Sebastian Coe's 3:47.33 world-record mile run in Brussels in late summer didn't surprise me one bit. After all, the Portuguese scoring tables predicted just that time.
The Portuguese what? The explanation is forthcoming, but first let's back up to a point early in the recently concluded track and field season.
Toward the end of last spring, in Florence, with 15,000 fans cheering him on, Coe sprinted through the finish line of an 800-meter run, his head tilted back, his face in the grimace that has become so familiar, his right hand fisted, in 1:41.72 to break his own world record by an impressive .61 second.
"I have to think," said a happy Coe afterward, "that [this] is a better relative athletic performance than my mile in three minutes 49 seconds." Coe was referring to his world-record (actually 3:48.95) run in Oslo in 1979. It was his best performance at the distance until he and his English countryman, Steve Ovett, successively lowered Ovett's 1980 world record of 3:48.8 in a frenzy of record breaking this summer.
A few days before Coe's marvelous performance in the Florence 800, my son, Frank, a high school junior, had placed sixth in the 800 in a big nighttime invitational meet. His eyes searching wearily for the finish, he crossed the line in 1:59.42, a personal best.
As he warmed down, he wondered, as he had so often that spring after finishing races at 800 and 1,500 meters, sometimes even tripling in the 3,000, what his time was worth in terms of that classic distance, the mile.
I am a track nut, familiar with a collection of intriguing, somewhat speculative, track and field comparative performance scoring tables. The tables try to match the apples and oranges of disparate events against each other, using mathematical velocity-based formulas and world-class performances. The first tables were created back in 1912 to score the decathlon at the Stockholm Olympic Games and have since been repeatedly revised and expanded, as is the wont of statisticians, beyond the needs of the decathlon, pentathlon and heptathlon.
I had three tables to refer to in order to answer my son's question: the so-called Portuguese tables (Syst�me Rationnel pour Classer les Performances Athl�tiques), devised by the Portuguese mathematician Fernando Amado and revised in 1962; the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) tables, published in 1962 and amended in 1970 and 1977; and the scoring tables of J. Gerry Purdy, an American computer scientist, which were last revised in 1975.
Therefore, I had some fairly reasonable estimates of the mile equivalent of Frank's 800. The times ranged from 4:25.8 (Portuguese) to 4:27.6 ( IAAF) to 4:29.2 (Purdy), all of which led to a great deal of theoretical jubilation. Frank had never run faster than a 4:15.74 1,500, which, in turn, translated, at best, to about a 4:36 mile.
Coe's 800 was absolutely sensational, and he was perfectly right in assuming that it was a better performance than his 1979 mile. On the Portuguese tables, it was, prophetically, considered equivalent to a 3:47.3 mile; the IAAF scored it as a 3:47.7; and for Purdy, it was off the top of the chart, but suggested something like 3:45.4.