For as long as people have enjoyed watching others run, the mile has been the favorite event. Sprints end too quickly; longer distance races become boring. The mile, four times around a standard track, is a happy medium.
When the International Amateur Athletics Federation went metric a few years ago, the mile was excepted. That distance is something special.
And never has it been as special as this month, graced as it has been by the incredible exploits of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.
Until the two Englishmen embarked on their awesome August only one man, Gunder Hagg, had regained the world mile record after losing it. Now, within 10 days, Coe has accomplished the feat twice, Ovett once.
Since American Norman Taber established a clear-cut standard in 1915 by setting the professional and amateur records, the mile record never had been broken three times in one year. There were only three years in which it was broken twice.
During 10 days in August, Coe has been timed in 3:48.53, despite the disadvantage of competing at altitude in Zurich; Ovett has run 3:48.40, in a spur-of-the-moment attempt against a weak field at Koblenz, West Germany, and Coe has taken it to 3:47.33 in the aptly named Golden Mile at Brussels, the goal from season's start of all the top milers except Ovett, who chose to pass.
It took the 1980 Olympics to get rivals Coe and Ovett on the same track at the same time and the results were inconclusive. Ovett won Coe's 800-meter speciality and Coe gained revenge on Ovett in the 1,500. They never have faced each other at the classic mile distance, which Coe, who prefers shorter events, has run infrequently. Coe is the world record holder at 800 and 1,000 meters, Ovett at 1,500.
The only rivalry approaching theirs in track and field history was the competition between Hagg and Swedish compatriot Arne Andersson, who accounted for five world records during the early 1940s, when most of the world was at war. Three of those five races were head to head, Hagg lowering the record to 4:01.3 in 1945.
Track fans dreamed of a four-minute mile; Hagg and Andersson promised to go after it. Then they were ignominiously bounced from competition for accepting payment for services rendered.
With Hagg and Andersson banned, the four-minute barrier proved too tough, more so mentally than physically. It was nine years, the longest gap between record races, before Roger Bannister would use a low-key race on an out-of-the-way track at Oxford to break through in 1954.
Once one man broke the barrier, the world was at his heels. John Landy took off another 1 1/2 seconds six weeks later.
It took 39 years, from Taber to Bannister, for the record to be reduced by 13 seconds. Twenty-seven years later, Coe reduced it an additional 12-plus seconds.
With sports medicine and research continuing to make athletes stronger and better, times will get faster. A 3:45 mile could happen any day; 3:40 will be here before the end of the century; 3:30 will be accomplished while many of us are still around to discuss it.
How long Coe and Ovett will dominate is questionable. Coe, 24, and Ovett, 25, would seem to be approaching their peaks. But track and field is in the middle of a revolution, with open competition apparently near.
Running for money means running to win, as spectators at the ill-fated pro meets in the 1970s discovered while watching ho-hum, four-minute-plus tactical miles. Of course, it is already obvious that Coe, represented by Mark McCormack, is not running for his health. The London Daily Mail reported that a McCormack hireling had demanded more than $18,000 in appearance money before Coe would run in Brussels.
Perhaps a glimpse into the future will be provided in New York Sept. 26, if the Fifth Avenue Mile goes on despite IAAF disapproval. Running on the straightaway figures to chop considerable time off the norm, and Ovett has announced his intention to compete in that one.
While Coe and Ovett decline to run each other into the ground, neither is lacking competition. Slightly more than six years ago, nobody had ever run a 3:51.0 mile. On July 11 in Oslo, seven men bettered that time. The sub-3:50 club includes New Zealander John Walker, American Steve Scott, Kenyan Mike Boit and Spaniard Jose-Luis Gonzalez.
A few years ago, a poll of track experts rated Herb Elliott the greatest miler of all time. Elliott never lost a mile or 1,500-meter race from the time he entered serious training at age 16 until he retired at 22.
A similar poll today might have Coe at the top. But even Coe realizes the hazards created by so many record-breaking races.
"Sports crowds are getting more and more sophisticated all the time. People want style and entertainment and I think in athletics there is more and more clamor for world records," Coe told one magazine.
"I think the clutch of world records that British athletes have broken over the past few years has possibly done athletics a little bit of a disservice. The crowd expects it every time an athlete steps out onto the track. I think that unless they see a record broken of some description, then a lot of the crowd go home feeling they have been cheated."