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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.
What's more, the Americans added to his humbling with their postrace comments. When Robinson, the winner in the 800, was asked how it felt to beat a world-record holder, he replied, "You mean the former world-record holder." And when the 5'11" Darden mounted the victory stand to accept his gold medal in the 400, he looked down to where the 6'2" Cuban—seeming quite out of place—was waiting for his silver and said, "I'm taller than you now."
In the space of just eight days Juantorena, 27, did seem to lose a good deal of stature. But he didn't seem overly concerned about his defeats. He said he was happy with a silver medal in the 400 because Lane 1, with its sharp turns, is very difficult for him to negotiate with his long strides. Darden concurred. "Juantorena ran a good race from Lane 1," he said. "I was surprised. He ran a hell of a race." Before the 800, Juantorena was asked if he thought he could reclaim his world record. "I will," he answered without hesitation, "but not now. I am not in shape for that yet. In one month I will be better. I will run a new world record at the World Cup, perhaps. This is my first 800 meters of the year. So what can I say?"
The World Cup will be contested in Montreal in late August. When the real Alberto Juantorena stands up, will it be the world-record-setting gold medalist or the happy-go-lucky soul who appeared content with two silver medals in Sixto Escobar Stadium?
Of course, there is no better way for a runner to gain worldwide attention than to beat a world champion. Unless it is to beat him twice. Robinson won the only 800-meter race Juantorena lost last year, in Zurich, but he felt he didn't get enough recognition for the feat in the U.S. Slowly he has been building his case. In a meet in Berkeley in early June the 24-year-old history student ran what was then the year's fastest time, 1:45.6. A week later he won his third AAU 800 title in four years.
When he was competing for the University of California, Robinson was known as " Silky Sullivan," after the exciting come-from-behind thoroughbred, because he dropped so far off the lead in the early stages of a race. He was often criticized for his tactics, but last year he experimented successfully with running closer to the front, and that was the strategy he chose to employ against Juantorena. He and Owen Hamilton of Jamaica held the lead for the first 600 meters. Then Juantorena overtook them on the outside. "He kept looking back over his shoulder, which told me he was going just about as fast as he could," said Robinson.
Robinson had plenty of kick left but now he suddenly found himself boxed behind Hamilton in Lane 1 and Juantorena in Lane 2. Coming off the last turn, he saw a slight gap between the two of them and darted for it. At the same moment Hamilton veered out. His and Robinson's pumping arms locked temporarily, then Robinson surged ahead, looking more like Bronko Nagurski now than Silky Sullivan. He had Juantorena in a footrace and he beat him to the tape in 1:46.3.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, who had been thrown off stride, fell back into fourth place. His coach, Herb McKenley, promptly filed a protest, poking his finger at a replay on a TV monitor to support his case. Juantorena wandered about, posing for pictures and making eyes at girls in the stands. Eventually, Robinson was announced as the winner. "That is not the right decision," the frustrated Hamilton said. "This is dirty." McKenley appealed.
It was clear that if winning the race was important to Robinson, it mattered little to Juantorena. McKenley's appeal was eventually denied, but by then Juantorena had already announced, "The 400 meters is my race."
Juantorena's competition figured to be Willie Smith, who had bested him at that distance in Los Angeles in May. Like Robinson, Smith, who graduated from Auburn last June, felt he hadn't gotten enough recognition, or, as he put it, "I want people to realize I'm somebody and I'm doing well." Coming down the homestretch the race appeared to be a duel between Smith in Lane 6 and Juantorena in Lane 1. But in the last 10 meters, Darden suddenly burst between them to win in a personal best of 45.11. Juantorena was clocked in 45.24 and Smith in 45.30.