Can Lasse Viren continue his historymaking gold rush through one more Olympics, or will the great Finnish running machine finally meet his Waterloo here in the person of Ethiopia's Miruts Yifter?
That's the $64,000 question as far as the distance events go in this year's games (and in the de facto professional world of track and field today, it's undoubtedly worth of a great deal more than that). The only sad thing is that because of the way the events are scheduled, these two tremendously gifted athletes cannot possibly go up against each other in all three long-distance races -- and could conceivably meet in just one.
Viren, of course, never has to do another thing to be assured of a place in the Pantheon of Olympic distance running greats right up there with his famed countryman Paavo Nurmi and the great Czech star Emil Zatopek. The slender, bearded Finn has won both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events at each of the last two Olympics -- already an unprecedented feat. Four years ago at Montreal he tried to make it a triple by running the marathon as well, finishing an amazing fifth even though -- unlike Zatopek when he accomplished the feat in 1952 -- Viren was faced with a schedule forcing him to run the gruelling 26-mile, 385 -yard event without even a single day of rest.
Yifter, on the other hand, is still looking for his first Olympic gold medal -- and the Olympics being what they are in terms of mass appeal, this means that his name doesn't begin to have the same sort of public recognition factor as Viren's. It may very shortly, though, for there are many observers who think it is he who will prevail in any showdown between the two.
The Ethiopian did compete at Munich in 1972, taking a bronze in the 10,000 with a time only three seconds slower than Viren's winning 27 minutes, 38.4 seconds. But at Montreal, when he was presumably at the top of his form, the African boycott forced him out of competition and postponed his rematch with the Finn for another four years.
Since that time, however, while Viren has gone into his accustomed semi-hibernation between Olympics, Yifter has dazzled the sports world with a succession of spectacular victories in his two specialties. Perhaps even more impressive than the fact that he wins so regularly, however, is the way in which he does it -- cutting loose in the last lap with blazing sprints that leave his foes dazed and gasping and make his victories look ridiculously easy.
He did this in both races at the inaugural World Cup meet in Dusseldorf, West Germany, in 1977, and repeated the formula in the next such competition at Montreal in 1979. In the latter year he also demonstrated that Moscow agrees with him, running away from his fields to win both races here at the Spartakiad Games which served as a dress rehearsal for the Olympics.
On the basis of all these victories against tough competition while Viren was mostly out of sight, the normal thing would be to assume that Yifter is the better prospect here -- especially since the one time they have met recently, in a half-marathon in Puerto Rico last February, the Ethiopian came out on top. Viren doesn't follow the normal rules, however, as he demonstrated after similar inactivity between Munich and Montreal, so it's a question of wait and see.
Certainly if he is in shape, and if it comes down to a test of toughness, fortitude, and determinataion, Lasse Viren is not a runner anyone would want to have to beat. The Finn showed that in his very first Olympic event -- the 10, 000 at Munich -- when he got in close quarters during the 12th lap, tripped and fell to the ground to lose many valuable yards, but refused to give up, got back on his feet, and ran down the leaders en route to winning the race.
Nothing quite so dramatic has occurred in his other victories -- except, of course, the vary fact of the triumphs themselves. If he should add to his laurels with two more victories here, he would join his legendary countryman Nurmi as the only other runner with six gold medals. Of course the boycott here would have to diminish the feat to some extent, since the fields Viren faces in Moscow will be a bit depleted without such star performers as Bill Rodgers and Craig Virgin of the United States, Henry Rono of Kenya, etc. But Viren beat all the best runners at Munich, and most of them at Montreal, while Yifter has been decimating them the last couple of years, so who can really say how much difference it would have made?
The first problem for both Viren and Yifter, though, is to decide which two races to enter -- for while last time at Montreal the organizers made it difficult to try all three, here it is impossible, since the 5,000 final and the marathon will be going on at the same time on the final day of the track and field competition Aug. 1.
The 10,000 this week is thus the one sure race for a Viren-Yifter showdown, but after that it's up in the air. Indications are that both men lean toward the marathon for their second-efforts, but of course either or both might also prefer the idea of trying to split up the other two gold medals rather than going head-to-head in a battle only one can win. Whatever they decide, though, and whatever happens out there on the track and in the streets of Moscow, it promises to be an extraordinarily interesting set of distance races this year.