Although Steve Scott has been America's top-ranked miler for four straight years and is unbeaten thus far in a bid for No. 5, he still finds himself running in shadows.

Some of those shadows come from the past, some are cast at formidable length from overseas and some appear with regularity in other events whenever Scott competes so brilliantly in his middle-distance specialty.

Two of the oldest records in American track and field date to 1967, when Jim Ryun ran the mile in 3:51.1 and the 1,500 meters in 3:33.1. Scott has come within a frustrating click of both with automatic times of 3:51.11 and 3:33.33, but Ryun still stands at the top of the U.S. lists.

In posting his personal bests in both events, Scott has been a nonwinner, each time trailing England's Sebastian Coe to the wire. The speedy 1,500 came last year, when Scott lost only three other outdoor races, all to Coe's countryman, Steve Ovett, the world record holder at 3:31.36 for 1,500 and 3:48.8 for a mile.

Scott ran history's second-fastest indoor mile, 3:51.8 this winter at San Diego, but again he was a loser, as Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland set the indoor record of 3:50.6.

Scott, 25, has been an impressive winner of all four of his outdoor efforts this year, yet on each occasion the headlines were devoted to others.

At the Drake Reylays, Scott breezed to a 3:58.34 triumph in the featured mile; Oklahoma trumped him with a world record in the sprint medley relay.

In the Pepsi meet at UCLA, Scott clocked 3:52.50 in beating John Walker and Sydney Maree; that was the afternoon Carl Lewis long-jumped 28 feet, 3 3/4 inches.

At the California Relays, Scott out-raced Walker in 3:55.2, only to play second banana to Ben Plucknett's world-record discus throw.

In his last race, in the Elliott Memorial May 30, Scott outfought Maree with a 52.7 final quarter to win in 3:52.26. Earlier, James Robinson had won the 800 in what was at that point the world's fastest time of the year. h

Scott, who represents the Sub-4 Track Club of Tempe, Ariz., appropriately has run 49 sub-four-minute miles, more than anyone else except Walker. But as he awaits Friday's semifinals in the 1,500 meters at the 93rd U.S. Track and Field Championships here, he admits that those shadows have kept him unfulfilled.

"I'm not satisfied with my career at all so far," Scott said. "I want to beat Ovett. I want to beat Coe. I'd like to beat Eamonn Coghlan indoors. I know I'm capbale of running faster, of smashing the American record and running well under 3:50. It's just a case of having everything right.

"My goal right now is to get those records, the American records first and then, I hope, the world records. Of course, records seem to go with Coe and Ovett, so if I can figure out where they'll be this summer, then that's where I'll be."

To prepare himself for those confrontations, Scott has been concentrating on speed, to make himself competitive with Coe and Ovett in those desparate dashes to the tape. The final quarters of his last three races have been lifetime bests -- 52.8, 53.4 and 52.7 -- but, of course, it remains to be seen whether he can accomplish that off a faster pace.

Scott admires Coe, who recently lowered the world 800 record to 1:41.72, but he has no love for Ovett, criticizing what he calls Ovett's negative attitude toward the media and public.

"Steve is a great runner, but he does several things I don't approve of, like waving to the crowd as he crosses the finish line and refusing to talk to the press," Scott said. "We're all working to help track and field and things like that can only hurt it."

Scott was not always the most gracious person on race day, although he has matured. After he finished seventh in the 1976 Olympic Trials 1,500, he was visibly distressed and reacted accordingly.

"I used to get upset after a disappointing race, but I finally convinced myself that if I couldn't have any fun running, I was wasting my time," Scott said. "I used to put a lot of pressure on myself and I made myself nervous, and I guess a lot of other people, too.

"The most important thing is to calm yourself and relax. When you're too serious about it, it's no fun and it hurts you. I still get excited the day of a race, but I don't get irritable or overly nervous. It's just not worth it."

Scott is getting excited about something besides track these days. His wife, Kim, is expecting their first child in mid-August, which coincides with the big European meets, culminating in the Golden Mile at Brussels Aug. 28 and the World Cup in Rome Sept. 4-6.