As the finalists neared 800 meters, Straub was on the pole, with Coe on his shoulder. Ovett moved to Coe's shoulder, forming a wing of poised athletes. Peter Coe was pleased. "Seb was up, in a controlling position. I felt a fair race was on."
And then, a wondrous gift. As the field passed 800 in a restrained 2:04.9, Straub accelerated. Coe ducked in behind him and Ovett kept a close third as the bunched pack suddenly became a single line of men working very hard. "When Jürgen nailed his sail to the mast with 700 to go, it let me do what I do best," said Coe. "I found a rhythm, a lane of my own."
They had run the previous 300 meters in 47 seconds. Straub led them through the next in 40. In the stands, Peter Coe was ecstatic. "No one in the world can sustain that speed as Seb can. And to have Straub apply it for him...." The 1,200-meter time was 2:59.1. Straub had run the next to last lap in 54.2. "It didn't look that fast because Seb and Steve are the supreme stylists," said the elder Coe.
With 300 to run, knowing eyes turned to Ovett. When would he kick? Two-fifty passed...200, but there were no moves, only Straub's ever-increasing pressure. "The pace was such that it took the sting out of all of us," said Sebastian later.
In the last turn Straub faltered slightly. Coe went wide and passed him, and as the three leaders swept into the stretch, Ovett was right where he wanted to be, off Coe's shoulder. For an instant there was a predator's gleam in his eye as he called upon his kick. Ovett came nearly even with Straub. And there he stayed as Coe sprinted beautifully ahead. As he passed the victory stand with 50 meters to go, it was clear Coe would win. Ovett strained in desperation, lost his form and was third behind the ferocious Straub.
Coe's last 800 was 1:48.5, far more impressive than his final time of 3:38.4, but he cared about none of that. As he crossed the line he showed a joy these Games had not yet seen. Coe went to his knees in an exaggerated gesture of thanksgiving, touching his forehead to the track. Then he was up on a victory lap, dodging a guard who was there to prevent such frivolity, his face as open as a child's in its array of emotions. Clearly, Coe's earlier calm had shielded tremendous strain. "I was surprised by the strength of my reaction," he would say a day later. "When I watched that display on the replay it was a bit embarrassing. But it was such a bloody marvelous relief."
Ovett smiled and waved during the medal ceremony, but afterward in the tunnel, appeared grim. "I was so high after the 800 that I couldn't get up again," he said. Later, explaining his practice of shunning the British press, he said, "They'll never leave me alone no matter what I do. They're like a wolf pack attacking."
This isn't a new Olympic theme, this pressure so great that victory is experienced as deliverance, this fascination so intense that good men feel hounded by the agents of the curious. It has happened before, but in Moscow the weight of the Olympics seemed to press further than ever into the ideals of the Games.
Take, for example, the pole vault. It practically guaranteed magnificent competition because this season European vaulters have gone wild. Four months ago the world record stood at 18'8¼", set by Dave Roberts in 1976. In May, Poland's Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz did 18'9¼". In June, France's Thierry Vigneron made 18'10¼", and in July, France's Philippe Houvion had cleared 18'11". In Moscow six men broke the Olympic record of 18'½" before things got serious. Clumps of French and Polish fans waved their flags as their champions soared higher and higher, the Poles chanting, "Polska, Polska," as Kozakiewicz made 18'6½" easily. That was drowned in a great Russian roar as Konstantin Volkov of the Soviet Union cleared as well.
As Houvion prepared to vault, the Lenin Stadium crowd rained down derisive whistles, caring more, it seemed, for national supremacy than individual performance. Rattled, Houvion balked in the middle of the run-in, ramming the pole into the box for a deliberate miss.