Readers of a younger nature may be totally oblivious to Alberto Juantorena but watch him once and you’ll be amazed at the ease at which he travelled round the track at speed. He was one of my Grandfather’s favourite runners and, having watched some videos of Juantorena, it was easy to see why. Competing between 1976 and 1984 ‘White Lightning’ (as he was known in Britain) was one of the most naturally talented runners to ever grace the track.
Born in Santiago de Cuba in 1950 it was quickly established that Juantorena would be tall and athletic and it was originally assumed that he would veer into basketball. Standing at 6ft 2inches at 14 years old it seemed obvious that basketball would be his eventual career and so he was sent to the state basketball school to hone his talents.
In Juantorena’s own words he was “a bad basketball player” and he started to look around for another sporting discipline to utilise his natural athletic ability. In school he had been a regional high-school champion at 800 metres and 1500 metres so it seemed that track may be the natural way to go. This was further defined when Polish track coach Zygmunt Zabierzowski spotted Juantorena’s natural running ability and convinced him to start taking it seriously.
It was only a year after taking up track athletics that Juantorena qualified for the 1972 Olympics in Munich where he reached the semi-final of the 400m. It seemed that the switch to track was going to pay off.
The next few years saw Juantorena grabbing gold medals left, right and centre. In 1973 he picked up a gold at the 1973 Central American and Caribbean Championships at 400m followed up two months later with a gold in the 1973 Summer Universiade in Moscow at 400m. 1974 also saw him pick up gold at 400m at the Central American and Caribbean Games. He picked up two silvers at the Pan American Games in 1975 at 400m and the 4x400m relay before having an operation on his foot.
Juantorena stepped up to 800m in 1976 after initially being tricked by his coach into trying it by convincing him that the other runners needed a pacemaker. Despite this he made it to the Olympic Games finals that year winning gold in both 400m and 800m. In the 800m final Juantorena led the field throughout and won the race with a world record time of 1:43:50. Also competing in this race was a young Steve Ovett and Belgian Ivo Van Damme who finished second. Van Damme would tragically lose his life five months later when he was killed in a car crash. The experience was invaluable to Ovett who went on to pick up gold four years later in Moscow.
He continued to dabble with both 400m and 800m distances over the next few years finding success in both. In the IAAF World Cup at Dusseldorf in 1977 he again won gold in both 400m and 800m and picked up a bronze in the 4x400m relay. In the 400m, however, the initial run finished in controversial fashion when Juantorena, who finished third, lodged an official complaint due to not being able to hear the starters gun. The race was re-run the next day with Juantorena picking up gold despite spirited competition from Kenya’s Mike Boit.
1977 was to be the beginning of the end of Alberto Juantorena’s dominance. Having been born with flat feet that constantly caused him problems with his back and feet he decided to have corrective surgery. Despite this he continued to dominate at 400m in 1978 picking up gold at the Central American and Caribbean Games as well as a gold in the 800m. 1978, however, started to show frailties at the 800m discipline as Juantorena started to pick up hamstring injuries on a consistent basis at this distance.
The hamstring injuries were to hamper his build up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics where he missed out on a medal at 400m after placing fourth. But he bounced back in 1981 where he picked up a gold at 800m at the Central American and Caribbean Championships followed by a gold at the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1982 at 800m.
1983 ended in disaster when, in a freak accident, he broke his foot and tore ligaments when he stepped up to a kerb on the inside of the track after qualifying in the first round of the 800m. Everyone told him his career was over but Juantorena returned to training and had an eye on the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But Cuba joined a boycott of the Olympics meaning that his international career was over.
But it doesn’t end on a sad note as he competed one more time at the 1984 Friendship Games in Moscow at 800m and won gold. Alberto Juantorena retired from athletics soon after with a tally of 13 Gold medals, 5 Silver medals and 2 Bronze medals throughout his career.
Since retirement El Caballo (The Horse), as he was known in Cuba, has had many official roles representing Cuba and also sits on the International Olympic Committee and still competes in marathons as well as running at least 10km’s a day.
He is also the subject of a David Coleman commentating quiz question in many sporting quizzes. The question (or a variation of it) is as follows:
‘When David Coleman said “The big Cuban opened his legs and showed his class” which athlete was he talking about?’
That is a story in itself though as Private Eye attributed the quote to David Coleman but Coleman never actually uttered those words as they were in fact the words of Coleman’s fellow commentator the late Ron Pickering.
Juantorena remains the only man in the history of modern Olympics to do both the 400m and 800m double. Many have tried to do the double and every single one of them have failed. For that reason alone he is worth checking out.
Running Icons – Men’s Running August 2013