This piece originally appeared in the June, 1988 issue of Esquire, and is featured in the essential new anthology, Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram.
Odd, he was thinking, how a streak leans on you, twists you, turns you, can overwhelm the most finely tuned psychology designed to protect you from its vast intrusions. He was stretched out on a bed in a dark Madrid hotel room, listening to the horn of Miles Davis make brooding runs that seemed to fall off sharply and start to probe all over again. Before a race, the horn on the tape deck was always there, the notes like loyal guides directing him toward a mood—aggressive, calm—whatever he needed to carry him through those moments of pure physical fury that, if they were not getting more physical, were becoming more furious. But he wasn’t getting anything from Miles’s horn today, his mind was just out there floating, unable to hook into any kind of thought pattern, and he regretted that he hadn’t brought along one of his physics books.
Edwin Moses smiled as he opened the curtains, letting in the piercing light of the Spanish sky. Question: What do you do to concentrate? Answer: Get down with Miles Davis and in with the particles and waves. But few reporters ever wanted to know about this, all they wanted to know about these days was the streak, that quick surface strike into the public imagination, or the thing as he privately began to think of it. Strange, he thought now, the way any prolonged assault on perfection begins to surround itself with so much collective psychic energy that it can implode, scattering character far from its center. The psychological effects of slumps have always been known to athletes, sensed by fans; slumps disassemble, crush the will, change a man. But streaks bring joy, ennoble, are the mammon of the godmakers. Yeah, he had to smile, but try lugging this mutha around for nine years, nine months, and nine days.
The numbers were always with him. Just the other day he saw a long line of black-cowled nuns moving into a church; he instantly turned them into a metaphor for the streak. The same with the birds in the sky, or jets waiting to take off; any unbroken line, and there was the quick flash of the streak through his mind. Winning, he finally had to admit, was becoming too desperate a matter; the very thought of winning or losing was perilous in the hurdles; only the pure act itself, 400 meters of instinctual reaction, must dominate the mind. He was eager to feel the surface under his spikes now, to retreat into the stillness, that splendid void that he has always found in the hard geometry of the chalked, measured distances; yeah, a streak can lean on a man, all right.
And what a record it is: two Olympic gold medals, two world championships, and the streak—107 straight victories in a sport where the margin for error barely exists. For 12 years (the average career is three to five years) he has attacked the 400 intermediate hurdles with the kind of vigor and Pegasus form that would have been the stuff of sports page sonnets in another age. He has been the epitome of what the French call the idée fixe; the man cannot be diverted from his vision. Before Moses came along, 48 seconds could not be broken; he’s broken it 27 times, run 18 of the 19 fastest times on record, among them the world mark of 47.2. Says Danny Harris, his most fierce competitor: “In Europe, they’d pay to watch him run by himself.” They already have in Taiwan—5,000 of them. Dick Hill, senior associate athletic director at the University of Louisville, says: “You want the Olympic, what it should be but seldom is. It’s Edwin Moses. Body and motion is my discipline. He’s the most remarkable athlete of the 20th century. Perfection.”
Maybe that’s the trouble, Ultimately, perfection seems to alienate more than it ever endears, especially those who are closer to the heat. When there wasn’t any money around in big-time track, who cared if everybody thought Moses was the King of Siam. But when the checks started to be written, Moses was the big horse in the gate. “Oh yeah,” says a friend, “and he gets all the oats. It’s money, jealously that’s behind any knocks on him. What else could it be? For an image hustler, he’s a helluva hermit.” The friend strikes a revealing note. If you look around the floating, sad-comic opera of celebrities trying to sell themselves, where is Edwin Moses? From afar, without buying into the whole Olympic brag of the ideal, and without Moses uttering a word, it is not hard to have the innocent hunch that here might be the last warrior, the seeker of excellence for its own sake, the one who decides that if his performance is not electric enough then forget about the Jockey underwear. He might as well be an apparition. You don’t see him on TV exchanging banalities with Johnny Carson; in fact, you never see him anywhere except when he folds himself into the starting blocks and goes to work.
