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He became a 400-meter specialist and in the 1972 Olympics just missed one of the eight places in the finals by running fifth in his semifinal heat. In late 1974 and again in early 1975 he underwent surgery on his left foot for tendon and arch problems. Only his Cuban teammates fully appreciated the achievement when, less than five months after being in a full leg cast, he finished second to Ronnie Ray of the U.S. at the 1975 Pan-American Games. The other Cubans nicknamed the powerful Juantorena el caballo (the horse) and Eddy Gutierrez James, Cuba's No. 2 man in the 400, realized he was going to remain No. 2. "Like most 400 runners I go at top speed the first 350 meters and then struggle," James says. "Alberto was different. He didn't seem to tire those last 50 meters."
Juantorena's ability to sustain speed also impressed Zygmunt Zabierzowski, his Polish coach, who introduced him to a bit of distance work in late 1975. Juantorena recalls, "I wondered what was going on. When he told me he was thinking about the 800, I got violent. I thought he was crazy. With the 800 scheduled first in the Olympics, I was afraid I'd wear myself out and ruin my chances in the 400, too." With his training times rapidly improving, however, Juantorena warmed to the idea of trying the 800. Even so, the decision to go for the double was not made until two weeks before the Games.
The way trackside observers had it figured at Montreal, Juantorena's only realistic strategy in the 800 would be to lay back, pray that the front-runners would misjudge the pace and then use his quarter-miler's speed to outkick them. Instead, displaying supreme confidence and a chilling sense of pace, he surged ahead at 600 meters and stayed there, amazingly maintaining his long sprinter's stride all the way. "I thought Rick Wohlhuter would catch him," says UCLA's Bush, referring to the American who would settle for the bronze behind the late Ivo Van Damme of Belgium. "This man just kept going and going and going." At the postrace press conference, el caballo showed off his English. "I don't like run in the back," he said.
The question remained whether the victory had taken too much out of Juantorena for the 400. The answer came when he was on Fred Newhouse's shoulder at 300 meters, then pounded ahead to win by a couple of widening steps. On the alltime list, his 44.26 ranks behind only Lee Evans' 43.86 and Larry James' 43.97, both times achieved in Mexico City's rarefied air in the 1968 Games. Americans had last lost an Olympic 400 at Helsinki in 1952 and Juantorena allows that it was a "very great satisfaction" to end their supremacy—but only, he quickly adds, "from a healthy sports point of view."
Juantorena's Montreal performance was tarnished by the absence of Kenya's 800-meter star Mike Boit, who did not compete because of the African boycott. Frustratingly, the two have not run against each other to this day. They did, however, engage in a rather curious minuet in late June at a two-day meet in London, where Boit showed up with the avowed intention of running the 1,500, while Juantorena was entered in the 400 and 800. After Juantorena won the 400 on the first day, Boit suddenly announced that he would compete in the 800 the next day, scratching from the 1,500. When Cuban coaches angrily threatened to withdraw their man, flustered meet officials decided to stage two 800s. And so, the world's two best 800-meter men ran in London that day and both won: Boit in 1:45.68, Juantorena in 1:45.51.
It was a ludicrous situation and Boit later admitted that the reason he initially declared out of the 800 was to lure Juantorena into it. "I tried to trick him—but no luck," the Kenyan said. "He refused to run against me. I can beat him and that's why he's dodging me."
This charge distresses Jorge Cumber-batch, a normally good-humored little fellow who assumed the job of coaching Juantorena after Zabierzowski returned to Poland last January. Cumberbatch, who was Cuba's premier quarter-miler a decade ago, was on hand for Juantorena's last afternoon workout before the trip to Mexico. The session took place in the lush surroundings of Havana's Rover Club, a hilly nine-hole golf course founded by British residents before the Castro takeover. The club now attracts only a smattering of foreign diplomats, which means that Juantorena can run on its sloping fairways without much worry of getting beaned by golf balls.
Juantorena's wife and daughter came with him to the golf course. "It's a nice place for Irita to run," said Yria, who then went off in pursuit of her romping child. Her husband loped off in a different direction. He was shirtless and wore his shorts pulled high; long-legged as he is, he thus seemed even more so. He also wore, as always, calf-high socks. Juantorena's feet blister easily and he says that socks keep his shoes from chafing his feet. But why calf-high? "I guess it's a habit from basketball days," he says.
Juantorena bounded up a hill and soon became a speck in the distance. After watching him disappear, Cumberbatch spoke of Mike Boit. "We want to compete against Boit, but under fair conditions," he said. "Boit assured us privately before we got to London that he was not going to run in the 800 and we planned our races there simply as part of our training. Alberto became annoyed at Boit's little tricks and wanted to run against him anyway, but I wouldn't let him." Cumberbatch's voice was rising now. "I am nor putting my man's prestige on the line when he is tired and the other man is fresh as lettuce."
Their handling of the situation in London made it seem that the Cubans were trying to keep Juantorena unbeaten in all manner of competition, big and little, an objective important to fight managers but not, usually, to track men. Juantorena, for his part, denies having any such frivolous concerns. "If I'd run against Boit in London and he'd beaten me, well, that would have been that," he says. "Of course, then I would have chased him all over Europe to pay him back."