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.