Isn’t that right, Edwin? “I wouldn’t know about that,” he says. Let’s try again. Doesn’t it seem you’re the most available public figure on the landscape. “You think so?” he asks. When’s the next plane out of here, you wonder. He is walking on a beach in southern California, not far from his home. The ocean is placid, the beach empty. He often runs here in the morning, or he comes to watch the birds. They calm him, and the sight of a pelican will draw his undivided attention. “Hey, look at that,” he says abruptly, “a pelican.” The observation startles; the silence had become a roar. “You never see much of them anymore,” he says. “People have been catching them. They cut off their beaks. People.” Go on, but he drops the beaks, his voice trailing off with a hint of bewilderment. The winter light catches his tinted glasses. The glasses have been a personal trademark, projecting mystery, a threatening insouciance. Andre Phillips, a top hurdler, got him right: “I first saw him on TV. The Montreal Olympics. I was just a kid. There he was, hood up and glasses. The dude had ccome out of nowhere and there he was and you still couldn’t see him. No face. Like a ghost. Theee ghost. He was there, but he wasn’t. Hands off. Alone. Cool. I really threw myself into the hurdles after looking at him.”
Edwin Moses in 1979. Photo via AP.
Better hurry, then, before he disappears right in front of you. What about the streak, Edwin? The ending of the streak in Spain was supposed to have devastated him (though it’s hard to see him devastated by anything right now). The suggestion is that since the loss to Danny Harris he can’t be around mirrors; all he can see in them is a human being. Wait a minute, this guy walking on the beach, 2,000 feet deep into silence? One would have a better chance of finding a black pearl in the sand than locating an ego of that dimension. “I lost,” he says. “It was a race, and I lost.” But then, suddenly, he is putting you there in Madrid, hardly a man still running a finger over scar tissue. The monotone is gone, the words are carrying colors as he recreates the June night six months before: the way he felt before the race in his hotel room, the sound of Miles’s horn; the ping-pong thoughts about the psychology of humping a streak up the mountain each time out; the sky looking as if it had been torn from a canvas in the Prado. And finally the explosive start of Harris out of the blocks, and how he hadn’t had a plan for that possibility (extremely unlike him), then the cataract swoosh of sound from the crowd, the knifelike inner wince of recognition that it was all over. Unthinkingly, he continued his famed victory lap around the track, and the Spanish, who have a nose for drama, filled the stadium with the chant: Torero! Torero! “Something extraordinary was gone,” he says. But, he adds, slipping now into low gear, “it was a race, that’s all. I lost. One shouldn’t make too much of it.”
The great electronic beast began to chomp: Moses Beaten. In France, a boyhood friend, Dr. Archie Mays, walked toward a newsstand with a certain feeling of unease. Headlines in five different languages looked back at him. Mays says, “When you’re close to someone, you pick up on things. All those years, he never once talked about the streak. He had it locked up tight inside himself, and who knows what it was or wasn’t doing to him? And you began to take it for granted that he would win. When he ran, it was like he was teaching little boys. But early last year, I sensed something was wrong. He didn’t seem like he was all asses and elbows as he got ready. He’s a walking closet of scraps of paper, with plans jotted down for his training. He always pulled them out and showed me. Not last year. He seemed detached. There was a sense of an edge lost.” One look at Moses in Spain, and Danny Harris was sure of it. He says now: “The pressure had gotten to him, and I knew. Hesitancy. Very tentative. He didn’t look like he wanted to take off his warm-up suit. Didn’t want to run. He can say all he wants that the streak wasn’t eating him up, that he didn’t feel any pressure, but I know better. Once, I was on one, just 14 straight. It’s a terrific feeling, what more with nine years of never losing! It’s like an important possession. You don’t even want to think of parting with it. But it gets to you. Everybody’s gunning for you. You’re mind won’t let you alone.”
