The three finest high hurdlers in the world—if you ignore Thomas Munkelt of East Germany, who was not in Los Angeles last week—peeled off their warmups and dumped them in untidy little piles alongside UCLA's recently resurfaced Tartan track. With studied casualness, each sought out his assigned starting blocks, checked them to see that they were properly secured, and then settled in, coiled, compressed.
Renaldo Nehemiah, the 20-year-old world-record holder from the University of Maryland, was in the third lane. At 6'1" and 170 pounds he has the lines of a greyhound, and runs with a form so fluid, so textbook perfect, it is said he has nothing left to improve, which annoys him. He was the favorite.
In Lane 4, to the immediate left of Nehemiah, was Greg Foster, a UCLA junior. He is tall and broad (6'3", 180), not graceful, just swift and strong. He does not hurdle the barriers, he attacks them. Last year he crashed into four hurdles and still ran a 13.22 for the 110-meter event, then an American record.
In Lane 5 was Alejandro Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as, who is slightly taller than Nehemiah but just as lean. A 25-year-old Cuban majoring in economics at the University of Havana, Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as held the world record (13.21) until Nehemiah lowered it to 13.16 on April 14. He wanted the record back.
May 13, 1979
"Nehemiah talks too much," Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as whispered to an American journalist shortly after the Cuban team led by Olympic hero Alberto Juantorena arrived in Los Angeles last Thursday.
"Not so," the journalist said. "He's just a very nice outgoing person. He's become very confident, yes, but not cocky."
Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as considered that for a brief moment. Then he said, "He still talks too much." But he smiled.
For the Cuban track and field contingent—eight athletes, plus four officials—the trip to L.A. for the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational, which was organized by Al Franken, was a historic moment. No Cuban track athletes had competed in the U.S. since Fidel Castro took over in 1959. "We are happy they invited us, and we are happy to be here," said Juantorena, the double gold-medal winner at Montreal, in nearly flawless English. He was the team's accommodating and charming spokesman. "Someday I am hopeful we will be able to come here and compete often, perhaps even to train. And maybe someday the American athletes can come to Cuba to compete and train. I think they would like it."
And then, almost as an afterthought, the 27-year-old Cuban, whose long, powerful strides and muscular build—6'2", 185 pounds—have earned him the nickname "El Caballo" (The Horse), asked whom he would be racing against in the 400. Earlier Juantorena had said he would not compete in his other specialty, the 800, in which he holds the world record, because he was not in good enough physical condition. For the Cubans this would be their first competition since last fall.
Told that Billy Mullins of USC, No. 2 in the world to Juantorena in the 400 last year, had scratched because of an injured Achilles, the Cuban nodded without expression. But he was told he would be running against Auburn's Willie Smith, No. 3 in the world last year, Herman Frazier, the bronze medalist in the 400 at Montreal, and Benny Brown, who with Frazier had run on the victorious 4 x 400 relay at the 1976 Games.
"Willie Smith," Juantorena repeated musingly.
He was asked if there were any in that field that he feared. Juantorena lifted his eyebrows and smiled at such a thought. "In the 400 I don't fear anyone in the world," he said. "If I walked out onto a track and saw a lion, I might have fear. But a human like me? With only two legs? No fear."
As 12,862 fans jammed Drake Stadium for Sunday's meet, the day began windy and grayish, with a few low-hanging clouds. "No way it will rain today," predicted a veteran Southern California track nut and amateur meteorologist. "But it's going to be a dark day for the Cubans. This isn't Montreal."
As it turned out, he was correct. First up for the Cubans was Grisel Machado in the 100-meter women's hurdles, in which she has been clocked in 13.24. Running in a white bandanna, Machado broke on top, as the Cubans would all day, but she was quickly overtaken by Deby LaPlante, the American record holder, who won in 13.15. Machado finished third with a time of 13.73.
Ten minutes later it was Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as' turn to test himself against Nehemiah and Foster. "I think there will be a world record today," the Cuban flatly predicted.
Nehemiah, poised and ready, was also thinking that a world record was not beyond reach, although earlier in the week he had reflected, "Everyone is expecting a record, but it might be more of a strategic race, more of a psych game—the U.S. runners against the Cuban."
