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.
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.