Athletes will admit to anything before acknowledging the erosive damage of pressure. There’s already enough vulnerability to go around in the percentages, and in the instant exposure as soon as you put on the gear. If they talk about pressure at all, they will direct you to the guy in the other lane, or sometimes look at you as if you’ve just discovered a weak limb on their family tree. But pressure is the big cat in their lives; the idea is to keep it caged and sedated. No one has ever been better at that than Moses, yet his loss in Spain loosed a wave of speculation that the royal robes might have become a trifle frayed. After all, he was crowding age 33, the hair was going fast, gray was snaking around the temples, and who knows what private doubts were hidden behind those eyes, the eyes you never see? “It seems that everybody wants to rush me off the stage,” says Moses, “but they just have to wait.” They call him the King of Sticks on the circuit, and sometimes he gets the impression from the huge crowds that he should dutifully surrender his head for the sake of historical continuity. “It’s love and hate now,” he says. “But I have to be dealt with. I concede nothing—not even to age.” As if to etch it indelibly in the track world’s consciousness, he came back after Spain to crush the field, including Harris, in Paris and Berlin, and won his second world title in Rome in what many consider the most dramatic race ever, a victory over Harris by just a billow of his jersey—two hundredths of a second.
Danny Harris beats Edwin Moses in Madrid. Photo via AP.
Now as he leans on a pier and looks out, he seems, for some reason, like an old friend, somebody you’d ask for very personal advice. He disarms, neutralizes the desire for taut penetration, makes asking him questions that you would not want asked about yourself seem like oafish intrusion. Yet it would be a mistake to think that he will ever hunker down and give you a tour of his life. “Nobody gets into Edwin’s world,” says Danny Harris. Above all else—his easy charm, his proclivity for being civil at all times—this is an interior man, friendly with the desert quiet within himself. When he does try to come out of his interior, he’s like a carpenter with language, building staircases that come to a sudden halt. He drops his tools and says to himself: “Hold it, this might lead somewhere I don’t want to go.” His pal Archie Mays says, “Language is a big thing to him. Not only his own. He can hear hostility and deception. He’s not about to walk into anyone’s backyard knowing there’s a pit bull out there. People can become afraid of his reserve, his demeanor. He’s got a lot of faces, Edwin. The Business Face. The Track Face. They’re all real. The Understanding Face and the Angry Face.” Like? “When those eyes just come out over the glasses.”
The glasses are being lowered now, and the eyes are moving out like two freight trains. The incident on Sunset Boulevard has been gently introduced. If you have an ounce of sensitivity, this is the kind of moment when you wonder why you didn’t become a bricklayer. The snippet of celluloid from three years ago is filling his mind, the images must sear: the Olympic Hero and the Street Hooker; Moses in his immaculate white suit leaving the jailhouse, the vacuity of his face; the impeccability of a whole persona at this moment irrevocably compromised; the runner stumbles. The hooker-cop had approached him at a red light, he joked with her about price, then hit the gas when the light changed. A block away he was surrounded like Public Enemy No. 1. Price had been mentioned, and that was enough for the cops; the Olympic license plate also lit them up. Once in court, he was quickly found innocent, an apparent victim of cops too eager to affirm their status as a special squad. Publicly, he had become more raw meat for a morally ascendant society, with an increasingly hair-trigger tendency to impose moral absolutes—on others. The notorious tabloids of France couldn’t even get worked up about it, except to cluck. Well, there go the Americans again with their heroes, back to Hawthorne and giving out scarlet letters. But with serious portraiture in mind, you can’t avoid the misfortune, it is vital. How did a man like Edwin Moses respond to being staked out in the media sun, how far did it drive him into his interior and what did he find there, how did he hold on to what he was all about? The Hollywood incident had hurt him badly—and it still does. His eyes flash, and then he turns back to the car.
Moses shows up the next afternoon to see to see his physical therapist, Ken Yoshino. He looks tired, says he was wired up last night, didn’t get much rest. “I began classwork toward an M.B.A. last night,” he explains. “It’s exciting.” Says Mays, “He’s a searcher. Athletes get in trouble when they quit and find emptiness. Edwin will just go on another search.” He’s already got a B.S. in physics, a B.A. in business. All the world’s a classroom. He’s become an expert scuba diver, had a pilot’s license. Pursuits that lengthen the distance between him and people? He ponders: “Could be. I never thought of it that way.” He can also spend a lot of time photographing birds; an egret can put him into a trance. So can biology books; if he had his way every hotel room would have a Merck Manual of symptoms instead of a Bible. Right now, he has a back pain.
