For a man who has already accomplished more than most middle-distance runners do in a lifetime, it may seem odd to talk about Sebastian Coe's continued potential. But it's there; not tangible of course, but real enough so that people still wonder where it might eventually lead.
The Olympic 1,500-meter champion as well as the current world record holder in both the 800 and the 1,000, Coe has the stride and endurance of a racehorse. And along with his father, Peter, who insists on pushing him as his coach, Sebastian continues to seek new horizons.
"My father says that you might not know the accepted lore of athletes, but if you know people and can sense the individual's needs, it can make all the difference," Coe once told a national magazine. Anyway, their closeness goes beyond most father-son relationships, because of the athletic connection.
Speed, the right kind of speed used at the right time, is an obsession with Coe. The idea is to open up at the precise moment under conditions that have been simulated in practice -- not exactly, of course, but close enough to prove beneficial.
Coe's running style is neat and quick, with the arms carried away from the body. One does not have to look for his power to see it; the power is just there, along with the determination and stamina. Sebastian is perhaps 5 ft., 10 in. and 130 pounds but somehow looks taller. Although his outward appearance before a race is one of complete calm, he claims there is always a storm brewing inside him. But everything he does is so disciplined, so well thought out, that mechanical mistakes are practically eliminated.
Most great runners compete within themselves. They hear and feel everything that is happening inside their bodies in a way that can't be described in words. But just as a mentronome controls the musician when he cannot control himself, they need to develop this kind of feel to establish the pace they need.
At the moment, Coe is pointing toward the Golden Mile of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, scheduled for Aug. 28 in Brussels. The race did lose some of its luster the other day with the withdrawal of his British countryman and arch rival Steve Ovett, the world record holder for both the mile and 1,500 meters, but it still promises to be quite a race, with an outstanding international field.
Steve Scott of the United States and Sydney Maree, the great South African runner who has now settled in this country, are expected to compete, as are top milers from other nations -- both because of the stature of this race itself and the fact that it comes at just the right time to get a final tuneup for the World Cup meet in Rome Sep. 4-6. Thus, even with Ovett not on hand, his world mark of 3:48.8 could be in jeopardy if the weather is right.
Still, it's a disappointment, for this was to have been a rare confrontation between two great athletes who have avoided each other during most of their careers, and actually haven't competed stride for stride since the 1980 Moscow Olympics. That meeting was something of a standoff, with Ovett winning the 800 and Coe coming back to take the 1,500.
Coe, who holds a degree in economics and economics history from Loughborough University in England, made an unsuccessful assault on Ovett's current 1,500 -meter world record of 3:31.36 at a meet earlier this month in Stockholm.
American half-miler James Robinson played the "rabbit" for Coe, Scott, Eamonn coghlan, and Tom Byers, taking them through the first lap in 52:43, with a time of 1:49.18 for 800 meters.
It was eye-compelling, but just a little too fast to create the proper conditions for headlines. Instead, Coe beat his rivals with a time of 3:31.95 (only 0.59 of a second off Ovett's record) but perhaps a bit disappointing in his own mind.
Coe told reporters: "You have very few performances like this in your life, and this one was wasted. Under different conditions, there might have been a record."
When it comes to training, there are probably no harder-working milers than Sebastian, who agrees with his father that there is no such thing as too much practice, provided it is properly monitored.
Someone mailed me a clipping several years ago in which Bob Timmons, who coached Jim Ryun, defended his severe training methods. I don't even know what publication it was from, but this is how Timmons was quoted:
"Yes, I've heard that I'm working Jim too hard. But, as coaches, I think what we all want is for each boy to achieve his maximum potential. That's our job. And it seems unfair that if a boy is highly talented, you should have to apologize because you've done this.
"You wind up apologizing for the quality of his performance, and I find this a little hard to do. It's like some kids will say: 'Why shouldn't so and so make straight A's; he studies every night!' Or they's say: 'Why shouldn't he be a good piano player; he practices four hours a day!' That's absurd."
If you're a track fan, you have to hope that one of the TV networks will be in Brussels Aug. 28 to get the Golden Mile on tape.