Renaldo Nehemiah was autographing an orange for a young fan, which was difficult because the oil in the skin made his ball-point pen skip, and if he pressed too hard, the peel would tear. It seemed silly, too, because autographs are for saving, and the observer's imagination jumped ahead to the furry, green, odiferous lump that the orange would be after six months atop the fan's dresser in Santa Monica.
"But, Mom," he'd wail, "Skeets Nehemiah signed that orange just for me."
"Child, his name is completely overgrown," she'd say, "and if he's a good man, I know he wouldn't want you breathing germs every night from his own signature."
Nehemiah is a good man, though he was a little rushed last Friday night in the Sunkist (thus the bins of oranges in the Los Angeles Sports Arena infield) Indoor Invitational Track Meet. First he set a 50-yard high-hurdle indoor world record of 6.01 seconds, .03 better than his old one. Twenty minutes later he returned to flow through the more frequently run 60-yard highs in 6.98, the season's best time until he clocked a 6.92 in The Dallas Times Herald Invitational the next night. Small wonder he never got around to addressing the question of the decaying memento.
Nehemiah is, of course, the master of these brief bursts that are indoor hurdling. He holds the 60-yard record of 6.89, and has run 12 of the 13 fastest times at that distance, yet seldom has he looked more in control than he did last week. Twice in Los Angeles he beat strong fields to the first hurdle and then employed his perfectly grooved form, the remarkable low stretch over the barriers that makes him look, from the side, as if he could hurdle through a keyhole, to fly ever farther out of reach and finally put some steam into an indoor season that he feels has been flat so far.
"Most athletes aren't enthusiastic right now," he said while laboriously inscribing the orange. "Even last year there wasn't anyone competing with reckless abandon, except for Mary Decker." The reason then was the need to train toward a summer Olympic peak. The reason now is that no American got to Moscow because of the U.S. boycott.
"Track's only Utopia is the Olympic Games," Nehemiah went on. "That's the only time we enjoy the total absorption of the media. It was sad to miss it, and the sport as a whole seems to be still feeling it, moping around."
Last winter Nehemiah was hurt, having torn cartilage in his left ankle in a pickup basketball game. "Strangely, the boycott acted like a cushion to me then," he said. "It was a shame for all the athletes, but it helped me personally to take being injured. I knew it didn't really matter how long I needed to come back. So I turned out to have a good summer."
One cannot imagine a more opposite view than that of Evelyn Ashford. The best U.S. woman sprinter since 1977 and the world's best in 1979, Ashford, like Nehemiah, was injured in 1980, going down with a right hamstring pull last May.
While Nehemiah was soothed by the boycott's lifting of Olympic pressure, Ashford was devastated. "I remember exactly how I felt," she said. "My leg really hurt, but I thought, 'Big deal. I'm not going to the Olympics anyway.' In fact, I think that because I knew there'd be no Games for me, I had no incentive to prevent the injury. The boycott literally tore me apart."