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Did Foster Clear Final Hurdle? : With His Victory, He Might Just Win Over Critics

Times Staff Writer

Unable to sleep the night before defending his world championship in the 110-meter hurdles, Greg Foster gave up when the sun rose Thursday and went to Villa Borghese, a park in the center of the city. There he whittled on a piece of wood and read. The novel was entitled “The Unwanted.”

It is not Foster’s life story. It just sounds like it.

Foster, 29, has been ranked No. 1 three times, including 1986, but hardly anyone has considered him a worthy successor to the fastest man in the event’s history, Renaldo Nehemiah.

Nehemiah’s year-old comeback in the sport after an unsuccessful attempt at professional football has been derailed by injuries. But the 12.93-second time he ran more than six years ago remains the world record. No one else has run under 13 seconds. Foster’s best is 13.03, in a race he lost to Nehemiah in 1981.

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Even when Foster won the world title four years ago in Helsinki, his critics, and they are numerous, pointed out that he made a shambles of the last hurdle and barely finished ahead of Finland’s Arto Bryggare. That was after a victory . He heard considerably more derision in 1984, when he hesitated before leaving the blocks in the Olympic final and finished second to Roger Kingdom.

But Foster’s victory Thursday at the Olympic Stadium may prompt critics to reconsider his place in history.

Nehemiah is one hurdle Foster may never overcome, or at least not until he runs a 12.93 or better. But if he is not another Nehemiah, he has become a very good Greg Foster.

If the World Championships are on a level with the Olympics, and the athletes will tell you they are, then Foster did something Thursday only one other high hurdler has been able to accomplish.

In winning here, Foster joins American Lee Calhoun as the only high hurdlers to win twice in major international competitions. Calhoun won gold medals at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.

Foster became the world champion for the second time by running 13.21, unspectacular but comfortably in front of two young British hurdlers, second-place Jon Ridgeon and third-place Colin Jackson, who were born four days apart in February, 1967. American Jack Pierce, who finished fourth in 13.41, is 24.

“They have the age, but I have the experience,” said Foster, six years out of UCLA. “Outside of a few hairs falling out of my head, I don’t feel very old.”

Of the champions this week, few have responded to their victories with more elation than Foster, who ran halfway around the track pumping his fists toward the heavens before dropping to his knees and delivering a prayer in that same direction.

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“I had a lot of people praying for me to finish the race, not to win, just to finish the race,” he said.

Since Gerald Ford is out of the public eye, Chevy Chase could make a new career of imitating Foster’s pratfalls.

In describing his event, American Tonie Campbell said last winter at the World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis that the high hurdles are a 110-meter sprint in which “someone played a dirty trick on you.”

A couple of days later, Foster and Canadian Mark McKoy were involved in a spectacular crash, which sent both sprawling and out of the race. McKoy, one of the medal favorites here, hit the last four hurdles, knocking three of them over, and stumbled across the finish line in seventh place.

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The next time Foster went to Indianapolis was for the Pan American Games last month, when he and American Cletus Clark got their legs tangled. Foster did not fall. Nor did he finish.

In his last race before coming to Rome, Foster hit a hurdle in London and again did not finish.

“I’ve been bumped, I’ve bumped some,” he said. “I’ve been tripped, I’ve tripped some. I’ve had a lot of bad luck indoors and outdoors, whatever year. I figured nothing else could happen to me today unless I fell flat on my face at the start. I almost did that.

“I didn’t care where I finished--1, 2 or 3. I just wanted to finish.”

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Foster said this championship means more to him than the one in 1983.

“I let myself and a lot of people down in 1984,” he said. “There’s no way I shouldn’t have won in 1984. This doesn’t make up for it. An Olympic gold medal is an Olympic gold medal. But this does help.”

Foster said he won this one for his mother, Izola, who was killed in an automobile crash along with two other family members outside Chicago in 1985.

During the victory ceremony Thursday, as he stood on the podium and listened to the national anthem, Foster cried.

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“I promised I would win for my mother,” he said. “I’m very emotional when it comes to my mother. One thing going through my mind was that if she could have been here, she’d be doing the same thing. She’d have been crying like I was. It meant a lot for me to win. It’s hard to talk about it.”

Asked if he expects to be accepted as a champion now, Foster laughed.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You can’t please everyone. But if I let you hear my family when I’m on the phone with them tonight, you’d know what they think of me. That’s all that matters.”

Unwanted? Not this guy.

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