Yobes Ondieki was a solitary figure late last Saturday as he ran through the blue Norwegian twilight. This was the Bislett 5,000, and as British miler Steve Cram put it the night before, "You don't come to Bislett to run slow."
No, indeed. Runners come to Oslo's hallowed cement-and-brick stadium to avail themselves of still, cool nights and rapturous crowds eager to endure with them their every trial. They come to run fast. Ondieki, a 28-year-old Kenyan, was doing just that. By the time he had passed 3,000 meters in 7:46.11—a time that would have given him fourth in the 3,000—his rabbits were gone, and he had left a strong field a full straightaway behind him. Said Aouita's world record of 12:58.39 was in danger.
Bislett was, without doubt, the best track meet since the Olympics. And throughout the week it became increasingly clear that one legacy of those Olympics was the resurgence of the supremely gifted African runners. Some, like Olympic steeplechase champion Julius Kariuki of Kenya, merely did the expected at Bislett and won. Others, like 800-meter runner Robert Kibet, another Kenyan, did not prevail but were startling all the same. Then there was Somalia's Abdi Bile, who, against expectations, won a Dream Mile that lived up to its name.
However, of all the Africans, none has run better this year than Ondieki, a graduate of Iowa State, now living and training in Albuquerque. A pensive man, Ondieki seems incapable of causing controversy. But in the days leading up to the Bislett Games, he found himself caught in a storm stirred up, it would seem, by Aouita.
July 9, 1989
Aouita arrived in Oslo to find that he was not entered in the mile, as he claims meet director Svein Arne Hansen had promised he would be, but in the 5,000 instead. So on the eve of the meet, while the other athletes were sampling the traditional Bislett fare of strawberries and cream, the always theatrical Aouita, who's Moroccan, was holding court in the lobby of the Rica Hotel, pleading his case in French, Italian, English and body language to just about anyone who would listen. "I've come to run the mile," he said, raising his palms and eyebrows at this latest blow fate seemed to have dealt him. "I never told him I'd run the 5,000. Never."
In truth, Aouita may have been agitating not so much to get into the mile as to escape the 5,000, in which he would have to face Ondieki. In a 5,000 in Seville, Spain, 11 days earlier, Ondieki had beaten Aouita by 11 seconds. Afterward, Aouita had claimed he hadn't seen Ondieki and had crossed the line assuming he had won. The only thing that had puzzled him was how he had run the 13:12.12 displayed as the winning time on the stadium clock.
Last Friday night Aouita let slip what may have been his real worry: "Why should I help Ondieki break my own record?" That question would not have existed for the Aouita of old. "Panic bells have begun to ring," said Cram of his longtime rival. A compromise was struck: Aouita would run the 3,000.
If Aouita lacked fitness, he did not show it on Saturday night. He followed Sydney Maree of the U.S. for almost five laps before sweeping to the front and passing 2,000 meters in 5:08.40. Though Henry Rono's world record of 7:32.1 set at Bislett in 78 was beyond reach, the season-leading 7:35.35 Ondieki had run on June 25 in Lille, France, was not. Aouita dug hard. He covered the last 800 in 1:57 to finish in 7:34.79, nearly 10 seconds ahead of Ireland's Frank O'Mara.
The press conference after the race began routinely enough. But when Aouita was asked if he had changed his opinion about avoiding the 5,000, he snatched the microphone from the translator. "I didn't change my opinion," he said. "I came to run the mile. A lot of people are saying Ondieki is faster than me. Well, I await the big Ondieki. I hope to run with Ondieki in either the 3,000 or the 5,000 in Nice [on July 10] or in Edinburgh [on July 7]."
One had to wonder whether Aouita regretted that challenge two hours later, as he watched Ondieki threaten his record. Though Ondieki's lap times increased after he passed 3,000 meters from 61's to 64's, he was still only a tick off record pace when he reached 4,000 in 10:24.99. But the stress of Ondieki's effort was showing. His head was bobbing. At the bell his time was 12:00. He needed a final lap of 58 seconds. With the crowd of 22,400—the largest ever at Bislett—on its feet exhorting him, Ondieki drove himself around that last lap. He crossed the line in 13:04.24, breaking Rono's eight-year-old Kenyan national mark. Ondieki is now the fourth-fastest performer ever at the distance, behind Aouita, Maree and England's Dave Moorcroft.
Afterward, Ondieki acknowledged that he had struggled those last two laps. He was also remarkably generous to Aouita. "Of course, I would have been afraid of him," said Ondieki. "But I have nothing to lose. He's the world-record holder. For me, losing is no big deal. I guess for him it was something else."
When Ondieki next meets Aouita, their race will be something to behold. It might even approach the 10,000-meter duel last Thursday night in Helsinki between Italy's Salvatore Antibo and a tiny Ethiopian named Addis Abebe. That encounter turned into something rare and strange: a race that was both fast and tactical.
Antibo, who lives in Altofonte, Sicily, 10 miles from Palermo, had been one of the favorites in the Seoul 10,000. On the day of the Olympic final, his coach, Gaspere Polizzi, went to a church in Palermo. He took with him a stopwatch. At the precise moment the 10,000 was scheduled to start in Seoul, Polizzi started his watch and began to pray. He stopped both the watch and the prayer at the instant he thought Antibo was crossing the line and then rushed home to learn the result. He had missed Antibo's 27:23.55 by less than a second. But, alas, Antibo had finished second to Brahim Boutayeb of Morocco. So coach and athlete set a new goal. Antibo would try to break Fernando Mamede's five-year-old world record of 27:13.81.
