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.
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.
The latest duel began in earnest on July 17, 1979, when Coe lowered the world record to 3:49 in Oslo. The feat was the middle part of a remarkable six-week spree in which he also set world marks at both 800 and 1,500 meters -- but of course it was the mile that got most of the attention. Coe held the record until July 1, 1980, when Ovett, running on the same Oslo track, broke it by two-tenths of a second with a 3:48.80 clocking.
That mark stood for more than a year -- until this summer's unprecedented fireworks began. First Coe ran a 3:48.53 at Zurich on Aug. 19.A week later, Ovett bettered that with a time of 3:48.40 at Koblenz, West Germany. But Coe was not to be denied, and two nights later in the "Golden Mile" at Brussels, he knocked more than a full second off the record with a tremendous 3:47.33 performance.
That made it three times in 10 days that the record was broken -- the most concentrated assault in history. And Coe expects to do better.
"It was fast," he said after his epic performance at Brussels, "But I think there is still a bit more to come out of it."
Despite the widespread feeling that Coe and Ovett should meet more frequently , they have clearly chosen the more effective way to go for records. Competition between two keen rivals brings tactics and psychology into play as each tries primarily to beat the other, with little regard to time. A race against the clock is a totally different proposition -- with a pre-planned pace and an entire strategy based on time.
Such assaults have long been part of the game, but never before had they dominated the situation so completely. Hagg and Andersson sometimes ran in different events, but they also met 22 times at a variety of distances. Of the six times one or the other broke the world mile record, for instance, three were in competitive races involving the two of them.
"Swedish athletic fans of the '40s easily recall the picture of the elegant, slim Hagg and the powerful, muscular Andersson locked in. . . bitter battles for victory, and with only secondary thoughts of records," a chronicler of those times is quoted as saying in the book "All Out for the Mile," by George Smith. "What would have happened if these two had planned their races with only world records in mind. It is a matter for conjecture. But many believe that the four-minute mile would then have been accomplished before 1945."
Bannister and Landy, too, although they set their records separately, were both looking forward to their showdown meeting.
"To me, the main event that year was the mile in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, where I would race against Landy," Bannister told me in an interview a few years ago. "From my point of view, beating him at Vancouver was a more significant accomplishment than the race at Oxford."
These are the viewpoints of sportsmen who saw racing primarily in competitive terms, even though they might occasionally divert their energies into a planned assault on a record. Coe and Ovett, on the other hand, seem more intent on the record-breaking aspect, though in fairness to Coe it should be noted that he has several times agreed to run in races involving both men only to have Ovett withdraw -- most recently in the Golden Mile itself.
Ovett said he preferred any meeting to be in Britain, so the question is what can be arranged. Time is running out for 1981, though, and obviously such a race will only occur when and if both men really want it to.