If you stopped 100 people on the street and asked them what they thought America’s biggest disappointment in the 1984 Olympics was, three out of three would probably say Mary Decker.
Unless one of them was Steve Scott. He would vote for Steve Scott.
You may remember that before the Olympics, Scott was America’s premier miler, the nation’s best since Jim Ryun.
He was ranked No. 1 in this country nine years in a row. He held the American mile record of 3 minutes 47.69 seconds. His 3:31.96 in the 1,500 meters, the metric mile, was only a tick off the world record.
He looked like the United States’ best chance to win the Olympic 1,500 since Ryun succumbed to the altitude in Mexico in 1968. Scott had beaten the world record holder, Steve Ovett, in Europe in 1983. He had beaten the magnificent Brazilian, Joaquim Cruz, in the Pepsi meet at UCLA in May.
The reigning Olympic gold medal winner, Seb Coe, was coming off a glandular disorder that had severely interrupted his training. Ovett had respiratory problems. The other Great Brit, Steve Cram, had an ankle problem. Scott had beaten the Spaniard, Jose Abascal, every time they ran, and Abascal had no time faster than 3:38 for the year.
Plus, the Games were not only in Scott’s home country, they were in his hometown.
And that right there might be as good a clue as any as to what happened to Steve Scott.
If the 1984 Olympics had been held in Angkor Wat or the slopes of Kilimanjaro, Scott could conceivably have been America’s first metric mile gold medal winner in the Olympics since 1908.
No one knows what makes some people perform better in a semi-vacuum of their own making while others need to create distractions to operate at full efficiency. Some sportsmen--Ben Hogan, Steve Carlton, Paul Brown--seem to go into a creative funk, a torpor of concentration before competition. Others--Lee Trevino, Babe Ruth, Pete Rose--seem to need a more gregarious outlet.
When a coach or manager says “Relax” to some players, it sets off a whole string of jangling nerves, runaway imagination, unconscionable pressure. Another player might say, “Who me? Relax about what?” Writers have seen Joe Louis asleep on a rubbing table five minutes before a million-dollar fight.
Although Scott’s career could hardly be called rollicking up to the spring of 1984, neither was he an uptight, don’t-talk-to-me-now-I’m-concentrating type of competitor. Some great runners--sprinter Mel Patton, for instance--have been known to throw up before important meets, but Steve Scott has been known to eat pizza, nonchalantly.
Steve was not exactly down at the local pub banging on the table and calling out, “Play ‘Melancholy Baby’ one more time!” the night before a meet--but neither was he hiding under the blankets. A famous high jumper, Ernie Shelton, once used to keep a 7-foot bar in his room at home to remind him night and day of his ultimate goal--a goal he never reached.
Scott didn’t keep any pressure points around where he could see them when he woke up at night. But the Olympic Games began to intrude on his waking hours.
“Sports are supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself,” he was recalling the other day as he sat at breakfast. “I used to go out and have a few beers, and leave the track meet on the track. I was no party guy, but neither was I all choked up.”
Until they began to hang the banners and beat the drums and bring the world to Los Angeles in the summer of ’84. It suddenly occurred to Scott that this wasn’t just another July invitational in Zurich. This was something he was supposed to win. This wasn’t a track meet, it was a duty.
In the first indication that something was troubling America’s best miler, he lost to the relatively unknown Jim Spivey in the Olympic trials. That was not considered conclusive. Trials are just that, preliminaries. You make the team, not history. And Scott had lost by only a step. He was only being smart, not addled.
But, what startled longtime Steve Scott observers was what he did next. He didn’t exactly slip out of town in dark glasses and false beard or vanish into the trunk of a tree, but his behavior was uncharacteristic. He went into comparative seclusion. He began to work out with the hobgoblins of fear, not the figures of fun. His chariots were afire.
Some football coaches put their teams in monasteries the night before bowl games--and then see them get beat by teams that spend their nights on the Sunset Strip.
Steve Scott was not the monk type. He showed up at the Games so tightly wound, he was ticking. He ran smart, but taut, heats. He finished on the shoulder of Cruz in one, but he also drifted in behind Abascal in another as both finished ahead of Coe.
Then, the implosion happened. “I let it get to me.” he said. “I put all that pressure on myself. I didn’t panic. But I lost command of the race. I feared a slow pace and it built in my mind. I convinced myself the first lap was too slow.”
It wasn’t. It was just run by two unfamiliar figures, Kenya’s Joseph Cheshire and Sudan’s Omar Khalifa. The time was acceptable, 58.9.
But, Scott, to the horror of his knowledgeable fans, burst into the lead in the second lap, blistering off a 57.8 to take the lead. It was a pace calculated to kill off the opposition.
It killed off Scott.
He was run down by the medalists. Abascal, the bronze winner, swept past first, then Coe, the eventual gold winner, then Cram, the silver medalist.
“The whole world went by,” recalled Scott. “I had made a terrible mistake.”
He finished 10th. He was beaten by people who couldn’t warm him up.
So, Steve Scott did not end up sobbing in the infield. He did not run up on the heels of his closest competitor. He had simply picked the Olympic Games to run the worst race of his life.
He is back now, picking up the pieces. He hopes that Saturday’s Pepsi meet at UCLA’s Drake Stadium will be the start the long road to Seoul in 1988.
“It’s not impossible,” he said. “And it just might be my kind of race.”
It might also be just far enough from home.