Alberto Juantorena came as something of a shock to the normally sedate Moscow. As he entered, diners in all parts of the Havana restaurant broke into applause. Within seconds he was engulfed by waiters, who shook his hand and clapped him on the back. Next he was swept into the kitchen, where he exchanged abrazos with every last potato peeler. Finally permitted to sit down to dinner, Juantorena was gawked at and clucked over the rest of the evening.
"The Cuban people are warm and friendly and I'm glad they enjoy my presence," Juantorena said the next morning, reflecting on the impact of his night on the town. Then he frowned. "Of course, sometimes I wish they enjoyed it a little less. Please do not misunderstand. It's just that my main purpose last night, my goal, was simply to have dinner."
The last time Alberto Juantorena could dine out in Cuba without causing a sensation—or, indeed, could stroll along a palm-lined boulevard without being noticed—was back before the 1976 Olympics. Until that time he was admired by his countrymen as a very good 400-meter runner—but that was the extent of it. Then, at Montreal, he became the first in Olympic history to win both the 400 and 800 meters. Counting heats in these events and the 4x400 relay, this involved nine races in as many days, and Juantorena pulled it off in awesome fashion. He is 6'3" and 185 pounds, and he runs with long, thundering strides. Eschewing strategy and tactics, he just went out and ran, first winning the 800 in 1:43.5, a world record, and then the 400 in 44.26, the fastest clocking ever at sea level. In both races he flicked off challengers like flies.
It takes endurance to excel in the 800 and speed to win the 400, and Juantorena's protean achievement earned him an international stature enjoyed among current Cuban athletes only by heavyweight boxer Teófilo Stevenson. Tass, UPI and Reuters, among others, lavished sports-man-of-the-year awards on him, and UCLA Track Coach Jim Bush called his 400-800 double "the greatest feat in Olympic history." An awed John Walker, New Zealand's gold medalist in the 1,500 meters, lauded the Cuban as "the prototype of the athlete of tomorrow," making him sound like some sort of sci-fi creation. Now 25 and plotting new conquests for the 1980 Olympics, Juantorena was as formidable as ever as the 1977 season warmed up. On an early-summer European tour, he won 13 of 13 races, with the fastest times in the year up to then in both the 400 (44.8) and 800 (1:43.7).
August 28, 1977
Nothing underscores the change in Juantorena's circumstances more dramatically than the adulation he now receives from the Cuban people, which is the phenomenon he was discussing on the morning after his Dolly Levi-like entrance at the Moscow. The conversation took place at his blue stucco house on Avenida G, a bustling boulevard in Havana's Vedado district, a residential neighborhood popular with wealthy Americans before the revolution. It is a sturdy old house, grilled and balustraded and shaded by spreading laurels and almond trees. Inside the arched doorway is a high-ceilinged sala, simply furnished and dominated by the inevitable photo of Che Guevara.
Juantorena was wearing jeans, a yellow T shirt and blue running shoes. Ramrod straight, with a sloping forehead and strong chin beneath a steel-wool Afro, he seemed at first impression relaxed, even serene. Then, however, he sat down on a rocking chair on the porch. In his 1958 novel Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene wrote of two gentlemen languidly rocking on a patio and "making little currents of air." That was in the Cuba of convent schools and crisp tropical suits. This is a different Cuba and Alberto Juantorena rocked furiously. And when he momentarily ceased rocking, he tapped his feet energetically. A man of motion.
Juantorena spoke of a three-week trip he was to undertake the next day. It would begin with the Central American Games in Mexico. Next would come the World University Games in Sofia, Bulgaria. Then, after returning briefly to Cuba, he would compete in early September in track and field's first World Cup, in D√ºsseldorf, West Germany. Wherever he went, he well realized, he would be the subject of considerable attention.
"It was the same thing in Europe this summer—just terrible," he said. "Reporters were after me every minute. I had no privacy. I got fed up." He smiled wanly and—it seemed—apologetically. "Of course, as last night demonstrated, my private life is finished in Cuba, too. Sometimes you want to go out in the streets, go unrecognized and just have fun."
His desire for privacy, Juantorena went on, was one reason he had arranged earlier that same morning to move his family into a new house two blocks away. The house in which he now lived—and in which he was now rocking so lustily—belonged to his father-in-law. Pedro Cardona, an official in the sugarcane cutters syndicate. Juantorena moved in four years ago when he married the second of Cardona's three daughters. Today the four-bedroom dwelling is home to Alberto and Yria Juantorena and their two children as well as to the Cardonas and their unmarried daughters—eight people in all.
"When a man has a family, he naturally wants his own place," Juantorena said, rocking busily on. "My new house is big and it is on a quieter street."
