Interview: Ed Moses, 400m hurdler and former Olympic champion

FOUR months out from the Olympic Games in London, we have a pretty good idea of who the favourites are in every event in the athletics programme. The established names will corner the market in medals. There will be little room for complete outsiders to break through.

It was the same four months out from the Montreal Games, nine Olympiads ago. In March 1976, we knew who the stars were going to be. Then, as now, there was little chance of a man from nowhere rocking up unannounced and being crowned as Olympic champion.

Or at least that’s what we thought. Edwin Moses thought differently.

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Born in Dayton, Ohio, in the summer of 1955, Moses grew up in a supportive, academic family who instilled in him the value of hard work and self-discipline. He was an able, intelligent scholar, and particularly good at science subjects. But, even towards the end of his school days, there was nothing to suggest he would come close to excelling at track and field.

Short-sighted, a modest 5ft 9in, he tipped the scales at under ten stone. He was not an impressive athletic specimen, and his results were unremarkable too. There were kids on his own block who could outrun him.

The picture was similar when he moved on to Morehouse College in Atlanta, to study physics and engineering. The alma mater of Martin Luther King and Samuel L Jackson, Morehouse had a proud academic tradition. What it didn’t have was its own running track.

All in all, Moses’ background appeared singularly unlikely to produce greatness on the track. And yet he won the 400 metres hurdles at the Montreal Olympics, and won gold again at the 1984 Los Angeles Games after being forced to miss the 1980 Games in Moscow because of the United States boycott. He also won the first two IAAF World Championships, in 1983 and 1987. And, most famously, beginning with a victory in Germany in August 1977, he went undefeated for nine years, nine months and nine days, winning 122 consecutive races

Moses’ story of relentless dedication to his work as an athlete remains one of the most inspiring in sport. And this week he was in Dunblane to share it with some of the most influential people in Scottish sport – the coaches and others who were attending the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport’s high-performance conference.

The high-performance team provides a range of services for Scotland’s athletes in disciplines such as strength and conditioning, nutrition, sport psychology, sport medicine, and physiology. They have a vital role to play in helping the nation’s sportsmen and women prepare for the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games, and constitute a support network which was almost non-existent in Moses’ heyday.

Nonetheless, then as now, the commitment of the athlete remains the key element of success. In a speech lasting about 50 minutes, delivered largely without notes, Moses insisted that passion, not inborn ability, was the prime reason for his success. And, in conversation with The Scotsman afterwards, he emphasised the point: in his pomp he may have been seen as a sporting genius, but there was nothing inevitable about his success. Years of gruelling work were the key.

“My story is not one of someone who was born to be a champion,” he said. “I stayed in the sport longer than some who were better than me at 15, 16, 18 or even 20. And I put more into it.

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“I think I could have been better than I was at 16, 17, 18, but I peaked at exactly the right time. There were lots of athletes who were much better than me at a younger age. My younger brother was way better than I was. But in terms of what it took to go to the next level, he couldn’t put those elements together.

“Academically I was on top of the game, but I was not great on the track. I was seconds off being fast enough to get a scholarship, so I went to a college with no track facilities and just became a regular student. In 1974 or 1975, if someone had told me I was going to be an Olympic champion, I would not have believed it. Even in 1976, I’d not have believed it.”

But by the spring of 1976, some of his hard work was beginning to pay off. And he had grown taller, and at 6ft 1in found it far easier to take the hurdles in his stride – but over 110m rather than the one-lap event.

It was only towards the end of March, at a meeting in Florida, that he would run the 400 hurdles for the first time. When he did, it was a revelation.

“On the first day of that Florida meet I ran in the 110m hurdles and was fast enough to qualify for the Olympic trials. Then I ran the 400m flat and qualified. Having done that, I decided to have a go at the 400m hurdles. I ran it at that meeting for the first time, I ran 50.1 seconds, and I qualified for that too.”

The world record then, held by John Akii-Bua of Uganda, was 47.82sec. In his first attempt at the event, Moses had run barely two seconds slower. By the time he got back to Morehouse, he could see the future, and knew it was golden.

“I told my head of college that I would win the trials then break the world record at the Olympics, which were exactly four months later. He asked me was I sure. ‘I guarantee it,’ I said. And he gave me $3,000, which enabled me to go to the trials.”

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Moses went to the trials and won. He went to the Olympics and won. And, true to his word, he broke the world record too.

