Sebastian Coe turned into the last backstretch of the Dream Mile at the Bislett Games in Oslo in perfect position. He was second, staring at the back of British countryman Steve Cram's yellow shirt a yard ahead. A year ago, Coe outkicked Cram to win the Olympic 1,500 meters. Two weeks ago, Cram broke the world record in the 1,500 with 3:29.67. Coe had held the mile record, 3:47.33, since 1981. This race was their reckoning.
Cram, who had shot into the lead with just under a lap to go, was flying. Coe was running simply as hard as he could. Pumping his arms as if in the home-stretch already, he could feel his spine stiffening.
Then he saw Cram look left and right, not to check the action behind but just to look into the infield and then at the screaming crowd, as if he needed a little diversion in these moments of fury. Coe later said, "When you're running as hard as I was, and the guy ahead is looking casually from side to side, you know."
He sensed then that for the only time in the nine world-record-breaking races he has run, he would not be the man to stagger away content. He knew, too, as they reached the final turn last Saturday night, that this was the climax of the most magnificent evening of distance running in history, an evening that already included world records by Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen in the women's 10,000 meters and Morocco's Said Aouita in the men's 5,000. That only added to the mystique of Oslo's old, intimate Bislett Stadium, where an astounding 45 world records have now been set since 1924.
It was in that storied stadium, and in the aftermath of Kristiansen's and Aouita's stirring runs, that the milers had taken their marks. Coe, who felt that he wouldn't reach peak fitness for another three weeks, seemed distracted warming up. "He asked me if the world record will go," said John Walker, history's first sub-3:50 miler, whose record Coe took in 1979 on the Bislett track. "I said yes."
Thirteen aggressive men toed the line. Coe and Cram were given outside starting positions. Half-miler James Mays of the U.S. took the lead, followed by Mike Hillardt of Australia, Coe, Jose-Luis Gonzalez of Spain, Steve Scott of the U.S., who had predicted that it would take a sub-3:46 to win, and Cram. At the 400, Mays had a few yards on the field in 56.01. Cram was third by then, a picture of rangy grace.
"It wasn't easy, but it was relaxed," Cram would say. His view, perhaps colored by an avalanche of hype in the British media, was that the race might disappoint. "I think the first 800 will be in 1:53, and then it will slow down," he had said. He was not plotting a record. He never does. He runs to win races. "I never let world records become what I'm specifically aiming at, for I figured one day I would set a record on the way."
The time at 800 was 1:53.82. And then, sure enough, it slowed down. Coe had drifted about in the pack more than is his wont in a fast race, but now he was fourth, on Cram's back. Gonzalez, who believed that Coe would win, keyed on him. Mays turned the lead over to the second rabbit, Hillardt, with a lap and a half to go.
Cram's strategy for dealing with Coe's expected strong kick was to "make the race a long way from home." Coe had run an impressive 800 in London the week before, but could he withstand a drive over the whole last lap? Cram would find out. Midweek he had run a 1,000 meters in Edinburgh and was delighted with his last 200, which he did in 24.4. "That was a crucial race," he said. "It gave me a great mental lift. Everybody would be writing that I would go from the bell. I knew that with Coe there, I had to have that reserve for the last 200."
At the bell he moved wide of Hillardt and, curiously, slowed for a few steps. "I realize now that he was just gathering himself," Coe said later.
"I saw the time there [2:53 with a lap to go]," said Cram, "and I thought, This is not going to be a record."
With 360 meters to run, Cram exploded. Coe swiftly matched his pace, and Gonzalez stayed near. That was the way they were when they hit the last turn, the last 200.
Cram, taking his little glances around in the backstretch, had indeed been gauging Coe. "I had this feeling that he wasn't running well, that he was a few meters off. That's when I decided to really give it all I had."
So Cram exploded again. He had seemed like he was running hard. Lord, everyone else sure was. And here was all this power, suddenly, as if he had just joined the race. He moved quickly ahead around the turn. In the stretch he appeared taller than in earlier laps, expanding in the imagination. He raised his arms as he neared the tape, then coasted through it in the time of 3:46.31, 1.02 seconds faster than Coe's record.
Gonzalez muscled past the fading Coe for second, 3:47.79 to 3:49.22, with Scott fourth in 3:49.93. Cram had run the last 200 in 25.3 seconds. Other wonderful milers were left almost awestruck. "Cram—and I hate to think of it—can run 3:44," said Walker, who was sixth in 3:53.65. "Did you see that last 200?" said Scott as if he hadn't been in the race.
"He did that off a tactical race," said Ireland's Ray Flynn, who was seventh in 3:54.64.
Indeed, that was what Cram was happiest about. The record had come as a bonus. "It was a special race," he said. "Because of Coe. But don't write him off. This is his first hard mile of the season. He'll have better nights."
Coe came faintly stunned to the pressroom. "I don't know why I'm up here," he grinned.
"Why, to be gracious."
"Yes, that's what you're told as you get older."
