Edwin Moses was an untouchable, unbeatable performer as a track and field superstar during his heyday in the 1970s and ’80s.
|Edwin Moses, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, speaks at a recent meeting of the
Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
His performances as a 400-meter hurdler put him in the most exclusive athletic fraternity — of one, or make that two if a guy named Superman decided to don shorts and sneakers and compete in track meets.
Moses, a USA Track and Field Hall of Famer and two-time Olympic gold medalist, is also an awe-inspiring speaker.
With an easygoing manner that comes from having satisfaction in one’s life, he recounts tales of his global travels, athletic accomplishments and unique background as a physics and engineering student from a small college without a track to a world renowned gold-medal champ.
And the scope of his kindness, the depth of his convictions, are as deep as the Grand Canyon.
This engaging personality was on display in Tokyo on Aug. 3, when he was a special guest at a Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan dinner and discussed his career, his current projects and the state of track and field today (more on the latter in upcoming editions of The Japan Times).
As the chairman of Laureus World Sports Academy, Moses leads an organization that is actively involved in trying to create a level playing field for all of mankind.
“Wherever you are in the world, it doesn’t matter what country you live in, there’s always somebody that doesn’t have a chance, or because of the circumstances in their lives is behind the eight-ball,” Moses says.
In short, Laureus seeks to move that metaphorical eight-ball.
At the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards banquet in 2000, Nelson Mandela stated in eloquent, passionate words what would become the organization’s mantra.
The ex-South African president said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
Mandela should know. His life is a living testament to hardship and courage as a 27-year political prisoner in his homeland (he was released in 1990), and then in the next decade as a driving force for positive change.
Moses observed this man’s extraordinary message and learned from it.
“He spoke from real experience because when he was in prison on Rikers Island, I guess the only perk that he had was that they let him read the sports pages, only the sports pages and nothing else — no news or anything,” Moses says.
“So he knew who I was. He knew who (boxer) Ray Leonard was. He knew who (ex-basketball star) David Thompson was and (runner) Seb Coe, he knew all of us, almost personally, because he had been reading about us for years.
“He was the one who really solidified in all of the minds of the academy what our responsibility was — that we could take advantage of if we took the bulls by the horn.”
That message was followed. In its infancy, Laureus started working with one ambitious community-based project, the Mathare Youth Sports Association, in the slums on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Moses recalls that it’s “a project that (helped) over a thousand soccer clubs with kids in one of the most atrocious places on Earth you can live.
“(There are) a half a million people living right on top of each other in Kenya, on what we would basically consider a garbage dump, where people discard trash and garbage everywhere and kids swimming in water that if you or I touched and it got into our blood or got on our lips, we would probably be dead in two or three days. But kids recreate in this kind of atmosphere.”
Soccer, of course, helps them to cope with the challenges of survival, gives them joy and discipline and camaraderie.
The Mathare Youth Sports Association was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. It became the model program.
“We had six projects . . . and over the past seven years we’ve grown that into seven national foundations, which they are non-profit organizations in each of these different countries and 46 projects in 19 different countries,” Moses says, citing homeless children infected with AIDS in South Africa, to boy soldiers in Sierra Leone, to ghetto youth in Brazil.
“We’ve put in about 232 days a year where academy members are actually on the road traveling and doing projects. It is just a fantastic organization.”
Laureus doesn’t have any current projects in Japan, but Moses, who resides in Orange County, Calif., said the organization would be interested in projects here that deal with issues such as helping children from broken homes, domestic violence, attention-deficit disorder, diabetes, obesity and retardation.
Japanese judo legend Yasuhiro Yamashita, however, provided instruction at the 2004 New York Inner City Games, another of Laureus’ projects.
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Moses’ athletic career took him to dozens of places, including Taiwan, Kenya, Japan (in 1978-79), Jamaica, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the then-Czechoslovakia and Russia before he retired from track and field in 1988.
Moses estimated that he’s also traveled to 25-30 more countries since joining Laureus in 2000.
He made this visit to Tokyo to help promote the Laureus World Sports Academy’s new photo-essay book, “Let The Children Play,” which showcases the organization’s 46 current projects.
The 45 Laureus Academy members, living legends from a wide range of sports, include gymnast Nadia Comaneci, tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Boris Becker, ex-NFL running back Marcus Allen and figure skater Katarina Witt.
the Laureus World Sports Academy. He travels the world encouraging the use of sport to benefit society.
