Not since 1982, when Steve Scott was swapping victories with the likes of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett of England, had an American beaten the world's premier runners in a mile of real consequence. So, as Joe Falcon turned into the final lap of last Saturday evening's Dream Mile in Oslo, Norway, he carried with him a sense of historic opportunity. "I hate hearing 2:56 at the bell," he had said the previous night. "I tend to prepare for a strength race. I'm pretty confident I can go 2:50 and run 3:48."
But now Falcon could hear neither bell nor split time. "People in the crowd were leaning over the wall [between the stands and the track], banging on the billboards" in excitement, he said later. He was running the race of his career. "It seemed," he said, "like an echo chamber out there."
Bislett Stadium echoes with history. This year the Bislett faithful—17,000 strong—were treated to an evening that was both historic and odd. In one 15-minute stretch a strong assault on the world 10,000-meter record devolved into a transmediterranean feud, a world record was set in the javelin, and the finish of the 100 meters was so close that two sprinters were sent on victory laps.
Forty-seven world records have been set at Bislett. Three of these have come in the mile in the last 11 years. "I grew up watching the Dream Mile on TV," said Falcon, 24, a six-time NCAA champion for Arkansas who was raised in Belton, Mo. "I can remember watching Steve Cram [of England] run his world record."
July 22, 1990
The 3:46.32 mile that Cram achieved in Oslo in 1985 still stands as the world mark. In the days leading up to this year's Dream Mile, everyone, Falcon included, figured that if the record was going to be broken, it would fall to Cram's countryman, Peter Elliott of Rotherham. A courageous front-runner, the 27-year-old Elliott had won 22 straight races, stretching back to last summer. This year Elliott had run the fastest 800 (1:42.97), 1,500 (3:33.39) and mile (3:51.80) in the world.
In early June, however, Elliott strained his left calf. For 10 days he could not run at all and had to be satisfied with weight work and swimming. Even after he resumed running, Elliott missed four scheduled races. Bislett would be an experiment. He knew if he faltered in Oslo, other fine milers would be waiting to gobble him up: Falcon; East Germany's Jens-Peter Herold, the Olympic bronze medalist at 1,500; and world 1,500-meter champion Abdi Bile of Somalia.
Ten runners took their marks in the fading twilight. Elliott was on the outside and Falcon on the curb. This position was dangerous for Falcon, who at 5'6" was the smallest runner in the field. "I had to get out fast," he said. "I could not let myself get boxed in."
He didn't. At the gun he tucked himself behind the two rabbits, half-miler Ray Brown of the U.S. and miler Hervè Phèlippeau of France. Brown ran the first 400-meter lap—just under a quarter mile—in 56.13, with Phèlippeau and Falcon right on his tail. Elliott was a comfortable fifth, and Bile was dead last.
At 800, Falcon had slipped to sixth, 10 yards behind Elliott, but soon thereafter he began moving up. Phèlippeau passed the three-quarter mark in 2:50.94 and dropped out. Elliott was suddenly the leader. Said Falcon after the race, "I made a point of being in the first four with a lap to go. I was able to get free with 300 meters to go and take a run at Peter."
On the last backstretch, Falcon looked up. He saw Elliott's back. "His shoulders were lifting with fatigue," said Falcon. Elliott's five weeks without a race against world-class competition were taking their toll. "With 200 to go I knew I had a pretty good chance," said Falcon.
Falcon swept into the homestretch in lane 2, gaining steadily on Elliott, whose stride had grown short and stiff. "My only thought was to maintain my form up the homestretch," said Falcon. "And I did, until the last 15 meters."
In those final, agonizing strides, Falcon's teeth were clenched and his head turned from side to side. But by then he was safely past Elliott. He crossed the line with his arms stretched wide. His time was 3:49.31, making him the third-fastest American miler ever.
Elliott held on to finish second in 3:49.76. "I tried to respond when Joe went by," he said, "but my legs were too heavy. If you have to lose somewhere, it's better to lose here."
Falcon won the TAC 1,500 last month. He is the first American to win the Dream Mile since Scott in '82. It is a mantle he assumes with a sense of humility and history. "For a very long time," he said, "middle-distance running in the U.S. has been carried by two guys, Scott and [Jim] Spivey. This gives me a chance to continue the tradition."
Falcon was so eager to praise his competitors that he seemed embarrassed by his victory. "The difference between now and later," he said, "is that Peter won't tie up later. He's not quite as fit as he could be." Falcon gave himself credit for having joined the fast early pace and for having risked collapse in the homestretch.
