At the gun Coghlan fell into line behind the pacemaker, Jama Aden, and Sydney Maree. The rabbit was moving fast enough—or so O'Sullivan thought. Sitting comfortably in fifth place, O'Sullivan heard 57 seconds at the 440. Surely, he thought, that was sufficient to dull Coghlan's kick.
But that split turned out to be wrong, as O'Sullivan discovered at the half. "I heard 2:01," said O'Sullivan. "I knew we hadn't run a 64 [for the second quarter-mile]. I started to panic. I thought. This is going to be a blistering finish."
With four of the 11 laps to go, O'Sullivan translated panic into action. He swept to the outside and overtook Coghlan and Maree. Aden dropped out, and O'Sullivan led at the three-quarter mark, in 3:03. He was lucky to be in front. "I could feel it getting rough back there," he said. Indeed, Jens-Peter Her-old of East Germany cut Coghlan off and received a sharp shove for it.
"Herold was hitting everyone," said Joe Falcon, who started well back. "He about drilled Eamonn off the track."
Only when O'Sullivan surged on the penultimate backstretch did it become clear that Coghlan was out of the race. Herold and Falcon pursued O'Sullivan, but to no avail. He ran scared to the tape. He reached it in a lackluster 3:59.35 and exhaled deeply. "That was a sigh of relief," he said. "In the past five years, this was the most unfit I've been for this race."
Herold crossed the line in 3:59.59, inches ahead of Falcon, who was third. Coghlan was fifth in 4:01.83. "It was youth over age," he said. "My ambition is probably bigger than my condition."
"It's not age that's a factor," said O'Sullivan of Coghlan. "It's that Eamonn missed the last two seasons. He might be better next year."
Coghlan spoke of the tradition of which he and O'Sullivan are a part: "Perhaps what inspired Marcus is what I achieved and what [ Ireland's 1956 Olympic champion Ron] Delany achieved. In Ireland we had heroes, and. I think that's what's missing here in the U.S. [where track and field is in a slump]. The kids don't have people to look up to like I had."
They have a good one in O'Sullivan. After the race he returned to his hotel, where he tossed and turned until drifting off at 5:30 in the morning. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.