x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The unstoppable man on the track

Concentrating on the 110m hurdles and the 4 x 100m relay, it was in March 1976 that Ed Moses attempted his first 400m hurdles, the event that he would come to make his own.

Growing up in America, Ed Moses was something of an unusual child; whereas most of his classmates dreamed of becoming the next Joe DiMaggio, Joe Namath or Joe Frazier, even, young Edwin preferred to collect fossils, dissect frogs, launch home-made rockets or build model volcanoes to running, jumping or throwing. "Even when I went to high school," he recalls, "I had no ambitions to be an Olympic track star."

As the son of two school teachers, Moses valued academic qualifications above sporting achievements and it was only when he won a scholarship to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta that he was persuaded to take his nose out of his books. Always a bit of a loner, he dismissed all team sports and, almost reluctantly, turned to the track. "I discovered that I enjoyed individual sports much more. Everything is cut and dry; nothing is arbitrary. It's just a matter of getting to the finish line first. Any individual sport is basically a gladiator sport. Back in the old days only one guy would walk out of the arena. In track, it's basically the same thing."

Concentrating on the 110m hurdles and the 4 x 100m relay, it was in March 1976 that Moses attempted his first 400m hurdles, the event that he would come to make his own. Virtually unknown but blessed with a three metres stride, Moses qualified for the Montreal Olympics where, in his first international meeting, he cruised to the gold in a world record time, leaving silver medallist Mike Shine eight metres adrift, the largest winning margin in Olympic history.

Although he was the only American to win an individual gold on the track in Montreal, the reception awaiting Moses on his return home was muted. Many viewed him as conceited, an aloof, unsmiling egotist hiding behind his trademark dark sunglasses while his demands that athletes should be paid for their efforts alienated others. Few were disappointed when the Olympic champion began the new season by finishing second to German Harald Schmid in Berlin; it was to be Moses last defeat for almost a decade covering 122 races.

A second Olympic gold would have followed in 1980 had Jimmy Carter not ordered a boycott of the Moscow Games in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "I can remember feeling irritated listening to people being introduced as Olympic champions from Moscow. I have the killer instinct. It is about ego. When I'm on the track, I want to beat everyone. Not being allowed to beat them in Moscow hurt me deeply."

After winning the 1983 World Championship in Helsinki, Moses belatedly became a double Olympic champion in Los Angeles, his 105th straight victory. As Leroy Walker, the US Olympic track and field coach, put it: "In an art gallery, do we stand around talking about Van Gogh? Extraordinary talent is obvious. We're in the rarefied presence of an immortal here. Edwin's a crowd unto himself." Ever a law unto himself, Moses was not bragging when he said: "It just happens that my slow is faster than most athletes' fast. People either think that I'm a freak or that the other guys aren't any good."

Danny Harris, silver medallist in LA was good, so good, in fact, that on June 4, 1987, the unthinkable happened when he beat Moses in Madrid. Moses's after race comment that "I wasn't feeling good that day, I probably shouldn't have run..." was regarded as sour grapes by his critics but he exacted revenge on his conqueror two months later in the World Championships in Rome. And how would Moses like to be remembered? "Hopefully, as the guy nobody could beat."

rphilip@thenational.ae