After 3 misses, Olympics remain Nehemiah's toughest hurdle

Ken Rosenthal

February 11, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Renaldo Nehemiah says, "It's incredible to think of my name and the fact I haven't participated in the Olympic Games."

The two skiers from Senegal are more accomplished Olympians. So, for that matter, is the now-extinct Eddie the Eagle.

We all know it's easier to sneak into the Winter Games -- the Italian hockey team features a bunch of North Americans whose names end in vowels -- but Nehemiah could have been a three-time Olympic champion by now. Instead, he has yet to compete.

Which is why, at the age of 32, he's taking one last shot. The former Maryland star is the only high hurdler to earn the No. 1 world ranking four straight years. But those years (1978-81) came at the wrong time, and he's still trying to catch up.

His Olympic hurdles:

* In 1980, he won the 110-meter event at the U.S. Trials, but missed the Olympics when President Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow Games.

* In '84, he was a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, and banned from competing as an amateur in international meets.

* And in '88, he was back hurdling after being reinstated, but still was not in good enough condition to make the Olympic team.

Three strikes and you're out?

Not for Nehemiah.

Last season, he ranked No. 4 in the world and qualified for the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo. The other U.S. high hurdlers, three-time world champion Greg Foster and Morgan State's Jack Pierce, finished 1-2. Nehemiah withdrew due to a back injury.

His chances of making the 1992 Olympic team would seem equally strong, but the United States is remarkably deep in this event. Two-time Olympic champion Roger Kingdom did not compete last season because of injury. And the emerging Tony Dees might prove the hurdler to beat in Barcelona.

Dees won the 60-meter indoor event last weekend at both the Millrose Games in New York and the Mobil 1 Invitational at George Mason. Nehemiah did not run in New York, and did not finish at George Mason after striking a hurdle. But he's pursuing a unique quest, and in this age of comebacks, who dares count him out?

"I want the opportunity to say, 'I made an Olympic team that participated,' " says Nehemiah, a resident of North Potomac. "I got a token medal from President Carter in 1980, but I didn't get close to Moscow. It stills hurt today when I think about it."

It also hurts knowing other professional athletes now compete in the Olympics, in their own sports, no less. Nehemiah fought years of legal battles before his international ban finally was lifted in July 1986.

Today, no one blinks when an NFL player like Herschel Walker pushes an Olympic bobsled. "Unfortunately we don't hold the brush that paints the picture," Nehemiah says. But in his case, it's fair to ask, what might have been?

Nehemiah held the world record of 12.93 seconds from 1981 until 1989, when Kingdom lowered it by .01. His indoor marks at 60 yards (6.82) and 55 meters (6.89) have stood for more than 10 years -- partly because the 60-meter race is more common now.

This guy was the best. But he signed a six-figure contract with the 49ers in '82 when he could not earn a living in track. Of course, that too has changed -- track athletes now keep appearance and endorsement fees rather than put them in mandatory trust funds.

"I was a victim," Nehemiah says. "I was just a guy trying to do a couple of things at the same time. Maybe my rebellious attitude, my arrogance, my insubordination forced the topic of pro athletes vs. amateurs to be addressed.

"I can feel good that all my fighting, all my suffering, was not in vain. Something came out of it. Today's athletes are reaping the benefits. There's a little satisfaction in it. Very little."

Nehemiah overstates his place in history, for each sport follows its own rules. Yet it's a shame he hasn't competed on the grand Olympic stage. Of all the hurdlers, he's the most graceful and fluid. But he spent three fruitless years in the NFL, catching 43 passes for two touchdowns and 754 yards.

He ran a 13.48 shortly after returning in '86, but he was bulkier, less flexible, more injury-prone. Last season he ran a 13.19, his fastest time in a decade. "I'm still enthusiastic," he says. "I get a charge out of seeing these young kids trying to push us old guys out of the way."

Why, if Larry Holmes can challenge George Foreman, then Nehemiah surely can battle Foster, his old rival from UCLA. It would be something seeing the two race in the Olympics 14 years after they first dueled in the NCAAs. Indeed, it would be something seeing Renaldo Nehemiah get his Olympic moment at last.

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