Fast, but Not So Fast-Talking : 2 Years After Olympic Setback, McKay Quietly Confident

Times Staff Writer

In a poignant scene during the 1984 Olympics, there was Antonio McKay slumped on his knees at the finish of the 400 meters.

The Georgia Tech freshman had equaled his fastest time, 44.71 seconds, running from Lane 1, an unfavorable position in the view of many runners.

McKay, who had won the 400 in the trials in the same time, had fully expected to take away the gold.

The gold was not his, though. It belonged to Lt. Alonzo Babers of the Air Force, who had won the event in 44.27, the second-fastest time at low altitude.

McKay didn't even get second place, also finishing behind Gabriel Tiacoh of Washington State and the Ivory Coast, and had to settle for the bronze. He did, however, get a gold medal later, in the 1,600-meter relay.

The 400, though, was a real comedown for McKay, who had been confident, accommodating and just a little short of brash.

He had disputed a pre-race claim to the gold by Jamaica's Bert Cameron, who wound up not running in the final because of an injury, and had glibly predicted that he would not only break Lee Evans' revered world record of 43.86, but that he also would someday shatter it.

The 20-year-old athlete from Atlanta was the only one who was shattered on that August afternoon in the Coliseum.

What were his thoughts at the time?

"I just said, 'Oh, God, give me the strength to go on.' It was the most hurt feeling in my life. I never expected to lose."

Some athletes rebound from the disappointment of the Olympics with a smashing follow-up season, such as Mary Decker Slaney had last year.

For McKay, the hurt apparently was too deep.

"I was still disappointed for two months afterward," he said.

The 1985 season was a washout for him. He became ill with bronchitis and later had a hernia operation.

"I needed time to heal my heart and soul, and my body wasn't prepared to run that year," McKay said.

McKay is now 22, maturing, and has come back stronger than ever.

He was unbeaten in six indoor meets and had a world-best 45.45 for 440 yards on an oversized track last January at Johnson City, Tenn.

When interviewed in Atlanta, he was still recovering from the jet lag of a trip to Tokyo. While there last Sunday, he ran the fastest 400 meters ever in Japan, 45.13.

McKay will most likely have to record a faster time, though, if he expects to win the 400 in today's Pepsi Invitational at UCLA.

Promoter Al Franken has assembled a world-class field with impressive credentials:

--Tiacoh, whose silver-medal time of 44.54 in the Games here was faster than any previous gold- medal winner's except Alberto Juantorena's 44.26 in 1976.

--Michael Franks, who was ranked No. 1 in the world last year after winning the World Cup at Canberra, Australia, in 44.47. Nobody ran any faster in 1985.

--Innocent Egbunike of Nigeria, the former Azusa Pacific runner. He was ranked fourth in the world last year with a top time of 44.66.

Others in the field are Darrell Robinson, who has a best time of 44.71; UCLA freshman Henry Thomas; Arizona State's Chip Rish, and Andre Phillips, who was top ranked in the 400-meter hurdles in 1985.

"I don't know if it was real wise for me to go to Japan, but I'm glad I did," McKay said. "It will be a real challenge for me to run well. That field is so competitive that anyone could win. It will probably take a time of 44.6 or 44.7 to win it."

McKay is more moderate now in his pre-race dialogue. Once asked about his strategy, he said: "My game plan is, if anybody is in front of me, to whup 'em."

Reminded that he once had said that he would shatter Evans' record, set in the high altitude of Mexico City in the 1968 Olympics, McKay said:

"I remember saying I'd break the record, but I don't remember saying that I would shatter it. I was so young and I didn't really understand that record. It's not like an indoor record, or any other record. It will take a lot of time and dedication to break it."

So McKay has more respect for Evans' record now. He should. It has endured for 18 years.

Even so, McKay cautiously predicts that the record will be broken in the next two years.

The 400 is, perhaps, track's most physically demanding event. It is technically a sprint and a race that many athletes avoid because of the pain involved.

"I still love the race, though," McKay said. "It's challenging for you and your competition. When you get into the starting blocks, you know you're going to feel pain no matter what--and the guy beside you is going to feel pain.

"The public looks at the 400 as not being as glamorous as the 100 or 200. But just look at the event: You have a thinking process, a process of speed, a process of influence and a process of character."

In breaking down the race, McKay said: "At the start, you try to relax. In the first 200, you see where your competition is and, at 300 meters, you're tired and you want to give up. But you also want to keep going. Down the stretch, the finish line seems like it's a mile away."

McKay said the last 100 meters is the slowest part of the race. If it appears that someone is surging ahead of the pack, it's only an illusion.

McKay said he is altering his race strategy.

"I hadn't been pushing myself at the 300-meter mark," he said. "I didn't push myself until the last 70 meters. Now, I'm trying to push in the final 100 meters."

McKay is careful about bold predictions now. But he always expects to win.

"I don't think I'm cocky, but I'm never going to say I'm not going to win," he said. "I might say that I'm not prepared as well as I'd like to be, but I'm not going to say that I'm going to lose."

Track Notes Today's meet will start at noon with the pole vault, javelin and women's long jump. . . . Some of the Pepsi meet records rank among track's outstanding achievements. Renaldo Nehemiah's 13.00 in the high hurdles in 1979 was a world record at the time. So was Tom Petranoff's javelin throw of 327 feet 2 inches in 1983. . . . World-class male performers in today's meet include half-miler Johnny Gray, milers Steve Scott and Jim Spivey, high hurdlers Roger Kingdom and Greg Foster, triple jumper Willie Banks, pole vaulters Mike Tully and Earl Bell, shotputters John Brenner, Dave Laut and Brian Oldfield, discus throwers Art Burns and Czechoslovakia's Imrich Bugar, 3,000-meter runners Doug Padilla and Kenya's Julius Korir, and javelin throwers Bob Roggy and Petranoff. . . . The women's field will be represented by 1984 triple Olympic gold medalist Valerie Brisco-Hooks, sprinter Nellie Cooman of the Netherlands, metric milers Ruth Wysocki, Regina Jacobs and UCLA's Polly Plumer, half-miler Claudette Groenendaal, hurdlers Latanya Sheffield and Sharieffa Barksdale, and multi-event performers Jackie Joyner and UCLA's Gail Devers.

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