And he not only improved his event, he revolutionised it. Previously even the best hurdlers, such as Akii-Bua or Britain’s 1968 Olympic champion David Hemery, had started off taking 13 strides between the first five hurdles then dropped down to 15. Moses had the strength to maintain 13 strides all the way round.

“I would always take 19 steps before the first hurdle, then 13 between each hurdle,” he explained. “The only thing that varied was the number of steps I took after the last hurdle. One time I took 151 steps in a fast race, but it was usually 152, 153 or 154.”

Having set a world record of 47.63sec in what was only his tenth or 11th outing at the distance, Moses soon became the dominant figure in his chosen event. But he never presumed he would win a race, and always prepared meticulously.

“I never considered myself as a favourite in any hurdles event. I never took anything for granted.

“I knew everything about everybody in my races. I put together this grid, followed everybody, had the statistics about their times. And I did that throughout my career.

“I used to have tears in my eyes on the way to practice because I was so focussed. For me, track and field was serious business. I didn’t have any friends. I was very isolated and very focussed.

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“I think that’s one trait a lot of athletes diverge from these days. I didn’t have a Walkman back then, or an Ipod, or any of those things. I let absolutely nothing get in the way of my goal.

“When I hit the line I knew what my competition were capable of. I knew their previous stats, look at the trends, figure out what they could do and what I would need to do. For every race.

“I had to force myself to be tough. When you train for an event like mine, every day is a personal battle between whether you’re going to finish and do everything properly or not. If you’re at the end of your day and you’re down to the last couple of runs, the overwhelming desire for your body is to not want to do anything. Some people can’t overcome the physicality of it.

“So you have to trick yourself into doing it. I know I did many, many days. You start that last run and say ‘I know this is really going to hurt’. Those are the only ones that really count.”

In the 1970s, like now, some people who could not stand the physicality of their event sought a shortcut in doping. Moses not only avoided drugs, he used his scientific background to devise testing programmes.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is I went through my entire career drug-free. Everyone can’t say that. Everyone will say that, but they can’t.

“When I was running I think quite a bit of the world-class athletes [were on drugs]. There were quite a few who were ethical. I know for sure because I’ve spoken to some who had to endure losing to people that they never felt they should have.”

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Although he remains a staunch campaigner against doping, Moses does not go along with the hard line taken by the British Olympic Association, who are currently engaged in a legal battle to preserve the right to impose a lifetime ban from the Games of anyone convicted of a doping offence. Instead, he believes that the World Anti-Doping Agency, Wada, has the correct approach.

“Wada has 600-odd signatories who are supposed to abide by the rules, including the BOA. The rules say that if you’re using drugs, you serve a penalty and then you should be eligible again. They want an incentive for athletes to come clean if they make that kind of error.

“Redemption is in order, no matter what you do. For any kind of crime there is some level of redemption, unless they lock you up for ever, or execute you.

“We’re not talking about life-and-death scenarios. We’re talking about athletes who are willing to admit that they made errors of judgement and are willing to put it behind them.”

Moses believes that the doping issue continues to affect the credibility of track and field, but he also blames other factors, such as the tendency of the biggest names in the sport to avoid the risk of defeat by shying away from confrontation with their fiercest rivals.

“I grew up in an era when there was big competition. I ran against Harald Schmidt virtually every year, sometimes two or three times a year.

“That’s the kind of action I want to see. I don’t want to see Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay running against each other every third or fourth year at a world championships because they have to. I want to see those races every year.

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“That’s what’s going to make track and field exciting, and that’s why it’s not as exciting as it can be. The big match-ups. I don’t know who to blame it on, but the federations should find a way to have these big match-ups. That’s what people want to see. I think some of the athletes are afraid to lose big competitions. Track and field is about running – it’s not about positioning and dodging. They want to see you run.

“When I was running there was a cast of characters. Even just the Americans, the world champions that we had – Jackie Joiner, Evelyn Ashford, Roger Kingdom, Willie Banks, Dan O’Brien, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Gail Devers. People related to all of them.”

Judging by the warm reaction to his speech at the high-performance conference, people are still able to relate to Moses’ story of how to achieve sporting success.

And who knows? Four months out from the London Olympics, maybe there is someone somewhere, hitherto unknown, who is so inspired by the American’s example that they take this year’s Games by storm just as Moses did in the summer of ’76.

• Edwin Moses is managed by Siu-Anne Marie Gill at 11th Hour Global Management, London.