Japanese tennis icon Kimiko Date, actor Hiroyuki Sanada and Hong Kong action-movie star Jackie Chan joined Moses to promote the new book in Tokyo on Aug. 3.
” ‘Let The Children Play’ is really a photo essay on conditions all over the world dealing with many of our projects,” Moses says.
Asked about the most significant of Laureus’ projects, he pointed out one that’s featured in the June issue of Watch International: the Spirit of Soccer program in northern Cambodia.
“There have been so many (memorable projects),” Moses says humbly. “But if I had to choose one, it would be a visit I made to northern Cambodia a year ago with Jackie Chan. There are still lots of land mines there, and studies have shown that 98 percent of mine casualties are civilians. In fact, in this region over five million people, in around 6,000 villages, are at risk.
“Jackie and I went to one school where we saw lots of kids without arms and legs. And the crazy thing was that the other kids knew the same thing could happen to them at any time. You walk across a piece of land and before you know it, you’re crippled. It’s something that we can’t imagine. But for them it’s completely normal and they just get on with their lives.”
This project continues to make a big impact.
“(Soccer legend) Sir Bobby Charlton and (skateboard pioneer) Tony Hawk were in Cambodia last week doing a project working with kids that live in areas inundated by minefields that were formerly held by the Khmer Rouge,” says Moses.
“So we have a soccer program where we encourage the kids to play in areas which are safe and also teach them how to identify ordinance — 500- or 1,000-pound bombs that were dropped back in the ’60s and ’70s into the mud and during the monsoon season dries up 25 years later and the detonator is sticking up out of the ground.
“We have a program to teach kids how to identify mines, whether they are shells or grenades or bombs or anything in the ground, and at the same time, locate safe areas for them to play soccer.”
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Edwin Moses was born on Aug. 31, 1955, in Dayton, Ohio. The second of Gladys and Irwin Moses’ three sons, he grew up during a time of profound changes in the United States, when President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and black leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated.
At the same time, boxer Muhammad Ali was arguably the most famous person on the planet.
When Moses was 16, his life changed forever. He watched the 1972 Munich Olympics and saw the gold medal-winning exploits of Ugandan John Akii-Bua, a 400-meter hurdler. To this day, Moses can recall with vivid details the profound impact that short race had on his life.
“I would have been 16 years old when that happened and just started running hurdles and also ran the 400 meters when he won the Olympics in 47.82 (seconds),” Moses says. “I wasn’t even running 51 seconds with no hurdles back then. But it was like my fantasy, and little did I know that four years later I would break his world record.”
Wow. How else can you sum up Moses’ ascension to superstardom?
In the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, the little-known runner from Morehouse College in Atlanta, stunned the masses, capturing the gold in 47.64 seconds.
“For me between ages 16 and 20, everything changed in my life, things that I never would’ve imagined — that I would be an Olympic champion, going to a college (that) was academic, it had no track, no athletic program to speak of,” he says now. “We had to get in cars and jump fences to go and train. No trainers, no track, no weights, no nothing.
“So to go from watching John Akii-Bua at age 16 to four years later being the Olympic champion is just something that just doesn’t really make sense.
“The only reason I can explain it is that I just love track and field so much that even if there were no rewards, no guarantee, no concept of winning a medal, I just went to track practice every day because I just loved the sport.”
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Then the ugly reality of the Cold War interrupted Moses’ glorious career in 1980, when he was in his prime.
Why? Due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter ordered the nation to boycott the Moscow Summer Games the next year.
And how does Moses reflect on that time in his life now?
“It’s been so long the Russians are out of Afghanistan and the Americans are in,” Moses notes. “It is a total turnaround. Who would have ever thought that would be the case? It’s the same country, the same problem.
“I was absolutely at the top of my career at that point in 1980. I had broken the world record in 1980, so it’s just a part of life, a part of the sacrifice that I made for sports. It’s a part of my legacy and most people don’t know that in 1976 the Africans boycotted the Olympic Games.”
“In 1980, the Americans boycotted. In 1984, the Soviet Union boycotted. . . . It was all fruitless. It was a total waste.”
And yet after all these years Moses admits he still yearns to discuss the matter with President Carter.
