovett for steadfastly refusing—while setting or tying eight and four world records, respectively, in the last three years—to compete against each other except in the Olympics. To save himself for Eugene and for the early September European championships and to avoid facing Ovett this summer, Coe, the milers alleged, had feigned injury. It should be noted that they had reason to be bitter. They had heard that their total share of the money for the Eugene race would be just $30,000.
On Wednesday afternoon came the news that Ovett had been hurt and that he might miss the rest of the season, including the Eugene mile. As reported by The Times of London, Ovett was running a hard 500 meters in practice in his home city of Brighton when he "incurred the classical manifestation of the hamstring pull." That is, he suddenly yelped and shot straight up in the air. Ovett hadn't run well all year after suffering a knee injury last December. It's quite possible that another Briton, 21-year-old Steve Cram, whose 1:44.45 ranks as this year's fatest 800, might soon surpass Ovett, 26, as Coe's principal rival.
In fact, in Friday night's meet at London's Crystal Palace, Coe and Cram were the outstanding performers. Cram easily defeated American mile-record-holder Steve Scott in the 1,000, while Coe won the 800 as convincingly as he had in Zurich, though in the slightly slower time of 1:45.85. Then on Sunday in Cologne he won the 800 yet again, in 1:45.10. Coe was so pleased with his performances he said he might enter the 1,500 as well as the 800 at the European championships in Athens in September. "I haven't felt this good since, well, it's been a long time," he said.
Outside Crystal Palace early Friday evening, with temperatures in the 40s, black clouds rolling in and a nasty wind howling, British fans had queued up to buy copies of a new paperback, The Coe & Ovett File. The title and the brisk sales suggested that the book was a fine thriller, ideal for reading in bed on such an inclement night. But the book, a collection of Athletics Weekly articles on Coe and Ovett, ends with the 1981 season. The Coe-Ovett story apparently has a few intriguing twists left.