Hurdlers Hope to Have the Time of Their Lives : Foster, Nehemiah, Campbell, Kingdom Resume Their Rivalry at Sports Arena

Times Staff Writer

Remember roller derby? It's making a comeback tonight at the Sports Arena as hurdle derby.

The hurdlers in the 60-meter race at the Sunkist Invitational aren't as physical as the skaters, but their rivalry is just as intense and not as contrived.

If previous races are any indication, there will be a lot of woofing tonight, and some questions are being raised, such as:

--Will Greg Foster, the world's top-ranked hurdler, maintain his dominance? Or will Foster hit a hurdle and fail to finish as he has done occasionally?

--Is Renaldo Nehemiah, who once dominated the event before opting for a four-year fling in professional football, physically fit to regain a measure of his former status?

--Will Tonie Campbell finally get the recognition that he says he deserves? Or, will he and Foster snarl at each other as they did after a race in Lausanne, Switzerland, last September?

--Or, will Roger Kingdom, the 1984 Olympic champion, surprise the others by winning? He has already won two indoor races in Canada.

The race is short, and so, presumably, are the tempers of some of the hurdlers, who needle one another when they're not racing.

Nehemiah has said that Foster should be unbeatable but is capable of beating himself. Ah, the seed has been planted by Nehemiah, who has made a career of trying to psych out Foster.

When they were the two best hurdlers on the planet, Nehemiah would praise his rival, then deftly add that Foster was, perhaps, too tall for such a technique-oriented race.

In last year's Sunkist meet, Foster flattened the field, winning in the world-record time of 7.36 seconds. It was strongly believed at the time that the hurdlers benefited from a rolling start.

Foster was jubilant in victory and then shouldered Nehemiah aside after the race. That was Nehemiah's version, anyway. Foster said he didn't even see Nehemiah and didn't intentionally bump him.

"It was the first time I've ever sensed any violent effort from him," Nehemiah said. "Usually, he's cold and impassive and didn't want to have anything to do with me. I think a lot of it had to do with the hoopla of my return."

The comeback was brief, though, because Nehemiah underwent surgery to repair a damaged Achilles' tendon a month later and didn't run again until some summer meets in Europe, where he was ineffective.

Nehemiah said there was considerable pressure on Foster in last year's indoor race. "If he lost, he never would have heard the end of it," Nehemiah said.

Foster isn't accustomed to losing, though, and is the clear favorite tonight.

Campbell, who ranks second in the world, took satisfaction in beating Foster in Brussels last September to win the Grand Prix title.

Foster, however, won the 110-meter hurdles in the World Championships in Rome earlier. Campbell didn't compete because he hit a hurdle while chasing Foster in qualifying competition last June in San Jose.

Nonetheless, Campbell savors his victory over Foster in Brussels.

"Winning the overall Grand Prix title and beating the world champion meant more than getting the money and everything that went along with it," Campbell said.

"Winning without either one of us falling, straight up with no problems, meant the most to me because it showed the world that I should have been at the World Championships and there is something drastically wrong with our selection system."

It's an Olympic year, and Campbell will get another opportunity to be a member of the U.S. team. There's room for only three, though, and the weeding-out process among the hurdlers begins tonight.

A look at some other events for the meet, which will begin with high school competition at 4:35 p.m. and open events at 7 p.m.:

880-yard run--Kenya's Billy Konchellah, the world champion at 800 meters, could threaten Johnny Gray's world indoor record of 1:46.8. Gray will be in the race to protect it.

500-yard dash--Nigeria's Innocent Egbunike, the silver medalist in the 400 meters at the World Championships, will be striving to break Lee Evans' 1971 world record of 54.4 seconds. Roddie Haley and Antonio McKay help make up a fast field.

Mile--Veteran milers Steve Scott and New Zealand's John Walker will renew their longtime rivalry. Kenya's Kip Cheruiyot and Dr. Chuck Aragon should provide formidable opposition.

The 41-event high school portion of the meet will be highlighted by the boys' two-mile, featuring Rob Kennedy of Westerville, Ohio, the Kinney national cross-country champion; Ian Alsen of Granada Hills, the winner of the West Regional in the event; David Scudamore of Palos Verdes; Jaime Ortega of El Monte Arroyo, and state Division I cross-country champion Bryan Dameworth of Agoura.

Times staff writer Scott Howard-Cooper contributed to this story.

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