Warming up for the hungrily awaited resumption of his high hurdles rivalry with Renaldo Nehemiah last Friday night, Greg Foster seemed typically overwrought. Again and again he snapped over a practice hurdle. Again and again he landed off-balance. In a few minutes he would race Nehemiah and three others over 60 meters and five flights of these barriers. Now he couldn't get one hurdle right.
The meet was the Sunkist Invitational in Los Angeles, where Foster is well known. "Greg will DNF again," said one observer. DNF is the mortifying notation found at the bottom of race results: Did Not Finish. It might have stood for Decidedly Nervous Foster. "It's not a question of whether he self-destructs but where," the man continued. "The first hurdle? The last?"
Thus the strange plight of a devoted and enigmatic man. Only Nehemiah, in his 1981 world record of 12.93, has ever run the outdoor 110-meter hurdles faster than Foster. And Foster drove him to it in that race with 13.03. But Foster was always a panicky competitor. "He used to ruin his races by trying too hard," says his adviser and former coach, Bob Kersee. Ruin often meant splintered hurdles and stitches, the price of repeatedly going out of control chasing the fast-starting Nehemiah.
From 1978 to 1982, indoors and out, they raced 34 times. Nehemiah won 28, Foster 5, and they tied once, in Philadelphia in 1979, when both ran a world indoor record 6.95 for the 60-yard highs. In five of those races, Foster DNF'ed. Damned Nemesis Forever.
But in 1982, Nehemiah left track for a career as an NFL receiver with the 49ers. Foster continued to excel but never fully expanded into the record-holder's vacuum. He won the 1983 World Championships but got a shaky start in the 1984 Olympic final and was nipped by another American, Roger Kingdom, for the gold. Disaster Needs Fodder.
Over the last four years Foster has pulled up or fallen in eight major races, though his good races have been impressive. He was ranked first in the world in 1986 by Track & Field News. Then who should drop back into his dreams but Nehemiah. Demons Never Fade.
The NFL's violent nature did not appeal to Nehemiah. Hurdlers delight in missing things, while defensive backs lust to strike solid carcass. Nehemiah was always tough, but that didn't mean he had to like it. After four years during which he endured knee, back, ankle and eye injuries while fighting a long battle with the International Amateur Athletic Federation to regain his track eligibility, he Departed Niner Football.
Nehemiah was able to run only one race last summer, in Viareggio, Italy, a meet in which Foster didn't compete. Though injured, Nehemiah won it in 13.48.
Foster couldn't believe it. "He can't have suffered all that damage and loss of flexibility and still beat me," he said. "He'll never beat me."
Then Foster thought about it and recanted. "I was, uh, heated when I said that. Football may have helped him. I don't know. But I can't sensibly say I'll never lose to the guy."