Many people remember Renaldo Nehemiah for the way he cleared flights of hurdles with beauty and finesse. He was the first person to break the 13-second barrier – and 30 years later, fewer than a dozen men have done the same. Winning the NCAA Championships twice and being named the 1979 Penn Relays MVP (after anchoring the shuttle hurdle relay, 4 x 100-meter relay, 4 x 200-meter relay, and 4 x 400-meter relays) are additional credits on Nehemiah’s resume. Few people realize that despite his numerous accomplishments, Nehemiah does not have an Olympic medal.
“Ninety percent of people make the mistake of believing that I won an Olympic medal,” Nehemiah says. “I am often introduced as ‘Renaldo Nehemiah, Olympic medalist,’ and immediately after [I say] thank you, I have to correct them.”
Just when it seemed that Nehemiah was at the top of his game and ready to compete on a world stage, President Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Although it has taken Nehemiah some time to get over what could have been at Moscow, he does not believe that it has changed how he is viewed as an athlete.
“An athlete is not defined by their last race,” Nehemiah says. “Even without an Olympic medal, people still remember my races and my accomplishments. People still randomly come up to me and say they remember watching me when I ran at Penn Relays… or when I trained at Byrd Stadium.
“Yeah, I think about what I could have done at the 1980 Olympics because I was [ranked] number-one at that time,” Nehemiah admits. “But the positive things people come and say to me or about me… and the things I have been able to give back to the sport – that’s my gold medal.”
Nehemiah’s track and field career was cut short – not by injury or other tragedy, as happens with many athletes, but by another twist of politics. In 1982 he left the track behind and signed with the San Francisco 49ers to play professional football.
“After the Olympics, I found myself as a 22-year-old about to graduate from college and looking for a job. Football came at the right time and extended my athletic career. I couldn’t go back to track since football was a professional sport and track was an amateur sport. But two years after I signed my NFL contract, track became a professional sport. Many people ask why I didn’t just stay with track, but I had to make a living, so I just tell them, ‘I was born too early.’”
Despite world politics and athletic politics working against him, Nehemiah never lost his passion for the sport, and he is about as involved as a non-athlete can be – working as an agent and athlete representative for Octagon, the world’s largest sponsorship consulting practice.
“I got into being a sports agent on accident,” Nehemiah says. “I was working with financial management and helping athletes manage their money. I started working with Gold Medal Management with Michael Johnson… I wasn’t really interested at first but then I thought about it and after two years at Gold Medal I moved on to Octagon where I started as an agent with no clients. But then my clients from Gold Medal came over to Octagon as well.”
Contrary to the Jerry McGuire image, it’s a job with a lot of less-than-glamorous hats to wear.
“I set up races, flights and hotels for the athletes, and their families sometimes. [I set up] endorsements and sponsor deals… everything under the sun. I get calls at 2 and 4 in the morning, so it’s a very busy and a very thankless job. I have a partner overseas now so I handle most of the domestic things and don’t have to travel as much as I used to.”
Nehemiah has also tried his hand at coaching – although his competitive fire may have tainted him for that role.
“I [coached] for a little while at George Mason University, where we won two NCAA titles. I enjoyed coaching but couldn’t stick with it because I often found that I wanted it more than the athletes. When I was an athlete, I was a student of the sport. I studied present competitors, former athletes, my flexibility, and dieting. And now many athletes don’t want to do that. But I still occasionally help my [Octagon] clients by timing their phases.
“Athletes today are not battle tested. They win great and run great, but then they duck and duck and don’t compete so they don’t have to risk losing their titles. When I was number-one, I was truly number-one because I was battle-tested. I ran against my competitors 10-15 times per season. My biggest competitor, Greg Foster, and I always competed against each other.”
It’s Nehemiah’s opinion that the sport of track and field – the way races are organized and appearance fees are paid to foster today’s professionals – may be doing the sport the most harm. Is he the stereotypical old guy ranting about the olden times and demanding the kids stay off his lawn? As a man close to the money in the sport, maybe not.
“I believe athletes should have to work for their money. For shoe contracts or endorsements, if I’m paying you $300,000 a year to show my shoe or clothing, but you’re only racing maybe two or three big meets of the year, then you’re not holding up your end of the deal. This should put contracts at risk. Instead of there being appearance fees, the money should be put in a pot for prize money for first, second, and third. This way, people have to come out and compete more often to make their money and this will increase competition and make people want to tune into track more often.
“Everything is about instant gratification today. It’s all about money and fame, which leads people to using banned substances. I didn’t run track to make it a profession; it was an amateur sport at the time… I used it to further my life—I got an education, got to travel and see the world, but it was not a means to an end. Too many athletes now use professional sports as a means to an end.”
Despite this altruistic view, and a genuine desire to see the sport succeed, Nehemiah’s in no hurry to lace up the spikes again – and he won’t be hopping in any Masters meets any time soon.
“Man, the last time I went over hurdles was about three years ago at my last clinic. I can’t get over the 42-inch height anymore; they’re too high for me now, but I still have all the technique I had before. I think that my business on the track is finished, and I have accomplished everything that I needed to. The best day of my life was the day I retired. I had a family, and I wanted to move on with my life and be a regular guy.”
What’s his advice to the up-and-comers today? Some counsel that’s decidedly not related to competition.
“Always keep business cards,” Nehemiah advises. “If someone has taken the time out to show enough interest in you to give you their card, don’t take it for granted. Athletics won’t take care of you forever; everyone will have to retire one day whether it’s by choice or by force. These contacts always help with building something for yourself outside of sports.”
While interviews like this one invariably remind Nehemiah of 1980 and a handful of things that never were, having or not having an Olympic medal does not appear to be a heavy weight on his shoulders.
“I want to be remembered for the things I was able to help and give back to people. I don’t need recognition or articles talking about what I did, but I want people to know that beyond the track, I gave back and helped out where I could.”
D’Ambour Lewis is a junior sprinter and jumper at the University of Maryland (Renaldo Nehemiah’s alma mater, coincidentally). She is a journalism major. Contact her here.
Photo credits: University of Maryland