An indoor track meet is a remarkable contraption, rattling with a thousand parts and whirring with energy. Yet sometimes it is propelled by a single event. So it was on Friday night in New York, where the 80th Wanamaker Mill-rose Games fairly crackled with the sparks from a feisty group of milers.
Here was Britain's Steve Ovett, the former outdoor mile and 1,500-meter world-record holder and historic rival of countryman Sebastian Coe, making his first-ever U.S. indoor appearance. Ovett, 31, hadn't run an indoor race in 11 years and didn't know what to make of the 160-yard, steeply banked plywood track sitting on the floor of Madison Square Garden. "I imagine it must be very similar to running around a bath [tub]," Ovett said, "except you don't have to worry about the faucets."
Far more sober-minded about the task at hand—or foot—was Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan, the indoor mile world-record holder (3:49.78) and overwhelming crowd favorite among the 18,122 in attendance. Coghlan, 34, who lives and trains in suburban Rye, N.Y., was intent on winning his seventh Wanamaker Mile and surpassing Glenn Cunningham's record of six. To do so, however, he would have to defeat Ovett for the first time in their seven lifetime meetings and overcome three of his own countrymen, among them his heir apparent and fellow Villanova graduate, Marcus O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan had snapped Coghlan's five-year, 15-race victory streak in the indoor mile last winter while building a seven-race winning streak of his own in the event. "Marcus is nine years younger than me," Coghlan said on Thursday. "I'm realistic—I know I'm not going to be around forever."
Coghlan's immediate future had come into question during the last year. He is no stranger to ill fortune in his career—he finished fourth in the 1976 Olympic 1,500, fourth in the '80 Olympic 5,000, and was injured and didn't compete in '84. Recently, he has been plagued by stress fractures in both legs, and he failed to win a single indoor race in 1986. He blamed his troubles on a combination of the Eat To Win diet and an extended spell of diarrhea, which he said left him underweight and lacking strength. "I went on the Eat To Win diet," Coghlan sighed, "and lost."
Not until last fall was he able to resume high-level training. And no sooner did he go on a Christmas vacation to his native Dublin than accident struck—or rather, came up and bit him.
While out for a run one day, Coghlan confronted a couple of young louts—"In Ireland we call them guttersnipe," he says—who were crossing against the light on their bicycles and loudly cursing at a driver. An old woman was walking nearby, and Coghlan told the boys to stop using foul language around her. He ran at the boys to scare them, but instead alarmed their sheepdog, which attacked him and left him with gouges on both legs and a broken left hand. Coghlan had to have two screws implanted in the hand and missed a week of hard training.
His countrymen were aghast. "The question of controlling dogs became a national issue," said former Irish running star Noel Carroll, in New York on Friday to compete in a special 40-or-over masters' mile. "There was even special legislation passed. It was incredible. Because of him, the whole nation got preoccupied with dogs."
Such is Coghlan's popularity. As he stepped onto the track on Friday night, he was greeted with a tremendous ovation. "Even before [the PA announcer] started my introduction the crowd began picking up the cheering," Coghlan said later with some astonishment. "That really gave me a great feeling."
Mill rose had already had several exciting races during the evening—e.g., Pitt junior Lee McRae knocked off Carl Lewis in the 60-yard dash, and Greg Foster held off a late-charging Renaldo Nehemiah in the 60-yard hurdles—but the mile really brought the Garden alive. The gun sent off a field of eight runners into the first of 11 laps.
Pacesetter Mark Fricker—America's lone, lonely, Year of the Rabbit entry—jumped out to a three-yard lead over Ireland's Ray Flynn, with Coghlan hanging back in fourth. Coghlan had decided to play it "cool, calm and collected" and save himself for one mighty burst near the end. "Don't think about it," Coghlan's wife, Yvonne, had advised him while they drove into New York City on Friday afternoon. "You have more experience than anyone else in there."
To be sure, Ovett, the indoor novice, was struggling. He had brought the wrong spikes. His lungs were congested from a cold. He was even surprised to find a staggered start for the race. He later felt others in the race may have moved out of their lanes too soon, thus allowing them to run several yards less than a mile. Running last, he fought to look at least respectable.
The race passed the quarter mile in 58.7 seconds and the half in 1:58.7. Fricker continued to lead, followed in tight Indian file by Flynn, Jose Abascal of Spain, Kip Cheruiyot of Kenya, O'Sullivan and Coghlan. "They're gonna book" predicted ex-Villanova middle-distance man Don Paige, watching from trackside.
Paige had coached O'Sullivan for a year with the Wildcats. "Marcus has the talent to become the next great miler," said Paige. "He has the good, small build [5'9" and 134 pounds, compared with 5'10", 137 for Coghlan] that helps him run indoors. The day he finally convinces himself that he's really one of the big boys in the event, the others better watch out, because I think he'll destroy them all.
"But Eamonn," added Paige, "wants this race so bad...."
With three laps to go, Fricker dropped back, setting off a chain reaction. Within a lap O'Sullivan and Coghlan moved into third and fourth, closing on Abascal and Flynn. With a lap and a half remaining, O'Sullivan shot wide and went for the lead. Coghlan pursued. The crowd was up.
They caught the final-lap gun one-two, O'Sullivan first, then Coghlan. O'Sullivan wasn't sure he liked being the one in front. "I had no idea where Eamonn was," he said later. "When we got to the last backstretch, I heard the crowd get louder. I knew what was coming. It could only be one man."
It was Coghlan, charging. "I felt it in training the last couple of weeks," the Chairman of the Boards said later. "That quick acceleration"—Coghlan snapped his fingers—"was there. I had no doubts whatsoever that I could go past anybody."
And so he did, blasting by O'Sullivan with 80 yards to go and never looking back. With both fists raised, he broke the tape in 3:55.91, well ahead of O'Sullivan (3:56.49) and Abascal (3:56.90). Ovett came through eighth, in 4:14.52, and called it "my worst performance ever in the mile.
"Eamonn has found his own little niche," said Ovett with what seemed like more than a hint of belittlement. "He trains all year for the American indoor season and he's very good at it."
"Before this, Steve Ovett probably looked upon the indoor season as kind of a joke," replied Coghlan with a grin. "But tonight the joke was on him."
Coghlan soaked up the joy of a victory lap, then picked up his trophy and tried to slip away. "My wife and kids are waiting...." An hour later he was still politely signing autographs. "Really, I've got to go. My wife and kids...."
Nearby, O'Sullivan was talking of how Coghlan had taken him under his wing in his first years of big-time running and been a friend ever since. "You can't help but aspire to be like him," said O'Sullivan. "I couldn't help but smile as I crossed the line. I had given everything I had, and I was just so happy for him. It's good to see the old fella back again."