Cram, the son of a police constable in Jarrow, just down the Tyne from Newcastle, and an extremely distant relative of Baron Gottfried von Cramm, the German tennis star of the '30s, is warm and funny. "I just...well, I'm sorry to be so predictable," he said, discussing tactics. His primary goal for the year is to go undefeated, "and I'm not going to duck, dive or skip, or ask promoters to keep people out of races."
On two points Cram was adamant. When asked the inevitable question about man's ultimate limit in the mile, he spoke with force. "There are no limits. Everyone will just keep improving."
Why improvement should occur so dramatically at Bislett, whose Rekortan track is no different from the one in the Los Angeles Coliseum, is one of the sport's great questions. Factors abound. The nearly 20,000 fans who press into Bislett are the most knowledgeable anywhere, and because the track has only six lanes, the rhythmic pounding and chanting roar right into a runner's ear. The weather tends to be cool and still, as it was Saturday, and races can be run long into the Northern twilight.
Oslo is a city that endures its raw, dark winters by yearning for these endless midsummer days. This is when gratification is deferred no longer. When the mile was scheduled for 11:26 p.m. to accommodate ABC's telecast to the U.S., former Oslo meet director Arne Haukvik remarked, "Du skal ikke sove bort sommernatta." "You shouldn't sleep away the summer nights."
When a whole city peaks, it carries the runners along, as happened with Kristiansen. To reach the U.S.S.R.'s Olga Bondarenko's world record in the 10,000 of 31:13.78, Kristiansen, who already had the world record in the 5,000 and the world best in the marathon, had to run each lap in 75 seconds. She started with an 80, easing along in the pack. "I was afraid of the 10,000," she said. "I was afraid of going too fast at the beginning."
That was an oddly timid remark from an adventuresome, tough woman. She was a cross-country skier on Norway's Winter Olympic team in 1976. In early 1983, her running grew inexplicably weak. After a bad race at the world cross-country championships, she went in for a checkup and learned she was five months pregnant. "Well, that explains a lot," she said. Her son, Gaute, will be two years old next week.
After seven laps, Kristiansen was right on pace. By 5,000 meters, covered in 15:34.45, she had shed all competition. For eight laps in a row, her times were between 74.3 and 75 flat.
She sprinted the final stretch with her eyes fixed on the clock. At the end, she leaned desperately and barely broke 31 minutes, with 30:59.42, a huge 14.36 seconds lower than Bondarenko's record.
After a victory lap so exultant that she was keeping pace with women who were still racing, Kristiansen, who is from Oslo, was pushed to the awards stand and interviewed over the stadium sound system. "It's the crowd. It's the crowd," she laughed.
If there was anyone whom the crowd could not lift, it would have seemed to be Aouita, 24. The Olympic 5,000-meter champion was in fine form—he had almost beaten Cram in the world record 1,500 in Nice—but he had had a hideous week. His father-in-law had been killed in a traffic accident in Casablanca on Wednesday. And for three days he had been sick. "I felt bad in my stomach," he said. "Today I didn't eat. Only fluids."
Two men were out to get him. Sydney Maree, the former 1,500 record holder, and the Olympic champion at 10,000, Alberto Cova of Italy. Both are renowned finishers. After Torstein Brox of Norway and Bob Verbeck of Belgium had rabbited past halfway at near-record pace, Aouita took over and kept up a steady flow of 63-second laps. Only Maree and Cova stayed with him. "From 3,000 to the end, I felt very bad," said Aouita. "Not in my legs, but in the stomach." Aouita is all chest and legs and teeth. He has run a 1:44.37 800, but speed training is said to hurt his flat feet.
Maree stayed second, so close that Aouita would always sense him. "From 2,000 meters, I knew he was there and going well and that he would attack," said Aouita. "The question was when."
And whether Aouita could respond. "I felt [then] that I couldn't do it today," he said. "At 3,000 I even thought of dropping out of the race."
With 600 to go, the pace got to Cova, and he fell away. Ten meters before the last-lap bell, Maree took off. The sight of him cutting in ahead jolted Aouita. "I liked it very much when he attacked," said Aouita later. "He helped the last 400 meters."
Aouita came to Maree's shoulder with 200 to go, and Maree held him there, outside, running farther on the turn. But Aouita fought even with 150 to run, pulled ahead off the turn and sprinted through the stretch. "I knew," he said. "I knew when Sydney sped ahead it was going to be a world record."
That was an awful lot of certainty for what turned out to be a very near thing. He hit the line in 13:00.40,.01 faster than Dave Moorcroft's great solo run at Bislett in 1982.
Aouita's last lap had taken but 54.4 seconds. Maree had given Aouita the world record with his long charge, and Aouita acknowledged it. "If he had gone from 800 meters, we'd have broken 13 minutes," he said, greedy and happy at the same time.
Yet the idea of records struck Cram, for one, as rather ethereal. "World records will always be second best to gold medals, simply because you can go out and run against the clock any day of the week," he said. "If you don't get it, you can easily try again. But there is only one day every four years when you have the chance to win the ultimate championship."
All true, but even Cram will admit that there are special Oslo summer nights when everyone understands that there are no limits, when the best who have ever lived call forth all they have. This was such a night, and the memory will remain for the lifetimes of at least the 20,000 spectators, as imperishable as any medal any miler will ever win.