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CAST OF THE THOUSAND
Craig Neff
July 20, 1981
Three dramatic acts: Seb Coe sets world mark, Ben Plucknett sets—and loses—one and Steve Ovett looks back in languor
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July 20, 1981

Cast Of The Thousand

Three dramatic acts: Seb Coe sets world mark, Ben Plucknett sets—and loses—one and Steve Ovett looks back in languor

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In Stockholm's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday of last week, while 16,000 spectators roared approval for a young Swede who was winning the 400 meters, Ben Plucknett, would-be American folk hero—and soon-to-become tragic hero—methodically planted himself in the discus ring. He was unnoticed; to the extent that a 6'7", 287-pound man with a full red beard can go unnoticed. But when his discus sailed out over the divoted infield, landing well onto virgin turf, the crowd let loose a new burst of cheers, and Wolfgang Schmidt, his preeminent East German rival, rushed to the circle to shake Plucknett's hand. For a moment Plucknett, a 27-year-old farm boy from Beatrice, Neb., didn't know what all the fuss was about. The only thing he'd sensed was "severe back pain from the torque" of his effort. Then Schmidt cleared matters up. "Congratulations," he said. "You've made a world record."

As it turned out, Plucknett's prodigious toss—237'4", nearly four feet beyond the previous world record, which he set in Modesto, Calif. in May—was the first in a succession of remarkable performances in Stockholm, Milan and Oslo last week that surpassed three major track and field records and threatened others. It also could have been Plucknett's last great moment. Six days later the International Amateur Athletic Federation announced that it was banning him from competition for life and nullifying his record-breaking throws because "a measure of anabolic steroids were present" in a urine sample taken at a January meet in New Zealand. Although Plucknett can't appeal for 18 months, other athletes have been reinstated after similar prohibition.

Shortly after the IAAF announcement last Monday, Plucknett called his coach, Richard Marks, and insisted he wasn't worried. "Ben said there have been a number of procedural screw-ups with the samples," said Marks. "After the New Zealand meet he was told that the tests would be complete in four weeks, and that if he didn't hear anything then, that everything was all right. They've either mixed up the samples, or they've been tampered with. Ben is not on steroids. Ben has never been on steroids."

Things were better on the track, where the most hallowed of American marks, the 3:51.1 mile run by 20-year-old Jim Ryun back in 1967, was shattered, as was Sebastian Coe's 1980 world record of 2:13.40 for 1,000 meters. The world mile and 1,500 records barely survived. They not only could have gone, they should have. The happiest development was the news that Coe and Steve Ovett, the prepotent British rivals, will finally race against each other this summer in the Golden Mile, Aug. 28 in Brussels.

The focus of the Stockholm meet had figured to be not Plucknett but a dazzling 1,500 that would include Coe, Steve Scott, Eamonn Coghlan and Tom Byers. Coe figured to attack Ovett's 3:31.36 world record for the distance, though he was getting no help from the meet director. First, no one at trackside would be allowed to call out lap times to the runners. Then the start of the 1,500 was delayed 23 minutes while winners of other events were interviewed over the P.A. system. Worst of all, the designated pacesetter got sick. He was replaced by James Robinson, America's top half-miler but inexperienced as a rabbit.

Robinson took Coe through a blazing 52.43 first lap and a 1:49.18 for 800 meters—each three seconds faster than the splits Coe had wanted—thereby destroying any hope of a record. Still, Coe finished well ahead of the field in 3:31.95, only .59 of a second off the record. He was furious. "You have very few performances like this in your life, and this one was wasted," he said. "Everything else was right. But the organization turns out to be a bit of a mess all around."

Plucknett, by contrast, was "ecstatic." Or at least that was what he told his 5-foot, 105-pound girl friend. Rose Ramos, when he called her in San Jose, Calif., at 6 a.m. the next morning. Reporters, he said, had surrounded him, which says something in itself.

In America, Plucknett has never received much attention, except at the 1980 Olympic Trials, at which he became the villain for knocking then-43-year-old Al Oerter out of the third and final spot on the U.S. team. He celebrated that achievement more wildly than usual, taking a modest leap and even raising his arms briefly in exultation. Plucknett is shy, carefully polite, even stoic. He's part of a family that moved to Beatrice (be-AT-riss) in the early 1850s; some of his relatives still farm the original family acreage. Plucknett began his education in a one-room schoolhouse and from his earliest days spent spare hours caring for cattle and operating the irrigation system in the corn and milo fields. Nowadays he does building-maintenance work for the Canteen Corporation in San Jose, where he moved after graduating from the University of Missouri, with such quiet efficiency that his co-workers hardly know he's around. Plucknett's conscientiousness once got him into trouble. While working as a bouncer at a bar, he refused entry to two teen-agers. They came back and one shot him twice in the stomach. Big Ben still wouldn't let them in.

That Plucknett would apparently add to his world record at Stockholm wasn't a surprise; the distance he added certainly was. His May record had surpassed Schmidt's 1978 mark of 233'5" by just two inches and had come at a windy meet in which nine of 21 throwers had achieved personal bests. He weighed 309 that day but the European travel and food had pared him down to 287 by the time he reached Stockholm. "I've seen him anywhere from 238 to 317 [pounds]," says Ramos. "He changes sizes a lot. Sometimes, like right before my eyes."

The European season heated up Wednesday night in Milan, where Ovett matched Coe's 1,500 time exactly—3:31.95. Ovett was clearly prepared for the Dream Mile in Oslo's Bislett Stadium on Saturday.

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