When Steve Ovett set the World Cup 1500m record back in 1977 he did so with style in a classic middle-distance race. He tracked John Walker and Thomas Wessinghage before launching the blistering kick that was to become such a striking feature of the track-and-field circuit for the next four years, clocking 25.1sec for the final 200m and 11.8sec for the last 100m. It was the Brighton man's big breakthrough at global level, and it presaged a decade of British dominance in middle- distance running.
Some sniffed disapprovingly at the wave Ovett gave to his parents as he surged up the home straight in Dusseldorf's Rheinstadion that September night. It was nothing, however, to the shameful antics in Madrid's Estadio Comunidad on Friday night as Ovett waved goodbye to his 25-year-old record. Lesser middle-distance men have sacrificed themselves for more talented colleagues in international races before, but only when running for an individual cause in championship competitions. In performing as a pacemaker for Bernard Lagat, Seneca Lassiter made a mockery of the whole World Cup concept.
It was a staggering sight: Lassiter setting a near world-record tempo for two laps before applying the brakes and virtually jogging the remaining 700m, crossing the line ninth and last, more than 20 seconds behind the athlete in front of him, in 4min 05.82sec. In doing so – leaving Lagat to kick to victory in 3:31.20, 3.15sec inside Ovett's time – the 25-year-old from Fayetteville, Arkansas, dropped precious points for the United States, conceding them to other nations and continents. The World Cup is a team event.
It just so happens, though, that Lassiter and Lagat, a Kenyan running for the African team in Madrid, are training partners in Tuscon, Arizona – and that the individual prize on offer for first-placed athletes at the World Cup is $50,000. Lagat, the second-fastest 1500m runner in history behind Hicham El Guerrouj, the Moroccan in whose wake he has followed on the European circuit this summer, denied that any deal had been cut. "There is nothing financial involved," he said. "He is my friend."
Lassiter dismissed the suggestion too, though his version of events was at variance with Lagat's. "It's not like I got paid for pacing him," Lassiter said. "I just went for it and I wasn't able to hold on. I said I would take it out for the first 800m but I wanted to take it all. I just ran out of gas." According to Lagat, though, Lassiter had agreed to act as his rabbit.
"I wanted a fast race and Seneca said he was happy to pace me," the Olympic bronze medallist said. "We decided at warm-up. He said: 'Lagat, I want you to win. You have helped me out a lot all the time I am training with you. Whatever you want, I can help'. He went in front for the first two laps, ran really fast, and did a good job."
United States team officials and Lassiter's team-mates did not quite see it the same way. They were seething about a loss of points that could well have cost them an overnight lead in the two-day competition. Based on his best time this season, Lassiter was the fourth quickest in the race, and fourth place would have earned six points. Instead, he took just one point, leaving the US team four points behind Africa at the end of the first day.
USA Track and Field, the national governing body of the sport, issued a statement yesterday, saying: "We sincerely regret Seneca Lassiter's behaviour in last night's 1500m race. Such behaviour is grossly inappropriate in any national team competition, but especially this competition, and we apologise to the other teams, the local organising committee and the IAAF.
"USA Track and Field has spoken to Mr Lassiter and informed him that we will investigate fully his actions and will refer them to the national board of review for disciplinary action. Such action may include a written reprimand, discontinuation of financial benefits and other more severe penalties."
Lassiter also issued a statement of apology. "I would like to take the opportunity to apologise to all members of the US team and its coaches and all other World Cup teams for my actions. My intention was in no way to disrespect the team, the US or this competition. I made a mistake that I am greatly sorry for, which will never happen again. I want to clarify that there was no financial arrangement between Bernard Lagat and me. I am sorry to have misrepresented the US and my team. I hope that you can find it in your hearts to forgive me."
Lassiter is understood to have decided his tactic after finishing 10th in the Grand Prix final last weekend, telling a team-mate he felt unable to run a competitive 1500m. If that is the case, his attitude has changed since his profile in the US team handbook was printed. In it, he says his biggest weapon is his "desire to win" and that he gets upset with himself for losing. "I do get mad," he is quoted as saying. "I feel like I have a lot riding on my shoulders. Not just for me. I need to do something for my mom."
On Friday night, though, Lassiter hardly did himself proud for his mom or for his country. He also left one gentleman sitting in the main stand distinctly bemused. "What was that about?" Steve Ovett said.