Crouched on a dusty track in Viareggio, Italy, last Wednesday, Renaldo Nehemiah stared up at the first full flight of 10 high hurdles he had faced in almost 4� years. He had worked on the race's parts, but had not put them all together until now. "I like the feeling," he would explain, "of going into the unknown."
In the next lane was Keith Talley, the NCAA champion from Alabama, whose 13.31 for 110 meters was the third-fastest of the outdoor season. Talley confessed to nerves. So did Nehemiah. "My mind was filled with all the things I had to do," Nehemiah said. "Get out of the blocks. Not hit hurdles. Not fall down. I'd been antisocial all night, imagining the headlines I couldn't stand to actually read, ones saying NEHEMIAH LOSES."
It would be an extraordinary comeback, both physical and political, if the 27-year-old Nehemiah were simply competitive his first time out. But he cut short that kind of talk. He allowed himself no goal but to win.
As the hurdlers came to the set position, Nehemiah thought about his delicate left Achilles tendon, which he had tightly taped, wondering if the tendon would hold. The gun and Nehemiah seemed to fire simultaneously. The reflexes were still there. He drove at the first hurdle, lifted off and flew into the unknown.
On Aug. 19, 1981, in Zurich, Nehemiah, then 22, set the world record of 12.93 seconds in the 110-meter high hurdles. Behind him, archrival Greg Foster ran 13.03. Those two remain the fastest ever in that event. After the following indoor season, Nehemiah signed to play wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, making him ineligible for the Olympics, or indeed any track meet at all. "I was the best at hurdling," he says. "And I had been since I was 18.1 just had gotten tired of it. I went to football for the change, for the challenge of it, not the money."
He found plenty of all three. Over the next four seasons he was paid a total of almost a million dollars, but he caught only 43 passes and never established himself as a starter. " Bill Walsh is an extremely feeling man," he says of the 49ers coach. "And my satisfaction was unlimited when I got a chance to play. But I was saddened by not getting to use all my talents. There were all the usual football frustrations—injuries, drops, missed assignments—but what stands out now is simply not playing."
A parallel frustration was that he still loved to race the high hurdles. Every January, after the NFL season, Nehemiah would return to track training and retreat from his football weight of 188. He had raced best at 170. "I felt like a slob for six months a year," he says. "But without races, my enthusiasm for track would disappear. I'd want to quit all the time. But Ron would say. 'Train. Train.' "
Ron is Ron Stanko, Nehemiah's attorney, agent and friend, the man who got him into football. Now Stanko began to look for ways out. In 1982 Stanko and Nehemiah embarked on a kind of Dickensian legal crusade to regain Renaldo's track eligibility. Its twists and turns were absurdly complicated, but basically this is what happened: In early 1983 the U.S. Olympic Committee, under the forceful hand of William Simon, pressed The Athletics Congress, which runs track in the U.S., to reinstate Nehemiah for domestic competition. The International Amateur Athletic Federation, which runs track worldwide under the direction of the gravel-voiced Primo Nebiolo of Italy, said get serious.
"Renaldo's lawyer tried to explain that under U.S. law a sports body can decide about its own domestic rules," says Nebiolo now. "We were obliged to say no. If an athlete is disqualified by us, he must be disqualified everywhere. It was a long dispute. When I went to the U.S., lawyers gave me injunctions. I was very happy because in this way I became more and more famous."
Stanko sought to make the IAAF see that Nehemiah's pro football career didn't give him an unfair advantage in track. In 1984 Stanko flew to Canberra, Australia, carrying videotape and blackboard, to address an IAAF council meeting. When he stood, Nebiolo reacted as if poisoned. "You are the man who is suing me," the IAAF president cried. Later Stanko phoned Nehemiah. "I got thrown out," he said.