Here's a classic Said Aouita story, meaning that he has to tell it himself: "Once upon a time," Aouita begins, referring to an occasion three weeks earlier, "I was just looking at TV, and I heard that my time for 5,000 meters was only fifth fastest of the year." That was clearly unbearable, but was this not the world-record holder at 1,500 and 5,000 meters who was still recovering from two injuries, a spiking in Oslo in July and a recurrent upper-leg pain? Yes, yes, but these are trifles to an Aouita seized with the need to prove something.
"I had to choose between running in London and La Coru‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a," he says. What he meant was that he had contracted to run in London on Aug. 8, but the promoter of the meet in La Coru‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a, Spain, on Aug. 6 was an old friend. Aouita hopped into the Spanish race on short notice and ran a 5,000 in 13:00.86, only .46 of a second slower than his record. Then he had his agent, Enrico Dionisi, call the London promoter, former 10,000 world-record holder Dave Bedford, and tell him Aouita was canceling out.
"But why?" asked Bedford.
Dionisi said Aouita was injured. "But he can run a 13-minute 5,000," said Bedford.
"I was afraid to get more injured if I had to sprint the last 200 of a tactical race in London," said Aouita later. "But I'm going for the 3,000 record in Zurich."
Consider what Aouita does with a single, simple word. His use of injury frees him to run where his whim takes him, lets him demonstrate his courage in every race, excuses him if he misses a record and permits him to bewail his accursed fate. The perfect life.
The 3,000-meter record of 7:32.1, set by Henry Rono in 1978, has lasted because it's the equal of running a 4:02-per-mile pace for almost two miles. Last year Aouita missed by .84 in Brussels when his rabbits set out too cautiously. That wasn't about to happen in Zurich last Wednesday.
Carry Nelson of Canada and Han Kulker of the Netherlands led Aouita and Sydney Maree of the U.S. through the first 1,000 meters in a furious 2:27.34. That was a 3:57-mile pace, an impressive 6.6 seconds faster than Rono had run for his first kilometer. But Rono had started slowly and gone faster every lap.
By 2,000, Aouita was leading but was only two seconds ahead of record pace. "I don't know what happened to me," he would say later, unwilling to believe that the brutal early speed could have had any effect on him.
With 400 to go, the time was 6:37.1. Aouita needed a 55-second lap. It seemed impossible. His previous one had been 63, and he was swaying out from the rail on the turns—usually a sign of exhaustion. What's more, Maree was poised just behind, looking capable.
But with 300 remaining, Aouita took off. He shed Maree, accelerated again in the last turn with his weirdly rakish sprint stride and fought his way toward the tape. The crowd screamed him on. He crossed the line, then slowed amid disappointed groans, none louder than his own. His 7:32.54 had missed by .44. He made a serious attempt at pulling out fistfuls of his own hair.
"Every year in Zurich I lose a world record by fractions," he said. (He had missed Steve Cram's mile record of 3:46.32 by .60 last year.) "I hope the rabbits eat and rest well until Sunday in Cologne. I may try again there."
First, though, he had a mile to run in Berlin, site of his 1,500 record of 3:29.46 last year. And again he had rabbit problems. He wanted quarter- and half-mile splits of 56.0 and 1:54. Wild to please, Omar Khalifa of Sudan and Abdi Bile of Somalia gave him 54.0 and 1:51.1. By then he knew it was hopelessly fast, and he let them go far ahead, to die of oxygen debt as he would have done himself if he had stubbornly gone with them. He won in a creditable 3:50.33. "I won't promise a world record in Cologne," he snapped. "I'm not a robot."
No, indeed he isn't, but he sure makes you wonder. His 3,000 at Cologne, in 7:32.23, was faster than at Zurich, only .13 of a second off Rono's record. After sensible pacing, Aouita's time with a lap to go was 6:35.4. He needed 56.7 for the record, but could produce only a 56.83. Then, in a moment of genuine appreciation, he said, "I think that Rono did something special in the 3,000. It's not possible. I thought it would be easy, but it's not easy."
Aouita wasn't the only one recovering from ailments. There were sick and injured guys all over the track in Zurich. Sebastian Coe, convalescing from a flu bug that had knocked him out of an 800 and 1,500 confrontation with Steve Cram in the Commonwealth Games, ran a controlled 1,500, positioning himself to kick as late as possible. When he hit the front there were a scant 80 meters left.
Then here came Steve Scott. He, too, was unwell. "I threw up in London," he said, "and spent all day yesterday in bed. I ran mainly to clean out my system. I figured whatever happened, I had an excuse." He didn't need one, just a way through traffic. "I tried to box Coe on the backstretch, but he got out. I ran on the inside around the last turn, figuring the guy in front of me would drift out enough in the stretch for me to come up the inside." The guy was Spain's Jose Abascal, the Olympic bronze medalist, and he drifted nowhere, so Scott had to slow and move out to the third lane before he could kick. "With 30 to go, I thought I just might get up there."
Coe tightened, and Scott shot ahead to win by a sudden yard, 3:35.14 to 3:35.22. Coe, obviously shocked, finally allowed that the race was a step on the way back to full health, which he will need in a week, when he runs against Cram at the European championships.
Meanwhile, the oldest campaigner, or grandest, Edwin Moses, reigned on. He had won his 100th consecutive 400-meter-hurdle final since 1977 the previous Monday in Budapest, with 47.76. Then, when Andre Phillips, back from a stress fracture, ran 47.69 in Zurich, the meeting of the two hurdlers in Berlin gleamed with promise. But Phillips withdrew at the last hour saying he was too tired. Moses ran the year's fastest time, 47.53, but he had had hopes of nearing his 47.02 world record.
"They always say I duck them, but where are they at the height of the season?" said Moses. "I need the competition to go faster."
Carl Lewis showed up in Zurich to race his archrival, Ben Johnson of Canada, with a bum left knee. "Tendinitis," Lewis said. "This is a test." Nothing less than perfection would do against Johnson, who beat Lewis in May and again in Moscow in July. His 9.95 in the Goodwill Games was the fastest ever run without the aid of altitude.
In Zurich, Johnson exploded out of the blocks, reached top speed, then maintained it with his remarkable arm and shoulder strength. Lewis, in alarming contrast, took a few steps and almost had his knee buckle. "I went from first to last in 20 meters," he said. He got going well enough to reach third in 10.25, but that was two meters behind Johnson's 10.03.
"I'm going to see Dr. Stan James, the surgeon in Oregon," said Lewis. "That's it for this year."
Johnson has a few races left, but he will run them without any question as to his superiority. He's the world's fastest human for this year. It's settled.
Between near-record 3,000s, Aouita (331) went to Berlin and won the mile in 3:50.33.
Forced outside, Scott (193) surprised Coe (184) at the finish line of Zurich's 1,500.