Yoshino examines the point of the twinge. Edwin is on his belly, wearing just shorts. Besides those eyes and that winning, rascally gap between his teeth that contradicts a sometimes grave profile, the longness of his body captivates; the legs mute the rest of his six feet two inches. Yoshino points to his prize corpus. “God made him one of the most efficient machines on earth,” he says. “Body fat. Negative. Diet? You ever watch him eat?” Yes, and it’s painful; he looks as if he’s dining at the Borgias. “He even carries his own water in the back of his car. Look at his legs. Most athletes have an 8-percent discrepancy in leg strength, he’s got only 2-percent. Gives him an even foot strike, continues drive. The guy’s a Vienna symphony of physical harmony.” What about aging? “His back pops where it never used to. There’s an unstable section in there. But man to man, he can win for the next two years.”
Later, intimations of track mortality are given quick dispatch. Entering his home over Newport Bay, Moses says, “I can’t even bear to think of quitting the hurdles. I’m not going anywhere. But it’s too bad you can’t be like a musician and go until you can’t blow anymore.” The house is lined with books, strewn with memorabilia that chart his rise from a skinny college kid at Morehouse College to the covers of world magazines. He produces one, an Italian fashion number: no glasses, the gap in the teeth, big smile. “See how warm I can be,” he says. The European atmosphere for track, he says, is like an NFL title game. “But I don’t care much for the crowds,” he adds. “You’re up for grabs. After I ran in the L.A. Olympics, the fans outside were in a feeding frenzy. They nearly ripped off my clothes. I felt in real danger.” He talks fondly of his appeal in Europe—and why not? It’s his power base, but it wasn’t always so; Edwin Moses has taken world track from the dark ages to the marquee.
He runs 15 to 17 meets a year, getting $30,000 or more for each trip out. He won’t crunch the numbers, but it’s clear that the figure puts him in the area of a half-million annually; shaved down, that comes to about thirty grand.... He breaks in: “For every minute I actually run. Say around 10 minutes of work a year. But it was hard politics getting here.” Back in the early days, world track was a back room with a little guy and a satchel, where two things were sure to happen: they cheated you out of your money and made you feel like a Third World indigent – without brains. An imperious cartel of promoters seemed impenetrable. After the ’84 Olympics, Moses went head to head with the cartel. He was vilified in Europe. But if you are in track promotion, how do you announce that you can’t afford Edwin Moses? He aimed his mystique and his new manager, Gordon Baskin, at the walls of the cartel. He had fired his first three managers: one for making a pass at his new wife, Myrella, another for stealing money, and still another for getting him involved in a condominium scam that he sniffed out early. Baskin is an ex-banker who knows the location of the throat. He didn’t need the job; Moses was an adventure. The cartel came down in a heap. You can still hear a lone scream accusing Moses of wrecking world track.
Edwin Moses arrives in court to face solicitation charges. Photo via AP.
The other noise is from the athletes themselves. The bottom dogs have trouble with the vision of the plutocrat in their midst. Even with the bigger checks and heightened image, they resist his efforts to unify them for the future. “Not a union,” he says. “Just hard diplomacy and staying together in our efforts. The cartel may be down, but not out.” As one doubter says, “Why should Godzilla care about the mice?” He is both respected and suspect among other athletes. He’s admired for what he’s done and for his sincere willingness to render counsel to anyone who seeks him out. But some of the suspicion rears over the streak; to preserve it, Moses ducked tough competition, took a powder after the L.A. Olympics. “Ridiculous,” he says. “All my contracts are signed before the season. Besides, if they wanted me so bad why didn’t they come after me?” Says Harris: “I didn’t hook up with him once until Spain. Only Edwin knows if he was ducking me.” Why didn’t he enter wherever Moses was scheduled? “They lock you out,” he says. “Edwin pulls the strings in Europe. He runs the show. You dance his dance.”
