Edwin Moses (born 1955) is known as the greatest 400-meter hurdler ever. Over almost a decade, from September 1977 to June 1987, Moses won 107 consecutive races, including one at the 1984 Olympic Games, and broke the world record for the event four times.
Edwin Moses was born in Dayton, Ohio on August 31, 1955. Both of his parents were educators, and Moses grew up with a strong interest in academics. He spent his time building model volcanoes, dissecting frogs, collecting fossils, and launching homemade rockets. His parents, who were both active on the school board, encouraged his academic interests and expected him to do well. He told a reporter for the Associated Press, "It was mandatory for us to join a book club and read five to ten books during the summer and go to summer schools. It was a matter of keeping us involved in activities that kept us stimulated." Ironically, Moses bought his first pair of running shoes in Paris during a trip he took there with the high school French club.
In high school, according to Larry Schwartz in ESPN.com, Moses said, "I had no ambitions to be an Olympic track star or any kind of athlete." He joined the basketball team and the football team, but the coach cut him from the basketball team and he was removed from the football team for fighting. He moved to track and gymnastics, and found that the solitary nature of these sports suited his personality. "I found that I enjoyed individual sports much more," he said, according to Schwartz. "Everything is cut and dry, nothing is arbitrary. It's just a matter of getting to the finish line first." Moses first read about hurdling in a Boy Scout track and field manual that showed him the technique.
Despite his new interest in track and field, Moses never qualified for the Ohio High School State Track and Field Championships, and was not considered skilled enough to receive an athletic scholarship to college. Instead, he accepted an academic scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta. He majored in physics and engineering. The school had a track team, but didn't have a track to practice on. Moses was known as "Bionic Man" at the college, where he was largely in charge of his own training. He applied his scientific interests to his running, analyzing his performance and training, and working fiercely to improve. Moses ran in the 110-meter hurdles, 400-meters and 4 x 100-meter relays. He entered a 400-meter hurdle race only once before 1976. When he began running this event, he improved dramatically.
Stunned the World
Four months after running the event for the first time, Moses competed in the Montreal Olympic Games of 1976. This unknown athlete from a black college stunned the world, winning the gold medal by eight meters, the largest winning margin ever in the Olympic event, and setting a world record of 47.64 seconds. According to Schwartz, the silver-medal winner, Mike Shine, later said of the huge winning margin, "Edwin and I were ships passing in the night." Shine also said, "The last 60 or 70 meters, I couldn't believe him. I didn't think anyone could pull away that fast." Moses said, "I pushed hard on the last five hurdles. Anyone can run the first five, but what decides who wins a race is the last five. I'd planned to run a 47.5 today. I guess 47.6 isn't too bad."
Moses had an unusual combination of speed, grace, and stamina, and was known for his long and efficient 9-foot, 9-inch stride: instead of taking fourteen steps between each of the 10 three-foot hurdles, as every other runner did, he only took 13. According to Schwartz, Moses 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." Before Moses perfected his 13-step technique, others told him that he couldn't do it—that no one could do it. Moses worked on his technique in secret, never letting anyone else watch him work out. Once he told someone that his track affiliation was the Utopian Track Club, which had one member—Moses.
More serious and studious than other athletes, in the early years of his career Moses was somewhat of an enigma to track fans. They saw him as what Schwartz described as "a hurdling automaton. Not until years later would he be viewed as a respected statesman." Moses took track and life seriously. His major regret about the Olympic experience was that training had interfered with his study time, so that his grade point average fell to 3.57. He was not always serious, however; his human side showed several times. During the Montreal Olympics he knocked over two hurdles during his victory lap (later, according to Schwartz, he joked, "I'm glad I didn't do that during the race"). At the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki he ran with an untied shoe. At the Los Angeles Olympics he temporarily forgot the words to the athletes' oath. Perhaps his hesitation was because this was an emotional moment for him—he dedicated his win in the 400-meter hurdles to his father, who had died a year before.
Began Long Winning Streak
In 1977, Moses broke his own world record at the AAU's Pepsi Invitational meet. In that same year, on August 26th, he lost the 400-meter hurdle race to Harald Schmid. It was only the fourth time that he had lost the event, and it would be the last time he lost for almost a decade. The next week, he raced against Schmid again, and won by 15 meters.
In 1978, he received his Bachelor of Science degree from Morehouse. After graduating, he left Atlanta because there were no good training facilities for his event there, and moved to California. In 1980, he was scheduled to compete in the Olympics. Because of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, President Jimmy Carter ordered the U.S. athletes to boycott the event, which was held in Moscow. The boycott angered Moses, who believed the athletes were being used as pawns in a political game. Instead, he ran at an international meet in Milan, Italy and again broke his own world record with a time of 47.13.
