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PROTRACK » GENERAL » 400m champ Rick Mitchell cherishes Alberto's cap from 1980

400m champ Rick Mitchell cherishes Alberto's cap from 1980

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Bag of memories for runner

Greg Baum
The Age
March 3, 2012

RICK Mitchell had finished limbering up for the Olympic 400 metres final at the Lenin stadium in Moscow in 1980 and was back in the call room. The atmosphere was tense. All the runners knew that for the next half an hour or so, whatever friendships they shared would have to be set aside. Mitchell had seen races won and lost in that room. Not a word was exchanged.

At a certain moment, Mitchell reached down into his bag. In it, to his immense surprise, he found a red beret that he knew belonged to Cuba's Alberto Juantorena, who at the previous Olympics in Montreal in 1976 had won the 400 metres and 800 metres double. No other man has done that, before or since. In that bleakest of Olympics for Australia, Mitchell's effort to run sixth in the 400 final was as good as any.

Mitchell had been amazed by Juantorena in Montreal. ''He's the best I ever raced,'' he said. ''To put what he did in Montreal into context, he ran every single day of the track program. I wouldn't say I was in awe of him. I did beat him in the second round - but he was going half-pace. He was just a great athlete. And I liked him. He had a cockiness, but it wasn't the cockiness that made you think he was full of himself. It was the cockiness that goes with knowing that you're in that moment of your career when anything's possible. You see in the football field as well. It wasn't FIGJAM cockiness. More James Hird.''

The next year, Mitchell and Juantorena shared a room at Crystal Palace in London. A friendship began to develop. Juantorena's English became increasingly fluent, and besides, they had in common the language of athletics. But they also talked about families and dreams.

At the Moscow opening ceremony, Mitchell noticed that Juantorena, who was one of Cuba's flag-bearers, was wearing a red beret. Now that beret lay in his bag. Mitchell looked across the room at Juantorena, who nodded and smiled. When they talked the next day, Juantorena explained that the beret was his way of saying that if he could not win that day, he hoped Mitchell would.

The race was a bun-fight. ''I always knew it would be helter-skelter,'' said Mitchell. ''The two natural leaders in the race drew one and eight. I knew it was going to be on.'' With 180 metres to run, Trinidad's Joseph Coombs drifted into Mitchell's lane, momentarily distracting him. By the time his mind returned to the race, the field was escaping.

''Then Alberto came through beside me,'' said Mitchell. ''My thought was: 'go with big Al, he'll pull you back into the race.' And he did. Lo and behold, I ran past him in the straight.'' But Russia's Viktor Markin beat them both to the line.

Mitchell was disappointed. ''I didn't go to Moscow to run second,'' he said. Then he felt a big body loom up beside him, and a big hand tousle his hair. ''It was big Al,'' he said. The next day, he gave Juantorena the belt from his Australian uniform.

At the 1983 world championships, Juantorena broke his foot and did not race again. He later served as Cuba's minister of sport. Mitchell ran in Los Angeles in 1984, later managed the Tasmanian Institute of Sport and now lives in Brisbane. He has not seen Juantorena since. ''But I hear from athletes on tour that he always asks how I'm going,'' he said.

This week, Mitchell was inducted into the Australian athletics hall of fame, alongside runners Brenda Jones (now Carr) and Judy Pollock, and famously idiosyncratic coach Percy Cerutty. The presentations were made at the John Landy lunch, a gathering of still lean bodies and minds, its frisson all the more palpable this year because of the imminence of the London Olympics.

Three things were evident. One, noted by colleague Michael Gleeson, was that athletics is one of few sports in which women are truly treated by men as equals and peers. Another was succession. Mitchell was alerted to the joy of athletics by a primary school visit from Betty Cuthbert, and later was inspired by Pollock, and now was here to wish God speed to Sally Pearson.

A third was scale. At the Sydney Olympics, Mitchell said, 17 nations had won swimming medals. At track and field, on the Cathy Freeman night alone, 15 countries won medals, and 44 altogether. ''The football clubs of the world don't go looking for swimmers,'' he said. ''They want athletes.'' It is a familiar refrain, but no less true because of it. Mitchell's silver in Moscow remains the only individual Olympic track medal won by an Australian man since 1968. But it is not his most treasured possession. ''I've often said that if the house burnt down, Christine and the boys are out first, the pets second, the beret third,'' he said.

''I'd go back the next day and find my medal somewhere, and melt it down and get it turned into a spoon or whatever. But the beret was a mark of respect from my greatest rival. I could never replace that.''

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