Employing a strategy of his own, Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as anticipated the gun and false-started. Under the international rules, one more false start and the Cuban would be disqualified. On the second start, Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as shot out of the blocks, seemingly a split second before the gun. There was no recall. "I was stunned; I was behind," Nehemiah said later. "I hesitated, thinking it was another false start. But he kept going, so I went after him."
Angered by the lack of recall, Foster, too, gave chase, hardly slowing as he slammed into the second hurdle. But the rhythm of precise strides this event demands had been upset. He cleared the third hurdle, then midway to the fourth he reached out, knowing he would never clear it. Foster hit the barrier solidly, fell to the track, and there he stayed. He had injured a hamstring.
At the sixth of the 10 hurdles, Nehemiah caught Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as, passed him and blazed across the finish line in a stunning 13 seconds flat. Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as was two yards back in 13.23. A moment later Nehemiah was congratulating the Cuban for running a fine race. He stuck out his right hand; Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as hesitated. Then they shook hands.
After consoling Foster, Nehemiah said, "When we got here today, I felt the guy who won it would break the record, or be close to it. It was a very competitive race. The time didn't surprise me. Still, I think I would have been a little bit faster if I had gone out with the gun. I could have relaxed if I had a good start. I would have had a 12.7 or 12.8."
If Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as was disappointed, Silvio Leonard, Cuba's top sprinter and No. 1 in 100 meters in the world last year, was doubly dejected. First he lost to Houston McTear's 10.17 in the 100 meters, and then he misjudged the finish by 10 meters in the 200 and was fourth behind Clancy Edwards, Steve Williams and James Sanford.
"Silvio made mistake," Mario Alonso, the diminutive 71-year-old head of the Cuban delegation, said after the 200. "I'd have caught him anyway," said Edwards, who was timed in 20.51.
After Evelyn Ashford beat Aurelia Penton in the women's 400 meters, it was time for Juantorena to take the track. Since Montreal, El Caballo has lost but twice: in a 400 in 1977, in an 800 last year. He has won 31 international races in that span, improved his 800 world record at the University Games in Sofia in 1977 and just seems to be getting better and better.
As Juantorena stepped onto the track, so did 5'8" Willie Smith, who was thinking, "Nobody is unbeatable. He's just another human being."
Then Smith set out to prove himself right. Benny Brown set a furious pace and held it until the eight competitors barreled around the final curve. Just as Juantorena seemingly had shifted into high gear, Smith streaked past him and took a five-meter lead. The Cuban never came an inch closer, and with 10 meters to go, he all but quit, slowing almost to a trot. At the tape Frazier overtook Juantorena for second place.
Smith had won in 45.55, the fastest time in the world this year. Frazier finished in 46.04, Juantorena 46.20. A few yards past the finish Juantorena finally caught up with Smith. He hugged the little man and, smiling, said, "Good."
As Juantorena walked away, Smith followed him with his eyes. "Isn't he something," Smith said. "He's a class guy. He treats me like another competitor. He asks me how I am doing. He's concerned about me and I'm concerned about him. I'm proud to run against him. He's where the action is."
Usually a meet's glamour event, the mile was almost an anti-climax. This one had Eamonn Coghlan, and any time he runs, there is a chance for a world record. Last February at San Diego, he ran an indoor mile in 3:52.6, destroying the world record by 2.3 seconds.
But it took only one quarter for the crowd to know it would get no more world records this day. Jeff Jirele set the pace, with a 59.9 first quarter, and led at the half in 2:00.6. Steve Lacy blew by the fading Jirele near the end of the third lap and was able to open an eight-yard lead as he towed the field through the third quarter in a slow 3:01.6. But then Steve Scott, who had finished second to Coghlan in 3:54.1 in his world-record indoor mile, began to close, and behind him came Marty Liquori, with Coghlan on his shoulder. Scott got the lead coming off the last turn and had opened a gap of five yards when Coghlan began his kick. He caught his man with 20 meters to go and the two matched strides to the tape, but Coghlan just did lean enough to win. Both runners were timed in 3:56.91.
As Juantorena set off in search of the van that had brought him and his teammates to the meet, he said, "I hope to come back for a meet in June. It is good for me to run in this country. I think our relations will get better and better. Here I met very good people, very warm people." And some very hot competition.