It was a media event within a media event, probably the largest and one of the most peculiar interviews ever held with an individual athlete in the history of the Olympic Games.
On his first full day in Moscow for his first Olympics, Sebastian Coe, Britain's triple world record holder, gave a press conference and wound up in a curious, coy debate with a man who wasn't there: fellow Englishman Steve Ovett, his rival for world supremacy in middle-distance running.
Their long-awaited showdown in the 800 meters on Saturday and in the 1,500 meters on Aug 1 are expected to be the competitive centerpieces of these Games of the 22nd Olympiad, especially in Western countries whose interest in many of the sports has been diminished by the U.S.-led boycott by about 50 nations in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The anticipated Coe-Ovett duels are becoming more fascinating all the time. Their recent strong performances on the track imply one-upmanship. Their lack of fondness for one another seems to be accentuated with each passing day. Both men deny that there is a feud, but they keep sniping at each other.
They are contrasting personalities to begin with.
Coe, 23, is an expansive university graduate in economics and social history who trains lightly by world class standards, and insists on having time for literature, jazz and other interests besides running.
Ovett, 24, dropped out of art school in order to devote himself rather single-mindedly to track, and orders his life around a heavy training schedule. s
The story line for their Olympic confrontation has been building intriguingly ever since Coe set three world records last summer, in the 800 meters (1:42.4), 1,500 meters (3:32.1) and the mile (3:49.0), thereby supplanting the fiercely competitive Ovett as the premier middle distance man in Britain and the world.
The plot thickened three weeks ago on the same fast Bislett Stadium track in Oslo where Coe had set his mile record a year earlier.
This time, Coe set a world record in the 1,000 meters, becoming the first man ever to hold world records in four distances simultaneously. But the distinction lasted only 55 minutes, until Ovett took away the mile record, running 3:48.8 to clip two-tenths of a second from Coe's mark. "It's about time," Ovett said.
Then, back in Oslo Tuesday night, Ovett equaled Coe's record time for the 1,500 meters -- the "metric mile" that is the real glamor race of the Olympics. Again he was defiant. "It tastes great," he said.
Was Coe upset that Ovett matched another of his records? "No," he said here Monday night, after arrival at the Olympic Village with most of the British team, but without his luggage, which was lost en route from London and delivered today. "Records are made to be broken.Or at least, to be equaled."
A wicked smile came to his lips with that barb.
Coe, the engaging, cerebral, and sometimes witty half of this odd couple, said he would grant one precompetition audience to the media. Then he preferred to be left alone to train for the track and field heats that begin Thursday at Lenin Central Stadium.
About 500 reporters were waiting for Coe at the disignated hour. Every British journalist worth his superlatives was there, alongside colleagues from dozens of countries, asking questions in various tongues. Television cameras and film crews recorded the answers. Television lights glared.
Ovett -- private, independent and sometimes surly -- has not yet arrived in Moscow. He did not accompany his British teammates, who came a day after the opening ceremonies in accordance with the British Olympic Association's plan for protesting the Soviet presence in Afghanistan without actually joining the boycott.
Not even British officials know when Ovett is coming. He would not have shared the microphone with Coe in any event. They avoid each other in races and social gatherings. Ovett rarely agrees to speak to the press, and is known in Britain as "the Greta Garbo of athletics."
Ovett already had done his talking in a paid interview that appeared last weekend in the Sunday People, a mass circulation British tabloid. In it, he made a brash prediction: "I've got a 50 percent chance of winning the 800 meters . . . and 90 percent of winning the 1,500 meters."
Coe said today he hadn't seen the article, but commented cryptically: "He's obviously got a crystal ball. I've never thought percentages have very much to do with athletics anyway, but that's Steve. If he feels that way, great. I'm very pleased he's confident."
Coe also chafed at Ovett's characterization of him as a programmed runner because of the unorthodox training techniques, based on lots of speed work and not too much distance, that were designed for him by his father, an engineer.
"Seb is programmed from getting up in the morning to going to bed. It's almost scientific," said Ovett. "I'm the opposite. I make up my mind at the last minute, depending on how I feel and what I need."
Ovett, who is known for strong finishing kicks that trample the hearts of his competitors, also implied that he might have had Coe's records if setting records, and not winning races, had been his goal.
