James Robinson has been boxed in much of the last seven years—not on the track but off it. Since 1974 he's made two U.S. Olympic teams, been ranked lower than fourth in the U.S. in the 800 meters only once, and during the last few years been among the top five in the world. With three straight victories in TAC (formerly AAU) outdoor meets, Robinson has been "America's champion" in the 800 since 1978. Despite his credentials, he hasn't caught on with the public like fellow Americans Rick Wohlhuter (early in Robinson's career) and Don Paige (recently), or Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett of Great Britain, Mike Boit of Kenya and Montreal Olympic hero Alberto Juantorena of Cuba. "Everyone in Europe knows James," says Robinson's coach, Dr. Proverb Jacobs, "but over here nobody even knows his name." Perhaps Robinson should trade monikers with his coach.
But the 26-year-old Robinson, a senior at Berkeley, may finally be getting some ink. Last Saturday in the Jumbo Elliott Invitational at Villanova, Robinson ran a 1:44.63—the fastest 800 in the world this season—to beat a field that included Boit and two top American half-milers, Mark Enyeart of the Pacific Coast Club and Billy Martin of Athletics West. Paige was at Villanova helping organize the meet, which was held in memory of his college coach, who died March 22, but he wasn't yet in shape to race, following ankle and knee injuries. Had he been, and had he competed, the 800 might have been even faster, though Robinson suspects that it might then have turned into a tactical race.
Be that as it may, Robinson's unexpectedly fast time will undoubtedly be noticed by Coe and Ovett, whom Robinson will meet this summer in Europe, and somewhere out there is Juantorena, who has been plagued by an endless succession of injuries for the past two years but has been announced as a competitor in the Brooks Invitational in Berkeley on June 13. Robinson will be there, and so possibly will the 32-year-old Boit, who had beaten Robinson in the Bruce Jenner Classic and the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational this year.
That Robinson broke Boit's three-meet outdoor winning streak (Boit had also won the 800 at the Drake Relays)
wasn't that surprising—since he first broke through and beat Boit at the 1978 UCLA-Pepsi Invitational, Robinson has gone on to defeat the Kenyan in five of 10 meetings. But so good a time so early in the season startled Robinson himself. "I knew I was strong enough to run maybe a 1:45.5 or 1:45.8 because I was coming off a 1:46 against Boit in the Pepsi. [Boit won that 800 four weeks ago in Los Angeles in 1:45.43.] But for me to run this fast this early, it's got to be the strength work I've been doing." And also a consequence of added incentive.
June 7, 1981
The 800 at Villanova was part of the new Mobil Grand Prix setup, which will award prize money to the track clubs of season leaders in 15 events. That could mean $2,500 to the heretofore barren coffers of Robinson's Inner-City Athletic Club in Oakland. Originated in 1977 by Jacobs, a former NFL (Eagles, Giants) and AFL (Titans, Raiders) offensive and defensive tackle, the club has existed pretty much as a showcase for Robinson. "We could really use that $2,500," Robinson says. "We have no sponsors. I usually get my transportation fees paid by the meet promoters, but the other guys usually have to pay their own way." At one time sprinters Mike Farmer and Mark Kent and half-milers Rich Nichols and Lloyd Johnson, among others, have all been members, but now Robinson's only teammate is Farmer.
While Robinson was earning the Outstanding Male Performer award, other outstanding males provided the crowd of 9,200 with more predictable races, Edwin Moses and Steve Scott turning in their usual sun-rises-in-the-East performances in the intermediate hurdles and the mile, respectively. It was Moses' first outdoor race in the Northeast since 1976. The next day he left for New York City to tape a segment on the Kids Are People Too series for ABC. Kids may be mere people, but Moses is surely a superhero. He slipped on the dark shades, ran his perfect and elegant 13 strides between hurdles, and hit the tape in 48.65 for his 61st consecutive win. "Nobody really paid much attention to the streak when it was in the 40s," said Moses. "I think the World Cup in 1979 [in Montreal] was when it really caught on. Sure, I know I'm the man to beat whenever I go out there. Everybody knows if they do it, it's instant fame and fortune. Well, maybe not fortune, but fame."
The degree of Moses' domination was dramatized by the fact that second-place finisher James Walker, ranked second in the U.S. and third in the world last year, was almost two seconds back. One wonders how long Moses can keep his motivation. "I simply love the sport, and I love the things I get out of the sport that other people don't appreciate enough to extract," he said. "It's not just running track meets. It's meeting different people all over the world, doing different things. It's a life-style I really don't want to give up on." For the first time, Moses was also talking seriously of trying another event, probably the 400 meters. "I could run a low 44, I'm sure, with the right concentrated program," he said. Because the world record set in 1968 by Lee Evans is 43.86, Moses' point was obvious: he could dominate the world in that event, too.
