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There are phenomena that we are not meant to describe," said Steve Williams the day before the Jamaica Invitational Track and Field Meet. Williams was speaking of the compressed emotion of sprinting, the mysterious uncertainties of adrenaline. But last Friday evening, as traffic jammed all roads for a mile around Kingston's National Stadium and the tropic air became thick with expectation, his words encompassed the wondrous influence a passionate Jamaican crowd—35,000 strong—can have on runners. Two years ago on the stadium's Chevron track, Filbert Bayi broke the world record for the mile in Kingston, almost without intending to. Although there were no world records this time, there were four emotion-lifted races, climaxed by a magnificent 200 meters between Williams and Jamaica's Olympic champion, Don Quarrie.
But for a pair of notable absences, the meet was first-rate. The most worrisome of the nonappearances was that of the 1972 Olympic intermediate-hurdles gold medal winner, John Akii-Bua of Uganda, whose presence would have reassured the world that he has not been swept away in Idi Amin's purge of Akii-Bua's Lango tribe. Ominously, Akii-Bua sent no word at all.
Such was not the case with the absent Alberto Juantorena. Kenya's Mike Boit arrived in Jamaica fresh from running the year's fastest 800 meters, a 1:45.87 on a cold, rainy night in Eugene, Ore., to discover that the Cuban Olympic champion had withdrawn. Teammates said he had economics exams. Other spokesmen said he had aggravated an old injury. Finally, a coach admitted Juantorena simply wasn't in condition to contend with Boit.
The other principals in-the 800 took the world-record holder's absence with mixed feelings. "If he's pretty sure he'll lose, what has he to gain?" said Bucknell's Tom McLean. "Besides, it's still a tough field, with Boit and Mark Belger and James Robinson." Belger, a Villa-nova junior, is a direct, outspoken young man. "It ticks me off," he said. "I expected Mike and Juantorena to have a dynamite race and I wanted to be part of it." Belger then dilated on how the event would develop in Juantorena's absence. "Boit will take it out and hit around 51 seconds for the 400. No faster than 50 flat. Watch McLean. He runs the same as Boit, not a big kick but a good hard drive over that last 300. If you run 51 for the first 400 no one has a kick. It's just a sustained drive. Me? I'm just in it to break 1:46."
For his part, Boit revealed something of the delicacy of 800-meter pacing. "I have to hear the time for 200 meters," he said. "If it is 23 seconds, I must quit, for I am already ruined; 24 and I must float and relax; 25 is perfect; 26 and I must go harder. Hearing only the 400 split is too late for an adjustment."
To avoid the added strain of leading the entire race, Boit persuaded Seymour Newman of Jamaica to set the pace. A friend of Boit's stationed himself at the 200-meter mark to shout the crucial split. Running easily behind Newman and the fired-up Belger, the Kenyan heard "25.1." "That was fine," Boit said later. But Newman gradually slowed. The 400 split was 52.4 for Boit, then in second. Newman eased further on the third turn, and by the time they reached the back-stretch the world record was out of reach. Boit launched his drive and pulled four yards ahead, but Belger quickly got around Newman and pulled up on the lean, flowing Kenyan.
Around the last turn it appeared that the powerfully muscled Belger would run at Boit. Then, just before the stretch, he abruptly stepped off the track. "My right hamstring cramped on me before the race," he said later. "The trainer said it would be O.K., but with 120 yards to go I was out of it. Everybody was kicking and I couldn't do anything. So I bailed out." McLean rushed through the gap and held off Newman for second. Boit's winning time was 1:44.7, 1.2 seconds slower than Juantorena's world record. "I could have gone faster," he said. McLean ran a lifetime best of 1:45.2, Newman 1:45.3 and James Robinson of Berkeley, who had been fastest of all in the stretch, 1:45.9. McLean had the good fortune to cramp after the race was over. Rubbing ice on his left hamstring, he said, "I'm in shock. I've been doing stamina work, laying the foundation for a long season. I've done no real speed work at all."
Ed Moses has. The Olympic 400 hurdles champion had run the 110 highs only twice this season, but blandly predicted that he'd have a shot at winning the event in Kingston. Because Olympic silver and bronze medalists Alejandro Casanas of Cuba and Willie Davenport of Baton Rouge were in the field, such talk seemed inflammatory, no matter how it was said. Yet Davenport, for one, reacted cautiously. "Never underestimate anybody," he said. After Moses had blown by everyone over the last hurdle and won in 13.5, his best ever, Davenport added, "especially Ed Moses."
Back on the track 55 minutes later, Moses won the intermediates in 48.64, a second slower than his world record. Quentin Wheeler and Wes Williams ran smoothly to times of 49.34 and 49.44, but the race needed Akii-Bua. "The last time I saw him was just before he had to leave Montreal because of the African boycott," said Moses. "He left saying, 'Since I won't be here, you better win it.' I told him I was planning on it."
In the 1,500, Bayi returned to a favorite track and to weather similar to that of his native Tanzania. But as he has done so often, the world-record holder took his marks a tired man. He had suffered a three-week siege of malaria following the indoor season and arrived in Jamaica at the end of an exhausting 20-hour trip from Italy. After checking in, he and Tanzanian teammate Suleiman Nyambui wandered down to their hotel's poolside buffet. They sleepily filled their plates while behind them spectacular limbo dancers, some topless, all astonishingly strong and lithe, squirmed beneath flaming poles. Finally Nyambui noticed the entertainers. He and Bayi turned from the lobster and stared—wide-eyed innocents out of Africa.