"I'm a competitor. I'm a winner. I like to beat the other people in the same race. That has always been my aim," said Ovett, who has run against Coe only once, two years ago in Prague. (They burned themselves out dueling each other, and an East German, Olaf Beyer, won the race.)
"People say I don't go it alone early enough in my record attempts. But the truth is, I'm fighting against myself. I only get worked up when there's someone in front of me. I tend to lose interest when I can't be caught."
Coe -- who made his reputation as a front-runner, but points out that he has won races from behind -- does a slow burn at Ovett's backhanded slights.
"I think at the level we're talking about, natural talent has to be the majority of it. There have been plenty of "made" athletes, in the sense of doing the right training schedules and the right ability and quantity. . . . and training," Coe said.
The ground rules for Coe's press conference, elaborated beforehand by the burly and red-complexioned Soviet moderator, stipulated no questions of a political nature. Coe was an early and outspoken opponent of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's attempts to have Great Britain join the Moscow boycott, while Ovett hinted until the last day for a decision that he might join the individual British athletes who decided not to go to Moscow as a matter of conscience.
With politics off limits, most of the questions put to Coe dealt, directly or indirectly, with Ovett.
Have Ovett's good recent performances affected you psychologically -- either negatively or positively?
"No. I think I should be fair and point out that there's nothing staggering about what I've seen. I'm surprised if anybody didn't think Steve was capable of doing this. I mean, he's been going after them (the records) long enough. He had to be expected to run these kinds of times at some time or another.
"He must be very happy with his present form, but I've never been too concerned with what other people have been doing. The only reason I would be unhappy were if I didn't think my own form was up to what it should be at the moment, and I have no worries about that. So what he has done hasn't particularly affected me."
Did you make a tactical mistake that one time you raced Ovett, in Czechoslovakia?
"I didn't make a mistake. I was running under instructions that day," Coe said. ". . . Prague was two years ago. We're both vastly different athletes now. And we both got beaten. That tells me something about polarizing any race into just two people."
Are you bothered by being asked about Ovett all the time, and badgered about your rivalry?
"To me, it can be a little boring because it's not something I dwell on," said Coe. "When I come here and talk about Steve Ovett, or any other athlete, I'm devoting more time to it in this 20 minutes than I do in a whole month ordinarily . . .
"I've never, ever planned either my training or my racing program around individuals. If I haven't been ready to race, I haven't raced. If I have been ready, then I'm not bothered about who else will race."
It has been suggested that the key to how fast Coe and Ovett run in the 1,500 meters could be Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, who was favored to win the event in Montreal in 1976, but did not get his chance because of the boycott by 26 Black African nations protesting New Zealand's sporting ties with South Africa.
If Bayi has enough left after running the steeplechase the day before to set a brisk early pace, he could make the 1,500 into what former gold medalist Chris Brasher, now a leading British track and field writer, calls "an honest race, fast from the start with no hanging around for two laps."
While declining to get into a real discussion of tactics, Coe said that would be fine with him.
"It would be nice if Filbert would make a pace, take it along and make sure that the race was fast, something that at the end of the day we could all step off the track feeling proud to have been part of," he said.
"But you can't predict Olympic finals. You can't predict Olympic heats. If it were to go like that, there'd be no complaints from me, but Filbert is taking on a lot with the steeplechase right before the 1,500. . . .
"It would be nice, though, if the Olympic final didn't turn out to be a dog, just for the general pride of everybody involved in it."
Coe says he respects everybody in the race -- "I respect every athlete, anybody who puts on running shoes and runs" -- and has high regard for Bayi, East German Jurgen Straub, and other East Europeans in the race whom he has not seen except on paper in the form of their times and rankings.
That is one reason he doesn't want to talk about the tactics he might use. He is revealing nothing, except his firm belief in the need to remain flexible.
"I haven't got a set tactic for the two races. You've got to be adaptable," he said. "Athletics is an individual thing. Races develop in different patterns, and no two races are ever the same."
That, of course, is what makes them so interesting, tests of wits as well as muscles. But one thing is sure. There will be no teamwork between Coe and Ovett, either on the practice track or in the races.
"I think," Coe said today with a grin and an understatement, "that's very unlikely."