From a black industrial town in the northeast of England, where some of the houses stand back to back because they are ashamed to look each other in the face, has come a runner who has captured the imagination of London and also laid a pretty firm grasp on the psyches of the world-class distance men he competes against.
His name is Brendan Foster. He is 26 years old, stands 5'10", weighs 147 pounds and has a pointed face that seemed even foxier than usual at London's Crystal Palace last week when he slyly toyed with an elite pack of runners before destroying them with one of those early bursts of speed that have become his trademark. Finland's Lasse Viren, double Olympic champion at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, did not even attempt to go with Foster. The Finn had learned a simple lesson during a loss to the Briton at the European Championships in Rome five days earlier: Foster destroys opponents in the middle of a race.
The London race was a two-miler promoted by the International Athletes Club of Britain. Besides Foster and Viren, the field included America's Steve Prefontaine and England's David Bedford, the world-record holder at 10,000 meters: as well as Tony Simmons, the 10,000-meter silver medalist in the European Championships: Dave Black, a silver medal winner at 10,000 meters in the Commonwealth Games: and Graham Crouch of Australia.
By the time the runners went to their marks at the Crystal Palace, the traffic chaos in the streets outside had subsided, but for four hours before the race southeast London had been jammed with motorists en route to pay homage to this new ironman. The last time Britain had become as excited over a track meet was when Vladimir Kuts, the Russian who is now a bulbous 230 pounds, met Christopher Chataway, now a member of Parliament, at the White City Stadium in 1954. Those two stocky athletes fought out every stride of a 5,000-meter race until Chataway inched his British vest to the tape in world-record time.
Nobody expected a record last week. It was Friday the 13th, and both Foster and Viren still had the tiredness of Rome in their legs. But suddenly the chances for a world mark perked up as Crouch led the field through the first lap in 60.4 seconds and followed it with two laps of 63 each. He was setting a pace equal to the world record held by Foster at 8:13.8. The spectators' hopes died as abruptly as they arose when Crouch ran out of steam and the mile came up in 4:11.5.
It was then that Foster put his trademark on the race. He does not just assume the lead—he bursts to the front with a sustained drive, the likes of which have not been seen since the 1962 retirement of the unconquered Australian miler, Herb Elliott.
Viren and the others knew that the master had made his move and they let him go. Only Prefontaine held grimly to Foster's pace in a courageous attempt to stay with him. Five hundred yards after the duel began the Oregonian stepped onto the grass, beaten. "It is only the second time in 10 years that I have dropped out of a race," he said. "Foster's good. He's exceptional. I wish that I had felt decent because I don't like to let myself down. I just felt like a slug."
Foster's time was 8:23.4, 9.6 seconds more than his world record set on the Crystal Palace track a year ago. "This was a night when time did not matter," he said. "I came to say thank you to all those millions—in the stadium and on TV—who have supported me so nobly."
Foster can now be considered the best of all British runners. He even ranks above Roger Bannister. In fact, perhaps only four distance men in the world over the last 25 years would rank higher: Emil Zatopek, Kuts, Elliott and Viren when he is as fit as he was at the Munich Olympics.
That is indeed fast company for a man whose only Olympic performance resulted in fifth place in the Munich 1,500 meters. Since then Foster has matured. In the last two years he has run 5,000-meter races seven times and won six of them. Only Ben Jipcho of Kenya has defeated him and that was in the Commonwealth Games in January, off-season for a northern hemisphere runner.