- 29 Jul 1976
- Montreal 1976
Juantorena floats to historic double - Athletics
When you think of the most graceful runners, it might be the Italian sprinter Pietro Mennea or Great Britain’s middle-distance king Sebastian Coe who spring to mind.
Or possibly the American hurdling great Edwin Moses.
But few if any athletes combined effortless poise with terrifying power and speed quite like the Cuban giant Alberto Juantorena.
Juantorena’s impact on Olympic history was fleeting yet spectacular.
Mushrooming to 6ft 2 in his early teens, Juantorena was earmarked for a basketball career but his college coaches saw his running prowess and he turned his attentions to the 400m and then the 800m.
He won several regional titles before, as a plucky 22-year-old, he missed out on qualification for the final of the 400m at the 1972 Olympics in Munich by less than a tenth of a second.
Over the following two years he proved pretty much unbeatable over a lap but two operations on his ankle in 1975 halted his progress.
The Cuban only started running 800m races at the start of 1976 as a means of assisting his recuperation. But his talent over this distance was instantly apparent, and he got better by the race.
He won his heat in the Olympic Stadium in Montreal but then raised eyebrows across the middle distance fraternity by scorching to victory in his semi-final, leaving the likes of Belgian Ivo Van Damme and Great Britain’s Steve Ovett trailing in his wake.
With his astonishing nine-foot stride and gently lolling head, Juantorena led the field in the final with 300m to go and though he was briefly challenged by the USA’s Rick Wohlhuter at the bend, his lead was never really under threat.
He crossed the line first in a world record time of one minute 43.5 with Van Damme rallying to finish second.
He crossed the line, holding his huge arms aloft to greet the adulation of the Canadian crowd as he became Cuba’s first ever track and field gold medallist.
The heats of the 400m started the next day, and Juantorena showed some signs of fatigue in finishing third, which easily put him through to the quarter-finals.
He then won his semi-final with something to spare, but with 100m of the final to go he found himself trailing the American Fred Newhouse by a couple of metres, with the rest of the field beaten.
The mighty Cuban summoned one final effort and ran Newhouse down to win in a time of 44.26 seconds.
He had become the first athlete ever to complete the 400m-800m double at the Olympic Games.
Subsequently, his Olympic career was interrupted by injury and boycotts , but his momentous efforts in Montreal will long live in the memory of those who witnessed “El Caballo” (The Horse) at full gallop.