Alberto Juantorena came to the Pan-American Games an almost august figure. He was the gold medalist at both 400 and 800 meters in the 1976 Olympics, an unprecedented accomplishment. In the 400 he had ranked first in the world for three consecutive years, and in the 800 he had been the world-record holder since 1976. Yet for all that, Juantorena wound up a loser last week in San Juan. Before he had even run a race, word arrived that his 800 record had been obliterated, Sebastian Coe of Great Britain having knocked a full second off the mark on July 5 with a 1:42.4 in Oslo. When Juantorena did step on the track, two Americans, James Robinson and Tony Darden, beat him in his specialties.
What's more, the Americans added to his humbling with their postrace comments. When Robinson, the winner in the 800, was asked how it felt to beat a world-record holder, he replied, "You mean the former world-record holder." And when the 5'11" Darden mounted the victory stand to accept his gold medal in the 400, he looked down to where the 6'2" Cuban—seeming quite out of place—was waiting for his silver and said, "I'm taller than you now."
In the space of just eight days Juantorena, 27, did seem to lose a good deal of stature. But he didn't seem overly concerned about his defeats. He said he was happy with a silver medal in the 400 because Lane 1, with its sharp turns, is very difficult for him to negotiate with his long strides. Darden concurred. "Juantorena ran a good race from Lane 1," he said. "I was surprised. He ran a hell of a race." Before the 800, Juantorena was asked if he thought he could reclaim his world record. "I will," he answered without hesitation, "but not now. I am not in shape for that yet. In one month I will be better. I will run a new world record at the World Cup, perhaps. This is my first 800 meters of the year. So what can I say?"
The World Cup will be contested in Montreal in late August. When the real Alberto Juantorena stands up, will it be the world-record-setting gold medalist or the happy-go-lucky soul who appeared content with two silver medals in Sixto Escobar Stadium?
July 22, 1979
Of course, there is no better way for a runner to gain worldwide attention than to beat a world champion. Unless it is to beat him twice. Robinson won the only 800-meter race Juantorena lost last year, in Zurich, but he felt he didn't get enough recognition for the feat in the U.S. Slowly he has been building his case. In a meet in Berkeley in early June the 24-year-old history student ran what was then the year's fastest time, 1:45.6. A week later he won his third AAU 800 title in four years.
When he was competing for the University of California, Robinson was known as "Silky Sullivan," after the exciting come-from-behind thoroughbred, because he dropped so far off the lead in the early stages of a race. He was often criticized for his tactics, but last year he experimented successfully with running closer to the front, and that was the strategy he chose to employ against Juantorena. He and Owen Hamilton of Jamaica held the lead for the first 600 meters. Then Juantorena overtook them on the outside. "He kept looking back over his shoulder, which told me he was going just about as fast as he could," said Robinson.
Robinson had plenty of kick left but now he suddenly found himself boxed behind Hamilton in Lane 1 and Juantorena in Lane 2. Coming off the last turn, he saw a slight gap between the two of them and darted for it. At the same moment Hamilton veered out. His and Robinson's pumping arms locked temporarily, then Robinson surged ahead, looking more like Bronko Nagurski now than Silky Sullivan. He had Juantorena in a footrace and he beat him to the tape in 1:46.3.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, who had been thrown off stride, fell back into fourth place. His coach, Herb McKenley, promptly filed a protest, poking his finger at a replay on a TV monitor to support his case. Juantorena wandered about, posing for pictures and making eyes at girls in the stands. Eventually, Robinson was announced as the winner. "That is not the right decision," the frustrated Hamilton said. "This is dirty." McKenley appealed.
It was clear that if winning the race was important to Robinson, it mattered little to Juantorena. McKenley's appeal was eventually denied, but by then Juantorena had already announced, "The 400 meters is my race."
Juantorena's competition figured to be Willie Smith, who had bested him at that distance in Los Angeles in May. Like Robinson, Smith, who graduated from Auburn last June, felt he hadn't gotten enough recognition, or, as he put it, "I want people to realize I'm somebody and I'm doing well." Coming down the homestretch the race appeared to be a duel between Smith in Lane 6 and Juantorena in Lane 1. But in the last 10 meters, Darden suddenly burst between them to win in a personal best of 45.11. Juantorena was clocked in 45.24 and Smith in 45.30.
Darden also clearly needed to get himself some recognition. In the postrace interview, reporters kept calling him "Tom," which is how the program had him listed. Finally, Darden corrected them. "It's not Tom, it's Tony. Thomas Darden is my cousin," he said emphatically. His cousin is a defensive back for the Cleveland Browns.
Not so long ago, Tony Darden was considered a hot prospect in track. When he entered Arizona State in the fall of 1976, he held the 400-meter national high school record of 45.7. As a freshman he ran a 45.60, but the following year he failed to improve. His 1978 best was 46.20, which gave him the dubious distinction of being, by rough reckoning, the 53rd-fastest 400-meter man in the world. Disgusted, he dropped out of school this past year and moved back home to Philadelphia to train seriously and see if he could regain his form. Last winter he briefly took a job with United Parcel, loading trucks in a warehouse.
