MOSCOW — He was the only black man in Red Square, and he carried a backpack and the easy gait of an athlete. His bearded face and gap-toothed smile were quite recognizable, and had this been Disneyland or Rockefeller Center he would have been surrounded, flashbulbed and poked with pens.
But this was Moscow, in the shadow of Lenin’s tomb, where the body of the founder of this socialist state lies chemically preserved, and people file past it every day. The guards outside the entrance were dressed in crisp brown uniforms, and they marched in a precision pattern, legs high — much like a hurdler, come to think of it — but probably no one in the gathering crowd thought of that except Edwin Moses, and nobody was paying much attention to him anyhow.
In between what is and isn’t lies what might have been. Had the United States not boycotted the Olympic Games in 1980, Edwin Moses would be a star here. He was in the best shape of his life back then, already the king of his event, the 400-meter hurdles, and no one could even catch his shadow.
Instead the U.S. pulled out, and Moses’ life was rearranged. All the plans were pushed back four years. Someone you never heard of won his would-be medal in 1980, and Moses never set foot on a Russian track.
Until Wednesday night. Here was the same stadium, Lenin Stadium, and the same track, and a gold medal to be won. But not the Olympics. This was the Goodwill Games, a first-time TV mega-event between the U.S. and the Communist-bloc nations. No matter to Moses.
“I only run to win,” he would say.
He won. 111 consecutive wins That is small news, Moses winning. Then again, maybe not. He still takes those measured strides between the 10 hurdles, still scissors over them, still roars down the final straightaway.
But things have changed drastically since 1980, when Moses was just another face on the athletic billboard. He has grown a tail of success that is
now threatening to curl around and choke him. The streak. People keep talking about the streak.
Since 1977, Moses has won 111 straight races in his specialty — counting heats, and Wednesday night’s win — and each one seems to take longer to arrive. He has raced only twice since 1984.
“Other athletes have claimed you are ducking them to keep your streak alive,” a British reporter told him Tuesday night.
“They all knew I would be competing here,” Moses said. “If they wanted to race me they could have come.”
“But you never race unless you are at your absolute fittest,” the reporter persisted. “Is your concern for your streak good for the sport?”
“My job is to do what’s proper for me to race well,” Moses answered, his voice laced with annoyance. “If the other athletes don’t like it, that’s their problem.”
This is Edwin Moses talking? The genial, gold medalist from the Montreal and LA Olympics?
Well, such is the price of success. And absence. Moses — who still trains all by himself — has pulled out of some events, always citing injuries. Yet critics say he is cowering from the challenge of Danny Harris and Andre Phillips, two fellow American hurdlers.
“That’s all ridiculous,” Moses said. “Every athlete should compete at their best. If they don’t want to race me at my best, that’s their business.”
“Are you afraid of losing?” he was asked.
“I never think about it,” he said. But he was tapping a paper against his knee and he obviously wanted out of the questioning. Success against weak field Sometimes success is great and sometimes it’s a stranglehold. Moses, 30, says his big goal is to get under 47 seconds in his event (his best time ever was 47.02 in 1983). But the strain is showing. The competition Wednesday night was not very tough. He took some heat for that — as if it were his fault. He was grilled about his next meet. He said he doesn’t know yet.
“Did you feel something special tonight when you remember how much you looked forward to the 1980 Olympics?” he was finally asked.
“You know,” he said, “with all that’s happened, I never even thought about it.”
And that’s a pity. The heads may turn now at Red Square. And the flashbulbs may pop. But now there are streaks and critics and mounds of pressure with every race, and the time for simple glory has passed Edwin Moses. Even here. CUTLINE