This amuses Moses, bringing forth one of his chuckles. “I guess they think I’m the cartel now,” he says. “The biggest psych job ever. Andre Phillips and Harris actually making people believe that I was trying to duck them.” A rare glimpse of his pride as he says: “Look at the skeletons I’ve left behind. I’ve been through generations of hurdlers. I’ll be retiring a few more before I’m done.” The sudden, high acidity among hurdlers is unusual. They are not given to the volatility of sprinters. Sprinters are emotional, joyous, social, apt to exchange confidences. Hurdlers seem solitary, brooding, wary sentinels of their secrets, their state of mind. They work in a mist, full of tiny pulsations of mental signals. Watch them just before a race: all eyes, no breathing, their cerebral gears shut down, just that camera grinding in their minds. “Edwin takes the film,” says Dick Hill, “to a level where we can’t see. If his critics could tune into the visualization that he has of himself, they’d take off their spikes and get a job.”
Moses pops a tape into the VCR, and as the images come into focus, he chuckles: “There you are—Edwin Moses the radical.” The tape shows him winning the gold medal in the ’76 Olympics. The face is solemn, that of a school kid tired of giving answers to everyone in class. The modest Afro fills out a small head, the dark glasses are already paramount to the look, but what’s that bobbing around the neck? A leather thong necklace? An ornament of dissidence? Doesn’t say much, either; there’s menace here, all right. “They typed me right off,” he says. “They didn’t care that the glasses were prescription. I still can’t see. I have to struggle through serious optical fatigue. The rawhide cord necklace was a gift from a college roommate. No symbolism.” Lloyd Walker, an Olympic coach, discovered him as a hurdler just months before Montreal. “He was a natural,” says Walker. “I watched him crush the drills, went to Europe and said: ‘You are all coming in second.’” The ’76 Olympics didn’t do anything for him, Moses says, suddenly blacking out the tape. “I was forgotten instantly. Who knows? Maybe everybody did buy into me as a black terrorist in embryo.”
What about the tape of his loss in Spain? “I have one here someplace, but can’t find it.” He pauses: “Maybe I’ll never find it.” Instead, he inserts a sort of lab tape done for Kodak, Edwin Moses at 1,000 frames per second, bare-chested, the body encrusted with beeping gadgets that monitor his physiology. His style is murderously fluent, the aura is primal. He loves talking about the technical subtleties, the seconds between hurdles (3.1 to 4.8 toward the end), the intricacies of his ascent over 36-inch high “enemies,” and the descent that sends 3,000 lbs. of pressure slamming into his joints. “It’s in a way like taking off and landing a jet on an aircraft carrier,” he says. “You have to have the right thrust up, get up, and have the right glide slope coming down, with very little runway to deal with. You don’t have time to think. You have to know. Thinking can be costly. For the hurdles, you have to be a little crazy. You have to run hard, you’re going to be tired all the time. You’re going way beyond what the body was designed for. On every single hurdle. Just to try for it is a physical nightmare.”
Moses is the De Sade of preparation, sadistic with his body. When he’s through flogging himself, he takes all the readouts from his monitoring devices and lets his computations speak to him. “Physically,” says Hill, “you always know what to expect from Edwin Moses. The big variable is what’s in his head. He’s always got five, six plans ready for any way the race shapes up. His head is the scary part.” Moses says he’s an athlete only when he races, the rest of the time he’s an artist putting together a canvas, the race merely “the act of writing my signature.” He thinks now of the pain, saying: “The pain can make you scream. You can’t stand, sit, walk for long. It travels up the back of your legs to your head.” Says Iowa State coach Steve Lynn: “I don’t know how he does it. All that boredom of isolation, the hurt for so many years. There’ll never be another Edwin.” Harris agrees: “You won’t catch me going over the sticks when I’m 30. Something special about that man on the inside.”
“All right, Edwin, what’s on the inside?”
“Not all that much,” he says, fiddling with his lunch. “You’d be surprised.
“I think about a lot of things, but not much about myself. Only on the edges. I haven’t had much time for serious introspection.”
“I count it. I’m not into ostentation.”
