Prince Albert would have been pleased and Queen Victoria might have bestowed one of her rare regal smiles: the people were enjoying themselves in the London park named after her beloved Albert's great creation, the Crystal Palace. Throughout the evening they had dropped all pretense of traditional British reserve and had bellowed lustily at the exploits of the great stars: John Walker, Rod Dixon and Marty Liquori in the mile; Steve Williams and Don Quarrie in the 200; Jim Bolding and Alan Pascoe in the 400 hurdles; Frank Shorter and Brendan Foster in the 10,000.
When the competition was over, the beat of the disco sounded in the summer night and the beer flowed in pints down the hoarse throats of the spectators and into the dehydrated bodies of the competitors. The meet, which took place on Aug. 29, had been, in effect, an end-of-term party, and the talk was all about what had been learned during the past 2� months, the sunniest, hottest summer in northern Europe since 1945, when the world mile record stood at 4 minutes 1.4 seconds.
The starting point of any conversation was a time and a place: 3 p.m. on July 17, 1976, which is when the torch will be carried into Montreal's Olympic Stadium. That hour is more than 10 months ahead, but the decisions that will have a bearing on who stands on the victors' rostrum must be made in the next four weeks, as the knights of track retreat to their winter quarters.
They have learned much from the busy European season that approached its end at the Crystal Palace, and the first lesson was that anyone with pretensions to a gold medal in the 1,500 had better get out and up—unless his name is Walker or Bayi.
Only once before in postwar Olympic history have two men so totally dominated that event and that was in 1968 when the 1,500 Olympic title lay at the mercy of Jim Ryun and Kip Keino. But those Games in Mexico City were unfair, since Keino had the unnatural advantage of altitude. From 1,500 meters to the marathon no athlete who did not live at altitude—or have unlimited time to train at altitude—had much chance of winning a gold medal.
Montreal is at athletic sea level, and Bayi, now living in Dar es Salaam, and Walker, from Auckland, are both sea-level athletes. Barring disaster, no 1,500 runner can hope to beat them. As Marty Liquori says, "I don't feel that I will ever in my life run 3:49 for the mile [Walker's new record is 3:49.4] but I do see the possibility of running 13:13 for the 5,000." That is the current world record held by the little Belgian, Emiel Puttemans.
"I've learned this year that you can't train for both the mile and the 5,000," Liquori says. "I was coming along real well when I ran 3:52.2 behind Bayi in May. Then I ran a 5,000 in the AAU in June and a week later against Walker in Helsinki in a 1,500 I had the worst last quarter of my life. I wish I could wait till the week before the Olympics and see how Walker is running and see how Brendan Foster is running in the 5,000 and then decide. But by then it will be too late to alter my training. I will have to try to make a decision before the indoor season starts."
That decision has probably already been made for him. On Aug. 12, in G�teborg, Walker proved his speed in a paced race—a race that Marty was not allowed to run in, lest he upset the carefully calculated attack on the world record. "I don't like these track politics," he says. "I had the choice of running in the 5,000 or not running at all. So I watched the mile and all I saw was a man running a time trial—nobody within 50 yards of him. Whereas the two occasions I've seen Bayi, he's been under pressure. I'm not taking anything away from John's performance—I'm sure that now he can beat Bayi—but I'd have liked to have been in that race."
He was in the mile against Walker at the Crystal Palace and so was Mike Boit of Kenya and Dixon of New Zealand and a host of competent Europeans. Walker had had a tiring week, a constant round of press conferences, TV interviews and receptions. "In the past three weeks," he said, "I've had more late nights, more parties, more drink, more talk—I'm beginning to sound like a parrot—than in my entire life." But this was the next to last race of his 2�-month European tour, and there was in him the resolution not to be beaten at the distance at which he is the new king.
As usual in Europe, there was a hare, a Scotsman by the name of Glen Grant. "The Scottish whisky men must be happy," said one French journalist. " Johnnie Walker is chasing Glen Grant!" Grant's pace was fast—56 seconds for the quarter, 1:55 for the half—but there was a big Pole, Michal Skowronek, holding up the pack. "This," said Liquori, "was what it will be like in the Olympic final—10 good men all pushing and shoving, the roughest race I've had in Europe."