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Alberto Juantorena’s 400m/800m Golden Double
August 12, 2010Posted by on
The 100m/200m double in elite track & field competitions is a significant achievement in itself. Great athletes like Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt had won the twin sprints at the Olympics. The 200m/400m combination is a much challenging pairing. In major meets, only Marie Jose Perec and the iconic Michael Johnson stand out as successful conquerors of the aforesaid sprint distances. A couple of years ago, Johnson’s heir apparent, Jeremy Wariner, attempted the double unsuccessfully. The lactic acid-filled 400m race is a much different race than the 200m dash, than the half lap is to the century dash.
But then again, the 200m/400m double is not as fearsome as the 400m/800m pairing. In the history of the Olympics (as well as all the other majors – the World Championships, the European Championships, etc.), only Alberto “El Caballo” Juantorena has achieved this unusual combination of gold medals. The Australian Tamsyn Lewis had reached some measure of success in the said distances, but certainly not at the level of Juantorena’s.
Before I did the hurdles, my first event was the quarter-mile. In my readings as high school junior, the great Cuban became one of my first larger-than-life athletics heroes. Juantorena, originally a 400m sprinter, revolutionized how the 800m was run. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, he went out like a madman on the first lap of the 800m final, taking full advantage of his sprinter’s speed. The towering Cuban ran a 50.85s 400m split, his long strides clearly evident as he overpowered the field in a then world-record time of 1:43.50. He held on for a memorable gold medal, a world record at that. I can almost imagine the shock and awe of the orthodox middle distance runners at such a bold move. El Caballo followed this up with scorching hot 44.26s, the fastest 400m run at low altitude at that time.
Even though Juantorena never replicated his stellar form in Montreal (he finished a distant fourth in the 400m dash in Moscow 1980), the Cuban’s 400m-800m double remains unprecedented. Even in the youth and juniors divisions, one will be hard pressed to find examples of such eminent talent. Perhaps its because of the inherent difference between the two events. Whereas, the 100m, 200m and 400m are all sprinting events, the 800m is a middle distance event. A sub-10 second sprinter, for instance, possesses the necessary leg power to power his way to a low 45-second or a sub-45 second 400m dash. Tyson Gay is the epitome of the all-around sprinter, having bests of 9.69s, 19.58s and 44.89s in the three events.
The 400m and 800m are light-years apart. The former is classified as a “dash” while the latter is a “run.” The distance doubles, the time required to finish the distance more than doubles. For a quarter-miler – a sprinter who digs deep, but a sprinter nonetheless – such a change of pace can be disconcerting. Not everyone is as dauntless as El Caballo. In my readings the past half-decade, I can say that I’m astute with track & field history. But I have never encountered an elite level athlete attempting to duplicate Juantorena’s feat.
What makes Juantorena special? It has to be in his long-strides and powerfully-built body. A former basketball player, Juantorena had a 9-foot (2.75m) stride. This combination of free-flowing, rhythmic strides and a sprinter’s natural affinity for speed overwhelmed his competitors, who were mostly tactical middle distance runners. Down the homestretch, the wiry middle distance specialists had no answer to the White Lightning’s long-striding, fast-finishing ways.
Winning multiple Olympic track & field golds is not as easy as bagging multiple swimming golds. Unlike in swimming, the disciplines in athletics possesses inherently vast differences in terms of energy utilization and technical proficiency. Track & field may never see the likes of a Michael Phelps, but it has its fair share of multiple medalists in the likes of Emil Zatopek (5000m, 10,000m, Marathon), Carl Lewis (100m, 200m, Long Jump, 4x100m), Usain Bolt (100m, 200m, 4x100m), Michael Johnson (200m, 400m, 4x400m) and Alberto Juantorena, whose gold medal winning ways in Montreal 1976 are truly legendary, a feat that would take generations to emulate.