As Juantorena chatted, his 3-year-old daughter Irita played at his feet. Meanwhile, his wife could be seen through the open door giving a bottle to the couple's one-month-old son Alberto. Juantorena sometimes takes Irita along to workouts, explaining melodramatically, "She inspires me to run faster." He no doubt will start taking young Alberto to workouts, too. He was in Europe when the boy was born and he learned of the happy event by cablegram as the Cuban track men were passing through London's Heathrow Airport. He shouted the news and his teammates cheered. A few days later, in Budapest, the mail brought a tape recording of the newborn infant crying. When the proud papa played the tape over and over at full volume, his teammates no longer cheered. Juantorena shrugged and said grandly, "My son is an inspiration to me." Which he has also said, variously, about his wife, his parents, his coaches, Fidel Castro, the revolution and, well, just about everything and everybody.
As though the house on Avenida G were not crowded enough, an unending stream of friends, neighbors and relatives flowed by as Juantorena rocked and talked. Also on hand was Alfredo Casa√±a, an official in Cuba's National Sports Institute and a friend of Juantorena's. Casa√±a, who lived for a number of years in Montgomery, Ala., was serving as interpreter, but Juantorena sometimes bypassed him and spoke English, which he has been studying on his own for five years. At one point Juantorena went into the house, returning with a worn copy of First Things First. "This is the book I use," he said. Then he shot Casa√±a a mock-serious accusing glance. "He promised to help me. I've been waiting for two years."
Casa√±a was sheepish. "I've been pretty busy," he said.
Besides boning up on el ingles, Juantorena studies economics at the University of Havana while Yria, a former member of Cuba's national gymnastics team, is training to teach physical education. Earlier, while Juantorena and his wife were away on an errand, Yria's mother had spoken of the importance she attaches to the couple's education. A pleasant, broad-faced woman, Esther Marchiran de Cardona is sufficiently old-fashioned to have sent her eldest daughter, Roxann, along as chaperone when Yria and Alberto began dating ("She wasn't along on all our dates," Alberto hastens to point out) and she admits that she tried to discourage them from marrying.
"Alberto was 20 and Yria 18," she said. "I asked them, 'Why so fast?' Only when they promised to finish their schooling did I consent." The Juantorenas were wed in the Palace of Matrimony, a converted casino now used for assembly-line civil ceremonies. "After the wedding we partied here at the house until three in the morning," the mother went on. "There was much rum to drink and guests swimming about everywhere, even in the streets. And that was before Alberto became a star."
By Cuban standards Juantorena is clearly a privileged personage. A perennial housing shortage forces many Cubans to live in crowded conditions—indeed, eight people in a four-bedroom house is not at all excessive—and Casa√±a conceded that Juantorena's Olympic successes helped cut the red tape necessary to get his new house. "Alberto is a national hero who has made outside contributions," Casa√±a said. "He plays host to visitors from abroad like yourselves. He deserves some privacy. It is only right that he have a nice house."
The new house is not Juantorena's only perk. Most automobiles in Cuba are pre-Kaline Detroit but Juantorena drives a new Russian-made Lada 150. The tomato-red Lada is equipped with a stereo tape deck and has a tiny stuffed bear, a souvenir Juantorena picked up in East Berlin, dangling from the rearview mirror. At the wheel of the Lada later that day, Juantorena said proudly. "I get 35 kilometers [21 miles] to the gallon." He volunteered that "only people like architects, doctors and engineers" had the right to buy such a car, adding abruptly. "Ah, but we have more important things to talk about than cars." He was on the outskirts of Havana, driving past low-slung, socialist-modern dormitories. "For athletes," he said. "They were built by brigades of volunteer workers." He pointed to a four-story building. "For elementary-school teachers. On the day it opened, Fidel came."
Fidel is Cuba's màximo líder. He is also the proud possessor of an Olympic gold medal for the 800 meters, which Juantorena personally presented to him after Montreal, keeping the gold medal in the 400 for himself. A member of the elite Young Communist League, Juantorena says earnestly, "It is necessary to think of the revolution as having created everything, including our victories in sports. The revolution created the necessary material conditions, health care and facilities. I am a product of the revolution."
Juantorena was born and raised in Santiago de Cuba, a busy seaport of 350,000 near the island's easternmost tip. It is the capital of old Oriente Province, whose inhabitants, like Texans, pride themselves on turning out the prettiest women and the best athletes. Oriente can also claim credit for nurturing the revolution, its steaming mountains having been the staging ground for the Castro-led guerrillas who on Jan. 1, 1959 ousted Fulgencio Batista from power. Alberto Juantorena, the second of three children of a construction worker, says that his parents were "sympathetic" to the rebels and that two cousins fought at Fidel's side in the mountains. "There was a garrison in front of our house and I remember the rebels taking it over when the country was liberated," says Juantorena, who was seven at the time. "People were shouting in the streets. It was a happy day."
