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Scott Ostler

Place Where He Wants Most to Be Alone Is at the Tape

January 20, 1988|Scott Ostler

Greg Foster, world's foremost high hurdler, lives alone, drives alone, dines alone and trains alone, and likes it that way. Sometimes he goes searching for an even higher state of alone-ness.

Once in a while, on a whim, Foster will pack a bag and head for the airport. He'll buy a ticket to anywhere, no place in particular. He'll hit town like a spy, wearing hat and shades. He'll check into a hotel, go out to dinner by himself, go to a movie by himself. He'll hang around town a day or two, a refugee without a cause. Then he'll fly back home and drive, alone, to the Chino Hills, to the large four-bedroom house that he shares with nobody.

"It's quiet there," says the hurdling hermit. "I can be by myself."

Almost always alone, hardly ever lonely.

"All my life, I've never been around crowds," Foster says. "The passenger seat of my car is close to brand new. I enjoy being by myself. Other than my brothers and cousins, I don't have a lot of friends. I don't go around looking for friends. Why search for something that's probably not real?

"When I have problems, I'd rather go and think 'em out by myself rather than burden someone else."

The problems that Foster has generally arise from his job, which calls for him to work in close proximity to people who are trying to beat him and take away his No. 1 world ranking in the high hurdles. Uneasy lies the head. . . .

You might think there wouldn't be a lot of intrigue and human conflict involved in running in a straight line over 10 sticks. You would be very wrong.

Foster and fellow-U.S. hurdlers Tonie Campbell and Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah have taken a simple 13-second (6 seconds indoors) foot race and made it into an ongoing, real-life soap opera--"As the Knife-in-the-Back Turns."

Nehemiah took a few years off to try pro football, but has returned to his first love--trying to psych Foster to his knees. Over the years, Skeets has portrayed Foster as an oversized, awkward, choke artist. There is no letup in sight. With Nehemiah's technique still on vacation, words may be his most effective weapon.

Campbell, a real threat to Foster's No. 1 ranking in hurdling and to Skeets' No. 1 ranking in psyching, has accused Foster of being a liar, a sore loser and a cheater--falling down on purpose when he's behind, in order to protect his world ranking.

Foster--who loves TV soaps--has responded with everything from bitterness to aloofness to near-fisticuffs.

It's a good thing these three guys are friends. It could get ugly.

"I still consider us friends," Foster says. "But if we're going to be friends, we've got to act like friends."

What, and ruin a great event? Besides, these three seem to need the tension.

"It used to get to me," says Foster, who claims to have developed an immunity to the verbal poison darts. "I couldn't understand why they'd say things. Now I realize they use it to boost their energy level. And I use it the same way."

If their combined energy level gets any higher, these three guys could boost a rocket to the moon.

"Anytime Tonie says anything, it gets me hypered up," Foster says.

When Campbell sounded off to the world press about Foster last summer, Greg was stunned.

"I got upset, because I thought we were past all that," Foster says. "When I read what was in the paper, I talked to Nehemiah and he said, 'Your boy stuck his foot in his mouth again.' "

Foster and Campbell were to meet on the track in Lausanne.

"I planned to give Tonie a hard time," Foster says. "Before the race I went to my hotel room, took out my Bible. I said, 'If I run this race the way I expect to, I'm asking You to forgive me now. I've had enough, I've never said anything negative, but the buck stops here. I'm letting You know now.'

"He (Campbell) tried to talk to me before the race, but I didn't say a word. I ran the fastest time of the year, it went well. Afterward he was jogging by and I called him a name, 'Punk' or something. I didn't feel bad, I had already asked the Lord to forgive me."

With Skeets looking on, Campbell and Foster squared off, but Nehemiah stepped in and separated the two. At least that's Nehemiah's version.

"He (Nehemiah) didn't say a word, he didn't do anything," Foster scoffs.

At last year's Sunkist Indoor meet, Foster beat Nehemiah, Skeets tried to shake Foster's hand and Foster rudely shouldered Skeets aside. Or so claims Nehemiah. The Three Amigos race again in Friday night's Sunkist meet at the Sports Arena, in the closest thing to a no-holds-barred wrestling cage match.

In the blocks, Foster will be surrounded by his good pals, Tonie and Skeets. But in the end, at the tape, all Greg Foster wants to be is alone.

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