It is Oct. 1, 1988, a clear day in Seoul, Korea. The electric crackling in the air is from the Olympics crowd, not the elements. Waiting for the starter’s gun are the top middle-distance runners in the world. The race is the 1,500-meter, the metric mile. And for added excitement, an American is expected by many to win the gold medal.
Steve Scott, a product of UC Irvine, is the holder of the American mile record and has run just an eyelash short of the world record. Many consider him the top middle-distance man in the world.
Scott is tall, slim and blond, a movie-depiction Californian. Unlike some athletes, he is friendly and unpretentious, as though no one told him he is world-class.
He is the hottest runner in the event, and he knows millions of his countrymen are counting on him to do what no American has done for 80 years — win.
The field contains the best in the world. In particular, he is challenged by two Brits, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott, and a Kenyan, Peter Rono. He isn’t too concerned about Rono, who hasn’t won a major race all year and whom he beat the day before in a semifinal.
There is added pressure on Scott because he disappointed in the ’84 Olympics, and at age 32, he knows this will be his last chance at gold.
He is tired, having run qualifying races two days straight. That reminds him his body is no longer at the runner’s peak of 27, and he’s nearing the end of his career.
A world-class race is a lot more than just running fast. It’s surprisingly physical. Elbows, shoulders and spikes can throw a runner off-stride and cost half-seconds, eye-blink time that at the finish line can separate winner from loser.
The race is also strategic, requiring a runner to pace himself according to his strength. Some runners, like Rono, go into the lead early and push hard, trying to exhaust faster opponents. As often as not, they end up exhausting themselves and fade as others pass.
Scott’s plan is to hang back and then turn it on toward the end and rely on his kick, his closing spurt. You might call it overdrive or afterburner.
The gun sounds, and the nervous glancing around at the other runners ends, and all the butterflies flutter away. The focus sharpens and the world is telescoped onto the track ahead. What is heard is the surround-sound of pounding spikes and rasping breath.
After three laps, it’s just the way Scott wants it. He’s fifth, about 5 meters from the leader, Rono, but he doesn’t fear him. It’s the Brits, Cram and Elliott, whom he thinks he must beat.
Scott has held back, but now it’s his time: the last lap. Coming out of the first turn, 300 meters from the finish, is where he begins his kick. It’s a blend of speed and guts, of being able to withstand lungs near bursting and burning muscles begging for rest.
Scott’s plan is to catch those ahead by the time he enters the final straightaway, then “kill” them on the drive to the finish. It almost always works.
Like any top athlete, he knows his body like an Indy driver knows his car, from the gurgle of the engine to the pressure in the tires.
Scott accelerates, and in the stands, people can see it, because they expect it. However, the others also speed up, and he’s not “pulling them in,” which is what runners call gaining ground — and what he expects to be doing.
An athlete in the heat of the contest, as Scott is in, doesn’t actually “think” in the usual way. If normal thought is a pool of water, Scott’s head had turned to steam. All he knows is that his race isn’t working. Maybe it’s the draining effect of three races in three days that taps his “old man’s” body. Maybe it’s his biorhythms that are out of sync, of which people normally say, “It just isn’t my day.” It’s what happens when your golf shots end up in bunkers and you four-putt every green.
He’s running about 15 miles per hour, faster than the weekend athlete could run 100 feet. The four in front have a lead of only about 5 meters. But those are meters they won’t willingly surrender. His lungs are on fire and his legs are lead, begging him to stop. At this point, if he admitted he were beaten, he would reflexively start to slow down. So, he pushes reality away and continues trying to “reel in” the leaders.
However, at about 50 meters, he knows it’s hopeless. He’s not going to catch them. He strains the final few seconds only for his pride. He will not be the gold medal winner millions of Americans hoped for and expected.
Scott finishes one second behind the winner, Rono, and three others. He’s one second behind a gold medal that he will never get to cherish; instead, he stands anonymously in the crowd and watches three rivals bow their heads to receive the medals denied him.
After the race, he has to repeat all the clichés that good sportsmanship expects, and cannot say what he thinks, because it would sound like an excuse. Scott believes being forced to run three hard races in three days punished him more than the younger runners. But he can’t say that. All he can do is smile, mouth some inane cliché and say he did his best, then wait for the criticism.
Commentators do not say that for a 32-year-old to finish two strides behind the Olympic winner in the 1500 was incredible in itself. And he certainly can’t say that. And unlike the other runners, he knows this is his last chance. In four years he will be 36, an old man in track terms.
Sure enough, the endorsements and fees that were his income start to dry up, and in a couple of years, they’re all gone, and a couple of years later, he also is gone from competitive track.
Upon retirement, he will have run 136 one-mile races under four minutes, more than any man in history. He will have held the American mile record for 26 years, and come within a shallow breath of the world record.
However, on this Olympic day, he knows he cannot run fast enough to avoid the dreaded words some sports writers will label him with — choker and loser.
Packing up his running gear and his disappointment and heading to the airport in Seoul, he knows it will be a long trip home.
On Tuesday: Part II — Steve Scott discovers another way to win.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
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