The Empire Strikes Out

A bad year for British track grew worse as Steve Scott beat Seb Coe in a test of the world's top milers
July 31, 1983

With the gun, 13 milers rolled toward the curb like a cluster of marbles, working off and around each other, smacking elbow to elbow. "It seemed like an Olympic final," Steve Scott would say later, and last Saturday night's invitational mile in London was certainly of that quality. For the first time in nearly two years, world-record holder Sebastian Coe of Great Britain was putting himself on the line in an international mile race, with no fewer than five of his toughest rivals—U.S.-record holder Scott, Scott's countryman Tom Byers, Mike Boit of Kenya, world-indoor-record holder Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland and young Graham Williamson of Scotland—out for his scalp. Warned Scott, "This won't be like last time. This won't be a record run. This time we'll be racing."

"Last time" was Coe's last serious mile, his 3:47.33 world-record performance in Brussels in August of 1981. There, Byers had paced him through a swift 1,000 meters and Boit had driven him to the tape in relentless pursuit. Coe had beaten Boit by 15 yards, Scott by 35 and Coghlan by 50. The night had been warm, the stands packed with 45,000 frenzied fans. This time the scene was different. Only 7,500 people came out to Crystal Palace on the chilly evening to watch the first session of England's annual AAA Championships. That left 9,500 seats empty. It has been a dismal year for British track and field, a year of misfortune and feuding and failures, and the small, unenthusiastic crowd was evidence of the public's disenchantment. By the time Saturday's mile started—at 10:15 at night, to allow late afternoon live transmission to the U.S. by ABC television—the spectators had sat through four hours of generally dull qualifying races. They weren't frenzied. They were cold.

Coming out of the early jostling, dual pacesetters Bob Benn of Great Britain and Craig Masback of the U.S. tried to at least heat up the mile. They sprinted down the backstretch furiously, hoping Coe, in third place, would follow. He didn't. No one did. Scott was near the back of the pack, ahead of Byers and Coghlan. It was too early for tactics.

But not for mishaps. At 350 meters, a sudden tangle of arms and legs sent Byers, Pat Scammell of Australia and Brian Theriot of the U.S. crashing onto the infield. "I was lucky," said Scott later. "I'd just moved away from them a few strides earlier." The race passed 400 meters in 56.85 seconds, well off Coe's 1981 record pace of 55.0, with Benn and Masback leading by 10 yards. At 600 meters their lead was 40 yards. "Don't let them get away from you," yelled former world-record holder John Walker of New Zealand, a spectator, as Scott ran past him on the backstretch.

At 27, Scott has become the world's strongest miler, able to handle any pace and to throw in surges whenever needed. Now he began to reel in Benn and Masback, reaching 800 meters in 1:57.08, just 10 yards behind them. The crowd was coming alive. When Benn pulled off the track a few yards later, Scott moved up alongside Masback; Coe, Williamson and Coghlan quickly followed. They moved through 1,000 meters in a pack. Soon the real racing would begin.

Scott had come to London as the clear favorite, having run the year's two fastest outdoor miles, 3:49.49 and 3:50.99, respectively, in Oslo and Cork, Ireland in recent weeks and having won at 1,500 meters at the TAC Championships in June. "I'm happy, I'm totally healthy, my training is going perfectly...I can't even think a bad thought," Scott said on Saturday. He, his wife, Kim, and their 2-year-old son, Corey, have settled into an Oslo hotel for the summer, an arrangement that has helped Scott both psychologically and physically. "It gives me the feeling of being at home, even though I'm in Europe," he says. "In the past my family has stayed back in Scottsdale [Ariz.] or we've hopped from one European city to the next, which is exhausting. I think this could help me win the World Championships next month in Helsinki and that's the only race that really matters."

Scott's main rivals at Helsinki will include Britain's Steve Ovett, the world-record holder for 1,500 meters at 3:31.36, and Steve Cram, who—in a questionable judgment—was ranked No. 1 in the world at the distance last year ahead of Scott. But one runner he won't have to worry about is Coe, who announced last week that he would run only the 800 meters at the World Championships. Coe angrily withdrew his name from consideration for one of Britain's three 1,500-meter berths, thus leaving the slots open for Ovett, Cram and Williamson. To understand his decision is to understand just how calamitous a year 1983 has been for British track and field. And that takes some explaining.

It all started with a streak of bad luck that hit six of Britain's top track stars: Coe, Ovett, Cram, middle-distance runner David Moorcroft, decathlete Daley Thompson and sprinter Allan Wells, a group responsible for 16 world records, four Olympic gold medals and 13 No. 1 world rankings since 1977. The first victim was Moorcroft, the world-record holder at 5,000 meters and the world's No. 1-ranked 5,000 runner last year. Moorcroft contracted hepatitis over the winter, and when he continued to train, his condition worsened. Because the illness weakened his bones, he developed stress fractures of both legs. He has still not fully recovered. Cram, 22, stepped into a pothole during an April training run and injured his groin. That sidelined him until early June, when he sprained his right ankle while playfully kicking around a soda can. Even after his 3:41.69 victory in the AAA Championships 1,500 last Sunday, Britons were still debating his readiness for the World Championships. Thompson, besides incurring a minor groin injury, lost his decathlon world record to J√ºrgen Hingsen of West Germany in June and may choose to pass up Helsinki. Wells, the 1980 Olympic champion at 100 meters, turned 31 in May and seemed to have lost a step of his speed—at least until Saturday night's AAA 100 final, when he placed a close second behind world-record holder Calvin Smith, 10.30 to 10.34.

