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The stomping and whistling began with about five laps to go, when the voice over the loudspeaker called out, "1:56.5, unofficially, for 800 meters," and the field moved as if in unison down the backstretch at New York's Madison Square Garden. Craig Masback was in front with a two-yard lead, Ray Flynn chasing him, and Flynn's countryman, Eamonn Coghlan, bounding along in pursuit of both. It was just past the midway point of the 1,500-meter run in the Vitalis/ U.S. Olympic Invitational last Saturday night, and the resourceful Coghlan was chasing to stay in touch. Masback usually comes from off the pace, but now the cum laude graduate of Princeton was experimenting, looking to find out what would happen if he set a fiery pace, trying something new.
Coghlan was after him and after Flynn, too, in a kind of experiment of his own: to see just how fast and far he could go so early in the season. The indoor mile record holder had arrived in New York from Dublin only two days before, during the height of the European cross-country season. He had not honed his speed, and was wondering if he could even make a mile in 4:04. Moreover, Coghlan was surprised at Masback's setting such a pace, until it dawned on him that Craig was trying to fry him in the fire of that pace. Coghlan stayed close, a yard or so behind Flynn.
With four laps to go, Coghlan was still moving fluidly, his action rhythmic and collected, while it appeared that the leader was wearying. Flynn moved up, parking right off Masback's outside shoulder, and now Coghlan edged closer, too, and waited until he sensed he should not wait a moment longer. Then, on the backstretch, he sprang, with 2� laps to go, suddenly swinging out and bursting to the lead. Masback was through, but Flynn swept ahead with Coghlan, and they raced together as a team. Coghlan was sprinting and Flynn struggling to keep up with him as Coghlan opened three, four, five yards. Coghlan lengthened his lead off the final turn and hit the line in 3:39.9, only a tenth of a second off the meet record, the equivalent of a 3:57.5 mile.
Eamonn Coghlan's first indoor race of the season, as things would turn out, was almost as singular as it was stirring. There were two major indoor track meets in America last weekend, the Philadelphia Track Classic in the Spectrum on Friday night and the Olympic Invitational the following night, and no competition in either could match the 1,500—not for the drama it made, the intensity it created or the suspense it sustained through most of its running. Which is not to say these meets were without drama, intensity or suspense. For it had been a week in which track and field athletes' aspirations suddenly were subject to forced re-evaluation. In more placid political times athletes arrive at indoor meets in January of an Olympic year short on conditioning but long on hope. In less troubled times most would be just beginning to gear themselves to peak for the try-outs, this year's being in Eugene, Ore. June 21-29. But at Philadelphia and New York, the question had been raised whether the United States would even go to the Summer Games in Moscow.
As a result, the athletes had far more on their minds than simply running and jumping, talents which at least come naturally. For the majority of them, foreign affairs do not. They were trying to deal with the very distinct possibility that the U.S., in retaliation against the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan, would boycott the Summer Games in Moscow. On Sunday President Carter would further force the issue by formally proposing such a boycott if the Soviets did not pull out of Afghanistan within a month (see page 7).
"I thought I was coming here for a big track meet," said Coghlan, slightly exasperated, before the Invitational. "But nobody's talking about that. All this country is interested in is the Olympics." Certainly from the athletes' standpoint, Coghlan was not overstating the case. After all, it was they who had made the sacrifices in time and effort to become world-class competitors, and it is they who would suffer most sharply from a boycott.
On Friday, athletes in Philadelphia were speculating on the consequences of the first major defection of U.S. athletes. The Muhammad Ali Amateur Sports club, acting on the advice of the former heavyweight champion, had declared it would not take part in the Moscow Olympics should the political situation remain unchanged. What gave that statement substance was that it involved at least three world-class runners who had figured to be prominent at the Trials: Sprinter Houston McTear, 400-meter star John Smith (if declared eligible by the IAAF) and Hurdler Greg Foster. "There shouldn't be politics in the Olympic Games," said Smith, a former "pro" who had been in athletic limbo for the past three years. "However, as long as we're running for America—'John Smith, United States, places such-and-such,' or 'Borzov, U.S.S.R., places such-and-such'—as long as you've got the name of the country behind you, it's going to be political. I can be idealistic and talk about what should be. But we have to be realistic and talk about what is. And what is, is that the perfect political tool to hurt somebody culturally, politically, or economically is a boycott. And right now these are the things that America wants to do to get its point across. So that's how it is. I'm only a pawn."
Ironically, outside of Coghlan, two of the more impressive winners at the Garden were Foster, who won the hurdles in the absence of an injured Renaldo Nehemiah, and McTear, who barely held off the powerful NCAA indoor sprint champion, Curtis Dickey of Texas A & M, in the 55-meter finals in 6.17 seconds after ripping through a meet-record 6.16 clocking in a qualifying heat. "I know he [ Ali] did it for the right cause," Foster said. "I can say this: If the situation in Russia doesn't change, there simply won't be many athletes going over there. It's too risky. We in the club aren't really accepting a boycott, but who's to say what happened in Iran won't happen in Russia? Hey, I'm all against the boycott...but I don't want to go to Russia, not the way things are now."
Having worked so hard, some for years and over thousands of miles of running, many athletes were visibly pained by the thought of losing this opportunity, perhaps their only opportunity, to participate in an Olympics. Willie Smith was an alternate on the victorious 4x100 relay team in Montreal in 1976—he did not get a chance to compete—and has waited almost four years to get another crack, this time at 400 meters. He understands, he says, to a point. "As much as people say politics and sports don't mix, in amateur sports they go together like peanut butter and jelly," said Smith. "Amateur athletes are goodwill ambassadors—we travel all over upholding the image of America—and when [the government] wants to withhold that goodwill, it keeps us home. It's natural. But the government won't help us get to where we want to go. Yet when we get there, they have the right to take it away."
For a pawn to understand his place is one thing. For him to accept it, in his heart, is yet another. But the overriding sentiment among the athletes was acceptance of a boycott. "If the United States is going to boycott, I'm with the United States in the boycott, no ifs, ands or buts," said Charles Foster, who finished fourth in the 110-meter hurdles at the Montreal Games.