Renaldo Nehemiah, the world record-holding hurdler who spent four years in professional football, had his amateur status reinstated yesterday by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) in Athens. It's unclear, however, whether this ruling means Nehemiah will be eligible to participate in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
The announcement came just two months after the San Francisco 49ers withdrew their 1986 contract offer to Nehemiah, rendering the 27-year-old a free agent. Since then, no other NFL team has signed the wide receiver.
Perhaps this is why Nehemiah spoke in a relieved voice yesterday from his San Francisco home, saying: "Everything is timing in my business. When I became disenchanted with track and field in 1982, I had the chance to turn to football. Now, I finally get reinstated. The timing of this was perfect.
"I'm fit, I'm really excited and I'm extremely hungry. I don't know how many people could be away for four years and come back. I believe I can."
Nehemiah set a world record of 12.93 in the 110-meter hurdles in August 1981 and has five of the six fastest times ever in the event. He said, "They're running slower now in the 110 hurdles than when I was competing. I know the times of these guys. I just don't know their faces.
"My understanding, as it is now, is that I'm able to run as of this minute in any international event. I haven't pursued it as far as the Olympics. I guess I have two more years to take on that challenge. I hope it will be an easier road to endure than this was."
Nehemiah said he might compete as soon as the U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston, July 25 to Aug. 3, or perhaps in Europe early next month. "It's possible America will have to wait for my debut until the indoor season next winter ," Nehemiah said. "If I have to sacrifice a little time before returning , I will. I know what I was ranked when I left the sport."
Nehemiah submitted a signed statement to the IAAF, through his agent, Ron Stanko, saying that he would "forgo further pecuniary reward or compensation in the sport of football."
The IAAF, which several times previously rejected Nehemiah's attempt to have his amateur status restored, released a statement yesterday that said, in part: "The council took into consideration a signed undertaking from the athlete. When the request from Mr. Nehemiah was last heard, he was still a professional footballer. However, it was agreed that this signed declaration now changed completely the former situation."
Pete Cava, a spokesman for The Athletics Congress, the governing body for track and field in the United States, said the decision of whether Nehemiah can compete in the Seoul Games "is up to the International Olympic Committee, and up until now, people like U.S. shot putter Brian Oldfield, who competed in the pro circuit, the International Track Association, in the early '70s, have been barred from the Olympics by the IOC." No spokesman could be reached yesterday at the IOC, which is based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Cava said Ollan Cassell, TAC executive director and a member of the IAAF council, told him the ruling on Nehemiah will have no bearing on the situations of other track and field stars in the NFL, such as Chicago's Willie Gault and the 49ers' Michael Carter. " Cassell said the others will be considered on an individual basis," Cava said. "He said the thing that put Nehemiah over the top is that he is retired from football."
Nehemiah caught 43 passes in his first three seasons with the 49ers, then spent all of last season on the injured list because of a back problem. "I was fortunate enough to score a touchdown, to win a Super Bowl and to get knocked unconscious. I guess you could say I saw it all in the NFL," he said. "I played on a team with a controlled-type offense. With my speed, I needed the type of team that likes to throw deep more."
Nehemiah said he has been in training for track since February, with the hope that he would be reinstated. He said he often ran alone at the nearby College of San Mateo, where his wife, Patrice, timed him.
Nehemiah said he made treks to New Jersey in March, April and May to train with his former high school coach. "I needed to get back to my roots," he said. He said he has trimmed about 17 pounds off his 6-foot frame and now weighs about 175 or 176. "When I started out in February, I was light years away from being the old Renaldo," he said. Now, he added, he feels he can once again run a sub-13-second race.
Frank Costello, the University of Maryland's strength coach who coached Nehemiah on the Terrapins track team from 1977 to 1980, said: "Ego is very important to a superstar. Nehemiah is a superstar and Skeets has an ego. He can use this ego to bring back greatness, to say to himself, 'Here's a second wind and a chance to achieve something again.'
"Nehemiah will be a very high-priced item in track and field when he comes back. Whoever gets him in his first meet back will have to pay him megabucks."