Publish date:



Evelyn Ashford caused quite a sensation in her colorful, skintight racing suits, but then, the track-and-field year was crowded with sensations. Ashford lowered her own U.S. record in the 100 meters and won both the 100 and 200 meters at the World Cup in Rome. In August, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, the English middle-distance marvels, made an unprecedented assault on the most magical of all records, the mile. Coe also lowered the 800 record from 1:42.40 to 1:41.72. Carl Lewis, only 19, revived memories of his idol, Jesse Owens, by winning track and field events in three national championship meets. Edwin Moses and Renaldo Nehemiah continued their remarkable dominance of the hurdles. Thierry Vigneron of France became the first pole vaulter to clear 19 feet. Ben Plucknett shattered the world record in the discus by close to four feet (237'4"), but then had his own world shattered by being suspended for using steroids. All in all, 1981 was an extraordinary year and, like Ashford, it went past in a swift, bright blur.

The night before the Golden Mile in Brussels on Aug. 28, Coe received a call from his sister, Miranda, who was upset because his week-old mile record had just been broken by Ovett. "Look, the record is on a carousel right now," Coe told her. "I'll have a turn tomorrow." Coe grabbed the brass ring the next day. With Tom Byers pacing him and Mike Boit pushing from behind, Coe (near right) kicked, with 200 meters to go, and crossed the finish line in 3:47.33, disappearing into a crowd of officials and photographers. He had shaved more than a second off the mark that Ovett (adjacent to Coe) had set two days before. In a 10-day span, the two men had broken the record three times.

Vaulter Vigneron (opposite page, top left) also knows just how fleeting a record can be. On June 20 he cleared 19'1/4", but seven days later Vladimir Polyakov of the Soviet Union topped him by half an inch. The redoubtable Moses (opposite, top right) extended his unbeaten streak in the 400-meter hurdles to 71 races, and Nehemiah (opposite, bottom) lowered his 110-meter record to 12.93. James Robinson (below right) renewed his credentials as America's premier half-miler.

Plucknett (top left) set two world records in the discus, only to have them disallowed after failing to pass a drug test. Lewis performed his double double in the long jump (above) and the 100 meters (below left) at the NCAA and TAC championships.


Brussels sprouted the big record, but Coe got the carousel moving with a world-record 3:48.53 mile in Zurich on Aug. 19. Seven days later in Koblenz, West Germany, Ovett regained the mark with a 3:48.40. Coe's 3:47.33 two days later was achieved in only his third mile in the last three years—and he has set a record in each. He also improved his own world mark in the 800 with an astonishing 1:41.72 on June 10 in Florence, cutting a whopping .61 off the previous record.

The indoor mile record fell, as well, as Eamonn Coghlan lowered his own mark by two seconds to 3:50.6 on Feb. 20 in San Diego at the Jack in the Box Invitational mile—talk about fast food. Steve Scott erased Jim Ryun's last two American records in the mile and 1,500, both of which had stood for 14 years. Scott ran the mile in 3:49.68 and the 1,500 in 3:31.96; he also broke Rudy Chapa's U.S. record in the 3,000 with a time of 7:36.69. Henry Rono set a world record of 13:06.20 in the 5,000, surpassing his old mark by more than two seconds.

Not only did Lewis, a sophomore at the University of Houston, become the first since Jesse Owens to win events in both track and field at a national championship, but he also ran the fastest sea-level 100 meters in history (10.00) and had the longest non-altitude long jump ever (28'3½", which was second only to Bob Beamon's 29'2½"). A passel of U.S. records was set. Ashford reduced her time in the 100 meters from 10.97 to 10.90. Triple-jumper Willie Banks broke or tied the mark in his event five times, stretching it more than a foot beyond the old record to 57'7½". And Pam Spencer broke the women's high jump record twice, with 6'5½" being her best.

There were great records and great victories, but there was also a great shadow caused by the death on March 22 of James (Jumbo) Elliot, the Villanova track coach for more than 46 years. "There's really a loneliness and emptiness here today without Jumbo," said Coghlan, one of his former runners. Said Villanova's Sydney Maree, "We can still hear him, even though he's not with us."



Brian Oldfield, 36 but forever young, put the shot farther than anyone else in 1981: 72'3".