According to Caridad Juantorena, Alberto's younger sister, he moved fast even at an early age. "He was always on the go," she relates. "Our mother would say, 'Now Alberto, don't forget that errand.' And he would say, 'It's done, Mother.' " As a teen-ager Juantorena served in the army and cut sugarcane during three annual harvests. His sport in those days was basketball and he eventually started at forward on the provincial team. By all accounts, he was no Ricardo Barry. Aside from being aggressive under the boards, his biggest asset was that he was fast as blazes getting up and down the court. In early 1971, Cuba's sporting powers persuaded the 19-year-old Juantorena that his future lay in track.
He became a 400-meter specialist and in the 1972 Olympics just missed one of the eight places in the finals by running fifth in his semifinal heat. In late 1974 and again in early 1975 he underwent surgery on his left foot for tendon and arch problems. Only his Cuban teammates fully appreciated the achievement when, less than five months after being in a full leg cast, he finished second to Ronnie Ray of the U.S. at the 1975 Pan-American Games. The other Cubans nicknamed the powerful Juantorena el caballo (the horse) and Eddy Gutierrez James, Cuba's No. 2 man in the 400, realized he was going to remain No. 2. "Like most 400 runners I go at top speed the first 350 meters and then struggle," James says. "Alberto was different. He didn't seem to tire those last 50 meters."
Juantorena's ability to sustain speed also impressed Zygmunt Zabierzowski, his Polish coach, who introduced him to a bit of distance work in late 1975. Juantorena recalls, "I wondered what was going on. When he told me he was thinking about the 800, I got violent. I thought he was crazy. With the 800 scheduled first in the Olympics, I was afraid I'd wear myself out and ruin my chances in the 400, too." With his training times rapidly improving, however, Juantorena warmed to the idea of trying the 800. Even so, the decision to go for the double was not made until two weeks before the Games.
The way trackside observers had it figured at Montreal, Juantorena's only realistic strategy in the 800 would be to lay back, pray that the front-runners would misjudge the pace and then use his quarter-miler's speed to outkick them. Instead, displaying supreme confidence and a chilling sense of pace, he surged ahead at 600 meters and stayed there, amazingly maintaining his long sprinter's stride all the way. "I thought Rick Wohlhuter would catch him," says UCLA's Bush, referring to the American who would settle for the bronze behind the late Ivo Van Damme of Belgium. "This man just kept going and going and going." At the postrace press conference, el caballo showed off his English. "I don't like run in the back," he said.
The question remained whether the victory had taken too much out of Juantorena for the 400. The answer came when he was on Fred Newhouse's shoulder at 300 meters, then pounded ahead to win by a couple of widening steps. On the alltime list, his 44.26 ranks behind only Lee Evans' 43.86 and Larry James' 43.97, both times achieved in Mexico City's rarefied air in the 1968 Games. Americans had last lost an Olympic 400 at Helsinki in 1952 and Juantorena allows that it was a "very great satisfaction" to end their supremacy—but only, he quickly adds, "from a healthy sports point of view."
Juantorena's Montreal performance was tarnished by the absence of Kenya's 800-meter star Mike Boit, who did not compete because of the African boycott. Frustratingly, the two have not run against each other to this day. They did, however, engage in a rather curious minuet in late June at a two-day meet in London, where Boit showed up with the avowed intention of running the 1,500, while Juantorena was entered in the 400 and 800. After Juantorena won the 400 on the first day, Boit suddenly announced that he would compete in the 800 the next day, scratching from the 1,500. When Cuban coaches angrily threatened to withdraw their man, flustered meet officials decided to stage two 800s. And so, the world's two best 800-meter men ran in London that day and both won: Boit in 1:45.68, Juantorena in 1:45.51.
It was a ludicrous situation and Boit later admitted that the reason he initially declared out of the 800 was to lure Juantorena into it. "I tried to trick him—but no luck," the Kenyan said. "He refused to run against me. I can beat him and that's why he's dodging me."
This charge distresses Jorge Cumber-batch, a normally good-humored little fellow who assumed the job of coaching Juantorena after Zabierzowski returned to Poland last January. Cumberbatch, who was Cuba's premier quarter-miler a decade ago, was on hand for Juantorena's last afternoon workout before the trip to Mexico. The session took place in the lush surroundings of Havana's Rover Club, a hilly nine-hole golf course founded by British residents before the Castro takeover. The club now attracts only a smattering of foreign diplomats, which means that Juantorena can run on its sloping fairways without much worry of getting beaned by golf balls.
