It was a dream race deferred, an 800-meter showdown between two
men who should have met one year earlier, at the 1976 Olympics.
The first track and field World Cup, held in Dusseldorf, was the
meeting place for Mike Boit of Kenya and Alberto Juantorena of
Cuba to determine once and for all which of them was the best of
his generation at that distance.
Because the African nations boycotted the '76 Montreal Games to
protest a New Zealand rugby team's tour of South Africa that
spring, Boit, the '72 Olympic bronze medalist in the 800, was
left dismayed in the stands as the long-striding Juantorena won
the gold medal in a world-record 1:43.50. The amazing Cuban had
competed in the event for the first time only that year, having
been tricked into doing so by a coach who persuaded him that it
would build stamina for his specialty, the 400. Four days later,
when Juantorena added gold in the 400 (running 44.26, a time that
would stand for 11 years as the fastest at sea level), he
completed a stunning double, one that seemed to defy all the
presumed fault lines between speed and stamina. No one had won an
Olympic 400--800 double before; no male runner since has even
Juantorena did not compete again that season, which frustrated
Boit, who understandably was eager to prove what might have been.
For most of the next year he pursued Juantorena around the globe.
He accused his rival of ducking him, first in May 1977, when
Juantorena pulled out of the Jamaican Invitational, claiming
injury, and again in London in June, when the Cuban howled
angrily at Boit's trick of switching at the last minute from the
1,500 to the 800. (Meet organizers hastily added a second 800 so
that each man would have one to himself.) By August, when he
finally got to run against Juantorena, at the Weltklasse meet in
Zurich, Boit's eagerness seemed to get the better of him. He ran
so crazily in the middle of the race that he faded badly.
Juantorena won by a second, in 1:43.64.
The 800 in Dusseldorf would be their reckoning. The meet itself
was new, introduced as an event of global significance to help
fill the gap between Olympics. The men's 800 was eagerly
anticipated as its best race, and Boit knew he'd have to run with
his head as well as his long, spindly legs. "Alberto was a
sprinter, so I wanted to trick him into sprinting early," says
Boit, who talks about the race in such detail that it might have
been run yesterday. "My plan was to do kind of a fake with 300 to
go and start my real kick with 150 to go. It seemed to work. I
pulled even with 100 to go, but he was just too strong." The SI
cover photo catches them leaning at the finish, with Juantorena
appearing to look over to measure his winning margin. It was
about 18 inches, 1:43.6 to 1:44.6.
Though both continued running for some years, their careers were
blighted by politics. When Kenya joined the boycott of the 1980
Moscow Games, Boit missed the last Olympics of his prime.
Juantorena missed the '84 Games because of a Soviet-led boycott.
Boit earned degrees from Eastern New Mexico, Stanford and, in
1986, a Ph.D. from Oregon in physical education administration.
With the freedom that came from living beyond the clutches of the
controlling Kenyan federation, he became the first in his country
to compete regularly on the European circuit, where his sly humor
made him a favorite among his fellow middle-distance runners. He
didn't retire from competition, including masters events, until
Boit moved back to Kenya in 1987 to teach, and three years later
he was named as his country's sports commissioner. His first
official act was revolutionary, says biographer John Manners, who
is writing a book on the Kenyan. "He gave the athletes their
passports and invited agents into the country," says Manners.
"Mike is too modest to admit it, but he is responsible for the
Kenyan dynasty [in distance running] we see now."
"The idea," says Boit, "was that everyone should benefit from his
own talents. That's a basic human right."
Today he is a senior lecturer in the physical education
department of Kenyatta University in Nairobi and chairman of the
school's newly formed Exercise and Sports Science program. He and
his wife, Lillian, live in Nairobi with their three children,
though the oldest, Andrew, is now at Texas Tech pursuing a double
major in computer science and chemical engineering. Boit sounds
buoyant these days, no doubt simply for finding he's still alive.
In June 1998 he miraculously survived a two-car, head-on
collision that broke both his legs and killed three occupants of
the other car. After multiple skin and bone grafts and a period
of walking with a cane, Boit says that to look at him, you'd
never know anything had happened, though he suspects he will
never run again.
Juantorena remains a national hero in Cuba and serves as its Vice
Minister for Sport, in which capacity he is essentially in charge
of the fitness of his countrymen. He points proudly to the fact
that Cuba's Olympiad, a nationwide competition for youngsters 9
to 16, now draws 7,500 competitors.
He married for the second time four years ago, and he and his
wife, Yudelsy, have two children, Stefanie and Javier Alberto, to
go with the three from his previous marriage. He runs five
kilometers three times a week, plays softball and baseball on
weekends and enjoys hiking in the mountains or going to museums
and concerts with his family. Some accuse him of being too
willing a mouthpiece for Fidel Castro's regime, but Olympic film
historian Bud Greenspan puts a different spin on it. "He is such
a gracious, charming man in social settings," says Greenspan,
"that he is the greatest advertisement for Castro there can
be." --Merrill Noden
Sports Science program at Kenyatta University in
Cuba's Vice Minister for Sport, and no man since has tried.