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JUANTORENA GETS AMBUSHED
Joe Marshall
July 23, 1979
Alberto Juantorena came to the Pan-American Games an almost august figure. He was the gold medalist at both 400 and 800 meters in the 1976 Olympics, an unprecedented accomplishment. In the 400 he had ranked first in the world for three consecutive years, and in the 800 he had been the world-record holder since 1976. Yet for all that, Juantorena wound up a loser last week in San Juan. Before he had even run a race, word arrived that his 800 record had been obliterated, Sebastian Coe of Great Britain having knocked a full second off the mark on July 5 with a 1:42.4 in Oslo. When Juantorena did step on the track, two Americans, James Robinson and Tony Darden, beat him in his specialties.
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July 23, 1979

Juantorena Gets Ambushed

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Darden also clearly needed to get himself some recognition. In the postrace interview, reporters kept calling him "Tom," which is how the program had him listed. Finally, Darden corrected them. "It's not Tom, it's Tony. Thomas Darden is my cousin," he said emphatically. His cousin is a defensive back for the Cleveland Browns.

Not so long ago, Tony Darden was considered a hot prospect in track. When he entered Arizona State in the fall of 1976, he held the 400-meter national high school record of 45.7. As a freshman he ran a 45.60, but the following year he failed to improve. His 1978 best was 46.20, which gave him the dubious distinction of being, by rough reckoning, the 53rd-fastest 400-meter man in the world. Disgusted, he dropped out of school this past year and moved back home to Philadelphia to train seriously and see if he could regain his form. Last winter he briefly took a job with United Parcel, loading trucks in a warehouse.

"In 1978 I was having all sorts of problems," Darden said. "I was living off campus, trying to feed myself without asking my parents for any money. Most people thought I was a flop, that I wouldn't be around much longer as a runner. Now I'm living with my parents and all I do is train."

Herman Frazier, the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400 and a member of the victorious 1,600-meter relay team in San Juan, who was a senior at Arizona State while Darden was a freshman, praised Darden's strong finish as his biggest asset. "If he is anywhere near you with 40 meters to go," he said, "you better watch out."

"I can run a smooth 300," said Darden, "but I always save one burst of speed for the last 100."

Darden reemerged on the track scene at last month's AAU championships in Walnut, Calif., where he finished second in 45.14, just .04 behind Smith. Now, with his Pan-American victory, he feels he has reestablished himself as a world-class 400-meter runner. "This is the kind of race you always look for," he said. "You just want to win that one fantastic race. I prepared myself for this one. Now my plan is to wait for Moscow." And what about Juantorena? "You can't feel sorry for someone of his caliber," Darden said. "He's an idol for so many people. He has had his day."

The day in San Juan was not Juantorena's in more ways than one. Before the start of his semifinal in the 400, he was heckled from the stands by two vocal Cuban exiles. "There is no food in Cuba!" they yelled. "People are starving!" Juantorena walked toward the hecklers. "Do I look undernourished?" he retorted angrily. An exchange of insults followed, with Juantorena gesticulating and threatening to come up into the stands. Finally, two officials intervened and gently persuaded the Cuban runner to return to the starting blocks.

Alejandro Casa�as of Cuba, the former world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, and an even more fervent patriot than Juantorena, lost for the fifth consecutive time to Renaldo Nehemiah, who broke Casa�as' mark of 13.21 earlier this year and has since lowered it to 13 flat. Nehemiah had arrived in San Juan with a 103� fever, and though he shook that, he was obviously still suffering from the effects of a head cold when he lined up for the finals. Yet he not only beat Casa�as by five meters, he also beat the Cuban's best time ever when he turned in a 13.20.

Casa�as has refused to talk to Nehemiah at recent races, prompting the notion that he is feuding with the American from the University of Maryland. In the days preceding their Pan-Am showdown Casa�as pointedly refused to shake hands with Nehemiah, saying belligerently, "I'm a Cuban." But following the race Nehemiah revealed a new twist in the relationship: "After we crossed the finish line, Casa�as said, 'Good race.' That's the nicest thing he's ever said to me." A few moments later Casa�as had even nicer things to say about his rival. " Nehemiah is the best hurdler in the world today," he acknowledged.

Only Silvio Leonard, the No. 1-ranked 100-meter man held the Cubans' end up against the American men. Leonard used his blazing start to run a 100-200 double. He led from the start in both races, winning the 100 in 10.13, the 200 in 20.37. In neither race, however, did the Americans have their AAU champion in the field.

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