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Alberto Juantorena came as something of a shock to the normally sedate Moscow. As he entered, diners in all parts of the Havana restaurant broke into applause. Within seconds he was engulfed by waiters, who shook his hand and clapped him on the back. Next he was swept into the kitchen, where he exchanged abrazos with every last potato peeler. Finally permitted to sit down to dinner, Juantorena was gawked at and clucked over the rest of the evening.
"The Cuban people are warm and friendly and I'm glad they enjoy my presence," Juantorena said the next morning, reflecting on the impact of his night on the town. Then he frowned. "Of course, sometimes I wish they enjoyed it a little less. Please do not misunderstand. It's just that my main purpose last night, my goal, was simply to have dinner."
The last time Alberto Juantorena could dine out in Cuba without causing a sensation—or, indeed, could stroll along a palm-lined boulevard without being noticed—was back before the 1976 Olympics. Until that time he was admired by his countrymen as a very good 400-meter runner—but that was the extent of it. Then, at Montreal, he became the first in Olympic history to win both the 400 and 800 meters. Counting heats in these events and the 4x400 relay, this involved nine races in as many days, and Juantorena pulled it off in awesome fashion. He is 6'3" and 185 pounds, and he runs with long, thundering strides. Eschewing strategy and tactics, he just went out and ran, first winning the 800 in 1:43.5, a world record, and then the 400 in 44.26, the fastest clocking ever at sea level. In both races he flicked off challengers like flies.
It takes endurance to excel in the 800 and speed to win the 400, and Juantorena's protean achievement earned him an international stature enjoyed among current Cuban athletes only by heavyweight boxer Te�filo Stevenson. Tass, UPI and Reuters, among others, lavished sports-man-of-the-year awards on him, and UCLA Track Coach Jim Bush called his 400-800 double "the greatest feat in Olympic history." An awed John Walker, New Zealand's gold medalist in the 1,500 meters, lauded the Cuban as "the prototype of the athlete of tomorrow," making him sound like some sort of sci-fi creation. Now 25 and plotting new conquests for the 1980 Olympics, Juantorena was as formidable as ever as the 1977 season warmed up. On an early-summer European tour, he won 13 of 13 races, with the fastest times in the year up to then in both the 400 (44.8) and 800 (1:43.7).
Nothing underscores the change in Juantorena's circumstances more dramatically than the adulation he now receives from the Cuban people, which is the phenomenon he was discussing on the morning after his Dolly Levi-like entrance at the Moscow. The conversation took place at his blue stucco house on Avenida G, a bustling boulevard in Havana's Vedado district, a residential neighborhood popular with wealthy Americans before the revolution. It is a sturdy old house, grilled and balustraded and shaded by spreading laurels and almond trees. Inside the arched doorway is a high-ceilinged sala, simply furnished and dominated by the inevitable photo of Che Guevara.
Juantorena was wearing jeans, a yellow T shirt and blue running shoes. Ramrod straight, with a sloping forehead and strong chin beneath a steel-wool Afro, he seemed at first impression relaxed, even serene. Then, however, he sat down on a rocking chair on the porch. In his 1958 novel Our Man in Havana , Graham Greene wrote of two gentlemen languidly rocking on a patio and "making little currents of air." That was in the Cuba of convent schools and crisp tropical suits. This is a different Cuba and Alberto Juantorena rocked furiously. And when he momentarily ceased rocking, he tapped his feet energetically. A man of motion.
Juantorena spoke of a three-week trip he was to undertake the next day. It would begin with the Central American Games in Mexico. Next would come the World University Games in Sofia, Bulgaria. Then, after returning briefly to Cuba, he would compete in early September in track and field's first World Cup, in D�sseldorf, West Germany. Wherever he went, he well realized, he would be the subject of considerable attention.
"It was the same thing in Europe this summer—just terrible," he said. "Reporters were after me every minute. I had no privacy. I got fed up." He smiled wanly and—it seemed—apologetically. "Of course, as last night demonstrated, my private life is finished in Cuba, too. Sometimes you want to go out in the streets, go unrecognized and just have fun."
His desire for privacy, Juantorena went on, was one reason he had arranged earlier that same morning to move his family into a new house two blocks away. The house in which he now lived—and in which he was now rocking so lustily—belonged to his father-in-law. Pedro Cardona, an official in the sugarcane cutters syndicate. Juantorena moved in four years ago when he married the second of Cardona's three daughters. Today the four-bedroom dwelling is home to Alberto and Yria Juantorena and their two children as well as to the Cardonas and their unmarried daughters—eight people in all.
"When a man has a family, he naturally wants his own place," Juantorena said, rocking busily on. "My new house is big and it is on a quieter street."