“I’ve met him once since then,” he says, “but didn’t have a chance to talk to him. In fact, I have it on my agenda to get a meeting with him to discuss it because so much happened politically behind the scenes that led to the fall of the Soviet Union and what not, a lot of the policies that Carter put into place before (Ronald) Reagan” became president in 1981.
“Ronald Reagan was in place when it all happened,” Moses continues, “but Jimmy Carter was the guy that started turning the screws on the Soviet Union back in the late ’70s, of which the boycott was an unfortunate part, but nonetheless it was a part because it denied the Soviets billions of dollars in TV revenue and tourist revenues and all that from the American side.”
In this time of heightened political tension during the Cold War, Moses met his teenage hero in England. He recalled that he raced against Akii-Bua in 1979 or 1980 in England. At the time, the Ugandan was a political refuge in Germany. He passed away a decade ago.
The BBC is currently working on a documentary of the African great, and it’s a project Moses is honored to be a part of.
“I am going to go down there and be interviewed by his coach and the people that he stayed with,” Moses says proudly, “because I’ve got quite a few pictures and notes in my diaries and things like that that I hadn’t looked at in 20 years until they told me that they wanted to do this documentary.”
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Above all, Moses’ distinguished athletic career was defined by The Streak.
For nine years, nine months and nine days, Moses was the undisputed king of the 400 hurdles. From Aug. 26, 1977, to June 4, 1987, Moses finished first in 122 consecutive races, including 107 finals.
Talk about excelling under pressure.
It was LeRoy Walker, a one-time U.S. track and field coach, who best summed up Moses’ brilliance as a competitor.
Listen to Walker’s observations from an ESPN.com story:
“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.”
So what made him a consummate winner?
Did it take more mental strength or physical stamina?
“For me, the training was more physical,” he reveals. “You have to rely on the mental in order to complete what you need to do in training every day. Because generally when you get tired, your times increase. My training philosophy was that once I start training, whatever I’m doing, my times will continue to go down, which was totally irrational and different from what everyone else was doing.
“In the meets, it was mostly mental. My philosophy and the way that I did it was I’ve done everything that I can do in training, I’m totally prepared. You don’t have time to think when it comes to competition. Actually, the competitions were easier for me than the training sessions.”
“In training, I would sometimes run the equivalent of three or four races within an hour or an hour and a half. In the meet, you go in with unlimited rest and after that you have unlimited rest. You are just running at like a 20 percent faster pace for the whole thing.
“By the time I got to the competition my mind was clear, because physically I knew that the only thing I had to do was keep from making major errors. And at the end of the race, you are going to be dead tired anyway, and I accepted that from the beginning.
“The races were easier for me than the training, much easier. The race was easy.”
His mother’s advice — “Get out fast and run like hell” — helped, too.
“That’s all I can say when it comes to track,” he continues. “That’s the bottom line. After the training and everything, get out fast and run like hell,” he adds, pausing to laugh.
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Moses was also an innovative tactician in a sport known for pure speed and power to be able to race 400 meters and leap over 10 obstacles that stand .91 meters tall.
Competitors routinely took 14 steps between hurdles. Moses refined the process, taking 13 steps in his races.
“I had long legs and a long stride,” he says, “so fortunately for me the 13 steps was pretty close to what I was going to be running anyway. . . . My application of it was to make sure that from the seventh hurdle to the 10th hurdle that I had enough power to maintain it, so I kind of geared my training program to being able to maintain 13 steps and be able to continue to hurdle when you are tired. Those factors are, like, where the science came in.”
It is rare to hear the marathon, a 42.19-km race, and 400-meter hurdles mentioned in the same conversation, but Moses believes those events have one similarity: they are the most difficult running events.
“In the marathon, you run at a slow pace until you run out of gas,” he says. “In the 400 hurdles, you run and jump at a fast pace until you run out of gas. In the marathon, the trick is to keep moving when you know that physically you are going to be out of energy and you are going to hit the wall at 21 (or) 22 miles, probably the (elite) guys at 23, 24 miles.
“And in the 400 hurdles, theoretically they say the sugar in your muscles is going to be about enough fuel till about 270 meters, so you’ve got about 130 meters where you are basically out of gas, and out of that 130 meters, you’ve got hurdles Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10.”
But remember this: Edwin Moses performed like Superman on the track, so those final 130 meters looked as easy as the first 130.
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