In the Helsinki meet, Antibo showed his hand early. He passed 5,000 in 13:34.8, the fastest opening 5,000 split ever. With six laps to go, all of his pursuers had fallen away, save Abebe, who was right on his tail. "I stopped looking at the clock," said Antibo later. "It was a race, not a world-record attempt, and I wasn't going to do all the work so that someone else could break the record."
But he could not shake the pesky Abebe. When slightly more than three laps remained, Abebe's coach whistled, and Abebe sprinted, quickly building a 20-meter lead. Gaps that open late in long races rarely close. This, however, was a rare race, and a half lap later Antibo surged past Abebe. He led for two laps but was looking over his shoulder.
On the final backstretch Abebe attacked again, bolting abruptly around Antibo. Then just as quickly he sagged. Antibo saw there was hope. As they turned into the homestretch, the Italian swung out into lane 3 and sprinted, his bony arms pumping up around his nose. Antibo hit the line with his arms raised in jubilation and relief. His time was 27:16.50, the second fastest ever, while Abebe's 27:17.82 was the fourth fastest.
It turned out to make sense that Antibo was able to match Abebe's surges. When Antibo was a teenager, his hero was Miruts Yifter, Ethiopia's double Olympic champion in 1980. "I've modeled my running, with surges, on the Africans," said Antibo. "When I was a junior, they referred to me at home as the Little Yifter."
Remarkably, Abebe still is a junior. Though he looks at least 30, his birth date is listed as 1970, and he will get credit for a world junior record.
In Oslo, Kibet undoubtedly was the biggest revelation. "I've never heard of him," said U.S. 800-meter champion Johnny Gray of Los Angeles. According to rumor, Kibet had run a 1:44.2 in the 800. On a cinder track. At altitude. That tidbit was passed on to Gray as he was going to the start. The gun fired, and Kibet clung to Marius Rooth of Norway, the rabbit. Rooth hit the 400 in 48.68, with Kibet on his shoulder. At the bell Gray was 10 meters back. "My strategy was to take the lead, which I thought would mean 50-something," Gray would say later. "I sort of felt embarrassed. I thought, Am I giving up?"
No, he was just chasing an insane pace. Gray closed on Kibet all the way down the backstretch and finally nailed him 30 meters from the finish. Gray's time was 1:43.39, the fastest in the world this year. Kibet finished in 1:43.70.
Afterward, Gray listened, intrigued, as Kibet answered questions about himself. He is 23 and lives in the western Kenyan town of Kericho, which is in the tea-growing region of the country. This was his first trip outside Kenya. He is a soldier in the Kenyan army and a member of the Kipsigis, the tribe of Wilson Kiprugut, who in 1964 became the first Kenyan to win a medal in the Olympics. Kibet had been a promising 400 meter hurdler. Bislett was only his fourth serious 800. Asked how many more races he thought he would have to run before breaking the world record, Kibet replied, "One more." Gray pointed to the name Sebastian Coe next to the current record of 1:41.73. Kibet had never heard of him.
One person Kibet may have heard of was Carl Lewis, who also finished second in Oslo, in the 100 meters. Calvin Smith, the bronze medalist in the Seoul 100 won by Lewis, not only upset Lewis but also ruined his 28th birthday. Smith ran a 10.05, breaking Lewis's stadium record of 10.19, set eight years ago. Lewis ran a 10.11.
By 11:20 p.m. the stadium lights were burning in the gathering darkness. The crowd was still intoxicated by Ondieki's race when the runners were called to the line for the Dream Mile, the final event of the night. Attention focused on two men: Cram, who had set the world record of 3:46.32 at this same meet in 1985, and Bile, the world 1,500-meter champion in 1987, who had missed the Olympics due to a stress fracture of his left foot. At the start Cram fell in behind the first rabbit, Ken Washington of the U.S., and Bile hovered at the back of the pack.
Cram wanted a hard pace. Although he had won the last four Dream Miles, he feared Bile's kick. Four days earlier he had watched a meet in Lausanne on television and saw Bile storm down the homestretch of the 800, failing by inches to steal the race from the most formidable kicker in the business, Olympic 800-meter champion Paul Ereng of Kenya. "I hoped my strength would beat Bile's sharpness," said Cram later. He followed a step behind Washington, who clocked a 1:54.08 for 880 yards.
Bile had started slowly. He was ninth at the 880 split, but on the penultimate back-stretch he was flying. With 660 yards to go, Bile moved into fourth place and had Cram in his sights. By now Simon Hoogewerf of Canada had taken over for Washington as the rabbit, and he pulled Cram to three laps in 2:52.23. Cram strained to separate himself from Bile. Amazingly, it wasn't Bile who caught Cram first but yet another Kenyan, 19-year-old Wilfred Kirochi, who last year won the world junior 1,500 and this year finished third in the senior world cross-country championships.
Right behind Kirochi were Bile and Ireland's Marcus O'Sullivan. With 220 remaining, Cram was suddenly fourth and out of the race. Bile gained on Kirochi all the way around the last turn. Swinging out into the second lane, he caught Kirochi with 80 meters to go and sprinted to the tape. Bile won in 3:49.90, .59 faster than Kirochi, who hung on for second. Cram was fourth, two yards behind recent Arkansas graduate Joe Falcon, who ran a personal best 3:51.07.
Bile's seemingly effortless victory was all the more noteworthy because he has been injured for most of this year. The stress fracture that kept him out of the Olympics led to a sore back and a strained right Achilles. From January to April it seemed that for every five days Bile trained, he had to take off another five because of complications connected with his injuries.
In the coming weeks Bile plans to hone his speed by racing more 800s. Then he will turn again to his true distances, the 1,500 and the mile. If those races include both Cram and Aouita, they should produce great drama. It is not just the fans who would welcome the spectacle. Said Ondieki, "The best athletes always give you something to look forward to."