The men and women who run to glory had barely stepped outside when Renaldo Nehemiah spun the first record of what has become a memorable track and field campaign.
On April 14, in San Jose, Calif., Nehemiah broke the world mark in the 110-meter high hurdles with a clocking of 13.16 seconds. It was the 33rd listing in the history of hurdling records, the first to be accomplished before mid-June.
With all the summer before him, Nehemiah seemed certain to reduce that record to kindling. While opponents shattered timber in a vain effort to catch him, Nehemiah cut the mark to 13.00 -- and then ran a wind-aided 12.91. By that mid-June barrier of the past, experts were ready to close the nominations and give Nehmiah the athlete-of-the-year award.
While the Maryland sophomore roamed Sweden, Finland and Puerto Rico, however, collecting only bacteria and medals, another name claimed the lion's share of the pre-Olympic spotlight. Sebastian Coe, a 22-year-old graduate student in economics at England's Loughborough University, wiped out Alberto Juantorena's world record for the 800 meters by a full second with a time of 1:42.4.
Within six weeks, in as remarkable a string of performances as the sport has ever known, Coe went on to run a 3:49.0 mile, erasing John Walker's record of 3:49.4, and a 3:32.1 time for 1,500 meters, trimming a tenth of a second from Filbert Bayi's five-year-old standard.
Coe's latest record was set at altitude in Zurich, where middle distance men traditionally experience problems and sprinters and hurdlers enjoy swift times. Nehemiah had run his fastest race of 1978 in Zurich, 13.22, but this time Nehemiah was clocking 13.54 and finishing second behind Dedy Cooper for his first defeat of the year.
This week, Montreal is host to the World Cup, the most important track competition outside the Olympics. But after the accomplishments of Sebastian Coe, it has acquired an aura, albeit an expensive one (ticket prices as high as $20) of anticlimax.
Indeed, Coe completed his labors in Zurich and said "Enough." A call to World Cup headquarters yesterday elicited word that "Coe is officially listed" to run the 800 meters for the Europe III team. Unofficially, he is not expected.
Regardless, experts are prepared to close the nominations and give Coe the athlete-of-the-year award.
Of course, Nehemiah will be at the World Cup, trying to bolster slipping prestige. And, should he run well, there are the World University Games to follow, where the altitude of Mexico City offers promise of an ultimate world record.
A year ago, Coe competed seven times; Nehemiah's record occupies half a page. This year's figures are similar, although his illness forced Nehemiah to rest for several weeks.
Next year, the Olympics will hold center stage. Coe and Nehemiah seem reasonable bets to win gold medals, if they approach the Games with proper training and competition.
In Coe's case, past performance indicates no problem. He recognizes the superiority of quality. Nehemiah, however, must learn to say "No" to all those people struggling to grab what his coach, Frank Costello, calls "a piece of the pie." Those folks -- meet directors, equipment peddlers and just plain hustlers, could be his biggest hurdles.