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Pat Putnam
May 14, 1979
Alberto Juantorena and his band of fellow Cubans came out smoking in the UCLA meet, but Americans beat them to the tape every time
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May 14, 1979

Close, But No Cigar

Alberto Juantorena and his band of fellow Cubans came out smoking in the UCLA meet, but Americans beat them to the tape every time

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The three finest high hurdlers in the world—if you ignore Thomas Munkelt of East Germany, who was not in Los Angeles last week—peeled off their warmups and dumped them in untidy little piles alongside UCLA's recently resurfaced Tartan track. With studied casualness, each sought out his assigned starting blocks, checked them to see that they were properly secured, and then settled in, coiled, compressed.

Renaldo Nehemiah, the 20-year-old world-record holder from the University of Maryland, was in the third lane. At 6'1" and 170 pounds he has the lines of a greyhound, and runs with a form so fluid, so textbook perfect, it is said he has nothing left to improve, which annoys him. He was the favorite.

In Lane 4, to the immediate left of Nehemiah, was Greg Foster, a UCLA junior. He is tall and broad (6'3", 180), not graceful, just swift and strong. He does not hurdle the barriers, he attacks them. Last year he crashed into four hurdles and still ran a 13.22 for the 110-meter event, then an American record.

In Lane 5 was Alejandro Casa�as, who is slightly taller than Nehemiah but just as lean. A 25-year-old Cuban majoring in economics at the University of Havana, Casa�as held the world record (13.21) until Nehemiah lowered it to 13.16 on April 14. He wanted the record back.

" Nehemiah talks too much," Casa�as whispered to an American journalist shortly after the Cuban team led by Olympic hero Alberto Juantorena arrived in Los Angeles last Thursday.

"Not so," the journalist said. "He's just a very nice outgoing person. He's become very confident, yes, but not cocky."

Casa�as considered that for a brief moment. Then he said, "He still talks too much." But he smiled.

For the Cuban track and field contingent—eight athletes, plus four officials—the trip to L.A. for the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational, which was organized by Al Franken, was a historic moment. No Cuban track athletes had competed in the U.S. since Fidel Castro took over in 1959. "We are happy they invited us, and we are happy to be here," said Juantorena, the double gold-medal winner at Montreal, in nearly flawless English. He was the team's accommodating and charming spokesman. "Someday I am hopeful we will be able to come here and compete often, perhaps even to train. And maybe someday the American athletes can come to Cuba to compete and train. I think they would like it."

And then, almost as an afterthought, the 27-year-old Cuban, whose long, powerful strides and muscular build—6'2", 185 pounds—have earned him the nickname "El Caballo" (The Horse), asked whom he would be racing against in the 400. Earlier Juantorena had said he would not compete in his other specialty, the 800, in which he holds the world record, because he was not in good enough physical condition. For the Cubans this would be their first competition since last fall.

Told that Billy Mullins of USC, No. 2 in the world to Juantorena in the 400 last year, had scratched because of an injured Achilles, the Cuban nodded without expression. But he was told he would be running against Auburn's Willie Smith, No. 3 in the world last year, Herman Frazier, the bronze medalist in the 400 at Montreal, and Benny Brown, who with Frazier had run on the victorious 4 x 400 relay at the 1976 Games.

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