The nine 1,500-meter finalists were led single file, slowly, formally, from the tunnel where they had left their sweat suits, to the start. Steve Ovett of Great Britain, the Olympic 800-meter champion, walked pigeon-toed; he is a picture of fluid strength only in flight. His countryman, Sebastian Coe, who shares the 1,500-meter world record (3:32.1) with Ovett but had never raced him at the distance until this moment, walked calmly to his place in Lane 6, then trotted a little circle behind the other finalists. He was the last to be steady on the line. Then the gun set them running.
Slowly. Coe went carefully to the head of the pack, but didn't cut to the inside. East Germany's Jürgen Straub moved up along the rail, and the two of them led through the first lap in 61.6. Ovett ran on the outside in sixth, a meter or two behind. Their faces, and those of the rest of the finalists, showed alertness but no irritation at the gentle pace. They had expected nothing more. In the 1976 Olympic 1,500 the first lap had been a sluggish 62.5; in 1972 it had been 61.4. Here in Moscow, with Tanzania's front-running Filbert Bayi having chosen the steeplechase (in which he had finished second to Poland's Bronislaw Malinowski) over the 1,500, no miler felt that leading would help his cause one bit.
So they waited, and slowed even more. Some grew nervous, telling themselves to stay balanced, to smooth out. Coe would later acknowledge that there was more pressure on him than in any other race of his life, but his sensation in this early stage was of clear resolve. "Losing the 800 was a terrible disappointment," he said. "If I hadn't had the 1,500 coming up, I'd have been tortured with recriminations. But the 1,500 was there. There was no choice. I had to make myself ready for it."
Both men had sailed through the preliminaries, Ovett winning his first-round heat in 3:36.8, appearing to do so as easily as that time—equal to a 3:54 mile—has ever been run, because as he coasted to a stop he happily drew the letters I L Y in the air for the TV cameras, a tender message for his girl friend, Rachel Waller, in Maidstone.
Coe's semifinal went smoothly until the last turn, where he permitted himself to be boxed by a rush of men. He had to drop to fifth and sprint around them, which he did impressively to win in 3:39.4, but it was a scare. "A blinding error," he said. "If that happens in the final it will be a disaster."
The incident provided more ammunition for those who believed Coe too nice a guy to win. Much of the British press, while lauding Coe's gentlemanly qualities, felt him hindered by them. "Coe is the man you'd want to dinner or your daughter to marry," said one reporter. "Ovett is the man you want on your side in a fight."
That sentiment was hardly to the taste of Peter Coe, Sebastian's coach and father. "What has happened to our world when you can't be tough and nice?" he asked acidly. "That logic is a slander on all champions. Are Nicklaus and Watson somehow not decent blokes because they make crucial putts under pressure?"
If Ovett had an advantage it was not in character but in experience. Since May of 1977 he had won 45 straight 1,500-meter or mile races, including a World Cup and European Championship, almost all with an overpowering finish over the final 200 to 250 meters. Coe in that time had concentrated on the 800. The Olympic final was only his eighth 1,500 in four years.
Yet, though Ovett was quoted in the London Daily Express as saying the 800 win made him feel capable of breaking the 1,500 world record by as much as four seconds, Coe and his father put together a plan similar to that which they had tried in the 800. "Looking at the video of the eight," said Sebastian, "the only thing that was O.K. was my finish."
The problem was in securing a good place to kick from. "We received a marvelous cable from England," said Peter. "It read: GET YOUR FINGER OUT, COE. I'VE GOT MONEY ON YOU, and was signed by a Mrs. Mullory, whoever she is. Well, the plan was Mrs. Mullory's instructions put plain: stay out of trouble and sprint home from the turn."