What made double Olympic champion Alberto Juantorena so angry he started throwing punches at a young journalist? Olaf Brockmann, the man on the receiving end, shares his story with SPIKES.
“It is fair to say that this black-and-white photo, which shows me facing the mighty fist of the great Alberto Juantorena, will forever be my favourite sporting image. Nothing is ever going top it.
“The photo tells a thrilling tale of the first Athletics World Cup in Düsseldorf, which took place between the 2–4 September 1977 at the Rheinstadion. Back then I worked for the Sport-Informations-Dienst (SID) news agency in Düsseldorf, and their affiliated company, proSportPresseservice (PPS), was providing the media coverage alongside the German Athletics Federation for the World Cup.
“I was only 24 at the time and was given the role to conduct flash interviews on the infield – impossible to imagine nowadays! It was there that the memorable scene featuring double Olympic champion and then 800m world record holder Alberto Juantorena took place. But what had happened? Why was the Cuban so angry?
“On the second day of competition – Juantorena had already beaten Mike Boit in spectacular fashion over 800m the previous day – the men’s 400m was set to take place at 19:40. Juantorena lined up for Team Americas on the outside lane. However, after the starting gun was fired, he stopped and after a pause commenced his race. He entered the final bend in fifth position and managed to finish third in 45.83 behind Volker Beck of the German Democratic Republic (45,79) and Ryszard Podlas of Poland (45.80).
“After crossing the line Juantorena was furious, started kicking several starting blocks and angrily headed towards me. He must have thought I was the starter – at least he kept clenching his fist in my direction.”
In 1976 Juantorena won Olympic 400m and 800m gold
“There are several photos of this particular moment – one even appeared in Sports Illustrated’s issue from 12 September 1977 – and I look rather intimidated in all of them. No wonder given Juantorena’s temper, and I knew I still had to interview him! I chose to wait with the interview until he’d calmed down a bit.
“On his way out of the stadium he explained he didn’t hear the starting gun and that he was going to lodge a protest. His direct quote read the following: ‘I did not hear a starting shot and so I did not start running. Now I am very furious, because I expected a clear victory in a regular course’.
“At 22:15 the appeal lodged by Team Americas was granted. The press release stated: ‘The Cuban double Olympic Champion lodged an appeal with his team leader because he did not hear the starting shot. The reason was the noise of a starting aeroplane and a running camera. The decision was taken by the running referee, Herbert Schug (Germany)’.
“Sources from the nearby Lohausen Airport confirmed that at exactly the time of the start of the 400m a plane was flying over the Rheinstadion. Furthermore, a camera crew had been filming next to Juantorena’s lane eight. According to Robert Hartmann of the Frankfurter Rundschau, the camera crew was from the USSR and filming the hammer throw, which was happening at the same time as the 400m.
“After Team Americas’ appeal was granted, the GDR and Team Europe lodged another appeal, which wasn’t discussed until 10.30am on Sunday, but eventually the case was decided in Juantorena’s favour and the highest authority decided on a re-run on Sunday afternoon.”
The famous re-run of 1977
“The Cuban won the race in 45.35 – despite another hesitant start – ahead of Volker Beck. The flash quote I got from Juantorena after the race was: ‘This time I heard the starting shot very well, I do not know, why I stayed in the starting block again. I am totally exhausted, it was a very hard race for me. The time is secondary for me, I only wanted to win’.
“But this is only half of the story behind the photo. A photographer who is a friend of mine gave me the photo as a present on the Sunday. I took it to the celebratory banquet, which took place at Düsseldorf’s Guildhall, because I was really hoping to talk to Juantorena and to get the photo signed. My mission proved harder than expected, as he was still angry and refused to talk to me.
“Thankfully, Dr. August Kirsch, vice president of the National Olympic Committee and president of the German Athletics Federation at the time, stepped in and explained to the angry Cuban that I was only a young journalist, and not an official as he’d been thinking all along. Juantorena then apologised and signed the photo along with his world record 800m time from Sofia 1977 of 1:43.4.
“Since the World Cup in Düsseldorf, Alberto and I have become good friends. Whenever he sees me, he greets me with a smile, waving his right fist threateningly.”