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Mile-race rivalry wells up

By Larry EldridgeSports editor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1981



The mile is a race with a special mystique all its own -- one of those rare sports events able to transcend the athletic realm and capture the imagination of the public at large. To bring home the point, one need only mention an athlete who was virtually unknown except to track buffs prior to May 6, 1954, but whose name has been a household word ever since: Roger Bannister. And now more than a quarter of a century after his historic breaking of the four-minute barrier, two fellow Englishmen have the world buzzing once again.

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Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett are the latter-day heroes, of course, thanks to a recent spate of record-smashing that calls to mind such epic past rivalries as Gunder Hagg vs. Arne Andersson, Bannister vs. John Landy, and Jim Ryun vs. Kip Keino.

The irony this time, however, is that Coe and Ovett have charted separate courses so successfully that they have hardly ever found themselves on the same track at the same time -- and never in this most glamorous of all events. They met once in an all-but-forgotten schoolboy race; once more in a European Championship 800 when they concentrated so much on each other that another runner won; and twice in the Moscow Olympics, where Ovett took the 800 and Coe the 1,500.

Otherwise, they have geared their programs toward assaults on records at the various middle distances -- and with fantastic success. In addition to trading the mile mark back and forth they have each held the 1,500 record (Ovett has it now), while Coe owns both the 800 and 1,000 meter standards. It is their rivalry in the mile, though, that has the public clamoring for a showdown, -- but with the outdoor season nearing an end, it is problematical whether such a race can occur this year.

The unique position of the mile in the public consciousness is probably due to a combination of factors.For one thing, it is a standard measure of distance in countries such as the United States and Great Britain. For another, it is an ideal distance from the standpoint of the spectator -- long enough to call for tactics and psychology, yet not so long that it becomes an endurance contest for either the competitors or the viewers. And then for so many years there was the easily identifiable standard of four minutes.

At any rate, the mile has long been the centerpiece of the sport -- going back to the "Flying Finn," Paavo Nurmi, in the 1920s, and American record-breaker Glenn Cunningham in the '30s. But it was the tremendous duels of Swedish rivals Hagg and Andersson during World War II, followed by Bannister's feat, that pushed it to the zenith of popularity.

Hagg and Anderson each lowered the record three times between 1942 and 1945, bringing it down to 4:01.4, but it took nine years before Bannister ran his 3:59 .4. Ironically, this most famous record in the history of the sport lasted only a few weeks before the Australian Landy shattered it with a 3:58 clocking. Since then the record has continued to go down before the assaults of Herb Elliott, Peter Snell, Ryun, John Walker, and others. And now we have reached another of those exciting eras in any sport when two superior athletes have emerged at the same time to challenge each other as well as the previous standards.