- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Sri Ram Singh of India led the first lap in 52.3. "Slow," said Walker. "Why isn't Boit going out?" The reason was that Boit had had a fright. "After the first 100 meters I felt a strain," he said later. "I thought I was going to pull my right hamstring. By the time I passed 200 I felt better. My plan was to try to kick with 300 to go. But if Juantorena was going fast, I was not going to pass him."
As it happened, Juantorena was just pounding into the lead with 300 to go. Boit followed, running lightly, waiting. It seemed a mistake. "He's playing into Juantorena's hands," said Walker. "He can't kick with him." But off the turn Boit came on, gaining. Juantorena looked over and strained to accelerate, his arms describing great, arhythmic arcs. With 70 meters to go, Boit was slightly ahead. "Then he came up on me again," said Boit. "We were together 10 meters from the finish." Both were staggering. Juantorena won as Boit relaxed, slipping back a meter at the end, his face passive in resignation. "You couldn't say Juantorena won going away," said Walker. "Neither one of them went much farther than the finish line." The times were 1:44.0 and 1:44.1. Juantorena had run the last lap in 51.5—faster than his first, a rarity. "It was my hardest race," said Boit. "I return the compliment," said Juantorena. "It was great competition."
But as the second day dawned gloomy and wet, a sense of foreboding descended with the rain. An errant hammer left the field, skidded across the track, across the triple jump runway, through a fence and grazed a child. An omen. Then there was the 400 meters, a race that offered fascinating possibilities. "Juantorena has drawn Lane Eight," exulted Edwin Moses, pointing out that the U.S.'s Robert Taylor was in Lane Three. "If Juantorena makes a mistake and floats a little too much, Taylor can get a lead without his knowing it. Juantorena won't see him until the homestretch because of the staggered lanes."
It turned out the trouble was not so much what Juantorena could see as what he could hear. As he rose to the set position in his lonely outside lane, two things happened. A jet from the nearby D�sseldorf airport passed low over the stadium, and the IAAF film crew began shooting with its very loud movie camera. Juantorena moved with the starter's gun but then hesitated. As he said later, "I was waiting for the second shot because I wasn't sure I had heard the first one and I thought I might have false started." Running at half speed, he looked back to see if the race was on and found that the seven other runners were making up the stagger. Still he looked, as if in appeal to the starter to abort this unfairness. Finally he took off, not panicking, but obviously not running with the power of total concentration. He entered the stretch fifth and finished third, .04 behind the modest 45.79 of East Germany's Volker Beck. Across the line Juantorena's arms were once more outstretched in appeal, his posture one of contending fatigue and rage. After a few moments of recovery, rage won, and he went wild, kicking lane markers, gesticulating menacingly at abashed officials, speaking no coherent language. At length he disappeared under the stadium and lodged a formal protest. It was granted at midnight and the race was rerun the following day.
In the rerun, Taylor did all he could against the Cuban, coming off the last turn dead even. But in the final 40 meters Juantorena was as implacable as ever, drawing away to win in 45.35 as Taylor was passed by Beck. The East German said he was happier with an untainted second place and a new national record than he was with his short-lived win.
John Walker got no second chance. Seemingly confident the day before the 1,500 meters, he said, "It will be fast, I promise you that."
As Walker had done during Boit's race, so did Boit during Walker's, calling out his view of the tactics to friends and African Team Coach Kip Keino. "Walker has used rabbits in fast races this year. [Indeed, Steve Scott of the U.S. paced Walker for the first 1,000 of his near-record 3:32.7 1,500 in Brussels a few weeks earlier.] But tonight Walker is going to end up being a rabbit himself."
Thomas Wessinghage of West Germany led the first 400 in 56.5 before Walker abruptly wrested the lead from him. Steve Ovett of Great Britain, an Olympic 800-meter finalist who has improved dramatically in the longer distances this year, stayed third. Walker had hoped for 1:53 at the half. The time was 1:55, with the field bunching up. After 1,000 meters, Keino and Boit shouted at each other, "Ovett will win! Ovett!" Down the backstretch Ovett ran away with a beautiful sprint, finishing in 3:34.5, a British record and three full seconds faster than he had ever run. Walker, who had been boxed in on the backstretch, struggled as the field flailed around the final bend. He was kicked, and he stepped into the infield and stopped as in the stands Keino broke into furious Swahili: "He should have stayed in. One day you win, one day you lose. Accept it."
The best event in terms of raw performance, and the most tantalizing, was the 400-meter relay. On the wet track, four U.S. sprinters ran, perhaps, the race of their lives to break the world record of 38.19 by .16. Bill Collins had a slight lead off the first turn. Steve Riddick churned away from everyone on the backstretch. Cliff Wiley of the University of Kansas ran Quarrie even around the last turn and with a four-yard lead prepared to hand off to Williams, who had won the 100 the day before in 10.13. Williams started slowly. Wiley got to him before he had reached top speed, coming alongside and shoving the baton at him as though it had become too hot for Wiley to handle. Williams extended the lead to six yards for the win and the record but knew full well two-or three-tenths of a second had been lost. "It was my fault we didn't run in the 37s," Williams said. "I even changed the stick to my opposite hand once I got it. There's more to do, more to do."