The 800 meters was not supposed to be Alberto Juantorena's
race--the 400 was. In fact, the robust Cuban had run the longer
distance only four times competitively before the Montreal
Games, all earlier in 1976. He had caused something of a stir
back in April when he was clocked at 1:44.9, the second-fastest
800 of the year to American Rick Wohlhuter's 1:44.8. But few
middle-distance runners thought "el Caballo" (the Horse) capable
of maintaining his stamina through three rounds of
Olympic-caliber 800s. No, Juantorena was primarily a sprinter,
far too heavily muscled at 6'2", 185 pounds to compete with the
wispy sorts rigged for distance.
This is an article from the July 31, 1996 issue
Juantorena was inclined to agree with this analysis. He had been
cajoled into running the 800 by his coach in Cuba, Zigmigmundt
Zabierzowski, a Polish immigrant, who told him the longer race
would be useful in improving his wind for the 400. Juantorena
dutifully followed instructions during the year, but when he was
told he would be entered in both races in Montreal he vigorously
protested. He was fearful that running the 800 would drain him
of the energy he needed to win a gold medal in the 400. And what
if, because of this added commitment, he won neither race?
As a 21-year-old at the Munich Games four years earlier,
Juantorena had advanced to the 400 semifinals before being
eliminated. Now, as the world's top-ranked quarter-miler, he
wanted nothing to interfere with his quest for redemption. But
as a loyal Cuban, he was given no choice. He would run both
races. "I was nervous," he said.
The 800 came first. No track tactician, Juantorena simply burst
to an early lead in the final with his superior speed, finishing
the first of two laps in 50.9 seconds. Wohlhuter, the favorite,
was running with him, as was Belgium's Ivo van Damme. But the
Horse's thundering nine-foot strides easily carried him beyond
both 800 specialists, and with a sprinter's charge he crossed
the finish line the winner. And then his time was
announced--1:43.50, a world record. It was Cuba's first gold
medal in track and field, and in victory Juantorena saluted
Fidel Castro and his revolution. (The 800 final will be run
tonight at Olympic Stadium.)
Only one man had ever won both the 800 and the 400--Paul Pilgrim
of the U.S., in 1906--and few others had tried. The last to
attempt it had been Mal Whitfield of the U.S., who won the 800
in 1948 and '52 but finished no better than third in the 400 in
'48. Most track experts considered this to be the most difficult
of all doubles. "Normally a quarter-miler moves to the half if
he can't hold enough speed for the shorter race," said 1976 U.S.
sprint coach Lee Calhoun, a two-time gold medalist in the high
hurdles. "You don't usually find persons who can do both."
Juantorena was the exception. Fred Newhouse of the U.S. had the
lead in the 400 with 50 meters to go when the Horse caught him
and then galloped past. "His strength down those last 20 meters
was more than I could handle," admitted Newhouse. "He's a power
runner." At the time, Juantorena's 44.26 was the fastest 400
clocking at sea level and the third fastest ever, surpassed only
by Lee Evans's world record of 43.86 and Larry James's 43.97,
both run in the high altitude of the 1968 Mexico City Games.
According to Olympic historian Cordner Nelson, Juantorena's
double was "the greatest exhibition of speed and durability in
Juantorena continued to compete after the Olympics, winning the
800 in the World Cup the next year, but he was hampered
thereafter by leg and foot injuries. Recovering from an Achilles
tendon operation, he finished fourth in the 400 at the 1980
Moscow Games. He retired in his mid-30's to work for Cuba's
National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation.
His performance in Montreal remains unequaled.