Just eight weeks ago middle-distance runner Doina Melinte sat riveted before a television set in her hometown of Bac‚àÜí‚àö√¢u, Romania. In Bucharest, 150 miles to the south, bloody battles were raging in the streets, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were being executed and an interim government promising freedom was taking power. The only world Melinte had ever known had been turned savagely on its head.
"I had to cry," she recalls. "You have to understand the emotion and the stress. I had emotions not for my own family but for those who were at the front of the fighting."
There was no fighting in Bac‚àÜí‚àö√¢u. The bloodshed touched neither Melinte nor her family. But because Melinte was the 1984 Olympic gold medalist at 800 meters, she remains one of Romania's most revered citizens. During the revolution she was made an honorary member of the National Salvation Front, the interim ruling committee. And when she addressed 30,000 of her countrymen at a rally in a Bac‚àÜí‚àö√¢u stadium recently, tears again filled her eyes. "I told them I was happy about the events taking place," she says. "I told them I would use sports to carry the message abroad."
Melinte could not have chosen a more opportune time to do so. Purists might carp at their methods, but the folks behind last Friday night's Vitalis/Meadowlands Invitational grasped the need for imaginative marketing. To try to ensure the success of the meet, which almost died last year for lack of a sponsor, they offered a field of world-class runners not only a slew of rabbits to chase but also some pretty hefty carrots: bonuses of $50,000 for a world record in the men's 600-yard run and of $100,000 in both the men's and women's miles.
The ploy worked. During an interview session after the women's 3,000 meters, in which she had finished second, PattiSue Plumer, 27, of the U.S. turned to watch the women's mile on a television monitor. She saw the 33-year-old Melinte follow her rabbit, Canada's Brit Lind-Petersen, through the half in 2:08.5. "She might get it," said Plumer. "She's an amazing runner. You look at her, and you think, I can never retire."
When Lind-Petersen dropped out shortly after the halfway point, Melinte was alone. As she reached the gun lap, the crowd rose, urging her on. She passed the 1,500-meter mark in 4:00.27, breaking by .53 Mary Slaney's 10-year-old world record for that distance. Powering majestically down the backstretch, Melinte burst through the tape and straight into meet director Ray Lumpp's arms. She sneaked a look over his left shoulder. The clock said 4:15.52.
That time turned out to be wrong, but not so wrong as to be a cruel joke. Officially, Melinte had run 4:17.13, 1.73 seconds better than her own world indoor record, which she had set at the same meet two years earlier, and 13.59 seconds ahead of second-place Alisa Harvey of the U.S.
Melinte claimed not to know how she would spend her $100,000 bonus, but she was adamant about one thing. "I'll keep it in this country and not transfer it to Romania," she said.
The men's mile was perhaps the most eagerly awaited race of the night. Fresh from a devastating 1,500 win at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, Peter Elliott of England had asked for a rabbit to take him through splits of 55 seconds at the quarter and 1:50 at the half. "I don't have that kind of animal," said Lumpp. Indeed, no one had ever gone out that fast, even in an outdoor mile.
Lumpp provided Elliott with national indoor 800 champion Ray Brown, who was fast enough to do a 1:50 half but smart enough to know better. Brown was 1:53 at the 880 mark, sensible yet still 2.9 seconds faster than Eamonn Coghlan had been at that point seven years ago when he set the world indoor record of 3:49.78. After Brown left the track, the record was still within reach for Elliott, who passed the three-quarter mark in 2:53.
Trouble was, Elliott was showing signs of strain. His arms were tight, and on the penultimate turn, he slipped down into the infield. He finally reached the finish in 3:52.02, 6.42 ahead of Ireland's Marcus O'Sullivan.
Afterward, Elliott pointed out that he hadn't run on the boards in two years. A tuneup might have been helpful. Then he added with a shrug, "What's money, anyway?"
Melinte shaved 1.73 seconds off her 1988 world record.