Despite the glorious achievements of Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori and Glenn Cunningham, no American has won the Olympic 1,500 meters, the metric equivalent of the magic mile, since Mel Sheppard took the gold in London in 1908.
The prospects for a change in 1980 are not bright. The three leading contenders for medals at Moscow are Steve Ovett of Great Britain, the World Cup winner and European champion; John Walker of New Zealand, the defending champion, and Thomas Wessinghage of West Germany, the European mile record holder (3:52.5)for whom everything has been coming up gold since disappointment at Montreal in 1976.
In the Olympic 1,500, Wessinghage seemingly used up his ration of ill luck. He placed fifth in his semifinal, inches from an automatic qualifying berth, and was edged for the ninth spot in the final by the other fifth-place semifinalist, his countryman and archrival. Paul-heinz Wellmann.
Wellmann, who went on the capture the bronze medal, saw his capture the bronze medal, saw his career terminated by Achilles tendon problems. Then his marriage ended, too, as his distance-running wife, Ellen, obtained a divorce and became Ellen Wessinghage.
With Germany beset by snow and cold, the Wessinghages have come to California to train. They are also testing the American indoor circuit and Friday night Wessinghage passed a severe test in admirable fashing, running away from an outstanding field to capture the National Invitational mile at Cole Field House in 3:57.2.
"Sometimes you can lead even though you are in second place," the witty Wessinghage once observed, and he illustrated the accuracy of that statement by stalking favored Paul Cummings until the final half lap, then charging past to win by six yards.
"There was no point in the race where I was in serious trouble," said Wessinghage, a medical doctor currently specializing in running and seemingly blessed with an idea approach to Olympics.
"My bosses are very nice," Wessinghage said. "I am able to train in the morning before work and again after-wards. In two montsh, I will join the army as a doctor and I hope that will keep me running until after the Olympics. Then I must stop running and specialize (in medicine)."
Wessinghage's current goal is the World Cup in Montreal in August, where he would like to erase those memories of 1976.
"The World Cup is the main event this year, but of curse everything is directed toward the Olympics," Wessinghage said. "right now, I am trying to master the ability to take a race out from the start and run a good time on my own. That is the most difficult part of running.
"My main reason for coming to the United States is to train in good facilities in California. We have five inches of snow back home and that is very hard for a distance runner."
Asked to assess his opposition, Wessinghage said, "Overtt is No. 1 -- no coubt. Then Walker is coming back -- I cross my fingers for him. There will probably be one or two black men among the best, perhaps (Filbert) Bayi. And (American) Steve Scott is one of the top runners."
Of his thoughts on the Moscow Olympics, Wessingharge said, "The pressure was quite big in Montreal and I don't think it will be any bigger in Moscow. I don't like the atmosphere in Moscow, though. I'd prefer Los Angeles."
Wessinghage has been able to direct every other phase of his life into favorable channels, but he will just have to live with that Moscow atmosphers.