"It would be nice if the Olympic final didn't turn out to be a dog, just for the general pride of everybody involved in it." -- Sebastian Coe
Englishmen Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, theoretically the fastest men in the world in any footrace at distances ranging from 800 meters to a mile, claim that their animosity toward one another does not extend beyond the track.
That is comforting to know from the standpoint of human understanding. But at Lenin Central Stadium on Friday evening, with 103,000 people watching live and millions more tuned inon television, they will try to run each other's hearts and brains out over 1,500 meters, and their mutual antipathy will be large enough to fill the vast arena.
The 1,500, which some people still refer to as the metric mile, is a glamor event at every Olympics, but seldom has a race generated such interest around the world.
The U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games by approximately 50 countries in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has greatly diminished enthusiasm for many of the contests in 21 sports here; but the 1,500 still looms as a compelling spectacle, truly Olympian in stature. It is Chapter 2 of "the battle of Britain for world supremacy," Chapter 1 having been Ovett's victory in the 800-meter final Saturday.
When it comes to running middle distances, the Brits still rule the empire. Nobody does it better than Coe and Ovett, who sprinted around Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's appeals to British athletes to join the boycott. They share the 1,500-meter world record of 3 minutes 32.1 seconds.
Coe, who also holds the world records for 800 and 1,000 meters, set the standard last August in Zurich, during a glorious blossoming in which he set three world records in 42 days.
Ovett, who snatched the world record for the mile away from Coe in Oslo early this month, equaled the 1,500 meter mark in the same city the following week, though he was technically a few hundredths of a second slower than Coe.
It is impossible to handicap Friday's race intelligently until after the four preliminary heats on Wednesday and the semifinals on Thursday determine exactly which eight men will be in it. It will also be useful to know how seriously Filbert Bayi of Tanzania -- who could provide the early speed to make this what the British call "an honest race" -- is rating his chances.
On the evidence of the strange and disappointing 800-meter final last weekend, Ovett must be favored to complete a golden double. He won at Coe's best distance, after being boxed into a miserable predicament early, and proved again that he is a superior competitor man-to-man, even if Coe's record is slightly better against the clock.
Ovett is undefeated in the 1,500 meters and mile dating back to May 1977 when American Steve Scott beat him in Jamaica. He has lost only three times at any distance in two years, and at 1,500 meters he has won 28 in a row. tBefore coming to Moscow, he boasted that he had a 50 percent chance to win the 800 gold and a 90 percent chance to win the 1,500.
On the other foot, it is doubtful that the slight and fluid Coe -- who was once considered fragile, but built up his upper body strength with extensive weight training last winter -- will make the same foolish mistakes that probably cost him the 800-meter gold medal.
He was in perfect position to win, set up on the outside toward the end of the first lap, away from the sometimes heavy jostling taking place on the inside. Most observers expected him to accelerate into one of his smooth bursts of speed and open a big lead, challenging Ovett to make up the ground with his fabled closing kick.
Instead, Coe curiously let the pace lag. The time for the first 400 meters was only 54.3 about three seconds off what had been anticipated. Even more peculiarly, when Soviet front-runner Nikolai Kirov, made his move and took Ovett with him, Coe, did not follow. He was flat and unresponsive.
On the biggest occasion of his running life, Coe suffered a terrible mental freeze. By the time his brain thawed out enough to function, it was too late. Ovett had broken out of another boxed position with some purposeful elbowing to the ribs of Detlef Wagenknecht, and was gone.
Coe tried desperately to catch him down the stretch, but that is as futile as chasing Br'er Rabbit in the brier patch. Ovett kicked home with his powerful finishing stride, winning in 1:45.4, three seconds off Coe's world record time.
Coe may simply have been psyched out by enormous pressure, his strategic sence dulled by nerves in this long and eagerly-awaited duel. Even though he is 23, to Ovett's 24, Coe is not as experienced a runner internationally, and this was his first Olympic final. Ovett had a similarly disillusioning experience in his, Olympic debut at Montreal four years ago, finishing fifth in the 800 and losing in the 1,500 semifinals.
Coe, after several days of reflection and discussion with his father-coach, Sheffield engineer Peter Coe, is not likely to make similar mistakes in the 1,500. He has not raced at that distance this year, but has trained for it. He declines to discuss tactics, but most observers expect him to burn the pace from the start this time, putting his considerable speed work to use, saying to Ovett, in effect: "Catch me if you can."
If this is what he has in mind, Coe could be helped immeasurably by an eager Bayi also dictating a fast couple of laps. The Tanzanian was co-favorite for the gold medal in the 1,500 four years ago, alone with winner John Walker of New Zealand, but he did not compete in the Montreal Olympics because of the black African boycott over New Zealand's sports ties with South Africa.
Bayi appears fit and confident now, but the major portion of his effort seems to be going into winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase. The finals of that taxing event will be held Thursday night, 90 minutes before the 1,500-meter semifinals, so there is a serious question of his ability even to qualify for the final. Friday night, he would have to make it himself.
Almost everyone expects the race to come down to Ovett and Coe, perhaps nose to nose like those splendid equine rivals, Affirmed and Alydar. But East Germans are whispering that Jurgen Straub should not be discounted, and a number of other runners in the qualifying heats are a bit of a mystery to would-be handicappers.
"When I left England, I think there were 12 or 15 Russians in the ranking lists," Coe said. "We have times and rankings, but looking at times on paper and actually getting these people into the stadium and running against them are two different things."
He remembers only too well that the last time he and Ovett stepped onto the same track before Moscow, in the 1978 European championships in Prague, they worried about each other so much that they both wound up losing to East German Olaf Beyer at 800 meters. "That should tell you something," Coe said, "about polarizing a race to two people."
One thing is certain. Ovett and Coe will be going all out. There is no reason to hold back. Everything is on the line here: the Olympic gold, personal pride, and whatever satisfactions -- financial and egotistical -- come with recognition as the world's best middle distance runner.