A year later, nearly to the day, Skeets Nehemiah replays the finals of the 110-meter hurdles in the Moscow Olympics and knows he would have beaten the East German winner by "six or seven yards." He estimates the U.S. boycott cost him perhaps as much as $1 million in job and endorsement-related income.
"I was the guy for the U.S.," he was saying to two reporters also bright enough to come in out of the rain less than an hour before his event this drizzly National Sports Festival day. "Edwin Moses won the gold (in another event, the 400-meter hurdles) in '76, but I was the guy who was heading the team. I had a good rapport mediawise, and was going nuts with records.
"It was right there for the grabbing."
As athletes become Olympic champions only after the most intense dedication, Olympic heroes also are made rather than born. In large part, they are created by television, examined up close personally before the Games, hyped during the Games and courted as soon as they step off the victory stand with their gold medals.
Young and handsome, articulate, personable in a way Moses can never be and likely as exquisite an athlete, Nehemiah surely would have been America's athletic darling, the Sugar Ray Leonard of the '80 Games. Fame and fortune still are possible, he believes, postponed until the '84 Games in Los Angeles, rather than snuffed out.
"I'm gonna try to hold it (dominance of the event) till then," he said. "I'll be 25 in '84. They say you peak in this event at 23 or 24. (Willie) Davenport was no worse than fourth (in the world) for 14 years. (Rod) Milburn kept that level for about five years. It'll be tough, because there's no way I can go but down."
Nehemiah was here today to see just how soon that might happen. His major rival, Greg Foster, was saying it already had. This was their first meeting since Foster overwhelmed Nehemiah May 10. A short time later, in a 100-meter race at Maryland, Skeets chipped two bones in his right foot.
Thirteen seconds after the starter's gun sent them off today, the question of Nehemiah's superiority was answered. He still is the best, by steps, matching his world record of 13.0 seconds, but with a wind-aided asterisk, and he relishes telling us by how much.
"A 13.2 is an offtime for me," he said. "For him (Foster) to do 13.2, he has to get pumped up."
Until somebody begins nipping regularly at his heels, the incentive for Nehemiah is the clock.
"I wasn't prepared to train seriously another four years," he said of his preboycott plans. "Maybe another two years. Now I have to dig down and project though '84. Mainly, everything before happened to me so fast I started losing touch with what sport was all about. It wasn't as much fun as it used to be, knowing only one person could beat me."
That person was Foster, and today Nehemiah again left him back up the track (at 13.22) and removed any doubts about how completely his right foot has mended. Nehemiah calls himself "sorta mystical, a state-of-mind hurdler" and after the race he seemed to want to foster some doubts in Foster.
Doesn't he worry about Foster?
Still, Nehemiah allowed, that does not mean Foster will never beat him.
"But I've run my best times without him. I train at a high level. I pretty much run my times in practice. It's just a matter of getting a track." p
That is not as simple as it sounds, even for someone so exceptional. His coach of a month, Wilbur Ross, said it is common for them to line up a course, with all 10 hurdles, on the street in front of his house in Somerville, N.J. Ross redirects traffic.
"Sometimes," Nehemiah said, "I'll have handicap races, spot someone five yards or 10 yards. Sometimes I'll pull him (the 220-pound Ross) up an incline. I have yet to be over 13 in (recent) training. I did 12.52 last Sunday. My best has been 12.46. The times are there. I can't tell you why."
He wants to hit 12.5 in competition.
Ross wants more.
"His potential is 11.9," Ross said, and when some eyebrows popped above the hairline, he added: "You asked for the truth; I gave it to you."
In truth, the Nehemiah-Foster rivalry lately has been even more heated than usual.
"We run against each other so much I try not to blow it out of proportion," Nehemiah said. "It's more friendly when I win. When he wins, it's an East-West split. (Foster, who is from the Midwest, lives in California). But I'm the most consistent hurdler in the world. I've run the most twos (13.2s), the most ones of anyone in the whole history of the sport."
His deal with Puma, the sporting goods firm, allows him to train and compete whenever he wants. A European tour will begin this week. His spirit was down after the injury, then lifted immeasurably after his return to competition July 15 in Switzerland.
"When you run 26 (13.26) after two weeks of training," he said, "it's tough to tell yourself you're really out of it. I'm not content with saying that at my worst I can be No. 2 in the world. There's a lot of people who would like that. But there's no one person I look forward to beating at the moment. Just the clock."
He looked forwart to beating Foster today, and was so effective Foster hit the last two hurdles. That happens when the trailing runner tries too hard and overstrides, Nehemiah said.
"All I do is listen for wood," he added, still full of himself an hour after victory. "When I hear it, the race is all over."