The preeminent hurdler of the time, the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow were to be former 110-meter Hurdles World Record holder Renaldo Nehemiah’s crowning moment of athletic excellence. “For me, I was very frustrated because I was the best in the world and I wanted to show the world and because of a political position I was denied that,” stated Nehemiah of U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the Games of the XXII Olympiad in response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“I still think today that the Olympics Games is the purest form of a war without actually going to war, it’s war through athletics…short of any combat,” offers Nehemiah who admits to being “devastated” and “at a crossroads emotionally” when the ability to “freely run and express [his] artistic gifts…was being taken away” which left the former Maryland Terrapin questioning the consequences for himself and his sport.
Fortunately, and ultimately not without sacrifice, Nehemiah’s athletic abilities were not limited to track and field as he would soon find success on the “field” that the “track’s” oval design encompassed. During the 1980’s ABC’s Wide World of Sports television produced an all-around athletic competition show that featured athletes from various sports disciplines in head-to-head competition. “I used to compete in the Superstars competition and I had met Dwight Clark of the [San Francisco] 49ers who put the bug in my ear … about playing football,” revealed the only athlete to win the competition on four separation occasions from 1981 to 1983 and again in 1986, crediting a follow-up phone call from then 49ers head coach Bill Walsh with “actually saving his athletic career.”
The rules of Track & Field at the time relegated Nehemiah to amateur status where professional football now afforded him a ‘job,’ as the 1980 Olympic Boycott had subsequently reduced the world-class hurdler to an unemployed college graduate. With a most certain impending Soviet boycott of the forthcoming 1984 Summer Olympics to be held on U.S. soil in Los Angeles coupled with his own uncertainties as to the future, Nehemiah exchanged his 110 meters of hurdling glory for 100 yards of gridiron glory, an action not without its consequences. “I was immediately banned by IAAF,” explained Nehemiah after signing an NFL contract with the San Francisco 49ers in April of 1982. And without engaging in the Olympic ‘war’ Games, Nehemiah would be thrust into a personal ‘war’ of litigation, “a four and a half year court battle to regain his amateur status.”
The following year in 1983, the IAAF instituted the World Championships and ironically began paying athletes. Successful in all his legal defenses and rewarded re-instatement, Nehemiah still faced the personal vendetta of the IAAF President Primo Nebiolo who “threatened to ban anyone who ran against [him] through contamination rules,” according to Nehemiah. After assumingly becoming financially exhausting for the IAAF and futile to continuing to contend, the track star turned NFL wide receiver was ultimately vindicated with the passage of “The Nehemiah Rule” which stated athletes could be a professional in one sport while retaining amateur status in another. “The sport today is a full blown professional sport, but when you go back and see how we have evolved, I played a pivotal role in it,” states Nehemiah while contemplating if today’s athletes “even care to know about their history,” despite finding joy in having “paved a way” realizing that “when you’re fighting for a cause … it’s those who come after that will benefit.”
And of today’s 110-meter hurdlers that ‘reap the rewards,’ Nehemiah believes of the “last several years” and now of the ensuing 2012 August “athletic war” in London, “the road traveled through Liu Xiang of China.” Of the 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist and event’s former world record holder, Nehemiah considers him “a phenomenal competitor and really great for our sport globally,” while stating of the 2008 Olympic Champion Dayron Robles, he’s “equally as talented and gifted as well.”
When adding American’s Jason Richardson, the 2011 World Champion, David Oliver, the U.S. Record Holder and Aries Merritt, the 2012 World Indoor 60mH Champion who recently defeated China’s Liu Xiang, Nehemiah doesn’t “ever envision any surprises” in the field. Of Richardson he adds, “I didn’t necessarily see Jason Richardson coming last year…because he had been struggling … most of us knew he was talented, but you didn’t know when he would have a breakthrough [and] if he can show consistency, then he’s going to be a force to reckon with.”
And of the Men’s 110-meter Hurdles, the former world record holder who epitomized the event’s art form depicted it as follows:
“That race is not over until it’s over. It’s the longest race because you can’t get to the finish line fast enough. You’re on pins and needles because one mistake … you can go from first to last that quickly ... and you can lose by thousandth’s of seconds … it’s a very nerve-racking event and you have to maintain your composure and your tunnel vision and your focus and patience in that race. You have to be a fierce competitor, but you have to be patient when executing the hurdles and not trying to rush the hurdles. It’s a physical race, there’s contact throughout the race. To me, it’s still one of the most beautiful events in our sports because ... it embodies the speed and the power and the grace and balance and coordination and so when it’s done right to perfection, it’s a thing of beauty.”
And of the Olympics, Nehemiah states:
“It’s the utopia of every Track & Field athlete’s career at that particular point. From the athlete’s perspective, it is a chance to permanently etch their name in the record books as far as being an Olympian or a medalist or even world record holder in those Games. For the world, it’s a chance for people who never witnessed the Olympic Games to see how remarkable we all as a planet can be together over a two-week period of time.”