HAVANA TIMES — “One day I was in training and they told me that I was going to run the 800 meters in the Olympics. I was scared because my event was the 400. I thought I might get run out of gas in the competition that wasn’t mine and I wouldn’t be able to win medals in either the 400 or the 800.”
Alberto Juantorena’s initial unease seemed logical, but his Polish coach understood his potential even better than he did. In the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games he was victorious in both the 400 and the 800 meter races, a feat that no other athlete has been able to repeat.
“When I went to the Olympics in Montreal I had an advantage: no one was expecting much from me because I didn’t have a history. They wondered: “Who is this big jabado (mixture of black and white), practically the height of a basketball player (I was 6’ 3”) and so skinny?”
He had that advantage until the last moment “in the elimination rounds when I placed third and fourth and only one time did I reach second. That was on purpose; the strategy was conceived of and designed by my coach.”
The Polish strategy
Underestimation wasn’t the only key to Alberto Juantorena’s victory. His coach, Zygmunt Zabierzowski, had developed a strategy for wearing down the runner’s opponents from the start by moving at a faster pace than normal in the 800 meters.
The big favorites in the 1976 Montreal competition were Belgian athlete Ivo Van Damme and American runner Rick Wolhutter. “They were endurance runners, so when I did the first lap in 50.5 seconds, I burned them out. Wolhutter ran parallel to me for 700 meters but that ultimately cost him a third place position.”
When I came in first I felt “a tremendous shock, tremendous surprise and huge wave of joy. As an unknown with no history in the 800 meters, by winning a gold medal in the Olympics I felt like the king of the world. It seemed like I could touch the sky with my hands.”
He earned the nickname “El Caballo” (The Horse) and no wonder: “I’m the only athlete in the world who competed since day one of the event in the 800 meter elimination round, the 800 semi-final, the 800 final; the first, second, third, and semifinal of the 400; and the 400 meter relay elimination round, semifinal and final.
A simple man
Juantorena retired in 1984 and a year later was appointed deputy minister of Sports, where he was made responsible for developing popular sports, a position he has held up through today. He believes that “physical education is the backbone of the Cuban sports movement.”
He himself is a product of that program. He trained at his school, was recruited by another sports specialist and then turned into a “high performance athlete” while studying economics at the university. “Ninety-five percent of our athletes come from that system,” explains the deputy minister.
Juantorena is one of the most famous athletes from Cuba, yet his demeanor is extremely simple. He told us that “I’ve always had a rule that a person who’s isolated and alone is very vulnerable, and that we all need each other.”
He arrived greeting everyone, from the doorman at the Ciudad Deportiva sports complex to the athletes. All of the people we ran into reached out to shake hands with him while those who were farther away would yell some greeting, which he always responded to in a jovial manner.
This makes us wonder how he has managed to achieve such victories without it all going to his head, to which he replied: “One can be quite exalted in one area and ignorant in another. That’s why you always need a mechanic, a plumber, an electrician and a doctor.”