Juantorena's wife and daughter came with him to the golf course. "It's a nice place for Irita to run," said Yria, who then went off in pursuit of her romping child. Her husband loped off in a different direction. He was shirtless and wore his shorts pulled high; long-legged as he is, he thus seemed even more so. He also wore, as always, calf-high socks. Juantorena's feet blister easily and he says that socks keep his shoes from chafing his feet. But why calf-high? "I guess it's a habit from basketball days," he says.
Juantorena bounded up a hill and soon became a speck in the distance. After watching him disappear, Cumberbatch spoke of Mike Boit. "We want to compete against Boit, but under fair conditions," he said. "Boit assured us privately before we got to London that he was not going to run in the 800 and we planned our races there simply as part of our training. Alberto became annoyed at Boit's little tricks and wanted to run against him anyway, but I wouldn't let him." Cumberbatch's voice was rising now. "I am nor putting my man's prestige on the line when he is tired and the other man is fresh as lettuce."
Their handling of the situation in London made it seem that the Cubans were trying to keep Juantorena unbeaten in all manner of competition, big and little, an objective important to fight managers but not, usually, to track men. Juantorena, for his part, denies having any such frivolous concerns. "If I'd run against Boit in London and he'd beaten me, well, that would have been that," he says. "Of course, then I would have chased him all over Europe to pay him back."
It is assumed that the long-delayed showdown between Boit and Juantorena will come at the World Cup. In preparing for that meet, Juantorena is concentrating more on the 800 than on the 400. This is partly because Boit's specter looms in the 800, but also because Juantorena is starting to think of himself as a middle-distance man. Indeed, he suspects he might move up to the 1,500 by the 1980 Olympics. "Endurance seems to be part of my nature," he says. "I've done relatively little distance work in the past. With proper work, who knows how I might do?" Meanwhile, there appears to be less competition in the 400 than the 800, and Juantorena feels his chances for a double at D√ºsseldorf are promising.
It was with this in mind that Juantorena put in an hour of hard training early the following morning at Havana's noisy old Pedro Marrero Stadium—noisy because swarms of workmen were renovating its ancient stands. Watching the workout was Juantorena's sister Caridad, who was visiting from Santiago de Cuba. Her presence, Alberto said with the usual flourish, was "an inspiration to me." Afterward he drove Caridad to the Frank Pais Orthopedic Hospital. It was here that the operations were performed on Juantorena's foot and it was here that Caridad, a basketball player on the Oriente women's team, had been operated on for an injured knee three months before. Today she was to have a checkup.
The hospital was a well-scrubbed, pink-brick structure and its lobby was crowded with patients, some of them on crutches, others wearing braces. They greeted Juantorena excitedly. He moved among them like a faith healer, clasping hands and reaching through a sea of expectant faces to tousle the hair of children. His caramel-colored features glistened with perspiration. A nurse who knew him from his stay at the hospital brought the thirsty Juantorena a glass of ice water, then another glass, then still another. As he gulped down his fourth glass, she said gently, "You must have been eating pork."
"No," Juantorena replied, "I've been running like an animal."
A torrential rain fell that afternoon, sending water cascading past the windows of José Martí Airport like a second sheet of glass. Resplendent in his light-blue team uniform, Alberto Juantorena roamed the air-conditioned terminal. He pushed the happily squealing Irita around in a luggage cart. He chatted with compa√±eros. And he had a beer at the bar—"A little celebration," he called it. It was a year to the day since he had won the gold medal at Montreal in the 400. (Four days before, on the anniversary of his victory in the 800, he had allowed himself a glass of rum at home.) Cubana Airlines Flight 464 was nearly two hours late when it departed for Mexico City and Juantorena paced the aisle of the plane while teammates slept or played cards.
In Mexico, competing in the Central American Games in Jalapa, he was narrowly upset in the 400 by Jamaica's Seymour Newman. Newman was timed in 45.66, Juantorena in 45.67. Then, in Guadalajara, in trials for the World Cup's America II team (representing the hemisphere except for the U.S.), Juantorena won the 800 (1:48.28) and 400 (44.79) to qualify for both events at D√ºsseldorf. Finally, in Sofia, he broke the 800 record again, this time sizzling to a 1:43.43. The stage was set for his meeting in D√ºsseldorf with Mike Boit.
When Juantorena returns home from his journeys, he and his family will move. Just before leaving for the airport, Juantorena had stopped by to look at his new house. The spacious, colonnaded building occupied a large corner lot that seemed almost rural, so green and lush were its plantings. Within its thick stucco walls, its foyer and four bedrooms were richly decorated with marble and stained glass. Heading from one handsome room to the next, Juantorena said over his shoulder, "When the house is cleaned up and repaired, it will be...." Then he was gone, making it necessary to speculate on what he was about to say. Ah, yes, of course. When the house is cleaned up and repaired, it will, naturally, be an inspiration to him.