Magnificent chances had been taken earlier in the evening in the men's 10,000 meters as well. Salvatore Antibo of Italy was hoping to break Arturo Barrios's 1989 world record of 27:08.23. The occasion seemed perfect. Not only was the field exceptionally deep, but also the race came 25 years to the day after Ron Clarke of Australia had run the first sub-28-minute 10,000, in the same stadium. What's more, Clarke had been invited to celebrate the anniversary. Asked whom he liked in the race, he did not hesitate.
"Antibo," said Clarke. "He is aggressive and takes charge of a race. I have little patience with someone who sits back and sucks everyone up."
Twenty-eight years old, with high cheekbones and large, luminous eyes, Antibo hurls himself into races, his bony elbows pumping away near his shoulders. He came to Oslo aiming not just to break the world mark but to break the 27-minute barrier as well. Antibo had tuned up for his record attempt by running 13:12.99 for 5,000 in Formia, Italy, the previous weekend. "He killed the rabbit," said an incredulous Gianni Merlo of the Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Just finding a rabbit to run 13:30 for 5,000 meters is difficult. Antibo went looking for help. He proposed a private deal to Hammou Boutayeb, a 33-year-old Moroccan who possessed the year's second-fastest time in the 5,000 (13:11.69). They would run the first 5,000 in 13:30 and then take turns leading two laps each. According to several sources, Antibo offered to pay Boutayeb $6,000, and Boutayeb agreed to think about it. While he was ruminating, however, Said Aouita, who also wants to break 27:00, learned of Antibo's proposal to Boutayeb and reportedly got to his countryman.
Although he had not heard back from Boutayeb, Antibo hardly expected to be double-crossed by him. He sped the first 5,000 in an astonishing 13:28.72. Only Boutayeb went with him. Antibo pushed hard for two laps and then slowed. Boutayeb slowed also. Antibo spun around and gestured angrily for Boutayeb to take his turn. When it was clear Boutayeb had no intention of doing so, Antibo sped off, hoping to lose him.
But every time Antibo surged, Boutayeb matched him. As the two leaders played angry cat and mouse with each other, the pack crept closer. With 2½ laps to go, Boutayeb took the lead. With 40 meters to go, Antibo caught the tiring Boutayeb and ran the final 10 meters turned halfway around, taunting the Moroccan. Antibo's time was 27:25.16. Behind him, inches from his wagging finger, came Boutayeb, in 27:25.48. Antibo, who later denied offering to pay Boutayeb, shoved him on the back as he staggered over the line and then clapped sarcastically. "I was angry," said Antibo. "This man, Boutayeb, didn't respect our pact."
As Antibo was nearing the end of an unsmiling victory lap, Jan Zelezny of Czechoslovakia was taking his final throw in the javelin. It had been a most satisfying night for Zelezny, a 24-year-old army officer. His fifth throw had sailed 88.24 meters (289'6"), a personal best. Moreover, new world-record holder Steve Backley of England had failed to match that distance on his final attempt.
Zelezny charged down the runway and whipped the javelin over his shoulder. It soared high in the sky, glinting in the stadium lights. The javelin appeared to land on the tape marking 90 meters. In fact, the distance was 89.66 meters (294'2"), .08 better than Backley's 12-day-old record. "Right now, I'm a lieutenant," Zelezny said with a smile, "but I'm not sure what I'll be when I get home."
The 100 pitted the Olympic gold and silver medalists Carl Lewis and Linford Christie of Great Britain. Missing was the fastest dashman of the year, Lewis's Santa Monica Track Club teammate, Leroy Burrell, who was cooling his heels in Barcelona awaiting a race two nights later. Lewis got out poorly. At 80 meters, as the field bucked a headwind, he trailed both Christie and Nigeria's Olapade Adeniken. All three leaned across the line.
Lewis was announced as the winner and given a bouquet. He had gotten as far as the midpoint of the backstretch when Christie also was handed a bouquet and pushed out onto the track. The photo finally revealed Lewis to be the victor by .01 of a second, in a relatively slow 10.26. "I had to rely on my savvy and confidence," he said. "I was a little tight, but I got through it. Physically, I'm in the best shape I've ever been in."
That is why one's mouth waters at the prospect of Lewis and Burrell lining up on the same starting line, which is expected to happen at the Goodwill Games next Monday night in Seattle. As Falcon said after one of the more memorable performances by a U.S. miler, "You don't develop unless you take chances."