Last Saturday in Oslo, the midsummer night was so still and warm and the Bislett Stadium crowd so demanding that it all seemed to drive men mad. What other explanation was there for the way the men's 10,000-meter runners at the Mobil Bislett Games reacted to the Norwegian twilight and the thunder of the crowd?
The 10,000-meter field was one of the strongest in history, as it brought together the 1988 Olympic champion, Brahim Boutaib of Morocco; his countryman Khalid Skah, the 1990 and '91 world cross-country champion; the 1990 European champion at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters, Salvatore Antibo of Italy; and the world-record holder in the event, Arturo Barrios of Mexico, who had run a 27:08.23 in 1989.
Two perfectly able rabbits, Gerry O'Reilly and Dionisio Castro, also were in the field of 25, and they were paid good kroner to set a steady world-record pace of 65 seconds per lap. In fact, they reached five laps in 5:21.10, almost four seconds faster than the plan. And did the unpredictable Antibo flow along in their slipstream, harboring his energies for his well-honed kick?
No, he took his inspiration from the demented fans slamming their hands black and blue on the metal signs at trackside. He sprinted, flying wildly and unnecessarily into the lead. He would open a 10-meter gap, then relax, and the first pack would catch up. "Why even have rabbits?" said someone in the stands.
July 14, 1991
After Castro passed 5,000 meters in 13:27.81 and staggered into the infield, the race became a contest of suffering among Antibo, Skah and Kenya's Tomas Osano. None gave a damn for an even pace. Each was convinced that he could outsurge the other two. When Antibo sprinted, Skah sprinted, and when those two began to give in to the weight of their limbs and the thought of the miles to go, Osano sprinted by them both.
Mile after mile the three runners hammered at each other. Gradually, mortality prevailed. Their surges shortened and their stretches of gasping recovery lengthened. They could not hold record pace. Still they stayed together, jostling and paying for their early insanity, straining to keep up with each other. Osano fell behind with five laps to go.
For the first half of the last lap, Skah and Antibo batted elbows and shoulders. Then, on the last turn, they separated and kicked. Skah, who lives a block away from Bislett Stadium and runs for an Olso club, found the emotion for a great finish. He shot down the stretch five meters ahead of Antibo and won in 27:23.29. Antibo finished in 27:24.55 and Osano was third in 27:28.87.
"That," said veteran British sportswriter Neil Allen of the Evening Standard, "was the greatest 10,000-meter race I've ever seen."
Skah whirled right into—what else?—a maniacal victory lap, with both Norwegian and Moroccan flags flying.
The dementia was contagious. Later, in the night's concluding race, the Dream Mile, early rabbit Ikem Billy ripped past the quarter in 54.71—on pace for a 3:39 mile, which was highly improbable. (The world record is 3:46.32, set by Steve Cram in this race in 1985.) Peter Elliott of Great Britain, the Commonwealth 1,500 champion, lay third in 56.3, behind Ray Brown, another rabbit.
Brown led after a half mile in 1:52.85, still record speed, but when he began to arch his back midway through the third quarter, Elliott didn't hesitate. "I needed to know what shape I was in," he said after the race. "I needed a real test." So he administered one. Elliott moved to the lead with 600 meters to go, the resolve clear in his low arms and upright stride. Wilfred Kirochi of Kenya, Simon Doyle of Australia and Abdi Bile of Somalia were his closest pursuers, but as Elliott passed the three-quarter-mile mark in 2:50.99 (Cram had run 2:52 in his record race), 11 men ran behind him in an unbroken chain. All were tired. As in the 10,000, the early pace had been too ambitious.
Elliott thought the essential front-runner's thought: "If it's hurting me, it's hurting everybody else." He was right. No one so much as changed position until the last curve. Then Kirochi, Doyle and an out-of-nowhere Jim Spivey of the U.S. spread out over four lanes and bore down on Elliott in the stretch.
They found an unyielding Yorkshireman. "I wasn't tying up," said Elliott, who had done sprinters' drills this year to be able to hold form in just such moments. "But I can't say I had any more in reserve."
He won by two meters, in 3:49.46 to Kirochi's 3:49.77. Spivey was third in 3:49.83, a gratifying return to racing fitness after having been sidelined for parts of the last two years because of back injuries and systemic infections. Doyle ran 3:49.91 for fourth, and four more men broke 3:51 in what was probably the fastest mass finish in miling history.
Elliott, at least, was one man who had his wits about him on this zany night. He has his sights set on the World Championships in Tokyo in August, and he wasn't about to lose his perspective. "It's nice to follow in Coe and Ovett and Cram's footsteps and win this," he said. "It's just a shame that Noureddine Morceli wasn't here."
Morceli, the Algerian miler who had torn up the indoor circuit, had chosen instead to go for the 1,500-meter world record at the DN-Galan '91 Mobil Grand Prix meet in Stockholm two days earlier. Conditions there had been ideal, as Kenya's Moses Kiptanui missed the 3,000-meter steeplechase record by only 2.54 seconds, running 8:07.89 just a few minutes before Morceli's record attempt.
It was a brave one. And in the end, Morceli missed only because his rabbit attacked him.
Rabbits are used to break the wind and bear the burden of setting the requested pace. Nixon Kiprotich of Kenya, who was eighth in the 1988 Olympic 800 meters, is well versed in that role, so what he did in Stockholm was, shall we say, arresting. His job was to run a close second, wait until the early rabbit, Sammy Koskei, tired and then take over and carry the pace as far into the last lap as he could.
Instead, Kiprotich let a 10-meter gap open behind Koskei in the first 400 and ran so wide he was almost in the second lane. The result was that the unfortunate Morceli, in third, had no wind broken for him and chose to set his own pace. Why have rabbits, indeed?
Kiprotich wasn't through. When it came time for him to lead, with 500 meters to go, he had allowed himself to become boxed on the inside. Morceli had to take the lead. Seeing this, Kiprotich, embarrassed, shoved Simon Doyle out of the way—making him break stride just when he was reacting to Morceli's move—and went for the lead. By this time, Kiprotich was too tired to get it.
Morceli fought these distractions well and pounded home strongly. When he finished, he was presented with the victor's flowers by a Swedish girl. Morceli took them from her and asked bystanders if he had broken the world record. The girl then gave him a box with a souvenir in it. The time, the time, Morceli demanded, whirling, searching for a clock. When he saw one, it read 3:31.01. Morceli threw the flowers and the box to the track in a rage, having missed Said Aouita's world record of 3:29.46.
Then he looked at the astounded girl, scooped up the flowers and prize, and took a victory lap, putting a good face on a week of midsummer madness.