Steve Scott's mile victory was another near miss of Jim Ryun's American record of 3:51.1. With John Walker, Eamonn Coghlan and the crowd favorite, Sydney Maree, a Villanova graduate, in the field, there was some hope the record would be broken, but the day was hot and humid and rabbit John Hunter set too slow a pace.
Scott overtook Maree and beat him by a yard, in 3:52.26, the fastest mile ever run on the East Coast but short of Scott's personal best of 3:51.11. Scott's last quarter was a 52.9, one of his best ever. "It's a good thing they didn't run any faster," said Walker, who finished third in 3:55.89, "or I'd have been out the back door." With about 150 meters left, Maree was still slightly ahead of Scott and "thought I had him. But with about 55 meters to go I saw Steve's knee show up and I knew it would be neck and neck to the finish." Scott caught Maree in the final 20 meters.
"It [a 3:51 clocking] isn't really a mental barrier," said Scott, "I'm shooting for 3:50, not 3:51. I'm sure it'll come this year." Most likely it will come when Scott meets Ovett, the world-record holder (3:48.8), and Coe in Europe. "Wherever they are," said Scott, "that's where I'll be."
Ditto Robinson. And if he can run the kind of race he did Saturday, Coe and Ovett could be surprised. Robinson was next to last in the eight-man field after one lap, which ended with Boit on top in 51.7 seconds. That wasn't unusual, because Boit and Robinson often run the same way—the former grabbing the lead and trying to hold it, the latter staying back and saving his strength for the final turn and the home stretch. Said Boit, "I felt very stiff over the first 200 meters, which were really a struggle. After one lap I was real relaxed, but with 200 meters left I started to slow down." And Robinson started to speed up. He overhauled Boit with 70 meters left and won by a stride over the fast-closing Enyeart, who passed Boit to finish second in 1:44.93. Though it was hidden under his sunny smile, Boit (1:45.32) was deeply disappointed with his inability to hold the lead, so disappointed that he arranged a berth on a pickup team in the 4 x 400-meter relay "to work on my speed." His club finished sixth among eight teams, but he was happy with what he estimated as a 46.8 or 46.9 anchor leg.
Robinson also ran on Boit's relay team, just as Proverb Jacobs would have wanted him to. "He pushes me a lot," said Robinson good-naturedly. "I run some mile races early in the season just to keep him off my back. He'd like to see me break four minutes, but I'm not that interested in it. The mile's too long, man." Robinson could probably go under four minutes with the proper training; 2½ months ago he won a 1,500 in 3:47.2 in a dual meet against Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo (which converts to a 4:05.4 mile). Actually, Robinson is versatile enough to make his mark in several events. He started off as a 600-yard runner in junior high school; he ran the mile and two mile at Oakland's McClymonds High School (which produced Bill Russell and Frank Robinson, among other outstanding athletes) and didn't switch to the half mile until his senior year in 1973, when he took second place in the state meet.
After high school, Robinson went to Laney College in Oakland, where Jacobs was then coaching. Laney no longer has a track program but Robinson and Jacobs have been together since. "I have to think that's one of the reasons James has stayed with it so well," says Jacobs. "We've been in communication all the time. Eight years. A lot of athletes change locales, change coaches, change training schedules and they lose interest. But we've kept it together."
After Robinson enrolled at Cal in 1975 he often trained at Laney with Jacobs. He finished second in the 1976 Olympic Trials, but at Montreal he finished fifth in a heat and missed making the finals by less than a tenth of a second. Robinson dropped out of school in 1977 and worked as a coach at Laney and McClymonds but continued to train with Jacobs. It was back to college full time two years ago and he now needs just four courses to graduate with a degree in social sciences.
"James knows exactly what he has to do and what he wants to do," says Jacobs. "He's been around a while, but I've always felt a runner should peak between 26 and 30. We're just beginning to reap the fruit from all the work." Robinson agrees. "I'd like to keep running close to the American record [Wohlhuter's 1:43.9, set in 1974] and maybe get it by August," he said. "I don't want to put it off much longer. What keeps me going is my goals. I know right now, for example, that I am going to be right there for the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles." And by that time Robinson should be out of his box.