Olympic Boycott Only Hurdle Nehemiah Couldn’t Surmount

Maryland Athletics
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By David Elfin - Special to Maryland Athletics

Mention the 1980 Olympics and most Americans think about the miraculous gold medal triumph of the men’s hockey team in Lake Placid. What gets forgotten is that less a month later, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States wouldn’t be participating in the Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s failure to withdraw its troops from its recent invasion of Afghanistan.

That decision crushed the Olympic dreams of arguably the University of Maryland’s greatest athlete, Renaldo “Skeets” Nehemiah, then the world’s top hurdler.

“I would’ve bet my house and everything I owned that Skeets (a nickname acquired as a fast crawling baby) was going to win the gold medal,” said Maryland track coach Frank Costello.

“It’s disappointing that as much as I accomplished, that’s missing from my resume,” said the 56-year-old Nehemiah, who represents athletes via Reston-based Athletics Promotions LTD. “I always have to correct people when they introduce me as an Olympic gold medalist. But I’ve had a lot of time to realize that even though I was the favorite, I could’ve had a bad day at the Olympics. I’ve had athletes that I’ve managed who haven’t done as well as expected at the Olympics. You can’t let one race define who you are.”

Although Nehemiah had already set world records in the indoor 50- and 55-meter hurdles and the outdoor 110-meter hurdles and would become the first to finish under 13 seconds in the latter race in a 1981 duel with archrival Greg Foster in Zurich, there wasn’t even a hurdle on the track when he won his most memorable race.

The final days of April 1979 in Philadelphia were chilly and damp, but Nehemiah, who had grown up just 81 miles north in Scotch Plains, N.J., was on fire at the Penn Relays. He anchored the Terps to victory in the shuttle hurdle relay and then in the 4×200 meter relay with a blazing time of 19.4 seconds after taking the baton about 15 meters in arrears.

In the venerable meet’s biggest race, the lead runner’s surprisingly slow leg left Maryland in last. The next two legs did better, but Nehemiah was still 20 yards behind Villanova’s formidable Tim Dale with Tennessee’s swift Antone Blair in between when he got going.

“When I got the baton in the 4×400, I was so far behind that I never thought that we could win,” Nehemiah remembered. “I was angry and embarrassed so I just ran aggressively just to be competitive, recognizing that I was going to pay the price around the last turn. But the crowd got going and I just started racing to the roar.”

The fans in ancient Franklin Field were on their feet as Nehemiah first chased down Blair and then Dale as if they were Wile E. Coyote and he was the Roadrunner.

“The crowd was chanting, ‘Skeets, Skeets’ and he fed off of that,” Costello recalled. “Tim Dale tightened up like a drum. Skeets could see that and came on like a courageous lion. He just reeled him in and went by. With all the world records, that still sticks with me as probably my favorite Skeets moment.”

Nehemiah, who termed it “a day for the ages,” was so exhausted after his triumph that it took him two hours to recover. He vowed never to run the 400 again and never did.

But despite the pain of not being able to compete in Moscow, Nehemiah’s career was far from over after he graduated from Maryland in May 1981 with a degree in broadcast journalism. Three months later, he went under 13 seconds and after winning ABC’s decathlon-like competition, “The Superstars,” for a second straight year, the former high school quarterback and receiver signed with the San Francisco 49ers.

“The ’80 boycott hurt me tremendously,” Nehemiah said. “My love of the sport was tainted as a result of things that were way beyond my control. I was dominating on “The Superstars” and [49ers receiver] Dwight Clark, who was participating went to [coach] Bill Walsh to suggest that the 49ers sign me. I hadn’t aspired to play professional football, but I was about to be a college graduate needing a job. Playing in the NFL not only gave me a job, it prolonged my athletic career.”

Until it threatened to shorten it. In 40 games over three seasons at receiver, Nehemiah caught 43 passes for 754 yards (an impressive 17.5-yard average) and four touchdowns, including a 59-yarder in a “Monday Night Football” victory over the New York Giants at the Meadowlands, just a half hour from home.

“I went to the right team with a lot of talent and a visionary coach, but my second year it started being not as fun because I was getting beat up,” said Nehemiah, whose final game was San Francisco’s victory over Miami in Super Bowl XIX in January 1985. “In track, you have something out of place, you take time off. In football, you put a band-aid on it and keep going. I was wondering if football was going to destroy me physically. My fourth year I was on injured reserve after tearing the L-4 and L-5 [discs] in my back [which he finally had surgically repaired 14 months ago]. The 49ers offered me a new contract, but we were apart financially and track and field had turned into a professional sport with substantial money.”

So Nehemiah returned to the hurdles. He beat a young crew in Zurich 10 years after his record-shattering feat but could never quite catch Foster, who was now No. 1, and at 32, he retired and went into athletics management. Over the years, he has represented many of the world’s best hurdlers and sprinters.

“I don’t represent anyone who doesn’t have a college degree or isn’t in school,” Nehemiah said. “I love teaching them about professionalism and preparing them for life after track and field so they don’t get to the end of the road and say, ‘Now what?”