"In 1978 I was having all sorts of problems," Darden said. "I was living off campus, trying to feed myself without asking my parents for any money. Most people thought I was a flop, that I wouldn't be around much longer as a runner. Now I'm living with my parents and all I do is train."
Herman Frazier, the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400 and a member of the victorious 1,600-meter relay team in San Juan, who was a senior at Arizona State while Darden was a freshman, praised Darden's strong finish as his biggest asset. "If he is anywhere near you with 40 meters to go," he said, "you better watch out."
"I can run a smooth 300," said Darden, "but I always save one burst of speed for the last 100."
Darden reemerged on the track scene at last month's AAU championships in Walnut, Calif., where he finished second in 45.14, just .04 behind Smith. Now, with his Pan-American victory, he feels he has reestablished himself as a world-class 400-meter runner. "This is the kind of race you always look for," he said. "You just want to win that one fantastic race. I prepared myself for this one. Now my plan is to wait for Moscow." And what about Juantorena? "You can't feel sorry for someone of his caliber," Darden said. "He's an idol for so many people. He has had his day."
The day in San Juan was not Juantorena's in more ways than one. Before the start of his semifinal in the 400, he was heckled from the stands by two vocal Cuban exiles. "There is no food in Cuba!" they yelled. "People are starving!" Juantorena walked toward the hecklers. "Do I look undernourished?" he retorted angrily. An exchange of insults followed, with Juantorena gesticulating and threatening to come up into the stands. Finally, two officials intervened and gently persuaded the Cuban runner to return to the starting blocks.
Alejandro Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as of Cuba, the former world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, and an even more fervent patriot than Juantorena, lost for the fifth consecutive time to Renaldo Nehemiah, who broke Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as' mark of 13.21 earlier this year and has since lowered it to 13 flat. Nehemiah had arrived in San Juan with a 103° fever, and though he shook that, he was obviously still suffering from the effects of a head cold when he lined up for the finals. Yet he not only beat Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as by five meters, he also beat the Cuban's best time ever when he turned in a 13.20.
Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as has refused to talk to Nehemiah at recent races, prompting the notion that he is feuding with the American from the University of Maryland. In the days preceding their Pan-Am showdown Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as pointedly refused to shake hands with Nehemiah, saying belligerently, "I'm a Cuban." But following the race Nehemiah revealed a new twist in the relationship: "After we crossed the finish line, Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as said, 'Good race.' That's the nicest thing he's ever said to me." A few moments later Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as had even nicer things to say about his rival. "Nehemiah is the best hurdler in the world today," he acknowledged.
Only Silvio Leonard, the No. 1-ranked 100-meter man held the Cubans' end up against the American men. Leonard used his blazing start to run a 100-200 double. He led from the start in both races, winning the 100 in 10.13, the 200 in 20.37. In neither race, however, did the Americans have their AAU champion in the field.
The fact is that while the Pan-Am Games were supposed to produce a brilliant confrontation between the Cuban and American men, what they really did was showcase rising U.S. stars.
No one took better advantage of that opportunity than Evelyn Ashford. She was on the 1976 Olympic team, but only in the last couple of months has she begun to show that she could return American women to the forefront of world sprinting ranks. Ashford completed a 100-200 double at the AAU meet to make the Pan-Am team in both events, then repeated that performance in the Games. At the AAUs she had become the second woman to run 100 meters in less than 11 seconds (she had a 10.97 in the semifinals). In San Juan she lowered Brenda Morehead's American 200 record by .15 of a second with a 22.45 semifinal heat. She took the final in 22.24 but her time was wind-aided.
Pat Connolly, Ashford's coach, has concentrated on building her strength by having her train at longer distances than normal for a sprinter. Connolly also has tried to add muscle to Ashford's calves by having her run in the sand at—where else?—Muscle Beach in Santa Monica. On weekends Ashford runs two miles along the shore in the hard sand, then works her way back by doing short sprints in the loose sand farther inland. To practice getting her knee lift higher she runs in shallow surf, although that isn't always as pleasant as it sounds. "I always trip in the water and fall down," she complains. But the work and the unscheduled dips in the ocean are beginning to pay off.
"Winning here at the Pan-Ams was important to me psychologically," she said. "Now I feel I'm the best in this part of the world. I only have the Eastern Europeans to worry about. I feel confident that I can compete with them in the 100 because I've gone under 11 seconds. But in the 200, which is my favorite race, I'm not there yet. I need to get down to 22 flat. (The world record of 21.71 is held by Marita Koch of East Germany.) I feel something inside me wants to come out. I feel I can go a lot faster. I think I can do that by the end of this summer."
By the end of next summer, in Moscow, she hopes to do even better.