The itinerary of the top track and field athletes of the world used to be simple on the first weekend of February every year: Go to the Millrose Games Friday night, then take the rest of the weekend off, or head to Dallas for a meet there.

Four years ago, plans began to change. Now the athletes compete on Friday and have something to do on Sunday too. The air shuttles between LaGuardia and National airports become crowded by Saturday afternoon. Everyone seems to head south.

Fairfax may be just part of the suburban Washington, D.C., sprawl to most of the world, but to the track world, it is the home of one of the premier meets of the dwindling U.S. indoor track season.

While two of the 12 meets on the North American Grand Prix circuit were canceled this year and others have faced poor ticket sales and sketchy fields, the Mobil 1 Invitational, which will begin today at 11:30 a.m. at the George Mason University Recreation Sports Complex Fieldhouse, has thrived and prospered.

"It's been kind of an amazing thing," said meet director John Cook. "We've just exploded this thing into a real meet."

George Mason's track and field coach, he sounds surprised by his own success. He and his staff, with Mobil Corp. picking up the tab, turned an elite college meet into a magnet for some of the best athletes in the world.

Paul Ereng, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meters, didn't go to the Millrose Games, but is driving in from the University of Virginia to compete here.

Why didn't he go to Millrose? He said he wasn't invited.

"If somebody doesn't want me to come to his home, I have no choice; I don't go," he said. "To me, the Millrose Games are a tradition, but they are kind of dying out. Let's see if they revive it in the next few years. Meanwhile, the Mobil 1 meet is gaining in prestige."

He is not the only top-notch performer missing from the Millrose Games who will come to Mobil 1. Michael Johnson -- the first man ever to rank No. 1 in the world in the 200 and 400 meters, which he did in 1990 -- will run the 400 at George Mason.

Johnson, who did not run in New York Friday, set the U.S. record in the 200 last weekend in France in 20.55 seconds, but is running the 400 here because there is no men's 200.

He will compete against world indoor champion and world indoor record holder Thomas Schonlebe of Germany in their only indoor matchup.

Superstars Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell are not here because they are not competing on the indoor circuit; Ben Johnson chose not to continue his comeback here, but to travel abroad instead, where he can make much more money.

One of the few stars Cook missed is Millrose Games mile champion Noureddine Morceli, an Algerian ranked No. 1 in the 1,500 last year. Morceli ran the mile in 3 minutes 53.50 seconds Friday, the second-fastest ever at Millrose.

Cook made a last-minute pitch to Morceli yesterday, but couldn't persuade him to change his plans.

In spite of that disappointment, Cook has turned the Mobil 1 into a shining example of what indoor track and field can be. He chastised those meet promoters who "try to gimmick" a meet by placing one top athlete in a race with a bunch of no-names.

"People, after a while, realize it," he said. "They see one good guy and everyone else jogging. One guy wins it and the others follow like little sheep. If you don't put emphasis into deep fields, I believe you're cheating."

He does just the opposite, forcing Olympic champions to run a semifinal heat if necessary to pare down his field for the final.

"I really do overload it," he said. "We put anybody who's heavy out there and it gets to be a banger. If you don't put in the money to get the best athletes, you're in for a short show."

Athletes flock to the Mobil 1 meet at least in part because of the facility. George Mason has a fast, 200-meter, flat track; the Millrose Games are run on a banked, creeking, wooden track. Eleven times around is a mile at Millrose; just 7 1/2 at Mobil 1.

"I'm 6 feet 2 and the Millrose track isn't suited to me," said Ereng, a Kenyan who is the world indoor champion and world indoor record-holder. "Eleven laps to the mile is like running inside and chasing little boys inside a room. You know your performance will not be anything great. But, with a 200-meter track, people know, it's a standard. A 200-meter track is the same in Iran, Iraq or the United States."

There's reason to believe at least one of the field events, the men's high jump, will produce better results today in Fairfax than it did Friday in New York.

Jumping from the boards, U.S. record holder Hollis Conway defeated world-record holder {indoors and out} Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, 7 feet 5 inches to 7-3. Sotomayor said later he was not happy with that performance.

"Millrose is not a great place to jump," Cook said. "This is the real thing. The boards can be slow. Our rubberized surface is like jumping outdoors."


Cook said about 1,000 tickets are still available for the meet. Capacity at the sports complex is 5,000, but, even if walk-up sales are brisk, no one will be turned away, Cook said.

"If I have to give up my seat, we will make room," he said.

Germany's Ellen Kiesling is a late addition to the women's 800, replacing countrywoman Birte Bruhns, who was injured Friday night. Kiesling, ranked fifth in the world last year, will meet, among others, Christine Wachtel of Germany, the Millrose winner.