SEPTEMBER 12, 1977
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 D�sseldorf, 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 tried.
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 D�sseldorf 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 '85.
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.