Warming up for the hungrily awaited resumption of his high hurdles rivalry with Renaldo Nehemiah last Friday night, Greg Foster seemed typically overwrought. Again and again he snapped over a practice hurdle. Again and again he landed off-balance. In a few minutes he would race Nehemiah and three others over 60 meters and five flights of these barriers. Now he couldn't get one hurdle right.
The meet was the Sunkist Invitational in Los Angeles, where Foster is well known. "Greg will DNF again," said one observer. DNF is the mortifying notation found at the bottom of race results: Did Not Finish. It might have stood for Decidedly Nervous Foster. "It's not a question of whether he self-destructs but where," the man continued. "The first hurdle? The last?"
Thus the strange plight of a devoted and enigmatic man. Only Nehemiah, in his 1981 world record of 12.93, has ever run the outdoor 110-meter hurdles faster than Foster. And Foster drove him to it in that race with 13.03. But Foster was always a panicky competitor. "He used to ruin his races by trying too hard," says his adviser and former coach, Bob Kersee. Ruin often meant splintered hurdles and stitches, the price of repeatedly going out of control chasing the fast-starting Nehemiah.
From 1978 to 1982, indoors and out, they raced 34 times. Nehemiah won 28, Foster 5, and they tied once, in Philadelphia in 1979, when both ran a world indoor record 6.95 for the 60-yard highs. In five of those races, Foster DNF'ed. Damned Nemesis Forever.
January 26, 1987
But in 1982, Nehemiah left track for a career as an NFL receiver with the 49ers. Foster continued to excel but never fully expanded into the record-holder's vacuum. He won the 1983 World Championships but got a shaky start in the 1984 Olympic final and was nipped by another American, Roger Kingdom, for the gold. Disaster Needs Fodder.
Over the last four years Foster has pulled up or fallen in eight major races, though his good races have been impressive. He was ranked first in the world in 1986 by Track & Field News. Then who should drop back into his dreams but Nehemiah. Demons Never Fade.
The NFL's violent nature did not appeal to Nehemiah. Hurdlers delight in missing things, while defensive backs lust to strike solid carcass. Nehemiah was always tough, but that didn't mean he had to like it. After four years during which he endured knee, back, ankle and eye injuries while fighting a long battle with the International Amateur Athletic Federation to regain his track eligibility, he Departed Niner Football.
Nehemiah was able to run only one race last summer, in Viareggio, Italy, a meet in which Foster didn't compete. Though injured, Nehemiah won it in 13.48.
Foster couldn't believe it. "He can't have suffered all that damage and loss of flexibility and still beat me," he said. "He'll never beat me."
Then Foster thought about it and recanted. "I was, uh, heated when I said that. Football may have helped him. I don't know. But I can't sensibly say I'll never lose to the guy."
When Nehemiah was introduced, the 13,261 in the L.A. Sports Arena rose and cheered him, a prodigal returned. He was moved. "Wow," he thought, "I've really been missed."
The two rivals crouched in the blocks, along with Kingdom, Milan Stewart and the U.S. record holder at this infrequently run distance (time: 7.58), Tonie Campbell. Foster tried to think only of his own technique. He wanted to run down a lonely corridor, empty save for five hurdles.
At the gun Foster, Kingdom and Stewart all felt they had false-started. Perhaps because they had moved in unison, the starter and recall starter judged the start fair. "I thought it'd be called back," said Kingdom.
It wasn't. Nehemiah led to the first hurdle, then was caught by Foster and Stewart. All admitted to momentary hesitation after the gun. The one who overcame it first was Foster. "I lost the Olympic gold medal because I thought I'd false-started and I relaxed," he said. "I don't do that anymore."
Nehemiah clobbered the third hurdle, and Foster gained a clear lead. He finished strongly to win by almost two yards. Campbell just caught the struggling Nehemiah for second.
"I'm happy with the win," said Foster as the first talk of a false start swirled around him. "I did feel I might be called back," he said, "but the time could only be made slower by what happened. Well, none of us started off really attacking...."
Finally the announcement came. His time was 7.36 seconds, 11 of a second better than the world record set last year by Mark McKoy of Canada. Foster yelled, seemingly impaled with joy, and bolted through a victory lap. "I didn't think it could be that fast," he said.
It was that fast, but it was no record. Bob Hersh, TAC Records chairman, would decide on Sunday that he wouldn't submit it to the IAAF after reviewing a tape of the race and determining that, in fact, there had been a false start. But that decision did not alter the result of the race.
"Greg was the only one who ran his hardest from start to finish," said Nehemiah, "but even had I done that, he still would have won. I was rusty. The leg speed was there, but I didn't have control of it. I was all over the track.
"It means a lot to be back in track and field," Nehemiah added. "Before, I was too busy rewriting the record book to appreciate the sportsmanship, the special community we have in track. Sure, even the boards felt funny, and I'd forgotten how much intensity you have to force into seven seconds, but I couldn't expect it to all come back in one meet. Give me three or four."
Foster was willing. "The hurdles are the glamour event again," he said. "We're going to have a lot of good, good races." He vigorously opposed observers who urged him to feel that the win was vindication for all he had suffered at Nehemiah's back. "It's not an Olympic final, not a world championship," he said. "A rivalry is just finding out who's best on a given day, for a lot of days. We're both great hurdlers. He needs time to get his rhythm. I can run better than this. We'll both have our days."
But how was it that Foster, the DNF king, clung to his concentration? It seems that life has presented him the true weight of things. "The greatest loss I will ever suffer, I have suffered," Foster says, invoking the death of his mother in 1985. "I dedicated this race to her this morning, and if I'd lost it, well, it would be as nothing compared to her. But there are other factors as well. I'm 28. I'm gaining a sense of proportion."
Foster has always insisted on maintaining his dignity, and that has increased his internal pressures. Both he and Nehemiah have taken offense at any appearance of disrespect in the other, and they may again. But Foster says, "I think it is just that we don't know each other very well. I have no reason to dislike him. Because he beats me? That's silly."
When Foster surrendered some of his angry ways, a truer, sweeter nature emerged. In any case both Nehemiah and Foster seem matured and refreshed. They are not the men they were. They're better. For that reason hurdling may have a Delightful Nonstop Future.