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Kenny Moore
July 30, 1979
England's Sebastian Coe shattered the record for the mile with a 3:49 that crushed a star-studded field in Oslo
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July 30, 1979

A Glittering Run In A Golden Mile

England's Sebastian Coe shattered the record for the mile with a 3:49 that crushed a star-studded field in Oslo

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Oslo, Oslo," said Steve Scott the evening before the Golden Mile, looking across the city's birches and granite and deep green fjord. "All year the milers have been saying, 'Oslo in mid-July,' the way they knew the indoor race of the year would be in San Diego."

That common accord had led to last week's remarkable gathering of the world's best middle-distance men, including John Walker, New Zealand's mile world-record holder at 3:49.4; Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan, the winner of that anticipated race in San Diego with an indoor-record 3:52.6; and England's Sebastian Coe, who had slashed Alberto Juantorena's 800-meter world record by one second with a 1:42.4 only 12 days earlier, also on Oslo's Bislett Stadium track.

For Scott, the AAU champion whose slowest mile this year had been 3:57, the appeal of the competition lay in its opportunity for non-Olympic abandon. "I don't care who wins," he said. "I just want to run fast. To do that you need guys who will throw caution to the winds, the way they won't when everybody is just trying to win."

Coghlan, who ran the year's fastest outdoor mile, a 3:52.9 at Philadelphia in June, had shown his stamina by winning the British 5,000-meter championship in a personal-best 13:23.6 just three days before. In that same meet Coe was second in the 400 with a 46.87, competent, to be sure, but not in a class with Juantorena's 44.26 speed—a fact in his favor, said Walker. "Most fast 800-meter men are like Juantorena, quarter-milers moving up," he said. "But Coe has all the attributes of a pure miler. He ran that record 800 on strength, not speed. He is the only man in the field capable of the record, so I bloody well hope something happens to slow him down."

Few, however, were planning on a conservative pace. Craig Masback, two years out of Princeton and studying quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations (QUANGOS) at Trinity College, Oxford, resorted to statistics to show that all milers should be running faster. "If the people who ran 3:39 or better for 1,500 meters—about 50 last year—ran miles, at least 30 would run 3:55. But only about 10 did, so I don't have much respect for mile times." Even, one must assume, his own, although in the last two years Masback had lowered his mile time from 4:01 to 3:54.7.

These men and others, most notably West Germany's Dr. Thomas Wessinghage and England's Dave Moorcroft, the British Commonwealth Games' 1,500-meter champion, were brought to Oslo by the Dubai connection. Following the same urge to be identified with Western sport that has Saudi Arabia sponsoring Grand Prix cars, Dubai, an Arab emirate, at first hoped to stage an international meet of its own but was persuaded that its incessant wind and 100° heat would discourage stellar performances. So last year a deal was struck whereby Dubai gave the International Amateur Athletic Federation some $400,000, and in return the IAAF agreed to stage eight world-class events in selected meets over three years. The first Golden Mile, a more modest affair in Tokyo last September, was won by England's Steve Ovett in 3:55.5. This year there has been a Golden Javelin Throw in Hungary; the best sprinters will gather in Zurich in August; and the finest 10,000-meter runners will meet in Brussels in September.

In organizing these events, the IAAF puts the arm on its national affiliates—the AAU in the case of the U.S.—to come up with their best performers, a kind of leverage no single meet promoter ever has enjoyed. Thus, when the invitations went out for the Oslo mile, all but one were accepted. The dramatic exception was Ovett, indisputably the outdoor miler over the past two seasons and the 1977 World Cup 1,500-meter champion. After winning the British 1,500 in 3:39.1, Ovett declared that he would not be coming to Norway. "I have nothing to prove," he said, adding that, without him, whoever won in Oslo would have but "a hollow victory." By his absence, though, the mercurial Ovett only heightened the pitch, for as several milers said, the only thing that Ovett would be missing was the chance for a world record.

Certainly the site could not have been better chosen. Over the years 32 world records have been set at Bislett Stadium. Its history is that of the wrenching breakthroughs by which the sport is advanced. In 1955 in Oslo, Belgium's Roger Moens finally broke the 1:46.6 800-meter record of Germany's great Rudolf Harbig, which had stood for 16 years. In 1965, Ron Clarke of Australia ran his finest race to tear 36 seconds from the world 10,000-meter record. The Bislett track records are the world records at 800 meters (Coe's 1:42.4), 1,000 meters (Rick Wohlhuter's 2:13.9), 2,000 meters (Walker's 4:51.4), and 3,000 meters (Henry Rono's 7:32.1). At 1,500 meters, Walker's track record of 3:32.4 is but .2 of a second off Filbert Bayi's world record.

The explanation for this sustained outpouring of excellence has little to do with the track. Before 1971, Bislett's cinders were nothing special, and its present artificial surface is patched and worn. Rather, a joining of crowd and competitors has become traditional, the close stands bringing the spectators right down on the runners, the history of records in this special place creating an electric atmosphere of expectation in which the mind's limits may be briefly cast off.

It was after a day of slanting summer sun and cool forest breezes that 16,173 of the Oslo faithful packed into Bislett with noisy anticipation. They were aroused further by a ceremony in which Coe, graceful and cheerful and nerveless, received a medal for his 800-meter record from his father and coach, Peter Coe.

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