In 1980, Moses openly questioned the then-current rule that amateur athletes could not accept money for competing and endorsing products. He believed that many amateur athletes did accept money, but did it dishonestly. Moses felt it would be better if the process were simply made legal and honest. Other athletes agreed with Moses. He aroused controversy, however, when he spoke out against the use of steroids, which some athletes used to improve their performance, but which were harmful to their health. Records by drug-using athletes became suspect and cheapened the records of those who did not use steroids. According to Schwartz, he said, "Someone had to say something. What are these people doing to their bodies? Is winning worth that much? I don't think so." Some athletes used other illicit performance-enhancing techniques that might not be apparent if they were tested only during competition. Moses and others called for the testing of athletes during the off-season, when they were not actively competing but when some were using performance-enhancing drugs.
In 1982, Moses sat out the season because of injury and illness. That same year, he married Myrella Bordt, a West German woman who designed movie sets and costumes. The marriage was not successful and they divorced in 1991.
A Prophetic Dream
In 1983, Moses dreamed that he saw the numbers "8-31-83" and then, repeatedly, "47.03." This was a tenth of a second faster than his last world record. Soon after, at a meet in Germany, he ran on his 28th birthday—August 31, 1983—and set another world record with a time that was a hundredth of a second faster than his dream: 47.02.
In the 1984 Olympics, Moses won another gold medal, becoming the second man to win two 400-meter Olympic hurdle events. He had been hired by the Kappa sportswear company in Italy to endorse their clothing, and they considered this win so important to their image that they had taken out $1 million in insurance in case he was injured and couldn't run. Fortunately, he did win. That same year, he was named Sportsman of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee and Sports Illustrated.
Three years later, on June 4, 1987, Danny Harris broke Moses' long winning streak—beating him by 11 seconds. Moses went on to win ten events in a row, beating Harris in Rome at the 1987 World Championships. At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Moses ran his fastest Olympic final ever with a time of 47.56, but came in third. His teammate, Andre Phillips, came in first. Phillips had looked up to Moses since high school, and had lost to him more than 20 times, including during the Olympic trials.
Retired from Competition
When Moses retired from competition, he did not miss training. In 1986, he had ruptured a disc in his back. The injury was not properly diagnosed or treated, so he spent the last three years of his track career in severe pain. It was not until 1993 that the injury was correctly diagnosed.
Moses moved back to Atlanta in 1994, after receiving his master's degree in business administration from Pepperdine University. Although he had retired from competition, he was still active in sports, working as the athletes' liaison to the International Olympic Committee. He was also elected president of the International Amateur Athletic Association. Moses testified before Congress on sports issues, and was a member of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships and the National Criminal Justice Commission. As liaison to the International Olympic Committee, he was able to get the marathon schedule changed so that the grueling event would be run in the morning, when it was still cool, rather than in the sweltering afternoon. As president of the International Amateur Athletic Association, he told an Associated Press writer, he hopes to encourage education. "Education has been the key to my whole life," he said. "If I had not gotten a scholarship and gone to Morehouse, I wouldn't be here today. No one would know who I was." He is concerned about young people who grow up in broken homes and are exposed to drugs, violence, and poverty, and deplores advertising campaigns that lead young people to care more about wearing expensive jackets and shoes rather than getting a good education. He told an Associated Press reporter that "It's unlikely that any of them are going to be superstars in sports compared to the chances of getting an education and being a successful person in almost any career, whether it be chemistry, physics or whatever." Moses now works as a financial consultant for the Robinson-Humphrey investment firm in Atlanta.
Of his unprecedented winning streak, Tom Weir wrote in USA Today, Moses said, "I'm hoping that the streak will stand for a long time—that it will be my mark on the sport, my legacy." And according to Schwartz, he said that he hoped to be remembered "as the guy nobody could beat. Maybe in the years to come, people will understand the things I have accomplished and realize, 'Hey, this guy was really something. Nobody's ever going to do that again."'
Further Reading on Edwin Moses
"Edwin Moses," Ohio's Greatest Runners, http://www.nd.edu?~pworland/ogr/moses.htm (November 9, 1999).
"Gone with the Wind," Espn.com, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016369.html (November 9, 1999).
"Great Moments in Olympic History No. 13: Edwin Moses-Unbeaten Streak Lasted Nearly a Decade," USA Today, http://cgi.usatoday.com/olympics/odxu13.htm (November 9, 1999).
"Moses Made Winning Look Easy," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016350.html (November 9, 1999).