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Steve Scott, the pleasant young middle-distance runner from Southern California, is as fond of the word "magical" as so many of his contemporaries are of "super." "There is nothing so magical about just winning," Scott was saying last week. "The magic is in breaking records and winning a gold medal in the Olympics." Well, that is all very easy for him to say. At 22, the former University of California at Irvine runner is this nation's fastest miler and is assuredly in the running for Olympic gold next year at Moscow. And, as if to support his argument, last Saturday at the Sunkist indoor meet in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, he both broke a record and failed to win. Magical?

His conqueror in L.A., the beguiling Irishman Eamonn Coghlan, is, in fact, an acknowledged master of legerdepied on the boards. He has been competing indoors for seven years and has not been beaten since he finished third to Wilson Waigwa two years ago at San Diego. His feet were quicker than the eye again on Saturday as he passed Scott with a lap and a half to go and blazed home a winner in the meet-and arena-record time of 3:56.1. Scott, finishing second, also bettered both records with his 3:56.7; as did Dr. Thomas Wessinghage of Mainz, West Germany with his 3:57.9; Antti Loikkanen, the newest "Flying Finn." with his 3:58.2; and Steve Lacy of the University of Wisconsin with his 3:58.8. Thus, only three of the eight entrants failed to better four minutes, and one of those, UC Irvine sophomore Larry Greer, had no intention of doing so.

Greer was the rabbit in a calculated record assault. "To break a record," said Scott, "you have to get guys together who are willing to run hard and not care who the winner is." But Scott did want to win this one, and thereby break a personal record of never having won a race indoors. After Greer had led his betters to a swift 1:58.6 half mile, he stepped off the track and surrendered the lead to his old teammate. Scott held it for the next 640 yards, despite the ominous presence at his shoulder of Coghlan. The slender Celt does seem to possess occult powers in determining when to take charge of a race. "I have no set plan," he says. "I've just got to feel when it's right. I never really make my move at the same time, only when I get my inspiration."

In the open air, where he placed fourth in the Olympic 1,500 meters at Montreal. Coghlan's personal best for the mile is a splendid 3:53.3. But Wessinghage has run 3:52.5, and Scott 3:52.9. It is inside a building that the 5'11", 140-lb. Irishman has the high sign on them all. "I really can't explain it," Coghlan says. "Running indoors turns me on somehow. I do have good acceleration, perhaps because of my size. And if I'm in the lead with a lap and a half to go, I feel nobody can go by me. I enjoy the tight bends indoors, and I like the sound of the crowd right on top of you."

Coghlan will run the 3,000 meters at the San Francisco Examiner Games this Friday night, but he has a sentimental attachment to the shorter race. "Four minutes makes the mile something special. The ordinary man on the street knows that a four-minute mile means moving fast."

A Dubliner, the 26-year-old Coghlan is employed by the Irish Tourist Board as a sort of traveling salesman of his homeland, with particular responsibility for attracting American college students to study in Ireland, although Coghlan himself is a Villanova graduate. "I started running for the fun of it and I've gotten travel, an education and a job out of it." he says. "And we [milers] have become good friends as well as good rivals. We appreciate and respect one another. One of the nice things about track and field is that it's like a fraternity."

As much as he appreciates and respects Brother Coghlan, Scott would prefer to have some of that old green magic rub off on him sometime soon. "I'll get him one of these days," he says, smiling agreeably. But he may have to step outside to do it.