What caused the loudest uproar in Britain, however, were the setbacks that started at a June 24 meet in Paris. There Coe, 26, the world-record holder at 800 and 1,000 meters as well as the mile, suffered through the most frustrating 1,500 meters of his career. Not only was he bumped off the track and into the long-jump pit early in the race, but he was also soundly outkicked on the final straightaway by José Luis Gonzales of Spain. Coe hadn't lost a 1,500 final in seven years. "The old snap wasn't there," Coe said afterward. "It's the school of hard knocks, isn't it?"

More hard knocks came with the following morning's Fleet Street headlines. CRUSHING DEFEAT FOR COE, proclaimed one, COE is CARVED UP, said another with carnivorous fervor. STUNNED SEB IS BEATEN IN PARIS BRAWL, read a third. It was brought up, too, that Coe's only previous mile of 1983, run in Birmingham, England in early June, had been a 4:03.37, his slowest performance at that distance since 1977. Completely overlooked was his fine running of last winter, which included world indoor records for 800 and 1,000 meters.

The situation worsened for Britain two days later when Ovett was bloodied and beaten in a 1,000 at a meet in Edinburgh. Less than a lap into the race he was forced to leap over a fallen runner, spiked himself in the process and had to stop briefly. At the finish, Ovett, coming off a series of knee and hamstring injuries, was fifth in a field of 10. OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS JINXED, screamed a headline.

There was suddenly talk that perhaps Ovett's day had passed. A large bald spot hints at his advancing age—he'll soon be 28—and some observers suggested that he'd lost his competitive hunger. His new clothing company, Ovett Sportswear, Ltd., brings in good money, as do his promotional work for U-Bix Copiers and his wife Rachel's modeling. It's now in his best interest to be more personable, less feisty. However, his attitude toward old rival Coe hasn't become much more charitable. After the fiasco in Edinburgh, Ovett sneered to reporters, "At least I didn't end up in the sand pit," and when it was reported that Coe had dumped girl friend Irene Epple, the West German skier, in favor of British tennis player Linda Geeves, Ovett raised an eyebrow and sardonically asked, "Does his father know?" Some things, it seems, never change, even in the worst of times.

Ovett gradually came back to form, qualifying for the World Championships 1,500 with an impressive 3:33.81 clocking in Oslo on June 28 and running a 1:46.29 800 in an AAA qualifying heat last Saturday, well within the 1:46.50 British qualifying standard for the Championships. But in the 800 final on Sunday, he fell apart again. About 200 meters into the race, Ovett was spiked in his right foot, and a three-inch gash opened up. He gamely continued, running smoothly, until the 600-meter mark, when he was hit with a bad muscle spasm in his right buttock. The instant Ovett dropped out of the race, his chances of being selected to compete in the 800 at Helsinski dropped precipitously.

Coe, after a brilliant 1:43.80 800—history's sixth-fastest time—in that June 28 Oslo meet, stumbled again two weeks ago, letting Yugoslavia's Dragan Zdravkovic blow past him in the final yards to win a 1,500 in London. One reason for his defeat, explained Coe afterward, was that a dog had bitten him on the left ankle only a few days before the race and the ankle had swollen. In any case, much of the British press and public, now fed up with not only their athletes' failures but also with open feuding among Cram, Ovett and Coe over who was getting favored treatment from Britain's World Championships selection board, suggested that Coe scrap his plans to run both the 800 and 1,500 in Helsinki. Under pressure, Coe gave in. "If I did anything other than win [the World Championships 1,500], it would leave me open to accusations that another athlete should have been sent," he said. But Coe also knew that if he beat Williamson in Saturday night's mile, he would win a moral victory. And sure enough, Williamson made himself the man to beat.

At the 1,100-meter mark the 23-year-old Williamson barreled between Scott and Masback and took off. Scott and Coe were on his tail, waiting to pounce. Williamson passed through 1,200 meters in 2:58.77, almost seven seconds behind Coe's world-record split. Off such a slow pace, this was anybody's race.

Scott ran Williamson down on the backstretch, taking the lead with 250 meters to go. When Coe, too, went by Williamson and crept up on Scott's shoulder, the crowd rose, roaring. Coe was in perfect position to haul in Scott, toss him aside and put British track and field right back on its feet again. This was it. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

But the empire struck out. "I knew Seb wasn't going to catch me when the crowd went silent," said Scott later. Scott hit the finish line at 3:51.56, fully 12 yards ahead of Coe (3:52.93), 20 ahead of Williamson (3:53.96) and a light-year ahead of the fourth-place Coghlan (3:57.61). He had proven that, without question, he's now the world's outstanding miler. "At last, maybe people will realize just how good Steve is," said Scott's coach, Len Miller. "Do you know he's never even been named amateur athlete of the year in his home state of Arizona? Here's a guy who has his running in perspective, his goals in perspective, his life in perspective.... Maybe now people will begin to put him in perspective."

"I know Seb isn't at his best, so that tarnishes this a little," said Scott, with typical humility. But Coe, with typical frankness, disagreed. "Don't denigrate yourself," he told Scott. "The way you're running, I don't think anybody could have given you much more of a fight tonight." As for himself, Coe said, "I improved from my last two 1,500s, and that's a good sign. I like to feel that the engine is on the way up." But after last week's AAA it was hard to believe that any of Britain's runners will be revved up enough to win in Helsinki.

PHOTOScott, who's a commuter to meets from family digs in Oslo, beat Coe by 12 yards. PHOTOCoe is being eclipsed as the No. 1 miler. PHOTOScott would finish in 3:51.56, Coe in 3:52.93. PHOTOWells (left) ran well but not well enough, losing to Smith by a scant .04 of a second. PHOTOThompson longs for his decathlon record. PHOTOCram (1) won the 1,500 at the AAA but may not be in shape to stay No. 1 in the world. PHOTOOvett showed good form in a fast 800 heat but suffered a muscle spasm in the final.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)