“How about fame?”
“I don’t need to be famous.”
“Ducking the opposition?”
“Think about it,” he says. “What for? They’re good for business. Long time ago, I inquired what it would take for me to make the hurdles a big event. The answer was TV and people who look like they can beat you. I like the hot guns. They put focus on the event.”
“The perfect race?”
“I keep searching for it. Could be in the coming Olympics. If the weather’s right, I could crack into 46 for a new world record. But it’s tough. You need help. The others force you to the limit. It’s like calling a board meeting, and you hope that every member is going to contribute loudly. It doesn’t happen that often. I think the board will convene with serious, very serious intentions in Seoul.”
“To be able to function,” he says. “Not to use over other people.”
“Is there life in the universe?”
“I believe in the possibility of aliens.” He chuckles. “You’re leading me somewhere.”
“I thought so,” he says, grimacing.
The Moses firmness doesn’t wobble in the face of breezy familiarity. He sighs, deliberates over the $100,000 misunderstanding; that’s what it cost him in legal fees to defend himself against a crummy misdemeanor. In the realm of commercial endorsements, he was suddenly in limbo. He was under siege. His wife got one call from a reporter asking: “How can you continue to enhance his career after this?” Being married to him was never easy, if only because of the distance there between what he feels and what he shows. Myrella never wavered, and their marriage has struck deep roots since. “Yeah,” laughs Archie Mays, “he’ll even kiss her on the check in public now. He’s not as tightly wrapped up about marriage. The stupid incident in Hollywood hit a profound chord in him. And made him very vulnerable. He wasn’t used to that kind of feeling.” Or as Moses says, he felt the sharp edge of “the randomness of things, of life, how it can shift on you and you’re helpless.” He will make a single observation on the incident: “Far in the back of my house, sometimes late at night, when I was trying to sleep, you could hear a coyote pack tearing apart a kill. That sound told you all there was about the way I felt.”
Mays says: “Let me put it this way. Take the area of business. You can’t hype the guy, he’ll throw off the fat and go for the meat. He goes at himself the same way. Celebrity bores him. Manipulator of perception? All he’s out to control is his space. Personal dignity is what matters to him. Period. He guards it like a wolf. Dignity. That’s what I think when I look at Edwin.” Dick Hill, though, sees a hurdling machine. “I can’t look at him to this day without thinking about when he was up against Andre Phillips. Edwin was beaten. No question. Andre shot by him after eight, and it was all over. Then Moses went deep down. Maybe it does have to do with dignity. Moses keyed on the 10th hurdle, attacked the track. And bam! Andre’s eyes went to the ground. He was questioning, and Moses was gone. With one move, he was the beautiful composite of what we try to teach at the Olympic Training Center. Fight. Concentration. Mindset. Body control. A kinesthetic sense of awareness of all combinations. It was awesome. He is awesome.”
But awesome won’t do, neither will superstar. Indiscriminate use in the 80’s has driven both descriptions into the Woolworth bin. The late critic Kenneth Tynan coined two designations that would fit Moses. One of them he called s’imposer: the talent for imposing, asserting authority on a given field of work, saying, “Inside this field, you will defer to me.” The other term—more visual—is high definition performance. It communicates authenticity (not celebrity), transmits the essence of one’s talent to an audience with economy, grace, not apparent effort, and absolute, hard-edge clarity of outline. Edwin Moses is an HDP; anything less misses the man as well as his work. Chisel it in under the bust, remember it when the camera pans the chute in Seoul and comes in tight on those eyes.
Mark Kram began his 40-year writing career as a sports columnist as The Baltimore Sun in 1959. He spent 13 years at Sports Illustrated (1964-1977), during which he became one of the signature voices of the magazine. He later contributed pieces to Playboy, Esquire, and GQ. Ghosts of Manila, his book on the Ali-Frazier rivalry, was published by HarperCollins in 2001. He died in 2002. His son, Mark Kram Jr. edited Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Magazine Work of Mark Kram. It is now available for purchase.
The Stacks is Deadspin’s living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter’s Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter, @DeadspinStacks, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.